10 Sep Georgia: Hiking in Kazbegi (Stepantsminda) & Juta
When I first started pestering S about wanting to go to Georgia, I was picturing a holiday spent between two of its wildest, most picturesque regions. In my mind, we’d spend a week exploring Svaneti in the north west, horse riding and hiking, admiring the scenery and breathing in the glorious mountain air, before trundling off to Tusheti in the north east to, well, to do exactly the same thing there.
When it came to making a rough itinerary, however, we came across a small stumbling block; it turns out that… um… Georgia isn’t actually all that easy to get around.
A bit of Googling revealed that Georgian infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired, and unless you have a pretty sturdy 4×4, getting to Svaneti, Tusheti, or quite a lot of other places can be a bit of a challenge.
We of course didn’t have a car at all, let alone a Jeep, and given some of the terrifying descriptions of Georgian driving that we’d read (which post-trip I can confirm were 100% accurate), there was absolutely no chance we were going to hire one.
This meant that we could only go where public transport or a trusty marshrutka could take us, which is how we ended up settling on Stepantsminda/Kazbegi for our mountain air fix.
First things first, let’s just clear one thing up: Stepantsminda and Kazbegi are one and the same. The town’s official name is Stepantsminda, which at a certain point got changed to Kazbegi by some pesky Russians, and a few years ago was officially changed back. But in pretty much all English-language guides, Kazbegi is still how this place is referred to… presumably because nobody has ever succeeded in typing Stepantsminda into Google correctly the first time around.
Getting to Kazbegi from Tbilisi
The marshrutka from Tbilisi to Kazbegi costs 10GEL (approximately 3€) per person, takes about 3 and a half hours, and leaves from the enormous Didube bus station every hour or so/once it’s so full that those on board can barely breathe.
It took us a while to actually find the marshrutka, but thanks to a bit of aimless walking, some patience, and a lot of enthusiastic pointing from various Georgians, we did eventually locate it.
This time, S and I had the dubious honour of being the last two people to board the marshrutka. Although this meant we’d be leaving immediately (a luxury, as we knew after having sat on board a half empty minivan for the best part of three hours, two days earlier), the downside was that only one actual seat was available.
I was pointed towards a spot between two other people right at the back of the minivan, and clambered on in. S started to climb in after me, but was stopped, handed a tiny wooden stool, and told to sit on it in the aisle for the entire journey (see photographic evidence).
Much to his relief, before the marshrutka had even managed to leave the bus station, a local man – who had clearly seen S looking a bit concerned about his seating arrangement – stood up and insisted that they switch places, voluntarily braving the brutal aisle stool for the next 3+ hours so that the tourist didn’t have to.
When I say that Georgians are the kindest people on earth, I really mean it.
The journey from Tbilisi to Kazbegi is a pretty nice one, even better if you manage to get a window seat (I, instead, spent the entire journey staring and taking photos out of the window of the woman next to me, much to her delight).
The marshrutka takes the Georgian Military Highway – the road connecting Georgia with Russia – which brings you right past the famous Ananauri fortress, through small towns like Pasanauri – home of Georgia’s most famous dumplings – and finally upwards into the mountains.
From the marshrutka, you’ll get some cracking mountain views, and will also drive right past the colourful Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument (somewhat unsurprisingly, named by the Soviets).
When you spy Mount Kazbek (i.e. the massive, snow capped mountain, marking the border with Russia), you’ll know you’ve almost arrived. As you get close to the final stop, you’ll spot Kazbegi’s most iconic landmark – Gergeti Trinity Church – sitting proudly on top of a hill right in front of the town.
There are a lot of moments from my travels that I’ll remember forever, but only a handful that literally took my breath away. Looking down on the Treasury in Petra from a Bedouin hut many metres above was one such moment. Finally setting eyes on the skyscrapers of Manhattan as I stepped out of the subway for the first time was another. And, although I wasn’t expecting it to be, my first glimpse of Kazbegi gave me the exact same happy-punched-in-the-stomach feeling.
We only stayed for three nights, but I managed to take about 900 almost identical photos of the exact same view, because it just never failed to amaze me.
Finding somewhere to stay
As you probably know by now, I am a full-on, type-A traveller. Although I’m pretty unflappable if things don’t go exactly to plan, and am happy to improvise details while on a trip, I do feel uneasy if I don’t have all my accommodation booked and an outline of my trip to hand before setting off.
However, for reasons still unclear to me, when S said he wanted to be “adventurous” and improvise our Georgia holiday from beginning to end, I agreed.
And that’s how we ended up having a big old argument in the most beautiful place in the world.
Before arriving in Kazbegi, we’d spent a day in Tbilisi. The following day, we’d gone to the small town of Signaghi, a couple of hours east of the capital. I’d got cold feet about rolling up in Signaghi without having booked anywhere to sleep, so we’d hastily found a guest house online before heading out to catch our marshrutka. Arriving in Signaghi, we were pestered by a horde of locals offering guesthouses, and S spent the evening ribbing me about having worried that we wouldn’t have found anywhere.
So, when the time came to move to Kazbegi, I took a very deep breath and agreed to do things S’s way. No bookings, just improvisation.
We arrived at the bus stop in the centre of Kazbegi at around 7pm, and marched up the hill into the village to look for somewhere to stay. We discovered that Kazbegi, like Signaghi, is indeed full of guesthouses. But it also attracts more tourists, this was high season, and every single guest house we came across was fully booked. I started to get a bit stressed. S insisted that we head back to the area near the bus stop where there were a bunch of restaurants, to find WiFi and try to book something online (at this point, I was biting my tongue to the point of pain to avoid mentioning that if we were going to book online anyway, we could have done it from the comfort of our Airbnb in Tbilisi). We dragged ourselves and our backpacks down the hill again, only to discover that… the entire town was having a blackout, and there was no WiFi to be found. By this point, the sun was starting to set and the temperature was dropping. I was not a happy camper.
We walked around some more, it almost dark at this point, knocking on doors and asking locals in case anyone knew somewhere to stay, mostly to be stared at blankly by Georgians who didn’t know enough English to understand the question.
Finally the power came back, a kind Dutch lady gave us the WiFi code to her guest house, we stood in her courtyard scouring Booking.com, and at long last found somewhere to stay.
The room was of questionable cleanliness, only the tiniest bit bigger than the two tiny single beds that had been squeezed into it, and didn’t have the mountain view I’d hoped for, but at least we could put our backpacks down and get some sleep.
That night, we used the guesthouse internet connection to book two more nights in a slightly less foul place just down the road, and I made S promise never to make me do this ever again.
The moral of the story is that you absolutely can improvise when it comes to accommodation in Kazbegi – even in high season – but the question you might like to ask yourself is: do you actually want to?
Hiking to Gergeti Trinity Church
Kazbegi usually ends up on travel bucket lists because of the 14th Century Orthodox church perched on the hill just above the town.
A photo of Tsminda Sameba/Gergeti Trinity Church graces many a guidebook cover, and it’s very hard not to become obsessed with going there once you’ve seen that shot.
But the extremely cool thing about Kazbegi is that while the photos are unbelievable, the place is so much more spectacular in real life.
The greens are so much greener than you’d imagined, the mountains so much bigger than you’d thought, and there are vultures – actual, massive vultures – just flying around overhead.
If you want to go up to the church – and trust me, you do – you can choose how. The easy option is by taxi from town. But the only fun option is to hike.
Hiking in Georgia is brilliant. Partly because of the scenery, but mostly because it feels like a full-on adventure, largely due to the fact that signposting of any kind is often non-existent. Despite being one of the most famous trails in the whole country, the path from Kazbegi to the Gergeti Trinity Church is no exception.
The good news is that getting to landmarks on the tops of hills is a fairly intuitive process; just keep climbing, and sooner or later you’re bound to make it.
There are a few different paths leading to the Gergeti Trinity Church from Kazbegi, some more taxing than others.
We ended up finding a pretty easy route, the footpath starting from next to Gergeti Café and leading around the side of the hill, approaching the church from behind. Although not marked, the path is so well trodden that it’s impossible to get lost, and the views are stunning from beginning to end.
Aside from a local boy taking some horses for a walk, we didn’t come across anyone else on our way up, and just a couple of other hikers on the way down, so this route was a lovely peaceful experience to boot.
The hike is a pretty gentle one and takes no more than 1.5 hours from the centre of Kazbegi, so you can easily go up to the church and back down again in a morning.
If you’re feeling adventurous, the Gergeti Trinity Church can be the first step of a much longer hike all the way up to the glacier above.
Both S and I would have loved to go all the way up to the glacier, but we were horribly disorganised, only had shorts and light rain jackets with us, and had brought no food whatsoever, so it would’ve been stupid to continue. And besides, we only found out that the path continued after setting off so late from our guesthouse that we never would’ve made it up to the glacier and back again in a day.
But hey, it’s nice to have a reason to go back.
Day trip to Juta
Many of the hiking routes in the Kazbegi area are “A to B” hikes or multi-day treks, both of which require much more forward planning than S and I had done.
We’d hoped to find a nice day loop that didn’t involve waking up at the crack of dawn, but it was not to be, so on our second day in Kazbegi we decided to just pick a nice looking place to go for a walk in the mountains for a few hours.
We settled on Juta, a tiny place we found by total chance while browsing Google Maps from our guest house on the same morning.
Juta is about 20km away from Kazbegi, on the other side of the huge mountain wall we could see from our bedroom window. It’s earned the nickname of “the Georgian Dolomites”, and it’s not all that difficult to see why.
The easiest way to get to Juta is on a shuttle bus run by the Mountain Freaks adventure agency, which departs from Kazbegi every morning at 9.30 and costs 30GEL per person. But of course, by the time we’d lazily walked down to get a coffee and actually decided what to do with our day, the bus had already left. So we were left with plan B – a taxi. We ended up splashing out and paying 100GEL (more or less 30€) for our driver to take us to Juta, hang around for a few hours, and then bring us back to Kazbegi.
The ride there was a white-knuckle experience, our driver fearlessly tearing down dirt tracks and along mountain roads beside terrifying sheer drops like a contender in some kind of Toyota 4×4 minivan rally championship, but against all the odds we did actually make it to Juta.
We headed uphill to find the start of a trail which begins at the Zeta campsite (the trail we took is the first step of the Juta to Roshka hike). The path is super flat and easy, and leads through a stunning valley that just seems to get more beautiful the further into it you walk. The grass looks almost like that furry velvet grass they use for model railways, and the place could easily have been used as a Microsoft desktop background in the 90s.
My only complaint was that there was no shade whatsoever, and S had ever so cleverly removed the suncream from our day bag and helpfully left it on the bed of the guest house, so I spent the majority of the walk hopelessly holding my palm in front of my forehead to prevent it from turning to charcoal.
I honestly didn’t pay much attention to how long we were walking/slowly burning to crisps for, but after a while, we stopped at an adorable little triangular hut, sat down on a rock and began to tuck into the pastries we’d bought for lunch back in Kazbegi.
As was the case every other day we were in Georgia, we’d gone to a bakery where nobody spoke any English, pointed at two pastries totally at random, and only found out what filling they had when biting into them. The result of today’s baked goods roulette was bread filled with beans and ham (mine), and bread filled with just loads of beans (S’s) – actually much more delicious than they sound.
About 3 bites in, a massive, grey cloud moved overhead and enveloped us/the entire mountain. Serious travellers that we are, we put our waterproof hoods up and tried to sit it out, munching our pastries as if nothing had happened, but after a few minutes were cold and damp enough that we decided to take the hint and return to Juta.
We walked back down the same path we’d taken to arrive, but decided to stop at a small refuge near the beginning of the trail – the 5th Season café – and order 2 big mugs of coffee to warm ourselves up. Luckily for us, as we were sipping our much-needed caffeine, the cloud moved across the mountains as quickly as it had arrived, and disappeared. We moved onto the comfy beanbags just outside the café and admired the valley for a little bit longer, before heading back down the hill and into Juta, to be taken for another nail biting 4×4 journey back to Kazbegi.
Juta was the surprising highlight of our trip – it was barely mentioned in our guidebook, and we weren’t expecting it to be anything particularly special, but it was one of the most incredible places I’ve ever been to.
Useful tips for visiting Kazbegi
Where to stay
There are a ton of hotels and guesthouses in Kazbegi. The town is pretty small, so even the guest houses furthest from the centre are no more than a 15 minute walk from the bus stop. From the bus stop, the main part of the town goes uphill, so the places furthest away to the east may have the best views, but they’ll also require the most legwork to get to.
If you want somewhere fancy to stay, the Rooms Hotel is the swankiest of all. Views will be amazing, but this place costs a fortune (and not just by Georgian standards). If you’re happy with somewhere a little more down to earth though, there are tons of alternatives. Booking.com has plenty of options, many of which with amazing mountain views (although naturally, those come at a premium).
Kazbegi is more expensive than other destinations in Georgia, but you can still easily find a double room in a guest house for under 20€ total.
Food and drink
Kazbegi is a small place, so there aren’t a ton of dining options, but honestly it’s hard to find somewhere that serves bad food in Georgia – I mean, how wrong can you go with grilled meat and bread stuffed with cheese, butter and egg?
In Kazbegi, we became quite obsessed with a place accurately named Awtobus, a real-bus-turned-café with friendly young staff, free WiFi, really good coffee and excellent carrot cake. We of course ended up going there for breakfast every day.
We generally grabbed cheap pastries for lunch from the first bakery we found, and ate dinner at a restaurant.
For dinner, the best place we found was Cafe Kazbegya – a cute little place with a cosy atmosphere, a little pricey by Georgian standards (meaning: I think we still spent under 20€ in total for two people, including wine) but we left very full and satisfied.
After dinner, we ended up sitting at an outside table at Vinoground, a small wine store/bar, with a super friendly owner who was keen to get us extremely drunk on local wine, while making us spend as little as possible. These are the kinds of places I can get behind.
Things to do
If you’re not into walking, I’m sorry to say that Kazbegi is probably not the place for you. But if you are, it’s the dream.
There are so many options of hikes that you’ll be spoiled for choice, although bear in mind that many of the walks on offer are A to B, or multi-day treks, so make sure you come equipped.
The best site I found for information on hiking is Caucus Trekking. There, you can find information on routes like the Gergeti Glacier hike, a trip to the Gveleti waterfalls, walking in the Truso Valley, or the Juta to Roshka hike that we were too disorganised to be able to do.
This region of Georgia is truly breathtaking, so wherever you choose to explore, you can be pretty certain you won’t regret it.