Taking in mountainous landscapes, lush green villages and Tibetan-influenced temples, the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal offers world class hiking amid majestic surroundings.
Situated in the Annapurna mountain range of Gandaki Province, north-central Nepal, the Himalayan massif of Annapurna draws huge numbers of intrepid visitors every year., Thanks to the wide choice of trails available, all at varying lengths that take anywhere between 11 and 22 days to complete, it is popular with both new and seasoned hikers alike, with something to suit every energy and fitness level.
Among the most well-trodden treks here is the Annapurna Circuit, which spans between 160 and 230km, depending on where you start and end, taking you anticlockwise through the valleys and gorges and over some of the heights of the Annapurna massif. Following a roughly circular route, hikers typically begin in the scenic villages of the Himalayan foothills before traversing the Thorong La Pass and down to the ancient temples and communities of the Mustang Valley. Over all, the circuit is considered a moderate trek, with some training and prior hiking experience at altitude recommended.
History of trekking in the Annapurna
Named after Annapurna, the Goddess of food and nourishment, trekking in the Annapurna massif first opened to foreign visitors back in 1977 following the settlement of a conflict between the CIA and local guerilla groups. The original route took 23 days and followed an anti-clockwise trail that began in Dhumre and ended in Pokhara, with trekkers venturing over the Thorong-La Pass and down into the Jomsom Valley. In the 1980s, construction began on a highway that connected many of the towns within the area.
Due to the continual rise of tourist numbers, the trails today are slightly different from what they were when trekking here first opened. The trails themselves are more established and the routes are dotted with tea houses, bakeries, and other enterprises set up to serve visitors. The very essence of trekking in the Annapurna, however, has not changed, and is characterised by truly breath-taking scenery; from tall, imposing peaks to quaint low-lying villages, subtropical forests, and verdant paddy fields.
When to go
The Annapurna Circuit is traversable throughout the year, but each season comes with its pros and cons. The winter months of January and February are the coldest times, with night time temperature falling as low as -20 degrees. The upside is that it’s also one of the quietest periods and visitors willing to brave the elements will get to enjoy almost empty trails. In terms of scenery, winter is also a great time to see large wildlife like Himalayan Tahr, Snow Leopard, Himalayan Monal and Musk Deer, which tend to descend to lower valleys during this period.
Springtime, which falls in March and April, is one of the most active times for birds and flora-fauna in the region, while the weather tends to be calm and mild, helping make this one of the most popular periods for visitors. The start of Summer, in May and June, sees trekkers tend to melt away due to the unpredictable weather that can manifest in both heavy rain and humidity in equal measure. However, if this doesn’t put you off, these months do see the biodiversity of Annapurna burst into blooms, providing trekkers with a visual spectacle.
Monsoon season, July and August, are reserved for hardcore trekkers only, with the heat and humidity threatening rain throughout the days. But the reward for intrepid visitors during this period is the stunning green veneer, with the alpine pastures teeming with kaleidoscopic flowers. Fall, in September and October, is the most popular time to visit Annapurna, with the monsoon in full retreat and the rains clearing the dust sky of dust, resulting in the mountain vistas being at their very best. Finally, there’s the pre-winter months of November and December, which despite being the coldest time in the region is also the most popular thanks to the reliably dry weather.
How much it costs
Like most treks in protected areas of the world, the Annapurna Circuit does come with certain costs, most notably the price of a tour operator or personal guide. There are also some incidental fees, such as for visas, vaccinations and travel insurance, plus of course the sizeable amount of equipment you’ll need to stay safe and comfortable. You should also budget for several hundred dollars for tipping your porters and guides, and spare cash for picking up souvenirs in markets along your route.
Although the circuit can be trekked alone, most people choose to use a tour operator to help navigate the hundreds of intersecting paths in the region. A tour also has the added advantage of including a porter to carry your heavier gear, plus arranging your permits and teahouse accommodation. To trek unsupported, you can expect to pay between $700 and $1,000, which includes your permit, food and lodgings along the way.
If you opt for an organised tour operator, you have two options: a local agent or a Western operator. Local operators charge anywhere from $1,200 and $3,000, but you should beware of the cheaper ones, as they are often poorly run. Most Western operators, in contrast, are quite professional and you should expect to pay between $1,500 and $4,000. Check what your operator includes in their price, as this varies quite significantly. Most organisers will include your internal flights as well as hotel accommodation pre- and post-trekking.
Sleeping and eating
The Annapurna Circuit is lined with guesthouses (also known as tea houses), most of which have electricity, hot showers and even WiFi, although those at higher altitudes tend to be more basic. All guesthouses also offer blankets, and will usually give you one or two extra if it’s really cold. The main inconvenience is the toilet, with most places only having an Asian hole toilet that you flush with a bucket of water. More expensive rooms have an attached bathroom but most of the time there’s no running water, so for a hot shower you have to use an outside bathroom.
As for food and drink, guesthouses menus are quite diverse and usually include Nepalese, Chinese, Indian and Western dishes. There’s also a variety of hot beverages available, including different teas and coffee. The main thing you’re likely to struggle to find is fresh produce like fruit and vegetables, especially at higher altitudes. Many villages and towns also have small water purification stations where you can get safe drinking water, which is cheaper than buying plastic bottles and much better for the environment.
What to pack
Packing light and smart are the keys to preparing for any arduous trek – and the Annapurna Circuit is no different. After all, weighing yourself down with too much equipment will make the walk much less enjoyable, while forgetting essential items will leave you with major regrets. The good news is, if you’ve ever hiked or spent anytime backpacking before, then you’re likely to already have a lot of the necessary equipment at home.
When it comes to clothing, as mentioned above, weather on the circuit can be a capricious beast, with the route winding through everything from tropical plains to alpine climactic zones. Even if you’re travelling during drier periods, we’d recommend packing a waterproof jacket or poncho with a hood. Other essentials are a warm hat for those chilly mornings and nights, sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat to protect against the sun. Speaking of chilly nights, while all teahouses supply blankets, they’re not thick enough to keep you warm in the depths of those cold mountain nights at altitude, so a sleeping bag is a must.
It’s critical to get your shoe wear right, too, and we strongly recommend packing good quality, waterproof hiking boots. Other items you may want to consider include a head torch so you can walk safely after dark, hiking poles to ease the burden on your body, toilet paper and hand sanitiser, and thermal underwear.
Where to book
As mentioned above, there are a huge number of Annapurna Circuit tour providers that let you book online. Two of the most popular tour agency platforms are Bookmundi and Tourradar, and we’ve picked out two of their tours catering for different durations and budgets.
First up, the 11-day Annapurna Circuit Trek is ideal for those keen to complete the route but are limited on time. Starting and ending in Kathmandu, you’ll traverse the entire Annapurna range, reaching the top of the Thorong La Pass, which connects the two Nepali mountain districts of Manang and Mustang. The trek also takes you through the world’s deepest gorge, Kali Gandaki, with Annapurna to the east and Dhaulagiri to the west. The price of the tour includes airport pick-up and drop-off, plus 10 nights’ accommodation.
For a more extended adventure, the 22-day Annapurna Circuit Trek includes all of the above, plus a whole lot more. As well as navigating the entire Annapurna massif and the incredible Kali Gandaki, gorge, the tour is bookended by sightseeing tours of both Kathmandu and the beautiful city of Pokhara on Phewa Lake, which is surrounded by thick forest, gushing rivers, and, of course, views of the Himalayas.