Nice day hike to the group of lakes lying at the foot of mt. Ushba.
A popular day hike to the group of alpine lakes lying at the foot of Mt. Ushba. The view of the surrounding mountains is superb but the lakes themselves are a bit underwhelming. Another "problem" is that they are accesible by jeep for a couple hundreds of lari - there are not many cars but smelling the dust and fumes on the trail is not very motivating. For these reasons, the lakes don´t work that well for me as a main destination - they certainly deserve a visit since the scenery is great but rather during the scramble up the Koruldi ridge or if you plan to camp at the Mestia - Mazeri trail.
Duration: 6 hours
3,5 hours there and 2,5 hours back.
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 with 4WD, 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?
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 ocassionally 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 - besically, 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.
The route starts at the newly reconstructed 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.
Start walking from square to the east and after 500 meters take the street branching uphill, to the left. It will soon reach a small square and turn north, directly towards the cross on the hill.
Follow it past several impressive Svan tower houses; one of them will have an 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 is 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 gpx log and continue climbing directly towards the cross.
However, I recommend taking 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. To reach it, you will have to leave the main road and follow a well-trodden trail. The whole walk from Mestia to cross takes about two hours and because of it major altitude gain (800 meters) is the most difficult section of the hike.
At the cross, there is 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.
From here, there is not much to write about. The road slowly, but steadily climbs the ridge, only the last section is a bit steeper. Overall, it takes little more than an hour to get from the cross to the lakes. On the way, you will also pass a turn-off heading left to the Guli pass.
Lakes are for some people a disappointment because they are more muddy than rocky and not suitable for bathing.
Still, they beautifully reflect surrounding mountains, which is more than adequate compensation.
If you are fit, not afraid of heights and have good shoes, you can climb even higher, to the cross on Koruldi ridge at the elevation of 3300 meters.
From here, you can have some of the best views ordinary hiker can get in these parts of Caucasus. 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.
The whole hike to the cross on Koruldi ridge from Mestia and back can be done in a day, but only by really fit and fast hikers as Koruldi plateau lies almost 2000 meters above Mestia.
Slower hikers should consider hiring a jeep to take them at least to the cross on Tshkhakezagari 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).