Ice lake, ACT, Nepal
The Annapurna Circuit Trek
One of the most spectacular treks in the world can be found in the Annapurna region in Nepal. If you, like us, have the dream of walking above the clouds while enjoying the view on some of the highest, most beautiful mountain peaks of the world, you should definitely trek the Annapurna Circuit. Lots of people have done this magnificent trek over the years and you can easily find a lot of information online as well. However, we found out that because the trek is long and there can be many variations, sharing our own experiences might be useful for fellow trekkers as well.
Additionally, we combined the Annapurna Circuit Trek (ACT) with the Annapurna Basecamp Trek (ABC) which, to our opinion is a fantastic combination of two treks and you get to enjoy more time in nature if you skip some of the ‘jeep road days’. How you can do this will be explained below!
The ACT is a multi-day trek in the Annapurna Sanctuary. During this trek you will see mountain peaks, waterfalls, wildlife, ice lakes and many other things. Every day is spectacular and you will definitely enjoy it. Since there is already a lot of information available online and there are so many variations in the routes that you can take, we opted to share with you the way we did it. For more information, please visit other sources.
Preparation for the trek
How to get your visa
Visa on arrival is available at every international airport (and land border, see our blog on overlanding Nepal). Most nationalities can benefit from the easy visa-on-arrival system. Some nationalities need visa prior to arrival (check here).
1) fill in arrival card
2) fill in a request form online (on arrival) or at the visa counter kiosks – depending on which option you use you may need
* passport (at least 6 months validity remaining after arrival date in Nepal)
* KIOSK hard/ONLINE digital photocopy of passport bio page
* KIOSK hard/ONLINE digital normal passport-sized photograph (35×45 mm) (there should be a photo booth on site in case you don’t have this)
* printed proof of COVID vaccination (we just sent our digital documents through e-mail, but they preferred a hard copy)
* address of your stay in Nepal (hotel e.g.)
* rarely: proof of sufficient funds, return flight ticket
3) pay your visa fee at the counter – cost depends on duration of stay
visa fees: 15 Days – 30 / USD 30 Days – 50 USD / 90 Days – 125 USD
Extending the visa is peanuts, it shouldn’t take too long and you can do it in both Pokhara and Kathmandu, at the immigration office. You have to bring your passport (with your visa inside) and fill in an application form online (on the local computer or on your smartphone). After you filled it in, you hand over your passport and the staff will do the rest. You can extend your visa multiple times, so since the extension is expensive, it’s better to only extend for the duration you expect to stay and if needed, just repeat the process.
Best time of the year to visit
October-November and April-May.
The best months to visit the Annapurna region weather wise. During these months you will be able to enjoy the spectacular views because you can can find clear skies and lots of sun and the temperatures will be comfortable during the day and nice (or bearable) at night. Since most trekkers are aware of this, these months will also be the busiest.
Late May-early September
This time of the year there is often monsoon so a lot of rain will fall and some roads may be closed/damaged. But the advantage is less people on the trails!
We even heard stories of people that were stuck for 4 days at Thorang High Camp (4800 m) at the beginning of October because it was still raining a lot and the rain turned into heavy snowfall at Thorang La Pass making it impossible to cross.
If you visit in this time frame, temperatures will be so low that the days (and especially nights) can be unbearable. Also heavy snowfall may lead to trails (and Thorang La Pass) being closed. But again, almost no trekkers on the trail (probably for good reason though).
We did ACT from half November – beginning of December and the weather was just perfect to enjoy the spectacular views and at ‘lower’ altitudes the temperature was perfect. However, at night, especially at altitudes higher than 3000 m, it could get very cold. Our visit in November was really amazing. Every single day was sunny, no rain, no snow, barely any clouds, and during the day we experienced temperatures between 22°C and 5°C depending on the altitude and the amount of sun. At night, we experienced temperatures below -10°C which was terrible for us since we hate the cold.
Because the end of the season was near, there was plenty of room in hotels and guesthouses along the way. There were nights where we were almost alone in the entire guesthouse. The general rule is though that the higher you go, the busier it gets. We never experienced any difficulties finding a place to sleep but we heard stories about people being forced to share rooms and even sleeping in the dining area in peak seasons. On the hiking trails we ran into people once in a while but most of the time we were alone.
The only disadvantage of a visit this time of the year is that it gets dark quite early which reduces your walking time during the day. There were two days where we ended up walking in the dark for half an hour before arriving at our destination. So November is definitely a fantastic month to trek the Annapurna region but you just have to plan your hikes a little bit more carefully so you don’t end up walking in the dark, which is less enjoyable and comes with some risks. You should also have proper gear and clothing with you to face both the warm temperatures during the day and the (extreme) cold during the night! We’ll share our advice on this in the ‘packing list’ further on.
Pokhara – a great place to prepare your trek
Pokhara is an awesome city with many things to do. Especially after a long and strenuous trek it can feel like heaven on earth! Next to the beautiful Phewa lake, you can find many nice shops, restaurants, massage parlors and fun stuff to do at Lake Side. Lake side is very touristic and some may say not ‘real’ Nepal, but we spent more than two weeks there and loved every day of it. There are hundreds of hotels, hostels, guesthouses, restaurants, bars and so on to choose from so just wander through the lovely streets and try! We only have a couple of recommendations below:
Concerto: Italian cuisine with great service, taste and setting. Not the cheapest restaurant in Pokhara, but we really enjoyed the ‘Italian’ feeling in Nepal and the great pizza.
The Juicery Café: not really a restaurant but you find some awesome food and snacks here, with a fantastic view on Phewa lake. Not too expensive, quite hip and modern and not so Nepali.
Nepali food: we tried numerous different restaurants to really understand the various tastes of Nepali ‘Thakali’ food and we have to say they all were quite similar, although Fewa Thakali was really good.
The Cheese shop: awesome little shop that sells all kinds of cheese, yoghurt, wine, pesto and… fresh made bread and baguettes! At 9 o’clock in the morning they make fresh bread and it was the best baguette we tried in Pokhara without a doubt.
Frituur No°1: we have to start by saying we are from Belgium and it’s hard to resist eating Belgian fries when the opportunity presents itself. This snackbar was started by a Belgian guy who brought fries of high quality prepared on an authentic Belgian way to Nepal. The veg burgers are also very good and if you’re lucky he has some Belgian beers available!
Little windows : fantastic vegan and veg food such as wraps, poke bowls, etc. definitely worth a visit and taste.
Three Jewels Boutique Hotel: this hotel is without a doubt one of the best ones price/quality wise that Pokhara has to offer. The hotel offers clean rooms, good WiFi, fantastic location, super hospitality and overall great service. They will be more than pleased to give you information on the area, where to get your trekking gear, history of Nepal, bus service, etc. One of the best places we stayed throughout our entire journey from Belgium. We made a deal with them to stay for two or three weeks and they let us park our van at their hotel while we were doing the trek. We even charged the battery of our van a couple of times.
Opting for a guide or porter
is mandatory in most regions in Nepal since April 1st, 2023. In case the authority should allow you to trek without a guide anyway (because the rule is not always enforced e.g.), we would definitely recommend you to consider this!
Doing a multiday trek at high altitude may sound too adventurous to do alone for some people. However, in the case of ACT and ABC trek, using a guide is absolutely not a necessity. However, it can be useful if you just want to enjoy the trek and don’t want to put too much time and effort in the practical stuff. Guides will give you a lot of practical information about preparation and the trek itself, will plan everything out for you, help you with permits, arrange guesthouses along the way and help you in case of need (e.g. if you want to do the trek solo and something happens along the way). Also, they can provide some interesting information on the region during the trek (although it’s not common).
can be interesting if you think you will have issues with carrying a backpack the entire way. Although the heaviness of the backpack and the sores that come with it will fade away after the first couple of days, it always will be a bit annoying and energy consuming.
We opted to not use a guide or porter because we wanted to do things our own way and also to save some money. The backpack was part of the trek to our opinion and we decided to carry everything ourselves.
NOTE: prices date from before April 1st, 2023 so changes may have occurred. Guides are generally around $25 per day, porters cost around $20 a day and guide-porters around $30-35. Some choose to share the service of a guide with a group. Guides and porters can be booked through agencies in Pokhara, online and you can even contact them directly on Facebook if you do some searching, e.g. in Pokhara Noticeboard FB group (which is no longer an option we believe). You can even hire porters during the trek in the villages and most places even offer horse/pony service to carry you or your luggage (we don’t know about the price of this service). We even saw some people crossing Thorang La pass on a pony.
Whether you need one of these services is entirely up to you. Know your limits and rely on your experience during previous treks/hikes. Our advice however is that if you really want to experience all aspects of the trekking to the fullest, such as planning and preparation, finding the route, making mistakes, the feeling of dealing with and carrying your backpack, etc. try to do everything on your own. It will make the feeling during the trek and afterwards even more spectacular.
Altitude sickness or AMS (acute mountain sickness)
Altitude sickness or Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is something many trekkers face while exploring the higher parts the Annapurna Sanctuary. This illness can occur to anyone, regardless of age or fitness but if you take some precautions and follow the rules, the risks of getting this serious illness can be easily minimized.
Your body needs to adapt to high altitude and this process takes time. Generally, it is advised that if you are about to hike at a altitude higher than 2500 m, you take some precautions to prevent AMS. The most important rule is to ascend slowly. This means that you should never spend the night at an altitude that is more than 500 m higher than the altitude you spent the previous night. So if you hike to a higher altitude during the day, but you descend to an altitude not higher than 500 m than the previous night, you should be okay.
You will definitely hear and read a lot about Diamox. Diamox is one of the commercial names of a drug used to prevent/treat symptoms of altitude sickness. The active substance of Diamox is acetazolamide. The Belgian Travelers Advice Centre suggests to take acetazolamide as a preventive drug for AMS if you do not have enough time to acclimatize or if you experienced AMS before. You should take half a tablet of 250 mg twice a day starting the day before you reach 3000 m and continue taking it until you reach the highest point of your trek.
We chose to take it preventively but this is obviously not mandatory and we met many people that did just fine without the drug. We took acetazolamide the entire trip: at 7 AM and at 5 PM and we had very little problems, except the typical side effect of tingeling feeling in fingers and toes. Try to take your afternoon pill not too late to avoid increased urination at night (as acetazolamide has diuretic effects).
Do notice that if you have any symptoms of AMS, that this can further develop to more serious illnesses such as High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACE) and High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPE). Both can be fatal so educate yourself properly before trekking and we suggest to carry enough acetazolamide with you. Common symptoms of AMS are headache, nausea and loss of appetite (among others). If you encounter these, it is suggested to descend until the symptoms disappear. Failing to do this and ascending to higher altitude may lead to HACE or HAPE. Since we are not doctors, we only share with you our gained knowledge and experience. It is advised to properly educate yourself in this matter through valid medical sources before you commence your journey.
There is a fantastic daily talk on AMS at 3 pm in Manang at the Himalayan Rescue Association Nepal. Here you can gain proper knowledge from the doctors and ask any questions you have on this matter. The presentation is free but you can support the health center by buying some merchandise or by measuring your blood oxygen saturation for a small amount of money.
What you should bring with you
Buy North Fake or genuine brands?
If you plan to do trekking for a extended period, you want to be able to fully rely on your backpack and your trekking gear. If you come well prepared, your journey will be much more pleasant than when you have the wrong backpack or if you don’t have the proper gear with you. A list of essential items according to us will be described hereafter. Outdoor gear and clothing is often quite expensive and not always easy to find. However, you should see it as an investment since if you take good care of your stuff, they can survive for a long time. Cheaper materials could possibly also do the trick without leaving you stranded in the mountains (shoe sole coming off, rain jacket not being waterproof, etc) but personally we did not want to take the risk and several hundred kilometers later, all the stuff we invested in is still in excellent condition.
Outdoor brand names such as North Face, Marmot, Patagonia, etc develop products that are generally expensive. The reason for this is that most of their products are genuinely really good. They deliver their promise and don’t let you hanging at crucial moments.
In Pokhara and Kathmandu there are many trekking shops where you can buy almost everything you need. However, the products in these shops are almost always ‘North Fake’ which means that even though they have the name tag of the famous outdoor brands on them, they are fake. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s all rubbish, but for some essential items, it may be interesting to accept the financial damage and buy the real thing. There are only a couple of genuine shops in Pokhara such as Sherpa, North Face and Columbia. So if you want to buy the real things, it’s better to do this before coming to Nepal. For us, essential items include a wind- and rainproof jacket, hiking shoes, trekking backpack and a sleeping bag. Items you buy for a way cheaper price in Nepal are generally less durable, more heavy or do not perform adequately (for instance not waterproof). That being said, all items we bought in Pokhara for our trek were fantastic, but it’s possible they will get damaged sooner than expected in the future.
Below you can find a list of the most important stuff, according to us, to take with you on a trek of 16 days. Keep in mind that being lightweight is crucial, especially if you don’t use the service of a porter. However, in colder seasons it’s also important to be able to keep yourself warm at night so you should carry sufficient warm materials with you. It’s all about finding the balance and experience will teach you to find this. Also, efficiency is key. For example, trousers you wear after the trek in the guesthouse could be hiking trousers you were during the trek in the end as well. Another example is, we didn’t carry any t-shirts with us since a thermal shirt is perfect as the only or first layer in sunny but colder days.
We carried a backpack weight of +- 18 kg in the beginning but we had a lot of food with us, which was idiotic (except for the snacks!). There are plenty of cheap and good food options on the way. After eating all the food quickly, we estimate a backpack weight of +-14 kg + weight of water.
Trekking backpack (60-70L)
Trekking shoes (descent brand + worn before)
Trekking socks (plenty + descent quality)
Sleeping socks (+ to wear in guesthouse)
Slippers/warm footwear (after trek + shower)
Blister plasters (e.g. Compeed – crucial!)
(Note: we couldn’t find any in Nepal! Buy abroad.)
Swimwear (to swim in hot springs)
Microfiber towel (shower/swimming)
Multitool (Leatherman e.g.)
Thermal shirt long sleeve – 4 pieces
– 3 for hiking
– 1 to wear in guesthouse and for last day e.g
Thermal pants – 1 piece (trek/sleeping)
Hiking trousers – 3 pieces
– 2 for hiking
– 1 to wear in guesthouse and for last day e.g.
Warm fleece/pull for guesthouse (60-70L)
Warm fleece/pull for trek
Down jacket (warm/lightweight – crucial!)
Rain jacket (breathing/waterproof)
The actual trek
The jeep roads
Originally, the ACT could take up to 21 days to complete. However, over the years some roads have been built along the hiking trails to make the villages you pass more accessible.
The downside of the new roads is that a great part of the walking trail is over the roads where lots of jeeps are driving. As a result, you see and hear a lot of jeeps (lots of honking) and lots of dust comes in the air when they drive by which can ruin the scenery and the wonderful peace and quiet the area offers. You can avoid the jeep roads in some parts of the trail by taking alternative hiking paths but some walking over jeep roads is unavoidable. Some people hate the roads and prefer to take jeeps to villages further on the road to avoid walking on them but many people we spoke to said that it’s absolutely not as bad as some people/sites may say and that you will miss great parts of the trail by taking a jeep.
As mentioned before, there are many variations on where you can start and end the trek and every part definitely has something to offer. Some people even take jeeps between some villages and start walking again after. Just take your time before you head into the mountains to plan which parts you want to hike and where you want to take a jeep.
The most important advantage of taking a jeep is that it shortens the duration of the trek. Some people only have limited time and prefer to start walking further on the trek and some prefer taking their time and walking slower, so the jeeps buy them some time. Further in the trek (e.g. around the village of Manang) you also have many half and full day side treks (e.g. the ice lake and Tilicho lake) that you can do, which some people prefer to do instead of walking on the jeep roads. The disadvantages of the jeeps are that you are skipping a lot of beautiful scenery, that it can be costly (more expensive the farther you want to go by jeep) and that you are at greater risk of developing altitude sickness if you go too far by jeep at once.
In our opinion, there’s not really any pride in completing the original ACT since the drastic changes of the trek made this less appealing. It’s better to skip (some of) the jeep roads and to do other treks in the Annapurna Sanctuary instead such as the ABC or the Mardi Himal trek.
Guesthouses and hotels
There are numerous options to spend the night along the ACT. Depending on your need for luxury and the location you’re at (higher altitude means less facilities generally). If you will use the services of a guide, you often don’t have to worry about arranging the guesthouses since they will do this for you. If you will trek by yourself there a few things to keep in mind
1) In low season you’ll easily find a room and price is often negotiable. In high season you have to make sure you arrive on time to have a bed to sleep in and prices could be higher be or non-negotiable.
2) Prices are negotiable and if you’re on a budget it’s often possible to get the room for free if you eat breakfast and dinner there (which you probably will do anyway). In general, we slept in a room with two separate beds without an attached bathroom. These kind of rooms cost us between free and 500 NRP per night (per room, not per person). Do notice that the closer you get to Thorang La Pass, the more expensive everything gets (especially food). Whether you should negotiate is up for debate and is your choice.
3) Always inspect the room first because although rare in our experience, some rooms don’t get cleaned (thoroughly) or can have some problem (no light, no water, no hot shower although this was promised, …).
The ACT is a very popular trekking destination and attracts people from all over the world. Over the years this has led to the route being more and more developed. Even more buildings are rising and we got a sense that accommodation is getting fancier with lots of places offering rooms with attached bathrooms (and even some with hot shower), free WiFi, power plug in the room, etc. The benefit of this development is that you don’t have to carry a tent, any cooking gear or food. You can just hike, arrive to a hot (and still cheap) meal and just enjoy everything with less planning and preparation. The downside is that one may not get the feeling of being truly in pristine nature, but this is ofcourse a personal opinion.
We spoke to some people that had visited Nepal before the jeep roads were built and they said that everything had changed drastically and they liked it less now. However, to be honest this was not really a problem for us since you still had plenty of time to enjoy nature between the villages and the comfort was just awesome since the trek with the guesthouses is already quite challenging. Let alone if you have to carry way more stuff.
The food was reasonable to heavenly at all places we stayed. We never had any bad experience really. The menu is basically the same over the entire ACT and they offer the world famous Dal Bhat, noodles, pasta, pizza, sandwiches, sodas, beers, … so you’ll have a lot to choose from.
We got the advice before the trek to just stick to the Dal Bhat to avoid belly problems but after two days we broke this pattern and ordered some delicious pastas and other stuff and never had any problems. The Dal Bhat is legendary and you should definitely try it. Also, you can get a free refill until you pass out or explode so if you’re really hungry the Dal is the way to go. Breakfast order is taken before you go to bed and you should mention when it should be ready so you don’t waste time in the morning. You can get many kinds of eggs, pancakes, porridge, toast, … and you can even get a breakfast set with eggs, bread and a hot drink for a set price. We often chose the latter to get lots of energy in the morning and just skipped lunch or had a Snickers to save some money.
We made the mistake of taking a lot of food with us to save some money but this is not a good idea since the prices are quite low (definitely in the beginning of the trek) and the extra weight is just not worth it.
What you should bring with you from the city is snacks. You won’t believe how good a Snickers will taste after dying on a long uphill hike. Some nuts and salty snacks are also good to compensate for the mineral losses through sweating. Chocolates (such as KitKat, Snickers, …), cookies, … whatever you like. There are options to buy these along the way as well, however, it will cost you way more so if you don’t mind the extra weight, take them delicious snacks with you!