The Annapurna Circuit is a popular and absolutely stunning circular trek that begins in the deep, jungled valleys of the Himalayas before climbing into the mountains and crossing over the 5,416 meter pass of Thorong La into the Mars-like terrain of Upper Mustang. Tea houses dot the entire trail and provide trekkers with meals, lodging and of course, plenty of tea. With a range of religion and culture as diverse as its scenery it’s no wonder why it’s one of the premiere trekking destinations in the world.
Despite reading a lot to the contrary while doing my own research, it’s still possible to trek the Annapurna Circuit for less than $20 a day. It’d be a shame (for the people of Nepal and the would-be traveler) to miss out on what, for very little, can be an incredibly rich and possibly life-changing experience.
In November of 2016 I spent 26 days on the Annapurna Circuit for less than $500. Here is how you can too.
GUIDES AND PORTERS
You can hire a guide that will come along with you and handle all the planning as well as a porter to carry your gear. If you feel inclined, hiring either is a good way to support the local economy. If you are on a budget, in modest shape and plan to stick to to the Annapurna Circuit neither are necessary. The majority of trekkers I walked with carried their own gear and if you have the most recent edition of Ruiter and Rai’s guide book (Trekking the Annapurna Circuit – available for around $10 at any book shop in Kathmandu or Pokhara) you’d have to try pretty hard to get seriously lost. There are opportunities to hire guides and porters along the trail if you change your mind higher up.
Most everywhere I’ve traveled, negotiation is a part of life and an expected part of business. It’s no different in Nepal, where often the first price I was quoted was the “sucker” price. I was commonly able to negotiate my lodging with the teahouse on the condition I ate my meals with them.
As savvy businessmen, there’s a lot locals can teach about the art of negotiation if you are paying attention. I found it interesting to see what strategies I tried worked and what didn’t —as well as what strategies worked on me.
If you detect a repressed smile on the salesperson’s face, you paid too much for it.
SWITCH THINGS UP
The trail is a great place to experiment with getting out of your normal routine. Here’s what I abstained from while on the trail:
Dessert – The Annapurna Circuit is known as the “apple pie trek” —and for good reason. Bakeries waft their devilish creations all along the circuit, expensive candy bars line the shelves at every teahouse and deep-fried desserts are a temptation on every menu.
Alcohol – Besides making it more difficult climb up to the 5,416 meter high pass of Thorong La, expect each beer to set you back almost as much as your meal. Also villagers didn’t seem to always have a way to deal with the empty bottles (I saw one tea house use them to make a garden). I had the occasional glass of local brandy or rice wine (because both are brewed locally they reuse the bottles) and was only foolish enough to try “Mustang Coffee” once (rice wine, butter, and instant coffee…bleh).
Alcohol and dessert is by far the 80/20 of it. Avoid these and you’ll be most the way to keeping to your budget. As a bonus you’ll be in pretty good shape by the end of your trek. Here’s a few more you can experiment with:
Meat – In some areas it is against the culture to eat meat. Meat is also more expensive and it seemed to me a pretty risky option considering the sanitary conditions in many of the villages (I never got sick on the trail but others did). It had been a goal of mine to try an entirely vegetarian diet which I broke only once in order to try yak for the first time —chewy!
Internet – You are in the freakin’ Himalayas! Why would you want to be anywhere else? Teahouses will charge a small fee for the internet but the bigger cost is the amount of time you’ll sit waiting for your friend’s cat pictures to load.
Caffeine – I drank coffee and multiple cups of tea every day. I’m not superman. If you aren’t a coffee or tea drinker you’ll have a little leeway for those other guilty pleasures.
I imagine some will scream bloody murder at this list and claim that what I’ve suggested amounts to an almost total stripping away of what makes life worth living. However, far from suggesting you become an ascetic, what I’ve actually suggested is that you live a lifestyle similar to that of the locals.
If money doesn’t motivate you try working it into a larger narrative that is inspiring to you. Mine was that I wanted continue to be healthy and gluten-free, see how a completely vegetarian diet felt and not contribute to the local trash problem by avoiding food and beverages that came in cans, bottles and wrappers.
HAVE A WAY OF TREATING WATER
A huge problem on the trail is plastic bottles which villages have no way to deal with. It’s also much cheaper to carry your own water. There’s a growing number of safe drinking water refill stations along the trail which are great but not numerous enough yet to always be accessible. I also preferred not having to think about where the next water station was.
I used the Steripen Ultra which is rechargeable and insanely convenient. A lower cost, equally portable option is the Sawyer Mini-filter, or if you don’t mind the taste, water purification tablets also work.
WHEN IN DOUBT, DAL BHAT
I ate incredibly well on the entire trek. The credit for that in large part goes to dal bhat —the national dish in Nepal which you’ll find literally everywhere. It usually consists of rice, a lentil soup, curry, papad and sometimes some sort of yoghurt, pickles or other greens. Each place does it slightly different. What makes this dish AWESOME though is it’s endless —they serve you more until you are full. I’ve eaten three servings before!
A few times on my trek I’d lose the trail and would end up in a villager’s field —often to their amusement. It always reminded me of what an incredible gift it is that the Nepalese have so generously opened up their homes and their backyard —the Himalayas— to strange, bumbling travelers like me. When given so much it’s only natural to want to give back.
For me this took the form of donating to schools and monasteries along the trail but money is only one of many ways to reciprocate the incredible generosity of the locals. I also picked up at least one piece of trash for everyday I was on the trail. Sharing medicine, chocolate and other treats or just a friendly smile and a warm thank you were other ways I expreseds my gratitude. My friend Gina brought bracelets which she gave to children along the way, drew a self portrait of a little girl which she gave to her, and gifted a horseback rider her beautiful, one-of-a-kind Indiana Jones style hat after he had complimented her on it.
I find it absolutely mind-blowing that for less than what I used to pay in rent for a month, I can spend the month exploring an incredibly rich culture and the grandest mountain range the world has to offer. I bet Edmund Hillary couldn’t say that back in the 1950’s.
And if you are looking for an adventure it really does’t need to cost much more than that. Navigating through an unfamiliar country, bartering with strange and different cultures, living like a local —isn’t that what adventure is all about?
To see more of my favorite pictures from this trek and to find information for planning your own trek check out my free Annapurna Circuit trekking guide here.
**Featured photo is of my favorite village, Marpha, in Upper Mustang.