The full Annapurna Circuit is considered one of the world’s great treks, and the real appeal lies in its variety. The trail winds through the subtropical jungle, up into the valleys, across the high mountain pass of Thorung La and down towards the desolate Mustang region, before descending down back into the valleys, all the while passing lakes and waterfalls, ancient temples and villages, surrounded by some of the tallest mountains in the world.
Almost every trekker will hike the route anti-clockwise, starting in Besisahar and ending in Tatopani, to avoid the long and dangerous ascent to Thorung La from the west side, you’ll see why once you reach it! It also means that you’ll be walking along with the crowds, instead of battling against them.
As with the Annapurna Base Camp and the Everest Base Camp treks, you’ll find teashops and lodges along the entire route, never more than a few kilometres from the next one. It’s much cheaper than EBC, you can actually bargain for free or discounted accommodation in exchange for food and drinks, which means a bigger budget for a longer trek!
Another great factor of this hike is the food… don’t get your hopes up, it’s still just the same mountain menu of rice, potatoes, and pasta, but it’s very cheap compared to the Everest region! Maybe due to the fact that it can be driven as far up as Manang to the east and Ranipauwa to the west. You’ll also find a few surprises up there, like burritos and bakeries.
Talking of driving, you can actually do most of the circuit on two or four wheels! It’s possible to drive, via a long, bumpy, windy and mostly terrifying road, from Besisahar all the way to Manang, and then from Ranipauwa all the way to Nayapul. Buses go part of the way up but you’re more likely to catch an overpriced jeep, and on the way down it’s much easier to catch a bus but the jeep might be safer.
Whether you’re walking or driving, the first thing you need to do is catch a bus from wherever you are to the town of Besisahar, via the town of Dumre on the main road between Kathmandu and Pokhara. We caught a “tourist” bus (just the local bus but more expensive) from the Tourist Bus Park in Pokhara, it cost Rs.500 ($4.35), left at 7am, and took four hours.
This is the official start of the Annapurna Circuit, expensive considering how accessible it is, and there is no reason at all for you to spend the night here. Once we arrived into Besisahar we negotiated a price of Rs.1000 per person for five of us to take a jeep to Jagat, 29km and three hours further along the trail, because it was far too hot and dusty to walk along the road.
You can catch a bus here from Besisahar to get you started, or it’s a short 2.5-hour walk along the road with little to see, passing the first checkpoint in Dharapani. If you’re determined to walk, then maybe spend the night here before climbing to Jagat.
It’s a 5-6 hour walk here from Bhulbule, past rice terraces and waterfalls, with a few steep climbs to get you warmed up. Ghermu is apparently a nicer place to stay than nearby Syange. It’s only another hour or so to Jagat, and I would recommend staying there instead.
We spent our first night here after deciding to take the jeep, and I’m so glad we did this, the walk would have been awful. Jagat has some hot springs nearby but they literally would have boiled us alive so we just sat the by the river instead. We stayed at the very cute Tolicho Hotel and Restaurant, they gave us free accommodation, charging, wifi and hot showers in exchange for food.
We spent our second night here, even though it was a relatively short walk from Jagat, due to two of our party being super sick. It’s a beautiful but tough walk past many impressive waterfalls, and the village is nearby another big one you can climb right up to. We stayed at Peaceland Cabins where we had a free room, charging, wifi and hot showers in exchange for food.
We spent our third night here because we couldn’t make it to Chame, it’s a long walk from Tal, especially when you’re sick. We took a worthwhile detour to a beautiful village of Odar, up a very steep flight of stairs with incredible views and a look into local life in the mountains. We also missed the trail at one point and took a loooong detour along the road, but we came across some very impressive waterfalls! We stayed at the Oasis Guesthouse with a free room, charging, wifi and hot showers in exchange for food. It had great views of the mountains and the goofiest dog I ever met.
Although this was our goal, we didn’t feel like we missed out on much by not staying here. It’s quite a big town and you’ll be able to stock up on supplies or get cash from the ATM, plus you’ll be able to socialise in one of the many pool halls!? The only reason we wanted to stay here was to keep up with the Lonely Planet’s recommended route, which is freakin’ tough for the first few days.
We absolutely did not plan on staying here, but because the one lodge at Bratang was so overpriced we decided to walk the extra 4.5km in the rain to reach the next village on our fourth night. We stayed at Gangapurna Lodge and got a free room, charging, wifi and the world’s hottest shower in exchange for food, and the family running the place were so lovely!
The village has nice views of the Paungda Danda rock face, locals believe the spirits of the dead must ascend the wall after leaving their bodies. It’s also where the trail splits between Upper and Lower Pisang, don’t even think about taking the Lower Pisang trail… you’ll miss out on the best views of the hike!
If you can make it here in time to spend the night then I would definitely recommend this, it’s a gorgeous place with its ancient stone buildings perched on top of the hill, incredible views of the valley below and the massive Annapurna II towering above it.
Because we stayed in Dhikur Pokhari and not Upper Pisang, we wouldn’t have been able to make it all the way to Manang so we decided to enjoy our walk (which is easily one of the highlights of the entire trek) and take our time enjoying the views and villages along the Upper Pisang trail. It’s an absolute killer climb up to Gyaru, a solid 500m ascent over 1.5km, but what a view!
Gyaru is a stunning, ancient village and it’s an easy but breathtaking walk to the equally stunning, ancient village of Ngawal. We spent our fifth night at the adorable Hotel Mount View with free rooms, charging and wifi in exchange for food. Another lovely family running this place, and great views from the three small rooms!
Further along the trail from Ngawal is the Karma Samten Ling Monastery which you might be invited to visit. From there it’s a surprisingly easy walk to Manang! Just 2km out in the village of Braka lies the most incredible monastery and village built into the side of the cliffs, and is well worth taking the time to explore. Manang will feel like a real metropolis once you arrive, and you won’t have any trouble finding a place to stay (but most places will charge).
It’s a busy place where almost everyone, whether they hiked or drove up, will take a rest day or three. We spent nights six and seven in the little bungalows of Hotel Royal Manang, free room, charging and wifi in exchange for breakfast and dinner, try their delicious cheese and potato momo soup. Make sure you grab lunch at the tiny Annapurna Restaurant if you need a break from the mountain menu, we had the burrito and fries every day and it was a dream come true!
If you want to do more on your rest days than sit in one of the many bakeries, then you can easily stay active. Climb to the stupa just above town for incredible views, or the much higher Praken Gompa for a tough acclimatisation hike. You can climb down to the turquoise Gangapurna Lake which lies at the base of Gangapurna Glacier and 7455m high Gangapurna peak, but you’re not allowed to swim in it as it supplies water to the villages.
One must-do activity is the free AMS talk held every day at 3pm, run by the Himalayan Rescue Association. It takes around an hour and I cannot stress enough how important this information is when hiking at altitude, and even if you think you know everything I bet you’ll learn something new! Here’s some more information on AMS, which I learnt at this talk.
Side Trip: Tilicho Lake
I had my heart set on this, it was my main reason for tackling the Annapurna Circuit! So I was quite disappointed to find out that it was still completely frozen. After the disappointment of the frozen Louise and Morraine lakes in Canada and the frozen Gokyo lakes in the Everest region, I made up my mind to save my time and energy and skip the three-day side trip. Not only that, but there had been many recent injuries and rescues due to the dangerous and unstable scree slopes that you have to cross, and I wasn’t about to risk my life for yet another frozen lake when I wanted to see that turquoise water!
Letdar (Churi Ledar)
Once you leave Manang you can finally start to feel a little of the wildness of the region with fewer teashops and guesthouses along the way. If you’re struggling with altitude sickness then you can take a slow ascent and spend the night at Yak Kharka, otherwise you can push on to Letdar.
We stayed at Snowland guesthouse on our eighth night, a free room but no charging or wifi because they had no electricity once the sun had set! The rooms were bloody freezing thanks to strong winds, but that didn’t stop us from heading out at 4am for some hypothermia-inducing astrophotography. Worth it.
If you’re not yet acclimatised then you can spend the night here, and it’s much more comfortable than Thorung High Camp. It just means an early start to cross the pass the next morning. You can also take a short acclimatisation hike to the viewpoint above High Camp before climbing back up that killer hill with your gear the next morning. Be careful along the trail from Letdar to Thorung Phedi because it’s a high-risk landslide area! I almost got smashed in the head with a small rock going fast enough to do some serious damage. Don’t stop in these marked areas and watch out for your friends!
Thorung High Camp
We stayed here (our ninth night) because we were still acclimatised after climbing to Everest Base Camp two weeks earlier. Lucky for us, because it’s an awful ascent for acclimatisation, from Manang to the high pass there are awkwardly placed guesthouses that mean you either have a very slow ascent or you climb higher than the recommended 500m per day. It’s worth the climb to the viewpoint to get amazing 360-degree views!
This was not a nice place to stay, it’s overcrowded and we had to sleep in basically a shed at the bottom of the hill, far away from the main hall, with no electricity and a hole in the ground to pee in. We went out at midnight for more frozen astrophotography and bailed when it all got a bit creepy; think strange noises, floating lights and a creepy man appearing silently out of the fog. Also, a horse literally right outside our door!? However, I’m glad we stayed here because it made the next morning a lot easier!
Thorung La High Pass (5416m)
The climb to the pass was one of the worst days of any hike I’ve done in Nepal; we were exhausted after a terrible nights sleep, dizzy from lack of food, cold because it was so early in the morning, and IT NEVER ENDS. After a hundred false summits, there are a hundred more, it was hell, we had to set ourselves goals of making it between the flag posts marking the trail to break it up. Once we made it though… just, WOW. It’s nowhere near as impressive as reaching Annapurna or Everest Base Camps but it’s still an incredible achievement and one I was glad to be finished with. It’s all downhill from there!
By the time you cross Thorung La you would have already climbed more than 4100 meters and hiked more than 110km! It’s a long way down if you’re hiking, and I cannot recommend that enough, don’t just bail and take a bus, enjoy the remote villages and little surprises that the trek from Ranipauwa to Tatopani has to offer.
You can view the full album here.