If you go to Mestia you most certainly should pay a visit to Ushguli. It is recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site (Upper Svaneti) for its outstanding landscape, medieval art, and unique defense towers, which you will see in most of the villages in the Svaneti region. Ushguli is not one place, but an area that consists of four little villages, which are some of the highest settlements in Europe. If you stay in Mestia you will be asked many times by local taxi drivers if you want to go to Ushguli.
Before coming to Ushguli we watched the movie ‘Dede’ in the local cinema in Mestia, which depicted local life and struggles of a Georgian woman living in Ushguli.
My boyfriend and I had booked a taxi to take us from Mestia to Ushguli at 8:30. This would allow us some time to do the hike to the Shkhara glacier. We book the taxi the day before in the off-season, and I can’t say if you should book sooner in the high-season.
The drive took almost two hours, and we soon regretted not renting a 4×4 taxi or minibus, since this would have been faster. Other options of getting to Ushguli include; ‘marshrutka‘ (the earliest bus leaves Mestia at 10 am, but is much cheaper), or on foot for a 2-3 day hike!
On the way to Ushguli, our driver stopped at the ‘Lovers Tower’. It’s one of the many Family lookout towers you will see in Svaneti, but for a small fee, you can enter this tower and see what it’s like inside.
You get dropped off at the last of the four villages, from where you continue on foot. The driver waits for you while you go around and explore, we made the arrangements about the return in Mestia to be clear, as the driver did not speak any English.
It is also possible to spend the night in Ushguli. The air is so crisp, and the mountain landscape stunning, why not spend a night here?
Spending the night would allow you to have more time for the hike to the glacier, and seeing the town in the early morning before the tourist masses arrive from Mestia. One of the perks of visiting outside the tourist season is that you get the place almost to yourself.
While you are in the Svaneti region, make sure you buy some local products such as ‘Svaneti salt’. I did not like the local wine (that is the wine you don’t get bottled), but you can find some great wines from other areas in Georgia in any supermarket.
As you can see, the village is well preserved, and you will find pigs and dogs roaming the streets freely!
Hiking to the Shkhara glacier
The hike itself is not very challenging as you hike along a valley with streams, thus the scenery does not change much along the way. If you hike to the foot of the glacier it will be 8 km there and back. We hiked about 7 km until we could see the glacier well. We didn’t encounter many people since we went in the offseason, but we did meet other hikers and a group of people on horseback!
The surroundings are quite beautiful, and if you are interested in wildlife you should look out for the Bearded vulture!
On our way back from the glacier we had several views of high flying vultures, and suddenly we had a Bearded vulture (photo below) soaring about 50 meters or less above us! We followed the bird back to Ushguli, where the bird landed and soared above the plains right next to the village. This was our greatest wildlife experience while staying in the Caucasus mountains!
After the hike, we rested in a small café (photo below), which was placed inside one of the hundreds of years old stone houses. Here you can enjoy the local bread dishes with meat or cheese such as Kubdari (meat bread) or Khachapuri (cheese bread – a bit too salty for my taste!).
Around 5 pm we headed back to our driver and back to Mestia after a long day in this enchanting village.