Located in south-west Georgia near the borders with Armenia and Turkey, the Javakheti Plateau is a high-altitude treasure box of sapphire lakes, violet hills and gilt plains scored with deep canyons and ravines.
Dubbed ‘The Georgian Arctic’ because of its harsh, unforgiving climate, the entire Samtskhe-Javakheti region has one of the country’s wildest and most distinctive landscapes.
Nature has been moulded by eons of lava flow courtesy of the chain of silenced volcanoes that form a backdrop to the lakes. Meanwhile, the region’s cultural and ethnic profile has been shaped by centuries of immigration.
This area has been inhabited since the Bronze Age, but in recent centuries, it’s traditionally been a place where people have come looking for a fresh start. Communities of Armenians, Azeris, Pontic Greeks, Adjarians, Germans and Dukhobors (among others) all live in Javakheti, making it one of the most culturally diverse parts of Georgia.
And yet the far-southern part of Samtskhe-Javakheti Region and the nearby city of Tsalka are almost entirely overlooked by travellers to Georgia.
Infrastructure is not well-developed here (yet), but the roads are good, and there is a sprinkling of guesthouses and restaurants catering to guests. Javakheti in particular still has that off-the-beaten-track feel about it that so many people now desire.
The area has huge potential for active tourism (hiking, biking and off-roading), world-class birdwatching, and culturally immersive experiences. As I discovered on my recent trip to Javakheti, communities stand to benefit from the growth of responsible, sustainable agritourism.
This travel guide for Tsalka and Samtskhe-Javakheti includes a brief history of the area, the best things to see and do, and all the information you need to plan a visit.
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I travelled to Tsalka and the Javakheti Protected Areas on a press trip hosted by CENN and the European Union in Georgia. As always, all opinions and recommendations are 100% my own.
About Samtskhe-Javakheti & Tsalka
Samtskhe-Javakheti Region is located south-west of Tbilisi and borders on northern Armenia and north-east Turkey. In tourism terms, it’s best-known as being home to the popular destinations of Borjomi, Vardzia and Akhaltsikhe (home of Rabati Fortress).
This guide focuses on the lesser-visited southern part of Samtskhe-Javakheti, the Javakheti Protected Areas – one of Georgia’s premier national parks – plus the corner of neighbouring Kvemo Kartli Region. Located less than 100km from Tbilisi, the small town of Tsalka is the epicentre of tourism development and a good base for exploring the area.
Samtskhe-Javakheti is one of the oldest inhabited parts of Georgia – and at the same time, it’s one of the country’s youngest regions.
The region was formed in 1995 by merging Samtskhe and Javakheti. This was a direct response to the events unfolding in western and northern Georgia. Families from conflict zones were resettled here, building on the area’s long legacy of welcoming economic migrants and persecuted religious and ethnic groups. Under the Russian Empire, a large number of Armenians and Greeks were resettled here.
Javakheti is a place for the bold. The hard, protracted winters limit farming and add an extra layer of difficulty to everyday life. The area averages 100 days of annual snow cover, and temperatures can drop to minus 40 Celsius in January and February. Across the region, you’ll notice that many houses are topped with soil and turf roofs for insulation.
In a tourist’s eyes, the severity of the landscape makes it all the more beautiful. Long roads fold themselves over the hills, leading you through golden potato fields and vast expanses of turned earth. In the early fall, tall pyramids of hay outside every home are the only clue as to the bitter winter ahead.
Occasionally you’ll happen upon an out-of-place patch of pine forest. Planted in Soviet times, these were supposed to break up the barren landscape. Without any notice, you’ll suddenly be teetering on the precipice of a bottomless canyon, and lakes appear on the horizon like giant puddles.
Samtskhe-Javakheti has the most lakes of any region – including the country’s deepest – and has long been a desirable destination for birdwatching. Most are natural volcanic lakes. Tsalka Lake is actually a reservoir created in Soviet times by flooding a river basin (and drowning several small villages in the process).
Each lake is totally different: Some are remote and untamed, others resemble Norwegian fjords with colourful rooftops running all the way down to the shore. Birdwatching huts and campgrounds have been established on the shores of many lakes.
Tourism & rural development in Javakheti
As Georgia’s popularity continues to soar internationally, it’s only a matter of time before tourism takes off in Tsalka and Samtskhe-Javakheti.
Encouragingly, things appear to be starting off on the right foot. The emphasis now is on sustainable tourism that balances the interests of the community and tourism’s environmental impact. Communities that have traditionally been excluded from tourism are so far playing an active role.
Tourism in the region is being spearheaded by two projects, Embrace Tsalka and SEED, both of which are focused on supporting small, independent, locally owned enterprises.
Working under the NGO CENN, Embrace Tsalka is a local action group charged with implementing a community strategy to address social and economic issues in the town and surrounding villages. Tourism is one of the pathways they’ve identified to reduce poverty and improve social cohesion. Entrepreneurs – particularly women and young people – can apply for grants and training to start or improve their businesses.
SEED (Social Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Development) is an EU-funded program to promote social enterprise in Georgia and Armenia, with a focus on communities like Samtskhe-Javakheti that are close to border zones. Again, the focus is on young people. The program advances business acumen and creates employment opportunities through enterprises that are net-positive for the environment and society at large.
I saw a huge potential for tourism in Javakheti. Plus, I’ve seen how successful social entrepreneurship and community based tourism can be in the Caucasus and elsewhere in the world.
I’m really excited to see the results of the first round of grants – and to see where Javakheti and Tsalka’s tourism journey takes the community over the next few years.
Things to do in Tsalka & Javakheti: Suggested 2-day itinerary
For now, Javakheti offers a rewarding off-the-beaten-track travel experience.
Because infrastructure is still developing, this region does require a bit more forward planning. At the end of the post, I’ll run through everything you need to know to organise a trip to Javakheti and Tsalka.
But first, here’s a summary of the best things to do in the region, organised into a logical two-day travel itinerary.
Note that it’s best to explore this area with your own car as public transport connections are limited.
Day 1: Dashbashi, Trialeti & Tsalka
If you’re coming from Tbilisi, I recommend spending your first day exploring Tsalka municipality and the attractions around the reservoir before overnighting in Tsalka itself. If you’re coming from western Georgia, you may want to flip this itinerary to visit Tsalka on Day 2.
The first of two large canyons in close proximity to Tsalka, Dashbashi Canyon (also called Tsalka Canyon) is the area’s most popular attraction. It’s often visited as an alternative day trip from Tbilisi.
Carved out from the volcanic Chochiani plateau by the Ktsia river, the 8km canyon is deep scar in the landscape. Elongated waterfalls cascade over the rock walls.
I’m not a huge canyon or waterfall person, but the scale alone is very impressive, especially when you view the canyon from above. By October, the whole area is a splendid patchwork of autumn tones.
The rooftops of Dashbashi village (home to 300 people) poke out above the trees along the top of the canyon. The 10th-century Church of St. George sits on a steep slope overlooking the canyon and is the best place for a view.
The cemetery yard is dotted with ornate medieval tombstones, some featuring Georgian Asomtavruli inscriptions. One depicts a woman with a knitting needle while another burial site is marked with a three-dimensional stone horse.
Entry to Dashbashi Canyon is clearly signposted on the main road through Tsalka. The turnoff is just after the petrol station. To access the canyon and waterfall on foot, take the path that leads down between the two restaurants. The higher path to the church branches off on the right.
Note: A new skybridge and viewing deck has since been constructed. Dashbashi is now a ticketed attraction. The church and viewpoint may still be accessible.
The largest lake in Georgia by surface area, Tsalka Reservoir was created in Soviet times by flooding a valley. Two villages were submerged in the process – you can see the steeple of one of the churches when the water level is low enough.
The vast and still lake is perfect for kayaking. Fishing is also popular. Simply walking around the lake’s stony shore is a great way to take in the landscape – just beware of shepherd dogs protecting their grazing flocks, especially in the area adjacent to the pine forest.
The Trialeti Petroglyphs are a set of mesolithic rock carvings in a rocky gorge outside Tsalka.
Discovered in the 1880s and studied in Soviet times, they were determined to be at least 7,000 years old. Along with similar sites in Imereti and Abkhazia, these are the only known petroglyphs in Georgia.
Like at Gobustan in Azerbaijan, most of the images depict local animals: Deer, horses, goats and fish. This indicates that the area was probably forested at the time.
The artist who inscribed an image of two camels was presumably inspired by the Silk Road travellers they saw passing along the trade route. In the nearby village of Sakdrioni, you can see the foundations of an old caravanserai.
The site apparently contains more than 100 images in total, but I only saw half a dozen. Very sadly, the lack of protection has left the petroglyphs vulnerable to ‘rock graffiti’ – many of the carvings have been scratched over or otherwise damaged.
The petroglyphs are located east of Tsalka in a narrow gorge of the Patara Khrami river, just outside the village of Gantiadi.
It’s unsigned and a bit tricky to find. Take a left before the bridge when exiting the village from the south, then continue on foot, climbing the hill up to the aerial tower. From there, walk down to the rocky cliffs that overhang the river. The carvings are located near the large white water pipe.
Beshtasheni Canyon & village
A second canyon is located on the eastern side of the reservoir outside the village of Beshtasheni. Although smaller than Dashbashi, the brilliantly named Chili Chili Canyon is still very beautiful, especially the white and brick-coloured rock.
There is a unmarked viewpoint just off the main road that affords a panorama of the canyon walls and floor.
The village of Beshtasheni itself contains a number of important medieval churches, all of which are marked out on Google Maps.
Archaeological monuments from as early as the 2nd Century BC, including remnants of a megalithic town, and palaeontological finds, including elephant bones that are estimated to be 4.5 million years old, have also been uncovered in the area.
Berta Vauclusian Spring
The final point of interest near Tsalka is in Berta on the western side of the reservoir. One of the oldest villages in Georgia, it was previously known as Machvta.
Berta Monastery was constructed between the 6th and 7th centuries and rebuilt by the area’s Pontik Greek community in the 19th century. It was then consecrated as a Greek Orthodox church. Its official name is the Stavropigial Monastery of the Fathers of the Three Priests.
Interestingly, the main church building within the monastery complex has been built directly over a vauclusian spring. Water is collected in a stone pool that can be viewed from the church yard or from an opening in the stone floor. I once saw a similar church in St. Naum on the shores of Lake Ohrid.
Berta’s pool is quite unique – it’s home to a population of ‘Holy Trout’: River trout that dwell and breed in the pool of their own accord (they can leave any time if they choose to, only they don’t).
The trout apparently possess curative powers. Handling the fish (or sipping the spring water from a metal cup) is said to cure all kinds of diseases.
Inside the doorway of the tiny church, there’s a marble panel engraved with an image of Jesus walking on water with a large trout caught between his toes!
In 1989, Tsalka’s Greek population numbered 100,000 people. Elena Chamurlid’s family were among the town’s ethnic Greek residents. By the 1990s, most families had left Georgia and emigrated back to Greece. The Chamurlids stayed behind and in 1992, opened their own restaurant.
Founded by Elena’s father, Restaurant Pontia serves Greek and Georgian cuisine. As one of the few sit-down eateries in Tsalka, it’s a local favourite and a must-visit for tourists.
Elena was recently awarded a grant through the Embrace Tsalka program and is now in the process of renovating the restaurant and expanding the menu.
Fresh-caught fish and mtsvadi cooked on an open-air grill are both favourites. The menu features all the Georgian staples plus regional specialties such as boiled potatoes and asparagus.
On request, Elena can whip up a moussaka or a Greek salad with black olives and local cheese.
Pontia is located on the highway in the middle of Tsalka (see the location here) and is open for lunch and dinner daily.
Tsalka Mosque is the most notable of the town’s landmarks. One of a dozen in Samtskhe-Javakheti region, it’s used by the town’s Adjarian Muslim community, most of whom emigrated here for economic reasons. One thing they brought with them is their tradition of ornate, colourful mosques.
Much like the synagogue in Gori, the Tsalka Mosque is enclosed within a regular house. You’d never know it was a religious building from the outside.
Inside, it’s a kaleidoscope of vivid colours and patterns, all hand-painted by congregation members and inspired by the writings in the Quran.
Up to 2,000 worshippers from Tsalka and surrounding villages gather here on Fridays. Men pray on the main floor while women use the galleries upstairs.
There is usually someone at the mosque on weekday mornings and they will always be happy to open up the doors and show you around. Take care to remove your shoes and cover your hair (women) if you want to go inside.
Photography is welcome, and if you speak Georgian or Russian, the friendly caretakers will explain everything to you in great detail.
Day 2: Paravani, Javakheti Protected Areas & Gorelovka
On your second day in the region, travel further south to the Javakheti Plateau. This is where the landscape really comes into its own, and you start to see more and more of those beautiful gemstone lakes that make this part of Georgia so memorable.
Paravani Lake & Poka St. Nino’s Monastery
Paravani is the first lake you encounter after crossing into Samtskhe-Javakheti. Geological studies have revealed a structure beneath the lake’s surface, probably a Bronze Age village that was submerged by ice melt.
The volcanic lake is a pilgrimage site because of its connection to the Georgian Orthodox Church. When St. Nino of Cappadocia – the woman responsible for spreading Christianity throughout the Kingdom – first entered Georgia, she came through Javakheti. While resting at Paravani Lake, she witnessed a divine apparition that told her to travel to Mtskheta to meet with the king.
At the southern end of the lake in the village of Poka, St. Nino’s Church, with its weathered wooden roof and shapely cross, stands as a tribute to the Saint. In 1989 and 1992 respectively, a monastery and a nunnery were added to accompany the 11th-century stone church set back from the lake’s edge.
As well as the active nunnery, there’s a Parish school, a medical clinic and an enamel workshop within the complex. The nuns also keep a small farm and operate a gift shop.
Their creations include homemade cheese and butter, jams and preserves, beeswax candles, a range of face creams and beauty products made from local herbs and flowers – and even their own qvevri beer! Everything is beautifully packaged and displayed.
I wholeheartedly endorse the chocolate truffles and chocolate blocks!
Bughdasheti Managed Reserve
Passing by the pretty Saghmo Lake, edge ever closer towards the Armenian border to visit Bughdasheni Managed Reserve.
Part of the Javakheti Protected Areas which covers more than 16,000 hectares, this pristine environment is home to more than 260 species of birds – 76 of which reside here year round.
The rest are migratory, coming from all four corners of the globe: Red-Listed Dalmatian Pelicans, Egyptian Vultures, buzzards, eagles and flamingoes are among the creatures that take sanctuary in the Reserve’s marshy wetlands. More than 40 species of mammals, including otters, red foxes, lynx, badgers and European Brown Bears, also dwell within the Reserve.
Fed by snow melt, Bughdasheni is one of the smaller lakes, but it’s incredibly beautiful. There is a bird watching tower and a campground on the shore. You can walk a full lap around the lake following the trail map provided here.
Just 4km shy of the Armenian border, Madatapa Lake is my favourite in the area. This is another volcanic lake that was formed 2,100 metres above sea level where a river and a volcanic lava field meet.
Flocks of pelicans, ducks and cormorants rock the glassy surface of the lake and can be observed from another dedicated watchtower on the shoreline.
The gorgeous volcanic mountain in the background can be summited via a trail that starts from the village of Sameba. It takes around 4-5 hours and is described as a difficult route.
There are several villages scattered around Bugdasheni Managed Reserve where the houses feature ornate blue-and-white window frames and shutters. These are the traditional homes of the Doukhobors, a Christian sect who migrated to Javakheti from Russia in the 1840s. The most iconic of these villages is Gorelovka, home to the much-Instagrammed ‘Blue House’.
Prior to 1990, Javakheti’s Doukhobor community numbered around 4,000 people. Today, only a handful of families – around 130 people in total – are left. The story of their ancestors and how they came to be in southern Georgian is a fascinating one.
In Tsarist Russia, the Doukhobors (‘Spirit Wrestlers’) steadfast belief in pacifism earned them a reputation for being radicals. They famously burned guns as a gesture of non-violence and many people were deported to Siberia as a result.
In the 1840s, a section of the community were exiled to Javakheti and went on to establish eight villages, including Gorelovka. So many adults lost their lives on the journey south that the first thing they did after arriving in Georgia was build an orphanage. The Blue House might be very pretty, but the backstory is quite tragic.
There are several other buildings inside the same gated complex. Adjacent to the wooden house is a grass-roofed meeting hall: A large, drafty room fringed by bench seats and with embroidered scarves hanging from every wall.
These scarves, I’m told, are worn by young Doukhobor women to symbolise their relationship status and ‘intentions’ when dating. There are different motifs for ‘looking for something serious’ and ‘happy with a short-term fling’. In Doukhobor culture, women are given the freedom to make these decisions for themselves.
Today, the remaining Doukhobor families hold onto their heritage in the distinctive blue architecture and the traditions they continue to practice behind closed doors.
During my visit, renovations were underway with everyone pitching in to repaint the fences.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was a little surprised at just how welcoming and open the women were with us visitors. Remember this is private property – there will likely be someone on the premises to let you in (especially on Saturdays when the community gathers at the house). If the gate is closed, you might have to ask in one of the nearby homes.
More things to do around Javakheti
There are plenty more attractions in Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli that I didn’t get a chance to see this time. I’m planning to return to the region next spring and will update this guide with more information then.
First, Kojori Fortress is located right on the highway as you leave Tbilisi in the direction of Tsalka. Birtvisi Fortress and Trialeti National Park are a short detour off the highway.
I also suggest checking out the old German settlements of Asureti and Bolnisi. The story of Georgia’s Germans is both fascinating and tragic, and each of these bigger towns (plus the smaller villages scattered in between) features architecture and churches from their era. In Bolnisi, there’s a popular winery called Brother’s Cellar that welcomes tourists for tastings and short tours.
Bolnisi can be reached via the alternative E117 highway that runs south out of Tbilisi, so it makes sense to stop here either on your way in or out of the city. This road also passes through Marneuli, a large city that’s home to ethnic Azerbaijanis. Here, you’ll find Azeri restaurants, mosques, and a huge undercover market.
The 6th-century Manglisi Holy Dormition Cathedral is located off the main highway as you approach Tsalka. Algeti’s National Park opens up just beyond Manglisi; here you’ll find two notable short hiking tracks to Buratinos Tba and Torghva Canyon that are both worth checking out.
On the western side of Javakheti, you’ll find Vardzia cave city, Khertvisi Fortress, Rabati Fortress and the city of Akhaltsikhe, and a number of other attractions. To the north, there’s Borjomi, Bakuriani, and another stunning lake, Tabatskuri.
Kartsakhi Lake (Lake Khozapini) is shared between Georgia and Turkey and is yet another gem in the Javakheti landscape. You can reach it by highway from Akhalkalake.
Planning a visit to Samtskhe-Javakheti
Here are my practical tips for planning a trip to the area.
Best time of year to visit
Summer and early autumn are the best times to visit Samtskhe-Javakheti.
The weather is warmest in July/August (with highs of around 20 degrees Celsius), so this is the ideal time for hiking and cycling – and the most pleasant conditions for being outdoors in general. Migratory and endemic birds start gathering on the lakes in late summer, thus August/September/October is the best time for birdwatching.
Even if you’re not interested in birdlife, the flocks of gulls, storks and flamingos add something special to the landscape. Some species only appear for a short period in a very specific area (and even then it’s not guaranteed they will show up). The Agency of Protected Areas should be able to help if you have specific questions.
I’ve visited Samtskhe-Javakheti twice now – once in August and again in early October. I plan to go again next May and will report back on spring conditions. I’ve had friends visit in winter to photograph the snow foxes and they loved it – but conditions are very harsh so this does require proper cold-weather gear and snow tires.
How to get there & get around
Javakheti is spread out and tourism infrastructure is still quite basic. Therefore I highly recommend visiting this area with your own vehicle. A car will give you the freedom you need to explore the smaller villages and further-to-reach lakes, which simply aren’t on any marshrutka route.
The most affordable option is to hire a car in Tbilisi – I recommend using MyRentACar, which aggregates sedans and 4WDs from local agents. The roads are in good condition outside of winter and there isn’t much traffic at all, so don’t worry if you don’t have much experience driving in Georgia.
In case you want to go by car but you’re not confident on the roads, a private transfer booked through GoTrip is also an option. Prices start from a very reasonable 40 USD/day for a car and driver to take you from Tbilisi to Tsalka, Ninotsminda and back – and that includes as many stops as you like.
Another option is to travel directly from Tbilisi to Akhalkalaki and from there, hire a mountain bike to explore the area. The Javakheti Protected Areas tourism office offers both bikes and camping gear for rent. More information here.
There are certainly marshrutka connections between Tbilisi, Tsalka and Ninotsminda, but it’s limited to a handful of vans per day. If driving isn’t an option for you, you could consider taking a van from Samgori Metro Station to Tsalka (the first one departs at 8am and costs around 8 GEL). From there, you may be able to organise onward transportation either by local van or hitchhiking.
When it finally opens, the Baku to Kars railroad – dubbed the ‘Iron Silk Road’ – will pass right through Javakheti. You can already see a number of new bridges, tunnels and tracks that have been built in preparation. I can’t wait to ride the highest railroad in Europe one day!
Where to stay
There aren’t many accommodation options in this part of Georgia either, so you need to plan your overnight stays strategically. I recommend staying in Tsalka and/or Ninotsminda, the two largest cities with the most offerings in terms of both hotels and restaurants.
Guesthouses are fairly basic but all you really need is a warm bed and a hot shower, and maybe a pot of alpine herbal tea!
What to wear & bring with you
The most important thing to bring with you is warm gear. In August, I needed a thick jacket and scarf because of the windchill. By early October, a fleece and shell jacket were mandatory.
There are cold spells as late as June and as early as September. Check the weather before you go and make sure you pack enough layers.
I also suggest bringing your own bath towel as guesthouses don’t always provide them.
For more tips, refer to my Georgia packing list.
Onward travel from Javakheti
It’s viable to visit Javakheti as a one or two-night loop starting and finishing in Tbilisi. Alternatively, you can travel from Javakheti onwards to Western Georgia.
Javakheti is located between Tbilisi and Batumi, so it makes sense to use the area as a waypoint on the quieter southern road between Georgia’s two biggest cities. To reach Batumi, you would continue from Tsalka to Akhaltsikhe and Vardzia, then drive through Upper Adjara to the Black Sea. This is the route I took on my first visit.
Alternatively, you can head north after Javakheti to Borjomi and Kutaisi, then travel west from there.
If you’re travelling between Georgia and Gyumri in Northern Armenia, Javakheti is a convenient place to stop before crossing the border at Bavra.
More regional travel resources
- Planning a trip to Georgia? Check out my complete Georgia Travel Guide
- Venturing further? Here’s my epic Caucasus Itinerary
- Crossing the border? Here are all my posts about Armenia