[Editor’s note: For a detailed itinerary tailored to independent travelers, check out How to Independently Trek Nepal’s Annapurna Sanctuary.]
Nepal is a country of great diversity. Though small, it contains a wide variety of climates, terrains, cultures, and people. Still, the reason most travelers make the effort to visit Nepal are the Himalaya mountains.
If your goal is to get into the high mountains, there is no better path than the trek into the Annapurna Sanctuary.
What to Expect
The Annapurna Sanctuary is a natural amphitheater created by a ring of high mountains. The centerpiece is Annapurna I at 8,091 meters (26,538 feet) which rises out of the glacier that extends from base camp, the trek’s highest point.
The mountain was the first of the 8,000 meter peaks to be climbed. However, this does not mean that it is a simple or safe task. The somber memorial to Anatoli Boukreev, who perished while attempting to summit the mountain in 1997, attests to the danger of ascending the peak. Don’t worry though, the trek does not approach the summit.
Though often added as an extension to the much longer Annapurna Circuit trek, the trip into the sanctuary can be done as an objective unto itself. The trek, which begins in Pokhara, usually takes between eight and ten days. This makes it an excellent option for those on a tight schedule.
Getting There and Back Again
The base for the trek is the lake-side town of Pokhara. Smaller and more relaxed than Kathmandu, Pokhara is a great place to prepare for a trek and is an even better place to refresh yourself after one.
Most travelers stay in one of the hotels within the “Lakeside” district. This area is roughly equivalent to Kathmandu’s Thamel, and offers dozens of shops, cafes, guest houses, and guide services. If you are looking for something a bit quieter, the neighboring “Damside” district offers many of the same amenities, with a greatly reduced density.
Travel between Kathmandu and Pokhara is well established and fairly straightforward. Options include a 30 minute flight, usually under $100 USD, or a variety of buses, ranging in price from $2 USD to $10 USD, taking anywhere from five to ten hours.
The trek itself begins from the small town of Nayapul, which is an hour’s bus or taxi ride from Pokhara.
Permits, Porters and Guides
The Annapurna Sanctuary trek is largely contained within the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), a national park that covers 7,629 square kilometers. Entry into the park requires the purchase of an ACAP Entry Permit. The permit requires an application and two passport photos. It costs about $60 USD and can be obtained in a single day from offices in Kathmandu and Pokhara.
In addition to this permit, all trekkers in Nepal are now required to register for and obtain a card through the Trekkers Information Management System (TIMS). This new card has replaced the controversial TRC permit introduced in 2006 and is available for free through a trekking agency, the Nepal Tourism Board, or the Trekkers Agencies’ Association of Nepal. The card can be issued in either Kathmandu or Pokhara.
Although people still circumvent the system, trekkers are now required to hire at least one Nepali staff member (a porter or guide) per group.
Many independent travelers are initially upset by this proposition. However, almost everyone who finds a knowledgeable guide from a quality company comes away admitting that it improved the overall trekking experience.
One of the best trekking agencies in Nepal is 3 Sisters Adventure Treks. Based in Pokhara, the 3 Sisters provide responsible, well-trained, staff and manage several development projects throughout Nepal that help women and children.
What to Pack
Like most popular routes in Nepal, the Annapurna Sanctuary is a “teahouse trek.” Trails pass through villages, each with its own lodging. Camping gear like heavy sleeping bags, tents, and cook stoves are not required on this trail. As a result, trekkers can get by with fairly light loads.
Essential items include a flashlight or headlamp, at least two water bottles, a few changes of socks, several layers of clothing including a down jacket, sweater, and woolen hat and gloves, plus a waterproof / windproof jacket or parka.
While most teahouses provide quilts, it is a good idea to have your own sleeping bag, even if it is only a summer-weight one, as a supplement and in case an overbooked lodge has run out.
Even in the summer, the trek will take you through snow and ice and over some rough terrain. Bring a sturdy pair of boots, broken in before you arrive at the trail-head.
Also recommended is a tested and trusted backpack large enough to carry all of your belongings.
Other items to consider include sunscreen, candy bars, some form of water purification (if you are nervous or have a sensitive stomach), and a pair of sandals or light shoes to wear at the end of the day.
All kinds of mountain gear, of all qualities, can be purchased in either Kathmandu or Pokhara.
Dangers and Concerns
The trail into the Annapurna Sanctuary is well traveled and trekkers should not be overly concerned about danger. Rock and icefall is always a concern, especially at higher elevations in the spring.
If you are unsure of your ability to asses the conditions of an alpine environment, hiring an experienced guide is an excellent idea.
Of greater concern to most trekkers will be altitude sickness. One of the Annapurna Sanctuary trek’s greatest appeals–the fact that it quickly gets you into the high mountains–is also one of its greatest drawbacks. Pokhara lies at 941 meters (2,700 feet), while the Annapurna base camp sits at 4130 meters (13,550 feet). Climbing to this altitude in only five or six days is an invitation for altitude sickness.
Trekkers should take care to study the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness before they leave and adjust their pace accordingly once on the trail.
A trek in Nepal can be the trip of a lifetime but planning one can be daunting. Fortunately, there are some excellent resources.
One of the best general guides, even when compared to those in print, is available for free at Yetizone. The description of the Annapurna Sanctuary is included with the guide to the greater Annapurna Circuit and begins at day 16b of the itinerary.
Probably the best guidebook in print is Trekking in the Annapurna Region, 4th: Nepal Trekking Guides.
Lonely Planet also publishes Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya which features some excellent topographic maps but gets mixed reviews from trekkers.
The classic is Trekking in Nepal: A Traveler’s Guideby Dr. Stephen Bezruchka.
Both Annapurna: Conquest of the First 8,000-meter Peak by Maurice Herzog and Above the Clouds: The Diaries of a High-Altitude Mountaineerby Anatoli Boukreev provide excellent reading related to the trek.
For an overview of classic treks in Nepal, check out 5 Best Treks In Nepal. Hardcore adventurers who want to get way off the tourist trail should read the excellent guide to Trekking The Mt. Kangchenjunga Circuit In Nepal.
Grassroots NGOs that offer volunteer opportunities in Nepal include The Red Panda Project and The Everest Peace Project.