Issue 5, 2015. October-November



Iconic Russian poet Alexander Pushkin once called Georgia "the fabulous land." It's difficult to argue with him. The Caucasus Mountains traversing Georgia's north are higher than the Alps, and the villages dotting them feel untouched by time. The mountains' close proximity to both Tbilisi and the Black Sea mean tourists can hike, climb and swim all on the same day.

Joseph Larsen


Georgia's charms are no longer a secret. More than five million foreign tourists visited Georgia in 2014, and by the midpoint of 2015, year-on-year arrivals were up 3 percent. A large chunk of these tourists come for the mountainous regions of Svaneti, Kazbegi and Khevsureti, among others.

Svaneti is the most wild of Georgia's alpine regions. The "land of the Svans" is still largely isolated, even though infrastructure is much improved and visitors (fortunately) no longer run into marauding bandits. Its best-kept-secret status helps keep its natural beauty pristine and its local culture distinct. "Getting off the beaten track is very rewarding," said Tony Hanmer, a Canadian who owns and operates a guest house in Iskari. "Every village has its own churches, its own treasures, its own hiking trails."

The region's most iconic attractions are the Svan Towers, stone structures built during the 9th through 12th centuries to defend the area against Byzantine and other invaders. Then there's the view of nearby Shkara Peak, Svaneti's most impressive natural attraction and Georgia's highest mountain, at 5,193 meters above sea level. "Svaneti has the most dramatic scenery in Georgia," said Richard DeLong, an avid hiker who has lived in Georgia since 2011. The region is also peppered with bucolic villages, the most famous being Ushguli. At roughly 2,200 meters, it is the highest permanently-inhabited settlement in Europe.

Georgia's immutable beauty refuses to fade as you travel eastward toward Kazbegi, the country's most popular mountain destination. This area is less rustic but more accessible than Svaneti. Located just a three-hour car ride from Tbilisi, visitors can camp on the slopes, rent a guesthouse (and gorge on khinkali) in the town of Stepantsminda, or book an accommodation at the Rooms Hotel Kazbegi, one of Georgia's most state-of-the-art hotels.

"Kazbegi is the number-one destination," saidRamaz Gokhelashvili, a team leader in the Tbilisi office of Hamburg-based GFA Consulting Group. An authority on Georgia's protected areas, Gokhelashvili touts the accessibility of Kazbegi both in terms of infrastructure and the landscape itself. This has helped it attract enterprising trekkers as well as those coming through travel agencies. "Always, in such package trips, mountain tours are included," he added.

Views of Mount Kazbegi and the hilltop Gergeti Trinity Church are breathtaking. The area is also tailor-made for climbers and hikers. Anano Arabuli is a tour guide at nearby Zeta Camp, which hosts travelers and organizes tours from Kazbegi to nearby Khevsureti. She says the area has become popular for domestic and international trekkers. "This year there have been more guests from Georgia as well as from Poland, Germany and Israel," she commented.

Bakhmaro village

Georgia's mountains are the engine that drives much of its burgeoning tourism industry. But visitors should remember that exuberance shouldn't become irrational. Infrastructure, amenities and law enforcement have improved immensely over the past 15 years - "the bandit days are over," remarked Hanmer - but precautions should still be taken.

The first rule to follow? Know where you are at all times. Georgia's mountain trails aren't always adequately marked, and weather can be unpredictable at high altitudes. Earlier this year, two Austrian tourists were found dead at 4,900 meters above sea level near Kazbegi. Local authorities presumed that the two had strayed from the trail and gotten lost.

Tragic incidents like this happen from time to time, but the silver lining is that they can be easily avoided. Hiring a local guide is prudent and surprisingly affordable (a guide can often be hired for as little as 20 lari per day). This is especially important in Svaneti, where weather is capricious and roads still have a long ways to go toward meeting international standards. At the very least, tourists should make their whereabouts known. Sharing the day's hiking plans with your host before setting off is a good idea.

Visitors should also beware of free-running dogs. "Always have a walking stick with you," Hanmer advises. And while the vast majority of canine fellow travelers are harmless, some carry diseases. Tourists are advised to carry a first aid kit at all times, and if rabies seems like a possibility, they should be prepared to head back to town for medical treatment. Georgian hospitality means drivers can often be hailed free of charge.

There's a lot to like when traveling in Georgia's mountainous areas. And the things to look out for are, in the words of Hanmer, nothing more than "the usual precautions you want to take in a far-off mountain region." The best part? Georgia's alpine tourism industry still has tremendous room for growth.

Only four percent of Georgia's tourism arrivals during the first half of 2015 came from the European Union. Given the stellar reputation this mountain republic is building and the fast-growing numbers of arrivals from Poland and Germany, that number should rise steadily in the coming years. According to DeLong, domestic and international tourists have plenty to look forward to: "Each region of Georgia is good for different times of year and for different things."