Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Everest Base Camp Trek vs. Annapurna Circuit Trek: Which is Better?

And now, what you all have been waiting for: an answer to the big question. Annapurna Circuit versus Everest Base Camp trek: which is better?

For the record, we were dying to answer this question too. When we hiked the Annapurna Circuit in May, we met a couple people who had just completed the Everest Base Camp trek prior to Annapurna. Knowing that the Everest trek would likely be our next big hike in Nepal, we enjoyed hearing their thoughts on the pluses and minuses of both.

Before going into all the details, I will just come out and say it. We think that the Everest Base Camp trek wins hands down. And the reason is -- in a word -- scenery.

But that does not tell the whole story, and the Annapurna Circuit certainly has some advantages over the Everest Base Camp trek. If you are making a decision about which trek to choose, we advise you to read our full coverage of each. Below is just a synopsis on how the two treks stack up.

Scenery

If you are looking for jaw-dropping, close-up, I-can't-believe-those-are-real mountain views, then Everest Base Camp is your trek. Assuming that you are hiking in the dry seasons of October/November or March/April, you may get a glimpse of Everest as soon as your second or third day on the trail. And Everest, though impressive because it is, well, the highest mountain in the world, is by no means the biggest stunner of this region. No, that award might have to go to Ama Dablam, at the far right in the photograph below. Ama Dablam is simply beautiful from all directions.

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Even on segments of the trail when you lose sight of the mightiest massifs, the scenery remains incredibly gorgeous.

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And the view when you reach the "summit" of the trek, Kala Pattar, is pretty much breathtaking (literally and figuratively).

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I admit that it is perhaps unfair to compare the Everest Base Camp trek to the Annapurna Circuit on the basis of views because the two treks take you through very different scenery. On the Everest trek, you spend more time at higher altitudes, and therefore you are surrounded by massive glacial mountains for the majority of the trek. On the Annapurna Circuit, you start at a lower elevation and hike through more varied scenery, from green rice terraces to a high glacial pass to the dry landscape of the Tibetan plateau.

But if it is the Himalayas you are after? Go to the Everest region.

Difficulty

The Everest Base Camp trek is more challenging than the Annapurna Circuit. Part of the difficulty has to do with altitude. By Day 2 on the Everest Base Camp trek, you are at 3420 meters in Namche Bazaar. On the Annapurna Circuit, you do not reach this altitude until Day 6. As you all know by now, trekking is more difficult at higher altitudes -- not because there is less oxygen in the air but because the density of air decreases, making less oxygen available for mental and physical functions. Labored breathing and legs that feel like lead are harmless but very palpable effects of high altitude hiking, most noticeably on ascents.

Speaking of those ascents, there are a lot of them on the Everest Base Camp trek. Each day on the trail involved a substantial amount of scrambling up and down the trail. By contrast, the Annapurna Circuit has far more gentle, flat stretches that don't leave you heaving for breath.

Given a choice, I would always prefer ascents, even if they are exhausting, because descents can be simply killer on the knees. But what goes up must come down, and on the Everest Base Camp trek you come down the exact route that you climb up. The out-and-back nature of this trek is, in my opinion, less preferable to the Annapurna Circuit loop, which has you begin and end in two different places. On the Annapurna Circuit, there is something nice about the fact that you never have to repeat any step that you take.

Quality of Lodging and Food

The lodging on the Everest Base Camp trek is generally better than the lodging on the Annapurna Circuit. The rooms are a bit nicer along the Everest Base Camp route, but the biggest difference is in the bathrooms. First, in the lower elevation towns on the Everest route, attached baths are common options, whereas we only had this perk in Manang on the Annapurna Circuit. Second, even when you lose the attached bath option, your lodge on the Everest trek will still likely have a shared bathroom in an interior corridor, unlike our Annapurna lodges (believe me: if you can avoid going outdoors for a midnight bathroom trip, you will be much happier). Third, western toilets are the norm on the Everest Base Camp trek, while we saw only one on the Annapurna Circuit.

The food on both treks is pretty much equivalent in terms of offerings and quality. Annapurna's dal bhat, our main point of comparison, might beat Everest's because we had more vegetables on the Annapurna Circuit, likely due to the lower elevations.

Price

Higher elevations, a bit more "luxury," and a bigger brand name mean that the Everest Base Camp trek is more expensive. By Day 2, prices of entrees reach 400 NPR and above, while on the Annapurna Circuit food did not get this expensive until the last couple of days before we crossed the high pass.

In addition, you have to factor in the Lukla flights, which were about $240 per person when we booked our tickets. Of course, you can save this money by taking an extra week to hike from Jiri -- and all the power to you! -- but most people choose to begin in Lukla. Transportation to and from the Annapurna Circuit is more affordable, but, then again, that bus trip to Besi Sahar is an unpleasant half- to full-day trip from Kathmandu, making the round-trip Lukla ticket perhaps more appealing.

Crowds

It is difficult to accurately compare the crowds on the two treks because we hiked the Annapurna Circuit at the start of the off-season, while we hiked the Everest Base Camp trek at the beginning of the prime season. Therefore, we would love to hear from readers who have hiked both treks at more comparable times of year for a more accurate assessment.

In our experience, the Everest Base Camp trek was far more crowded, and we also noted that large groups were very common. On the Annapurna Circuit, however, we saw only one big group. Otherwise, trekkers generally hiked in pairs or in small groups of three or four people. We much prefer the atmosphere of small groups.

Guides and Porters

Along with those big groups come lots of guides and porters on the Everest Base Camp trek. In fact, the vast majority of people -- even those who are not trekking in a large group with a tour company -- have guides and/or porters on the Everest Base Camp trek. We think that guides and porters may be more helpful on this trek than on the Annapurna Circuit because it is more challenging, and carrying less weight  may make the trek more pleasant. In addition, it is really helpful to have a guide for reserving rooms in the  towns with few lodging options. Such competition for rooms did not appear to be a factor on the Annapurna Circuit. If you are interested in hiring our excellent guide, Lhakpa, you can find his contact information here.

Bottom Line

Both treks are amazing, and we enjoyed both immensely. If you must choose between one or the other, consider the points above and determine what is most important to you. Himalayan views? Affordability? Challenging route? Whatever you decide, we don't think you will have regrets. If anything, you will just want to come back for more.

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