Ushguli is a remote collection of UNESCO-recognized mountain towns that sit nestled under the shadow of the towering Mount Shkhara. At 2,100 meters above sea level, Ushguli is Europe’s highest permanently inhabited settlement and an undeniable highlight of any Georgia itinerary. While this wasn’t on our original plan, I was really glad we were able to make it out there because I’ve never visited somewhere so remote and unique.
There are 2 ways to visit Ushguli- the first involves a 4 day trek and the second involves a 2-3 hour road journey by 4WD vehicle. We chose the latter. As we did not have the required vehicle, we chose to arrange for a driver and guide.
I strongly suggest going with one of the locals on this trip as the terrain is some of the worst I have encountered. If you aren’t familiar with the route, you can put yourself and passengers at serious risk of injury. Our driver had to dodge potholes, weave around landslides and even ford a small river. The road is often hit with falling rocks & mudslides. The locals from the villages along the road keep the drivers informed about the condition of the road and whether it’s safe to cross. If you drove yourself, you would not have access to this information.
Like most activities in Mestia, trips to Ushguli are weather dependent. If there has been heavy snow or rain a few days before you plan to go, its doubtful that you will make it to Ushguli due to the nature of the road. I recommend keeping an eye on the weather forecast.
How to arrange a day trip to Ushguli
Dotted around the Mestia town square are various tour operators offering bus tickets and tours around Georgia. Since we were there in early May, very few of them were actually operational. One that was, was close to the beginning of the town and had a red sign offering bus tickets (its near the Spar but on the opposite side of the road). It is operated by an elderly lady who is there from 6am- 8:30pm. Her English was scant but she was polite and so we booked our Ushguli day trip with her company.
We paid 50GEL per person which in hindsight was well worth it.
If you have more options, you may want to shop around and compare prices. I don’t advise booking online because from what I could see the prices are higher and there is guarantee that the money is getting pumped into the local community.
Getting to Ushguli
We met our driver- Daveed- at the appointed place and off we went! He was super knowledgeable and educated us on Mestia, the surrounding mountains as well as any village we passed by.
When we started the trip I thought “Oh this isn’t so bad, I wonder why we didn’t just drive ourselves?!”. But soon, the road disappeared and we began to drive on mud, gravel and over rocks. Then I was glad we were all passengers!
We encountered a rockfall which meant we had to stop and wait around for 30-40 minutes while it was cleared. At this point I realized that Ushguli was not going to be a quick experience and rather, a literal all day trip.
Arriving in Ushguli
After 2.5 hours, we did eventually set our sights on the first village of Ushguli and it was quite scenic. While I have no idea why anyone would choose to live somewhere so remote with such extreme weather conditions, it definitely was a wonderful sight to see the old village hamlets framed by the towering snow capped mountains. Ushguli is nestled beneath Mount Shkhara (5193m) – Georgia’s highest peak.
Now please note that I had no idea what we would see in Ushguli; because this was a last minute excursion, I had done minimal research and when we paid for the tour, the lady didn’t speak enough English (and we didn’t speak any Georgian) so we didn’t communicate much.
But Daveed our guide took us around the town and snapped our photos. We stopped off at a watchtower first to look at the views of the town in the valley below.
Most of the homes are abandoned as many had left the village due to harsh weather conditions in previous years. Its a unique community of farming villages that’s located 2100 metres above sea level and – until the early 2000s – was isolated by an annual six-month winter. It made for scenic photos.
Our next stop was Lamaria Church. Lamaria means the Mother of God in Georgian and is thought to be built in the 9th to 10th centuries. It’s a quaint little church with frescoes painted on the walls, preserved as much as it could be from its original state.
You are welcome to go inside but the dress code is quite strict and even though we were fully covered, we were still given skirts and headscarves to put on.
Then Daveed took us over to the nearby glacier steam with water running off from the Shkara Glacier. You could do the trek to the glacier which takes around six hours and up to 2600m above sea level. I wasn’t prepared for this so we didn’t but it was still lovely to walk along the river and take photos with the snow.
There are plenty of picturesque photo spots at Ushguli, don’t feel shy to stop and snap away. Everywhere we went was within walking distance as well.
We ended off our time in Ushguli at a local cafe where we tried the regional specialties- Chvishtari (pan fried corn bread with cheese inside), as well as some hot tea and soup. It was warm and cosy inside the family run car and I was grateful the relaxing atmosphere. Eating in Ushguli is not exactly gastronomy heaven as many ingredients may not be available for certain dishes and the restaurants are small with little to no English being spoken. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our meal.
We soon began the long drive back to Mestia which involved waiting the road to be reopened as they were sill clearing it from the earlier avalanche. Don’t forget to ask your driver to stop and take photos, the drive is really scenic.
Ushguli- although unassuming and relatedly unknown, turned out to be one of my highlights from my Georgia trip. Here is the truth about Svaneti- the province in which Mestia & Ushguli are located in: the roads are bad. Food options are limited. Wifi is slow. Electricity is sporadic. And inclement weather can make the villages unreachable, even in the height of summer. But the beauty, the people, the sites and the warm atmosphere makes its all worthwhile.