Popular trail in the proximity of Mestia exploring the valley of Mestiachala river.
Another popular trail in the proximity of Mestia - this one is exploring the valley of Mestiachala river. Nature in the proximity of the glacier is really nice, but the rest of the trail just follows a dirt road. A few years ago, it didn´t matter since there was very little traffic. But since the start of the building of Mestiachala HPP, the valley turned into one large construction site. Therefore, it´s no more worth it to hike to the glacier all the way from Mestia, there are more exciting ways to get tired in Svaneti.
Duration: 2-3 hours
The time listed here is relevant for the walk from the bridge to the glacier and back since I assume you won´t hike all the way from Mestia. If you decide to do it, the whole hike takes some 5-6 hours.
Difficulty: Easy / Moderate
Since I assume that you won´t hike all the way to the bridge, the difficulty is Easy. Otherwise, it would be Moderate because of the distance.
From Zugdidi to Mestia:
Marshrutkas to Mestia leave from Zugdidi train station every day. The first one departs around 6:30 a.m, after the arrival of the night train from Tbilisi, but there should be several others before noon. The last one usually departs at 14:30. The trip takes about 3-4 hours (1-hour break included) and the price is 20 GEL per person.
From Tbilisi to Mestia:
In my opinion, the best option is the night train to Zugdidi and marshrutka from there. Train departs from Tbilisi at 21:45 and reaches Zugdidi at 6:05 am. Price of the ticket is 21 GEL, tickets for sleeper berths can be bought in advance at matarebeli.ge website (the official web is railway.ge, but that never worked for me). Just one important thing - tickets are released for the online sale only some 20 days in advance. So don´t freak out if you can´t buy your ticket online because of the "no tickets available" error :)
There is also a day train option for those who don't like sleepers. This train departs from Tbilisi at 8:10 and makes it to Zugdidi at 13:45, just in time to catch some of the last marshrutkas to Svaneti. The price of the ride is 16 GEL.
If you want to save time, you could also consider a flight - there are 4 flights a week from Natakhtari airport near Tbilisi, operated by VanillaSky company . You would see Caucasus from a completely different perspective and for 90 GEL it´s quite a bargain. On the downside, they occassionally get canceled because of the weather and during the summer, you should book at least month in advance since they get booked up pretty fast. For more info, pls check this excellent post about the flight (covers also flight from Kutaisi).
The last option is the direct marshrutka - two minibuses depart at 7:00 from the area in front of Main Railway Station, come at least 30 minutes earlier to catch a spot. Another one departs at 8:00 from Samgori railway station. The price is 30 GEL, so it´s quite cheap, but I can´t recommend it since this uncomfortable journey takes grueling 9-10 hours - basically, it's just slower, marginally cheaper and less comfortable alternative for the day train.
If you want to take bus, it much better to take comfortable long-distance buses operated by the Turkish company Metro bus. The downside is that they will get you only as far as to Zugdidi. There, you will have to switch to marshrutka to get to Mestia.
From Kutaisi to Mestia:
This depends on whether you want to get to Mestia from the city or from the Kutaisi airport.
In the first case, your best options are the direct minibuses (the price is 25 GEL) departing from the station behind McDonalds. The first one leaves at 9:00 but if you want to secure your spot, get there between 8:00 - 8:30 am. since it's quite popular among tourists. The next marshrutka then departs at 10:00 or even earlier if full. If you miss both and there is none other direct bus available, look for a marshrutka to Zugdidi (price 7 GEL) - it's the same way and you can find there transport to Mestia more easily (especially if you notify your driver in Kutaisi that you need to continue to Mestia).
If you are travelling directly from the airport, the most reliable way to get to Mestia is the use the service of Georgian bus (they have a stand at the airport) - the price is 40 GEL per person. You ask also ask some taxi drivers loitering at the arrivals hall, they may be willing to give you even a better price.
From Batumi to Mestia:
Marshrutka is the only option, it departs from the main bus station. Since you will have switch the bus in Zugdidi (you may have to wait for several hours there), this ride takes a better part of the day. The first bus departs at 8:00 am, then there should be another one at 9:30 am.
The first marshrutkas to Zugdidi, Batumi and Tbilisi depart early in morning, around 7 am. every day in the morning at (these should be booked one day in advance). There are more during the day, depending on the demand. The last marshrutka to Zugdidi leaves around 19:00 and it´s ideal if you want to catch the night train to Tbilisi which departs at 22:15. However, since marshrutka schedules are not 100% fixed, better visit station in advance to confirm this and book tickets.
For exact timetables and booking of the tickets, visit the travel offices at the station. Just keep in mind that there are several offices and don't buy tickets too far in advance. We met tourists who entered the first office, bought there tickets for the next bus which departed in 2 hours and then had to wait even though there were several other marshrutkas (operated by another offices). If you can't find a suitable tickets and are not under a time pressure, I recommend just to grab a beer at the bar by the station, sit on the terrace and check the situation once in a while - sooner or later, some driver driver will show up.
Taxi to the bridge
You can greatly shorten the trip if you hire a taxi to drive you 10 km deep into Mestiachala valley to the suspension bridge, where the dirt road ends.
This section is a bit dull (at least by Svaneti standards). Also, because of recent construction works on the Mestiachala HPP, there is quite heavy traffic, so taking a taxi is actually a pretty good idea.
However, Mestia taxi drivers are already quite spoiled by tourists and usually charge 40-50 GEL for this ride.
But if you ask them to wait for you and take you back, you shouldnt pay much more.
Another alternative is renting a bike in Mestia and riding it to the bridge. Compared to taxi, this is more time-consuming, but also cheaper and much more fun (not speaking of the higher flexibility). Don´t forget to ask a lock at the rental agency and leave the bike locked close to the bridge - it´s better to cover the final stretch of the trail on foot.
Description of the route
The original trail starts at the Mestia main square and follows the main road to the east, over the bridge. There is nowhere to get lost, just follow the road. Walk by the airport, pass a few more houses and barns. On the left, you can also "admire" the construction of the new hydropower plant.
After two hours of walking, you will come to the bridge over Mestiachala river, the place where the hike starts for the majority of tourists. The valley here splits into two. The main river flows from the one to the right - this valley leads to the Russian border and is therefore not accessible. To get to the Chalaadi glacier you need to cross the bridge and head into valley on the left. nature here is really nice, you are surrounded by mountains on all sides. This is also the farthest place you can reach by taxi.
Cross the bridge - right behind it lies military border post. There is a decent chance that soldiers will ask you for passports. Then turn to the right and climb a bit, path here is well marked.
Next section of trail leads through beautiful pine forest. After some 15 minutes path comes to a river again and goes through a forest of young willows. Soon you will come to the edge of a moraine and from here its not far to the actual glacier - you will see it right in front of you. The whole walk from the last bridge to the glacier takes some 40 minutes.
Don´t come too close to the glacier as rocks falling there could be quite dangerous, they had already wounded and even killed several people. To return to Mestia, use the same route you arrived.