Svaneti – will the Wild Heart of the Caucasus finally be tamed?

[su_quote cite=”The Little Prince”]You become responsible forever for what you have tamed[/su_quote]


Located in northwestern Georgia and locked in the heart of the Caucasus mountains lies the historic province of Svaneti. The only way to get there is by hitchhiking or driving from Zugdidi to Mestia, along a steep windy road looking over beautiful gorges, wild rivers and majestic mountains.


Svaneti - the Wild Heart of the Caucasus - Journal of Nomads



Svaneti consists of several small villages, build on the snow-covered mountain slopes and surrounded by a breathtaking scenery of alpine meadows. Walking around in the picturesque villages, that are dominated by tower-houses, gives you the feeling that you are thrown back in time into the European Middle Ages.






Svaneti - the wild heart of the Caucasus - Journal of Nomads


Highland warriors who practiced blood law

It’s only since the mid-2000’s that Svaneti is accessible to tourists. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, some villages were completely abandoned and the area was feared as an outlaw territory where bandits and criminal gangs took refuge. But even before that, the inhabitants – who are called the Svans and are now a subgroup of Georgians – were known as fierce highland warriors and gatekeepers of the mountain passes. No ruler was able to tame this remote area. The Svans were tough survivors who were able to withstand long harsh winter, defend themselves against the invasions of other Caucasian tribes and who practiced murderous blood-feuds. They’re not really the kind people you want to have a fight with!


Svan people - Svaneti - The Wild Heart of the Caucasus
© Vittorio Sella, 1889


Because of their geographical isolation the Svans have their own unwritten language called Svan and most of their cultural traditions are still preserved. Nowadays they might only show their fierce nature if you would refuse their hospitality with the typical Georgian tradition of offering you a glass of home-made wine or chacha (a very strong spirit drink) and a large meal of the provincial cuisine (bread, cheese, stewed beef and more cheese).


Svan People - Svaneti - The Wild Heart of the Caucasus
© grandhotelushba




Every household in Svaneti is a fortress. The villages were too scattered to be encircled with a protective wall so each individual house built a stone tower – called koshki – that offered protection to the family and their livestock during attacks and blood-feuds and it also served as a shelter for the most valuable possessions of every family.


Svaneti - The Wild Heart of the Caucasus - Journal of Nomads



Nowadays most families are moving into a more comfortable home and some towers are open for tourists to visit. One of the locals that we spoke with, joked that the towers are now only used to spy on the neighbors.


Don’t drunk-walk on those ladders!

Stone Towers, Svaneti - The Wild Heart of the Caucasus - Journal of Nomads



From seclusion to tourist magnet

For a long time the villages stayed preserved from today’s fast changing world. The people were self-sufficient and lived in harmony with nature. The only sign of the modern world are the electricity wires hanging loosely between the houses. Some of the villages, like Ushguli – which is by the way one of the highest and most remote villages of Europe (2200m above sea level)- are completely closed off from the rest of the world during the long and harsh winters. It would be very interesting to experience how people live there during those cold months. The Svans probably spend the entire summer preparing for the winter.


Ushguli, Svaneti - The Wild Heart of the Caucasus - Journal of Nomads
The electricity wires – the only sign of the modern world


Ushguli, Svaneti - The Wild Heart of the Caucasus - Journal of Nomads
Love this old-school toilet! Although, might be pretty cold on the butt in winter…


Ushguli, Svaneti - The Wild Heart of the Caucasus - Journal of Nomads
Could you live this secluded?


The medieval and remote times of Svaneti are now slowly coming to an end. Svaneti has seen more changes in the past few years than in a whole millennium. Although the elders are still living a traditional existence – which is visible in Ushguli where inhabitants mainly gallop on horseback through the streets – more and more young people are migrating to the big cities of Georgia in search of jobs.


Ushguli, Svaneti - The Wild Heart of the Caucasus - Journal of Nomads
Street view of Ushguli


Ushguli, Svaneti - The Wild Heart of the Caucasus - Journal of Nomads
Don’t forget about the big but uber-friendly dogs who want to be your personal guide in Ushguli!


Vans and cars full of foreign backpackers are now taking over the region. The rough and bumpy roads that links the villages of Svaneti will soon be paved, even all the way to Ushguli. New constructions that serve as guest houses and hyper-modern government buildings are popping up like weeds, especially in Mestia. There is now even an airport terminal that offers daily flights from and to Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia. Svaneti is becoming a popular attraction for hikes and trekking. It’s quite ironic that the stone towers which were used to keep outsiders at a distance are now attracting tourists from all over the world. We already noticed that, even outside the summer season, the streets of Mestia were more inhabited by tourists than locals.


Mestia, Svaneti - The Wild Heart of the Caucasus - Journal of Nomads
Alright, it wasn’t that busy when we were there but you get the point…


Svaneti - The Wild Heart of the Caucasus - Journal of Nomads
Slowly on buildings and construction sites are taking over …


These changes are unsettling. What will happen to the villages and land of the Svans? Will they be able to preserve their authentic traditions or will they become a touristic show of the voyeuristic modern world? Some Svans are optimistic, hoping it will give them more jobs and opportunities so the young people won’t flee the poverty by moving to the cities.

We can only hope that Svaneti will keep its fierce authenticity and that the tourism won’t be able to tame its wild heart !


Svaneti - The Wild Heart of the Caucasus - Journal of Nomads


Do you want to see more of this intriguing area? Watch the video here and experience the beauty of Svaneti.


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Have you ever visited an authentic place that is now turning into a tourist attraction?  Do you think it has positive consequences for the locals or do you think it will destroy their authenticity? What are your thoughts about this?


Svaneti, will the wild heart of the Caucasus finally be tamed? Journal of Nomads




  • Everything you need to know about traveling independently in Georgia (visa, how to get to and around Georgia, where to stay,…):

The Ultimate Travel Guide to Backpacking in Georgia


  • Plan your trip to Georgia:

The best of Georgia in 15 days – 3 complete Travel Itineraries 


  • Georgia travel costs:

Georgia on a budget – How much does it cost to travel to Georgia 


  • Hiking in Georgia:

7 Beautiful off-the-beaten-path Hikes


  • Skiing in Georgia:

Everything you need to know about skiing in Georgia


  • Hitchhiking in Georgia:

Hitchhiking in Georgia – the good, the bad and the untold stories


  • Our Georgian city guides:

Top Things to Do in Batumi – Our Guide to a Perfect Stay

Top Things to Do in Tbilisi – Our Guide to a Fantastic Time in Tbilisi



27 thoughts on “Svaneti – will the Wild Heart of the Caucasus finally be tamed?”

  1. Hi, i saw your YouTube About the glacier you visited with the Israelian family.
    I want to visit iT to.
    Do you remeber the name of the glacier and how to het there?


  2. Nice write up! It is a gorgeous region but seriously, like you say, it is a real tourist trap.

    Some of the villages between Ushguly and Mestia have now terrace-bars with super loud music and sooooo many backpackers, like there was no place to sit. It was a lot of fun to get tipsy in the mountains but this is not what people come for when y0u visit a traditional village.

    In our guest house, there were more than 12 guests and most guest houses were actually full. The owners didn’t really care about the guests but just the money… They got spoiled too quickly, much more than anywhere else I have been to. As per the photos, I can see that you came out of season, right? That’s what I would recommend to people, to come in June or September. We also took an alternative route and, for the first 2 days, we barely saw anyone.

    1. We were there indeed during low season. I’ve heard that it’s becoming so touristic there now, very sad to hear 🙁
      There are a lot of other traditional villages in Svaneti, less known than Ushguli so if you have the means to go off-the-beaten-path, you’ll probably have a better experience there.
      Yeah, I feel very double about the topic – the growing tourism is helping the economy but it’s also destroying the authenticity of the hospitality and the place. I just don’t understand why backpackers would go there to get drunk…

      1. So nice article. I really relate of what you both say. I’m from the dolomites, the italian parts. My Country is living from tourism. One the one side tourism is important, on the other it can be really too much. We have Valleys with so many tourists, that I can feel anymore the Soul of this place and of this People. Everybody is working for tourists and for Money and it becames a trap. That hurts. In my experience the autenticity of the local People can only be preseverd when the locals have a good comunity life and the tourists are not more than the locals. I will come to Georgia and to Svaneti to find this. You have any Suggestion where to go and to stay?

        1. Hi Priska, I think you can definitely relate to what’s happening in Svaneti. The growing popularity of the place is economically seen very good for the locals but at the same time, Svaneti is losing its magic. However, most people go to Mestia and Ushguli and there are still many little villages in Svaneti that aren’t so popular among tourists (yet). If you have your own car, you can easily reach them on your own. You can also choose to hike less popular treks in the mountains (this is a brilliant website for it: Hope this helps and feel free to let me know if you have more questions!
          If you like to stay in Mestia, I can recommend Jilieta (budget hostel) or Bapsha Guesthouse. Wishing you all the best!!

  3. Katie Featherstone

    Beautiful photos Cynthia. Hopefully we’ll bump into you on the road somewhere and you can have a lift in Burt!

  4. Sounds like you had super fun there. Love the beautiful landscapes out there. We always love mountains especially the fresh air with nature all round makes it worthwhile.

  5. Wow – what a place! The landscapes are incredible.It’s a tough one because your post has made me want to go but as you said, you don’t want to contribute to the ruination of a place. Hopefully they will be able to keep a balance as the tourist industry develops there.

    1. It’s definitely worthwhile to visit Svaneti! We also really hope that they can find a balance. Economically it would do the region and the country well but we hope they can keep their authenticity in the midst of it all!

  6. Love this. The landscapes are insane…with the snow capped mountains and unbelievable weather it looks like! I love how you added those huge friendly dogs. Nice to see a place where they aren’t emaciated and covered in dirt!

    1. Thanks Tatum! Most dogs live in the streets but the people feed them and look after them. It’s indeed really nice to see that! The landscapes really took our breath away. If you love mountains and nature, you would love Svaneti (and Georgia)!

  7. Very interesting post – I didn’t know about the bad-ass Svans and their history. I would definitely consider visiting this untamed region but, hopefully, the remaining residents will find a balance between keeping their traditions alive while adapting to more modern conveniences (such as tourism). The scenery is beautiful!

  8. I must admit that caucasus so far has not really been a place for us to seriously think about to travel to, but your post somehow really changed that.
    Your pics are absolutely great and give somehow a very good understanding of these places and I like the raw peacefulness in them. What really fascinates me here is the pureness of the place, something untouched. We had something similar in Iceland, even though its already super touristic. But this here seems to be very different, very special. Thank you for this inspiration, glad to have stumbled upon this. Cheers Hendrik

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words Hendrik!
      This is a very special place indeed, there is something really special about the energy here. We hope that the tourism won’t spoil it, that Svaneti can keep its unique identity. We’ve never been to Iceland but we would love to go there one day! Can you see the effects of tourism there? I would definitely recommend a visit to the Caucasus, there are still many areas in this mountain range that we haven’t discovered yet. I hope you’ll come this way one day, you won’t be disappointed!

  9. Love how you are exploring places where languages were only spoken and not written. I feel like in places like these. History might never be know other than for what remains. Thanks for documenting and expressing what you saw in a language understood by many! Nice work on your Youtube channel!

    1. Thank you!!
      We love exploring and discovering areas like this. We hope that Svans will and can keep their unique language and culture. Their history is very fascinating, so different from any other place.

  10. what an amazing article, amazing pictures and, above all an amazing story. The caucasus is so high on my list really. They are offering very cheap flights to Georgia at the moment and it’s been itching in my fingers since a year. but your pictures wow…i so wanna go!

    1. Hi Norman,
      Thank you for your kind words! It’s a pleasure to inspire you to go and visit Georgia. It’s a real beautiful and interesting country. Svaneti is just a little part of this, there are so many stunning areas to discover and if you’re a wine-lover, you’ll definitely have a blast here 🙂 When would you like to travel to Georgia?

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