Nice hike going from Mestia to the group of alpine lakes (and beyond, because that's where the real fun starts)
A classic Svaneti hike going to the group of alpine lakes lying at the foot of Mt. Ushba. While lakes themselves are not that interesting, thanks to their location, surrounding mountains and the way they reflect in the water, this place is really worth the effort. Yet, more and more hikers nowadays see Koruldi lakes just as a half-way stop on the route to more elevated viewpoints. One of the reasons is that lakes are accessible by car and while traffic is very sparse, just the fact itself takes away from the feeling of accomplishment. Luckily, several trails are heading even further up, onto and beyond the Koruldi ridge and offer unrivaled views of (not only) mt. Ushba.
It takes up to 4 hours to walk from Mestia to lakes and another 2 - 3 hours to get back. Of course, this time has to be extended if you decide to continue to Koruldi ridge and reduced if you take a taxi (or shorter, steeper route) to the cross.
Twenty kilometers of walking, half on the trail, the other half on the dirt road. In the case of roundtrip, the elevation change is 1400m up and down.
If you hire a driver, you can significantly shorten the hike - even to the point where you don't have to walk at all. But what kind of a hiker would you then be?
Of course, if you plan to climb onto Koruldi ridge, the difficulty ramps up (and not only because of the distance - the terrain is much more difficult). In such a case, I recommend taking jeep one-way to the cross.
Many drivers in Mestia offer ride to the viewpoint at Tshakazagari mountains. It's worth considering - the climb to the cross, while being the most difficult part of the hike, offers only limited views.
Cost of the one-way ride is about 150 GEL, but often negotiable. Considering the distance and quality of the road, I think the acceptable price is 80-100 GEL.
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:
Few years ago, the best option used to be the overnight train to Zugdidi. However, it was cancelled in 2020 due to covid and there are no signs that it's going to be restored anytime soon. The only viable replacement is a long-distance night bus, which could also save you a lots of time, but won't be as comfortable as that cencelled sleeper train.
So you might have to stick to the day train. It departs from Tbilisi at 8:25 and makes it to Zugdidi at 14:10, just in time to catch some of the last marshrutkas to Svaneti. The price of the ride starts at 16 GEL, which is less than 5 EUR. Tickets 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 15 days in advance. So don´t freak out if you can´t buy your ticket online because of the "no tickets available" error :)
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.
So, if you prefer the bus, it's better to take comfortable long-distance buses operated by the Turkish company Metro bus. The downside is that they seem not to operate outside of the summer season and 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 is the direct minibus (the price is 25 GEL) departing from the station behind McDonalds. There is a fixed depoarture at 10:00 am but if you want to secure your spot, get there between 9:00 - 9:30 am. since it's quite popular among tourists. There may be also others during the day if there are enough tourists, but I wouldn´t rely on that. If you miss them 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 used to be the Georgian bus (they have a stand at the airport) - the price was 40 GEL per person. But it got cancelled when covid hit and not yet reinstated. So you will have to ask 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.
Looking for a place to stay in Mestia before the hike?
These are my favorite guesthouses
Cloudbase hut cabin visible from the trail to Koruldi lakes
The trail starts at the Seti square. Your first task will be to make it to the cross on the Tshakazagari mountain north of Mestia - it lies halfway to the lakes and is visible from the city. The whole trail is marked by white/red rectangles but these are no more needed once you make it to the cross.
Follow the main road to the east and after 500 meters take the street branching uphill, to the left. It will soon reach a small square and turn left, directly towards the cross on the hill. Follow it past several impressive Svan tower houses; one of them will have a stone arch which you need to pass.
The road eventually leaves the village and climbs onto the pastures. Soon, you will reach the hiking pointer - the trail here sharply turns to the right and enters the forest. First, it climbs steeply through some rocky chute, then it turns into a pleasant, slowly climbing forest path.
During the climb, you will have an option to take a shortcut which could save you some 30 minutes of walking, but is very steep and not that well marked. If you want to follow it, just leave the trail at the point outlined in the GPS log and continue climbing directly towards the cross.
I prefer the standard trail; it's longer but much more comfortable. Some 30 minutes later, at the elevation of 1900m, you will emerge on the jeep track. The trail then climbs to the top of Tshakazagari mountain, there are several shortcuts along the way. Finally, you will notice a viewpoint with a cross on the left side. Leave the main road and follow a well-trodden trail. The whole walk from Mestia to cross takes about two hours and because of its major altitude gain (800 meters) is the most difficult section of the hike.
At the cross, there is also a wooden shelter and pointer showing the way towards the lakes. Follow the small ridge to the north, past the shepherd huts. Soon, you will reconnect the road.
Cross viewpoint above Mestia
From here, there is not much to write about. The road slowly, but steadily climbs the ridge for most of the time, only the last section is pretty steep (but still manageable, after all, jeeps use this road). Overall, it takes about one and a half hours to get from the cross to the lakes. On the way, you will also pass a turn-off heading to the Guli pass.
Lakes are for some people a disappointment because they are more muddy than rocky and not suitable for bathing. Still, as you can see on the photo below, they beautifully reflect the surrounding mountains.
The easier one of both routes doesn´t climb Koruldi ridge - instead, it bypasses it and climbs to the viewpoint at its other side. The trail is easy to find. First, head for the newly built dirt track beyond the lake. At the first bend, turn onto the trail that branches off it to the right. This trail traverses the eastern slope of Koruldi ridge, staying on more or less constant altitude. Only later come some steeper, somewhat exposed sections which may make someone feel uncomfortable.
Finally, the trail climbs a small ridge and views of surrounding mountains open up. From here, head some 200 meters north to the rocky viewpoint from where are views even better. You can admire some prominent peaks such as Ullukara, Bashkara, Svetgar or Asmashi (but Ushba is kinda obscured by Koruldi ridge). You can even climb the rocky spike for some more epic photos, but need proper hiking shoes with good traction.
From the viewpoint, you can even climb Koruldi ridge to the west. However, if you try to make it to the cross at 3328m (route 2), you will be disappointed just as we were - your progress will be terminated by a large "crack". That is also the spot where ends trail recorded in the GPS file.
Rocky viewpoint at the other side of Koruldi ridge
If you are fit, not afraid of heights and have good shoes, you can climb to the cross on Koruldi ridge at the elevation of 3328 meters. From here, you can have some of the best views ordinary hiker can get in these parts of Caucasus.
The climb is pretty straightforward - you see the ridge ahead and approach it directly. Initially, there is some kind of a trail but it soon disappears.
The climb is not technically that hard, but exposed and quite exhausting as you are often climbing in broken shales, which slide beneath your feet. You will climb to the ridge some 100 meters east from the elevation with the cross. From here, you can traverse to it but the terrain is exposed and this final section is very unpleasant if you are afraid of heights.
From the cross, it is even possible to scramble over the rocky ridge to the west and eventually descend to Guli pass, but that is too far for a day walk (and not sure if it can still be categorized as a hike). People doing this tend to camp at Koruldi lakes so they have enough time for a walk.
Both extensions of Koruldi lakes hike from Mestia and back can be done in a day, but only by really fit and fast hikers - Koruldi plateau lies almost 2000 meters above Mestia. Slower hikers should consider hiring a car to take them at least to the cross on Tshakazagari mountain to save some time. Also, hike to the cross on Koruldi ridge is one of those where I would consider hiring a guide (just to make it clear - hike to the lakes is easily doable without one and hike to the viewpoint is fine, too.
Finished the hike and looking for more?
Here you will find all hikes around Mestia
Mt. Ushba from Koruldi ridge
Several photos for this article were provided by Polish photographer Marcin Chalupka. The last photo of Ushba from Koruldi ridge was taken by Vahur Lokk.