Working directly with a reputable agent in Kathmandu, Nepal, you can arrange one of the most inspiring adventures of your life -- at a third of what U.S. tour operators charge.
There's no getting around it: you'd be hard-pressed to find a more rewarding and uplifting nature experience anywhere than a trek in the Nepalese Himalayas. Surrounded by the world's highest mountains (including the highest, Everest, at 29,028 feet), dazzled by the almost impossibly pure white snow and the sweetly clean air, lulled by the gentle gong of a nearby yak bell (yes, there really are yak up there), you know there can be no question that this is the adventure of a lifetime. Unfortunately, plenty of stateside tour operators are happy to charge you the price of a lifetime. Standard Himalayan camping treks booked in the U.S. typically hover around the $200-$300 per day mark, and some companies -- Butterfield & Robinson, for example -- charge a whopping $389 per day for a 14-day trek. (And if you want the single supplement, that's $800 more.) Needless to say, those sky-high rates don't include your airfare to Nepal.
But fear not. By simply jumping on an airplane and alighting in Kathmandu, Nepal's capital, you'll discover scores of locally owned trekking companies, each of which will be more than happy to help you book a trek, right on the spot, for far less than half that amount -- in fact, between roughly $20 to $60 per day is the norm. And if you choose your company carefully, you need not make any compromises whatsoever in terms of safety, equipment, comfort, or the quality of your guides. You get precisely the same trek (after all, most foreign operators contract with these local companies to run their treks) at a fraction of the cost you would have paid by booking back home.
Tracking down the best trek
Upon arriving in Kathmandu, head straight for the Thamel neighborhood. That's where most of the trekking agencies are clustered, as well as the area in which adventure-seekers like you generally find their lodgings in clean, inexpensive guesthouses. (See the box "Be Their Guest" for a selection of the best bets.) Thamel boasts more than 200 trekking agencies; the sheer wealth of choice guarantees that you'll be able to arrange your trip quickly and cheaply.
Bear in mind before you begin talking to an agency that several different varieties of trek -- which can vary significantly in cost -- will be offered. One critical factor will be the duration of your journey. If seven days sounds about right, a good choice is the Jomsom trek (located in north-central Nepal). For ten days or so, the famous Annapurna Sanctuary (in the same region) is an excellent option. Some of the most popular longer treks include the Annapurna Circuit and Everest Base Camp (east of Kathmandu, on the border with Tibet in the Solu-Khumbu region), both lasting a minimum of 17 to 20 days. A caveat: despite its glamorous aura, the Everest Base Camp doesn't offer much in the way of scenery -- it's essentially a rocky field that Everest-assaulters use as a base.
Also be aware of the difference between treks with lodging in teahouses as opposed to those in which you'll be camping in tents. A teahouse is simply a mountain lodge that's usually family-run. It provides extremely basic accommodations and meals. Because teahouses eliminate the need for extensive camping gear, they tend to run about $10 less per person daily than camping treks. If you choose camping, your group will be completely self-sufficient. You'll have a tent with a mat and sleeping bag, and your crew will set up dining and toilet tents at each campsite. Both methods of trekking have their partisans, but you need to remember that teahouses can be pretty rudimentary; camping is often actually the cleaner, quieter, more comfortable option. (And, of course, the air tends to be fresher.)
Another factor that can make a big difference in cost is group size. Logically enough, the more people you have in your group, the more support staff you'll have, and the less expensive per person your trek will be. What do I mean by support staff? When you book, your outfitter generally provides Sherpas (guides), porters, cooks, herders (for the yaks), food, and pretty much all the necessary gear except your clothes. However, you should be certain to clarify in detail, at the time you book, exactly what the tour operator will provide.
Whom can you trust?
Now that you know what the various options are, where do you go to book? Here is a trio of Kathmandu-based trekking agencies I've found particularly reliable.
Snow Leopard Trek (tel. 977-1/434-632, 977-1/434-619, fax [to attention Yankila Sherpa] 977-1/222-026, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org) is one of Nepal's most respected trekking agencies. By booking on the spot, you can get rates ranging from $31-$41 per day for tea house treks to $45-$55 for tenting. Snow Leopard is generally good about answering e-mail, so if you inquire in advance, you might even be able to arrange some of your trek details before you arrive. Either way, the office is pretty tricky to find, so be sure to call and ask for directions once you arrive in Kathmandu.
Sherpa Co-Operative Trekking (tel. 977-1/224-068, fax 977-1/227-983, e-mail email@example.com), located in Durbar Marg, near the Palace, is a fairly new arrival on the scene but has already established a reputation for trustworthiness. Rates range from $30-$35 per person per day for teahouse treks to $40-$45 for tenting in the Annapurna region. Prices max out at $62 per person per day in the Solu-Khumbu/Everest region (these treks are generally more expensive because of the need for an additional flight within Nepal).
Marco Polo Treks and Expedition (tel. 977-1/425-983, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org), located outside of the Kathmandu Guest House, is another highly reliable operator. Prices range from $22-$30 for teahouse treks to $30-$50 for tenting, depending on the size of your group and the length of your trek.
In addition to these three, there are many other reputable operators around town, along with a handful of fly-by-nighters. By prudent comparison-shopping and bargaining, you may well be able to shave some more off the prices I've given above.
Winging to the whitecaps
The best prices for flights to Kathmandu come from Ticket Planet (800/799-8888; ticketplanet.com), which charges $999 round-trip from Los Angeles and $1,099 from New York, year-round except between December 7-25.
Be their guest
There's no shortage of perfectly acceptable guesthouses in Kathmandu, especially in the areas known as Thamel and Chhetrapati. Try one of these four:
Marco Polo Guest House (tel. 977-1/251-914 or 251-892, fax 977-1/250-513, e-mail email@example.com). Possibly the friendliest guesthouse in Kathmandu. Rooms with private bath range from $8-$10.
Tibet Guest House (tel. 977-1/260-556 or 251-763, fax 977-1/260-518, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org). Down a side alley, rooms here are clean and fresh, and the staff couldn't be more helpful. Rooms start at $14 and go up to $39 for the deluxe variety with A/C and minibar. They also include a free pickup from the airport, saving you an immense amount of stress as well as a $5 taxi ride.
Nirvana Garden Hotel (tel. 977-1/256-300, fax 977-1/260-668, e-mail email@example.com). The Nirvana is just beyond the Tibet Guest House, at the end of a cul-de-sac, and is about as quiet as you'll find in the city. Double rooms, all of which have a telephone and TV, start at $40.
The Holy Lodge (tel. 977-1/416-265, firstname.lastname@example.org). A perennial trekkers' favorite, the Holy Lodge offers rooms with private bath starting at $10-$12 if you want one of the newly constructed rooms.