The high mountainous region of Svaneti in Georgia is the land of the Svans – a culture that has existed in Georgia since the 2nd millennium B.C. and a people who speak a 6th century dialect of Georgian that most others in the country can’t really understand. Defensive towers that date as far back as the 6th century dot the landscape, particularly in the town of Mestia, the base for most tourists to the region.
Svaneti also provides the best hiking opportunities in Georgia, something I was eager to check out for myself. Unfortunately, I only had two nights to spend in Mestia, which left me with just one full day for hiking. If I was to do it again (which I may someday), I would allot several days for Svaneti and spend time hiking from village to village.
Several day hikes are possible around Mestia, the most popular being a five hour round trip hike up to a cross planted on top of Mount Mestia, with a possible further hike to a set of lakes, or a longer, 9-10 hour journey to a nearby glacier. If you have more time, longer multi-day hikes to nearby villages are an appealing option (including Ushguli, considered by some to by the highest inhabited village in Europe).
I went with the hike up to the cross.
Starting from the main drag, Queen Tamar Street, I headed up the street behind the Liberty Bank – the only bank in town. I followed it up past a few homes and a couple Svan towers until I passed under this arch.
Following the instructions in my guidebook, I continued straight ahead and the road turned into a footpath. Now, according to my book, the footpath would soon lead to a jeep trail which I could follow the rest of the way to the top. I didn’t find this trail until much, much later.
They were not mentioned in either of my guidebooks, but someone at the tourist office (yes, Mestia has a tourist office!) informed me that orange and white markers would show the way up to the cross. Actually, he told me they were red – I would call them orange. Whatever.
As I was trying to keep an eye out for the magical jeep trail, I spotted two wide lines of paint on a rock – one orange and one white. Bingo.
I knew I was headed in the right direction.
The trail ended up being very well marked. There were also just a couple places where I even had two choices of which way to go. The one time I was genuinely confused, I turned back after going a few minutes without seeing a marker. Sure enough, I saw it almost immediately when I returned, leading down the path I didn’t take the first time.
The hike was tough at points – probably the steepest continuous hike I have done since the Inca Trail in Peru a few years ago (even if it was only two and a half hours up, including a lot of photo stops). But the path was mostly well kept and solid – I didn’t encounter a lot of loose rock or slippery spots.
I was both lucky and unlucky when it came to the weather.
While the previous day had been warm and sunny – probably close to 80 – I woke up that morning to the sound of pouring rain. It stopped raining long enough for me to make it to the top, and the sky even looked like it might clear up at one point, but it stayed overcast. This was great for hiking as it was much cooler than if the sun was shining down on me. But, it didn’t always make for the best pictures.
Hiking in late May, I had the path to myself the entire time, aside from the occasional cows strolling along (and one rather angry dog who was accompanying the cows).
I was looking forward to reaching the top and taking a breather, sitting and enjoying the views as I chowed down on a chocolate bar. To my chagrin, as the cross came into sight, so did a group of five or six high school boys, laughing and yelling and playing around. So much for my calm moment on top of the mountain. At least I got to enjoy some incredible views, even if they were a bit cloudy.
And then it started to rain.
I started to hurry back down, afraid that my clear paths on the way up would soon turn into a muddy mush.
And in my rush, I got lost.
I remember seeing a couple of the orange and white markers on the way down, but the path seemed so obvious and I was in such a hurry from the rain that I didn’t keep a close eye out for them. After about 40 minutes, I stared down below me and realized that the town of Mestia was nowhere in sight. While it seemed like I was criss-crossing down the mountain, I apparently wasn’t criss-crossing enough and I ended up at least a mile (if not more) away from town.
At first, I kept heading down, thinking a turn must be coming that would take me back in the right direction. Then I thought I would just continue on to the bottom and follow the river back to Mestia. But as I strained to look further down, I wasn’t confident that a path or road existed along the river that would take me all the way there.
So I decided to go back up.
I originally planned to retrace my steps until I found where I went wrong and then go back the right way. But, after about ten minutes, I saw a path that I had missed on my way down that seemed to cut straight across the mountain back toward Mestia. I shrugged and said out loud “why the hell not?”
That path went up and down, but continued in the right direction and eventually led me to the outskirts of Mestia and its famous Svan towers. I made my way through what felt like a small village and soon emerged on a paved road taking me straight to the center of Mestia. Success!
All in all, going down took just as long as going up did due to my wrong turn. I still have no idea where I went wrong, but it must have been pretty early on. I passed a large cow pasture on my way up that marked about the halfway point and I know never made it back to that pasture.
On the plus side, I got to see a few more cows, a bit more of Mestia and a lot more of the mountain than I had anticipated!
And when I finally strolled into town, my shoes caked in mud and my pants splattered with it, I went straight to a café and ordered a double plate of shashlik (Georgian barbecue) and a huge plate of fries.
I deserved it.
For more pictures of Mestia, check out my Mestia photo album!