Very recently I went through a huge experience: I hiked the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. My main intention with this post is to try and share as best as I can my takeaways and at the same time provide some tips for whoever wants to go through this experience too.

Preparation Guide

I have to admit that years of travel and a job that involves frequent traveling made me a lazy person in terms of preparation for trips, thankfully I received a lot of insight from a friend who already went there, and the friend who I followed on the adventure knew what to expect. I have to admit that I was over-geared and that affected the experience negatively as my backpack could have weighted 5kg (11 lbs) less than what it weighted.

As preparation materials I read the lonely planet guide, there’s 2 books about Nepal, a general one and one specific to trekking the Himalayas, both have a similar guide for the Annapurna Circuit and a very useful table outlining trekking times between villages, I had it in kindle version, which came in handy as kindle doesn’t weight as much as the book, can be quickly navigated, and doesn’t require to bring an extra charger.

Local bus to Besisahar

The trek itself can be done and enjoyed in 12 days if you do the Besisahar – Jomsom version of it, and by the distance I’d judge 4 – 6 more days to complete the traditional version. Initially I thought that traditional version would be fun, but personally when I arrived at Jomsom the last day I was already done with hiking and was just craving for a nice meal, a hot shower and a massage.

In terms of estimating the total trip time, I’d account at least 15 days in Nepal. Upon arrival the first activity is to get a TIMS card (Nepal trekking permit) and also an ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area), a permit for trekking Annapurna. The bus from Kathmandu to Besisahar takes 6 hours but it can be taken as early as 6 AM, so that day you have 5 good hours of sunlight to make progress in the trail. The season is October / November. I won’t advise to rush it because the landscape is beautiful in all fronts and it takes time to assimilate and enjoy, but a fit person can probably complete it in 8 days or less.

Here is a basic checklist of items to take:

  • Around $500 (USD) cash is more than enough for the entire trip, is important to take cash as most ATMs will not work.
  • Passport photos: 2 for TIMS, 2 for ACAP, 1 for the Nepali Sim card, total 5. Photo for Nepali visa is not required as they have automated kiosks in the Kathmandu airport that are equipped with a camera. Pro tip: Visa could be obtained ahead of time in a consulate to save A TON of time in the airport.
  • Hiking boots, warm and lightweight, that’s just what you need. If you want to be cautious about having unexpected snow and needing additional traction, take micro-spikes for your boots, but is not really required.
  • Hiking clothes for warm and cold weather. If you’re smart with your layers you’ll get it right: nylon t-shirt, convertible pants, wool socks, travel underwear, thermals, down jacket, shell layer, hat, gloves and scarf. I brought 2 of each for the inner layers and it was fine as I could wash on alternate days.
  • A very warm sleeping bag. It serves 2 purposes: to keep you warm when you’re in high altitude and nights are freezing cold; and it keeps you clean as the sheets in the beds of the lodges in the trail don’t seem to receive more than 1 wash per season.
  • Snacks, are useful but not really required. I took a lot of bars, almonds and what I usually take for backpacking and it ended up being a burden. You can buy fruit and snacks in the trail.
  • Water filter is very important as bottled water from the safe drinking stations is expensive. Running water taps are all over the place so you can filter at any time. I also took a water bladder, if you do so, make sure is thermally insulated as it may get easily frozen in the latest stages of the trip.
  • Hiking poles, sunglasses, sunscreen.
  • Medical tape, first aid kit: believe me, is very likely that you’ll get blisters! Medical tape allows you to keep going. Wearing 2 pairs of socks is also a good trick to prevent blisters.

The Trip

I started my trip in Kathmandu, it was my first time visiting an underdeveloped and over-populated country, so it was shocking to see missing things I had taken for granted: Only some streets have sidewalks so pedestrians, motorcycles, bicycles and cars, dogs, cows, and monkeys are sharing the same space. There is a very small amount of paved roads which means lots of dust in the air. The city is an endless maze of buildings with an overwhelming amount of people walking in the streets. Services like electricity, mobile service, etc are very unstable and spotty, due to precarious infrastructure.

The wisdom eyes of the Buddha, covered by smoke.

Even though I never felt unsafe and in general Nepali people are very kind and make a good effort to communicate, the experience was too difficult for me to absorb. If I had to give a piece of advice to future travelers it would be this one: Save the visit to Kathmandu to the end of the trip and fly directly to Pokhara, where you can get the permits too; is less crowded and in general easier to understand. Kathmandu deserves 2 good days of exploration but many people I talked to during the trip hated it as the shock was too big. Initially I could not wait to get out of there and never come back but fortunately I had to spend 1 entire day at the ending of my trip and surprisingly I enjoyed it as I was more prepared and could filter out the noise.

It was interesting to see how commoditized were religions (Buddhism and Hinduism) as the place is visited by people seeking for spiritual experiences, but seeing T-Shirts with the wisdom eyes of the Buddha takes meaning out of it. I didn’t understand what this meant when I travelled to Bahia in Brazil, even though I felt it: spiritual experiences are to be assimilated and not just barely showed off, specially with Buddhist symbols whose main purpose is to promote un-attachment. I will just say I ended up buying a bag with the eyes of the Buddha embroidered as an internal joke, and because I needed a bag.

Tropical forest and rice fields as first stage of the circuit.

Looking back at the trek, famous for its constantly changing landscapes, is difficult not to make an analogy of it with seasons and time. While in it I was taken to the imaginary ‘magic theatre’ described in Herman Hesse’s novel, ‘The Steppenwolf‘, where he could revive every important fact of his life and change it at will using his more mature mind; and that’s similar to what happened to me: I could revive, either by making analogies with the people I met or just by simple thought, many situations I experienced in my life and make changes to experience the ‘how it would have been’. All of this would not have been very useful without the constant reminder of the teachings of the Buddha, letting go on situations of past time that you can’t change as it makes you fearful of experiencing the future, and fear is the only thing that stops you from getting where you want go go, being what you want to be. Fear is the fuel for all attachment, attachment is what prevents us from being happy. The wisdom eyes of the Buddha are teaching us exactly this: observe, don’t ignore, analyze, and at the same time let go.

Desert-like looking landscape towards the end of the hike.

The experience of the trek exceeded my expectations: gorgeous views, waterfalls, buddhist temples, villages, many suspension bridges and a trail of Tibetan prayer flags showing the way. In average, every 2 hours of hiking there was a village offering food and lodging, with rooftops or balconies so you can have a meal, a snack, or maybe just milk tea at the sight of an impressive view. Tourism seems to be the main source of income for these villages, so if you feel like contributing to the local economy, don’t hesitate to buy a meal. Just beware of some key things:

  • Smaller and local looking places tend to serve better quality of food than the ones more oriented to tourism.
  • Lodging prices are very negotiable as their gains are in the meals the trekkers order. You can even get a $0 stay if you promise to have many meals.
  • Try having a small conversation with the hotel / restaurant staff before deciding on staying in a place. Some of them seem to have a bad attitude and they make the least effort possible when when cooking, and seem eager to charge and scam trekkers on every chance they have. In my experience, the places where the owners or staff were kind and friendly had better food and service.
Prayer flags indicating the path through the Himalayas

I have the impression that ACA management, aside from standardizing the prices, also standardizes the menu having the locals include western society items they’re not used to cooking, like burgers or tacos. With regards to this last point, I felt looked down on by some of the locals, which made me reflect: In my attempt to be empathetic I figured it must be discouraging to live in a place tagged as ‘cheap place’ and feel looked down on by people visiting from richer countries, making you cook tons of food they won’t eat just because it is cheap and so on, which happens, but at the same time reality is that this is also a convenient excuse to give the poor service level the visitors would expect for the price in their own countries, treating them like dogs when in reality, as cheap as it seems, they’re overpaying at least 3x compared to what they’d charge to locals, leading also to a poor image of the population of the country. What we found is that local and more humble places took pride in what they offered and not only not overcharge but also cooked well-prepared meals. If you see locals visiting the place, it’s a good sign.

The crowds in the streets of Kathmandu

I don’t think it is ok to encourage poor treatment by not providing constructive feedback and at the same time acknowledge the locals deserve the same respectful treatment as every human being, especially not be looked down at for the humble conditions and development of their country. At the end of the day, they’re running a business and not being any charitable with the visitors.

The Bottom Line

In summary, the experience of going to Nepal is something I recommend for people who like hiking, mountaineering or outdoor activities in general. It is not a gourmet or leisure experience, however, it is engaging, very diverse, and hopefully, eyeopening as it was for me.

Thanks for Reading all this text 😀