Review of MSR FreeLite 2 Tent

Adventure Travel, Gear

My in-depth review of MSR’s Freelite 2 Ultralight Backpacking tent.

I purchased the Freelite 2 last Spring when it was on-sale at REI and I still had some left over dividend bucks to play with. At the time, I’d been camping with my now 8-year-old REI Quarterdome 2 tent. That tent has been around the world with me, from camping at music festivals in California to hiking through the Huayhuash region in Peru. I loved that tent. But it was time for an upgrade.

For my new tent, I wanted something that could offer the same spacious interior of the Quarterdome but without all the weight. My ideal tent would be a two person tent weighing less than 3 pounds. After weeks and months of exhaustive research, I came across the MSR Freelite 2 on the REI Garage Sale website. I wasn’t going to find a better deal, and I bought it.

If you’re wondering if you should buy the MSR Freelite 2, read on.

MSR Freelite 2 Features:

Ultralight: this tent weights in at 2.75 pounds
Spacious: Room for 2 sleeping pads with a 36” peak height.
Floor area: 29 sq ft
Vestibule area: 17.5 sq ft
Doors: Two side doors that unzip completely.
Ventilation: micromesh canopy for maximum ventilation and moisture control
Separate rainfly
Packs up small 18 x 6 x 6

Where the Tent Was Tested

I used this tent for 5 months across the Summer and Fall of 2018 primarily in the White Mountain National Forest of New Hampshire in environments that were wet, had fairly extreme temperature fluctuations, high wind, rain, and lots of bugs. The MSR Freelite 2 held up beautifully for its first season and I have close to no regrets about my purchase. We’ll get to my issues about this tent, but first: the things I like.

MSR Freelite 2

A Truly Ultralite 2 Person Tent

Having carried around a heavy 4 pound tent on solo backpacking trips for many years, I was happy to find that the MSR Freelite is genuinely a 2 person tent below 3 pounds. Personally, I like to carry 2 person tents even on my shorter solo trips because I like the comfort of having my pack and all my gear inside the tent with me with room to move around. We all have our quirks. I see you, people who hike fresh vegetables into the mountains.

Most ultralight tents cut a lot of corners to reduce weight. They decrease interior space, choose flimsy material, or the tent doesn’t have a separate rainfly. The Freelite doesn’t cut these corners. The nylon is thin, yes, but it held up beautiful against the ferocious rain storms that swept in on me one night in mid-July.

More Interior Space

The Freelite cuts down on interior space, but they did it in a really smart way. The peak height is 38” and is located not at the center of the tent but slightly more towards the head area. The roof lowers down towards the feet. So, unlike a dome tent, you’re limited in which way you can sleep. But at least the interior space is large enough that I could sit up straight while getting organized in the morning.

The Freelite 2 is Sturdy (once staked)

MSR claims that the Freelite 2 is freestanding. And it is… technically. It will stand up without being staked down. But you don’t really want to sleep in it like that.

In truth, this tent needs to be staked or tied down to be completely standing. Once staked firmly into the ground, this tent is capable of withstanding quite high winds. I never had any issues with leaks or moisture collecting inside the tent. A tent that can keep a hiker completely dry throughout the entire humid summer season of New England is basically a miracle.

Easy Camp Set Up and Breakdown

I found the Freelite an easy tent to set up and take down on my own, even in high winds. The single pole construction snaps together effortlessly and the external clips make it fairly simple to erect the tent.

The only tricky part is figuring out which end of the tent is the foot when you are laying it out. It’s just a matter of finding the clips for the poles really, but does take a second of finagling.

The rain fly goes on easy, with my only small complaint being that the interior snaps on the rainfly have to be stretched quite significantly to get them onto the short pole that supports the roof of the tent. I did worry I was going to split a seam on the rainfly a few times.

Positive Overall Tent Construction

The overall construction of the Freelite 2 works for me. Like I mentioned before, the peak height allows me to sit up straight, I don’t mind having the area around my feet a bit more constrained.

Once set up and staked down, the poles are fairly strong and able to withstand the force of strong winds or even my hand pressing down on them. Though perhaps not the most structurally sound tent that has ever been created, it’s good enough for me.

The tent is wide enough for two people, if you’re close. We’ll get into this a bit more in the negative section of the review. The double doors are great, everyone likes a tent with two exits (looking at you, Big Agnes…). The doors unzip completely which is controversial feature but I’ll say that I like them.

The vestibule area under the rainfly is spacious enough for a bag and some shoes. My only issue is with the doors on the rainfly. They have two zippers, which means you can unzip from the bottom and from the top. I really don’t understand the utility of this, and often in the middle of the night when trying to re-close the rainfly door after a quick, cold midnight pee I’d accidentally pull down both zippers, so that the door would still be open, but pinched closed at the bottom. It is a weird feature and I don’t love it.

This seems like as good a time as ever to transition into…

What I don’t love about the MSR Freelite 2

Before we get into the negatives, let me preface with saying that I like this tent a lot and am not unhappy with my purchase. It provided a safe home for me all the way until just before winter hit and I appreciate that. But there are some gripes and some small things I would change about this tent.

Interior Space Not Fully Optimized

This could be a bit picky, but I feel that the interior features of the tent aren’t fully optimized. Namely, that there is only one mesh pocket in the interior, near your head. I wish there would be a second pocket down by the feet, sometimes I don’t want all my stuff hanging just over my face while I sleep, you know?

Not Quite A 2 Person Tent

The MSR Freelite 2 claims to be a 2 person tent, and it is… technically. My boyfriend Erich and I used this tent in mid-October for a single night trip into the Pemigewasset and it was perfectly comfortable for the two of us, but again, he is my boyfriend.

If two fully grown men were to lay on their backs in this tent, I think it would be a tight squeeze. So while, yes, it is a 2 person tent, it is a very cozy two person tent. If you and your regular camping partner are both big humans, this tent might not be the right fit.

If you’re small like me, I’m 5’3 and 150lbs, boyfriend is 5’7 and has a fairly thin/smaller frame, it’s a great tent.

MSR freelite not freestanding

Not Freestanding

This is my biggest caution to those considering the MSR Freelite 2. It is not truly freestanding.

Camping in the White Mountains, you have the choice between backcountry camping or camping at designated AMC campsites. The Freelite 2 is a perfect tent for backcountry stealth camping in the Whites. The soil is usually soft yet rocky, so with a little fiddling, the stakes will slip right into the earth and the tent is secured.

The challenge comes when you choose to sleep at an AMC campsite. Here, tents are often placed onto flat wooden platforms. It’s nice to know you’ll be sleeping on a completely level surface, but it is not so easy to set up a tent that needs to be staked down. I managed to mostly make it work by tying the tent down using some creative string work, but the hardest part is getting the rainfly set up. Thankfully it never rained on me in that situation.

So, if you often camp on wooden platforms or on terrain where it is not possible to stake down a tent, you may want to bypass the MSR Freelite.

TL;DR Pro’s and Cons

Pros
Below 3 pounds (allows for a 2 person tent on a 1 person trip)
Ultralight tents often cut down on materials to cut down on weight, they made smart decisions with this design so while yes, the interior is smaller than a typical dome tent, it’s still roomy above your head
Can set it up in the rain by putting the rain fly on first (but it’s awkward)
Have camped in this tent in the rain and very high winds and never had a problem
When staked down, really roomy and wonderful, when I had to set it up on a platform, not so much.
2 Doors for easy access and great views.
Easy to compress down, doesn’t take up too much space in my bag

Cons
Not enough pockets inside the tent
Hard to get the rainfly on completely properly
VERY cozy for 2 people – it works for my boyfriend and I but if you were with someone you didn’t know super well, it could be weird
Hard to set up on the platforms featured in campsites on the white mountains, or hard to set up on rocks – great as long as you can stake it down properly

Should You Buy the MSR Freelite 2?

At the end of the day, this is a great ultralight tent for solo hikers and duos who are comfortable with each other. It’s easy to set up, can withstand the elements better than a lot of other three season tents, and doesn’t weigh down your pack.

I like my MSR Freelite 2 a lot and would recommend it to friends who understand the compromises that are inherent in purchasing an ultralight tent.


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Read a review of the MSR Freelite 2 Ultralight Backpacking tent

Hike from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu: The Adventure of a Lifetime

Adventure Travel, Peru, Travel, Trekking & Hiking

You’ve got two weeks in Peru. You want to visit Machu Picchu and see the most famous place in South America, but you also want to have a wild, life altering adventure deep in the Andes. It may not sound possible, but you can have all this while staying under budget on your two week trip. How?

By hiking from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu without a guide.

Choquequirao is a stunning ancient Incan temple built about 100 years after Machu Picchu. Much like it’s more famous cousin, Choque sits on top of an Andean Ridge, overlooking a river thousands of feet below. But unlike Machu Picchu, Choque has hardly any tourists. Fewer than 20 people visit each day.

condor

Photo by Macie J

To put that in perspective for you, Machu Picchu gets 5,000 visitors a day. One more time for the people in the back: Machu Picchu gets 5,000 people per day. Choquequirao? 20.

Why the difference? Because the only way to reach Choquequirao is via a grueling two-day hike.

As if that wasn’t adventurous enough, for those in the know, those passionate, outdoor-loving, backpacking maniacs who want to immerse themselves in the Andean wilderness, an even greater adventure awaits you beyond the gates of Choquequirao: the 9-day trek from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu.

It’s an epic journey that follows an Incan trail over two high Andean passes, through verdant valleys, and up to a deserted mountaintop ruin overlooking Machu Picchu.

Imagining, beginning your week at one of the most remote religious sanctuaries in the world, traversing Andean mountains on the same pathway the ancients walked and ending your journey at the fabled Machu Picchu.

This is all possible. Hiking from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu without a guide is challenging, it is stunning, and it is totally doable in less than two weeks.

hiking choquequirao to machu picchu

Photos by Macie J

Hike from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu: The Itinerary

Day 1: Cachora to Chiquisca
Day 2: Chiquisca to Choquequirao
Day 3: Choquequirao to Pichauhuyoc Ruins
Day 4: Pichauhuyoc to Pajonal
Day 5: Pajonal to Yanama
Day 6: Yanama to Colcabamba
Day 7: Colcabamba to La Playa
Day 8: La Playa to Aguas Calientes
Day 9: Machu Picchu

This is a long and extremely challenging journey. Before you go, make sure you are prepared for this trip both mentally and physically. Only take on this journey without a guide if you are an experienced trekker and confident navigating backcountry terrain. Though the path is clear throughout, there are still plenty of opportunities to get lost in the Andean highlands.

As with any hike in Peru, the most important consideration of all is altitude. Give yourself at least one day to acclimate in Cusco before beginning the trek. The path from Choque to Machu Picchu crosses extremely high elevations, the highest point at Yanama Pass (4500m/15,000ft). The air up there is thin and no matter how fit and knowledgeable you are, you will struggle. Acclimate!

This trek is no joke. But for those who are fit, smart, and capable, hiking from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu offers a chance to see a part of Peru most people have never even heard of.

Choquequirao Peru

Photo by Mark Rowland

Trekking from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu: What to Expect

I’ve covered what to expect from days one and two when you hike to Choquequirao, so let’s continue to day three, and the morning of your Choque explorations.

After you’ve finished reveling in the tranquility of this ancient temple, head towards the highest part of the temple and off into the jungle. From Choquequirao, the trail winds up the side of the mountain, weaving through dense shadowy forests before descending sharply towards a river valley.

andean flowers choquequirao hike

Photo by Macie J

A little more than halfway down to the river valley floor, you’ll come to a set of ancient Incan terraces carved into the wide open mountainside. This is Pichuhuyoc. These terraces and the small temple in the center are the location of one of the last still-functioning Incan water systems in Peru. It also makes a great place to camp for the night.

Come the morning of day four, follow the trail all the way down to the river below. There was no bridge in June 2014, but the crossing was easy nonetheless. From there, the trail is slightly off to your left. Ahead of you is a long and steep climb up to the village of Maizal. Village is perhaps a generous term, it is a collection of four or five houses perched on a mountainside. Not a human soul to be seen when I visited, but I did have a great conversation with a cow standing next to the only source of water.

From Maizal, the trail continues up more gradually, working its way towards the Victoria Pass. Through the lush jungle, the trail clings to the steep mountainside. A glance over the edge of the trail will send your heart thumping up into your throat. When I hiked this in 2014, the path was very wet and treacherous. Quiet narrow, especially when I had to share it with donkeys coming the other way.

Along the way, you’ll pass abandoned Victoria Mines, a narrow chasm cut deep into the mountain. Shortly after the mines, the trail cuts sharply up the mountain in a series of stairs and switchbacks. Once you climb into the sparse, high Andean environment, it should be nearing the end of the day. Though there is no official campsite up here, camp on whatever wide, flat, empty space you can find.

path to victoria pass

Photo by Macie J

Here is your reminder to practice leave no trace! High elevation environments are extremely sensitive, do your best not to crush plants and other life underneath your camping equipment.

Come dawn of day five, continue up towards Victoria Pass. I cannot encourage you enough to get there as soon after sunrise as you can. Further, into the day, the clouds will gather and obstruct the views. But if you arrive early enough, you’ll be greeted with panoramic views of the surrounding glaciers and sharp Andean peaks.

From the pass, it’s a long but fairly gentle descent down to Yanama Village, where you can camp for the night.

Waking up in Yanama will be a bizarre contrast of modern and ancient. This small village is home to a road. In fact, it is home to the only road that accesses this remote corner of the Andes. You may hear trucks and cars heading in and out of town, a grating contrast to the serenity of your days on the trail.

yanama pass

Photos by Macie J

No need to share the road, however, the Incan Trail you’ve been following for days continues its meandering path up the center of the valley. It’s difficult to get lost at this point as there is only one way to go from here.

Up and up the valley floor you go, gaining altitude and increasing in grade as the day continues. The final push to Yanama Pass is a steep and relentless wall of scree. But make it to the top of the pass and you’ll find views of a glacier so close you could reach out and touch it.

But don’t. Glaciers are very dangerous.

After Yanama Pass, you have a long yet gentle walk all the way down to Colcabamba. Savor the silence because in Colcabamba you’ll meet up with the Salkantay trail and all dirt, grime, people, and noise that come with a heavily touristed trail. But on the plus side, you can talk to another human!

trekking to yanama

Photo by Macie J

Once in Colcabamba, you can say goodbye to free campsites. Camping here is limited to a few houses and licensed spots, and they will expect you to pay. The good news is you can get a home cooked meal for the first time in almost a week.

On day six, follow the Salkantay hikers and their guides as the trail winds its way down to La Playa, a small village perched next to a river. At this point, you’ve returned to relatively low altitudes and the heat will be intense. Best to drink lots of water and try to stay in the shade.

On the final day of the trek, you have the (boring) option to follow most of the Salkantay Trekkers down to Santa Teresa and from there hike along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes. Or, if you have the strength and want to see Machu Picchu in a way most tourists never will take a lesser known track up to Llactapata.

Llactapata is a forgotten and unimpressive ruin that sits on a ridge overlooking Machu Picchu. Its true beauty is the unparalleled opportunity it offers to look down on Machu Picchu from afar, just as the Inca once would have.

From La Playa, cross the river and continue to hike along the road. Be on the lookout for signs pointing towards an Incan Trail to Llactapata. They are hard to find but you will see it eventually. As of 2014, it was a faded red sign.

After this, the Incan Trail winds up the side of the mountain, not too steep but after a week of Andean hiking pretty much every incline feels steep. Your effort will be rewarded when you stumble out of the jungle onto a small clearing with the still standing walls of a modest temple structure.

Walk to the edge of the plaza and look out across the landscape. On the distant ridge, you’ll see a place where the jungle has been wiped away. Stones cling to the bare mountainside. This is Machu Picchu, and you are standing by yourself in the Andean Jungle looking out over it just as the Inca did long ago.

overlooking machu picchu from llactapata

Photo by Macie J

From Llactapata, the trail down to the valley floor is easy enough and then its just a slog along the train tracks until you reach Aguas Calientes, the town below Machu Picchu.

For accommodations in Aguas, your options are paid camping or budget hospedajes. Take your time and find the right option for you. The cheapest hospedajes are going to be up the hill and far from the main plaza. If you’re not too picky, camping is probably the way to go. Before you go to sleep for the night, make sure to buy your entrance pass to Machu Picchu for tomorrow! Do not wait until the next morning. Apparently now they assign times of day for your visit, so check your ticket to see when you’re allowed to enter the temple.

machu picchu

Photos by Macie J

The next day, wake up early to make the walk up to Machu Picchu! Because you didn’t walk all this way just to take the bus, did you?

If you did, best to get in line for the bus at like 4am I hear. It’s pretty hard to catch a bus. The stairway up to Machu Picchu is tough but not impossible. I say hike it.

All that’s left is your exploration of Machu Picchu. Take all the time you need. This place is worth it.

After your temple visit, I recommend catching the train back to Cusco. It is by far the easiest way to travel back to civilization. If the train is outside your budget, you can follow the train tracks back towards Santa Teresa and from there catch a taxi or collectivo out to Santa Maria, and from there a bus to Cusco.

If you’re really hardcore, you can walk all the way back to the Sacred Valley by following the train tracks in the other direction. This is a 28km walk and takes the full day. Get started early. When you get to KM 82, you’ll find yourself in a small village and from there you can easily get a collectivo back to Ollantaytambo.


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Hike from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu without a guide: one of the greatest adventures in PeruHike from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu without a guide: one of the greatest adventures in Peru

All photos on this post from Macie J.

Hiking Colca Canyon Without A Guide

Adventure Travel, Peru, Travel, Trekking & Hiking

The trek through Peru’s Colca Canyon will test your limits, push you to your breaking point, and reward you with some of the most stunning views to be had anywhere in the world. This is one of Peru’s most popular trekking destinations and the second deepest canyon in the world. Though it can be done as a two-day trek, I recommend taking 3 to 5 days to explore this unique and gorgeous location. For those who are on a budget, or who are just fiercely independent, let’s go over how to trek Colca Canyon without a guide.

I made a five-day trek through this beautiful Canyon back in December 2015, and to this day it is one of my most memorable trekking experiences. Something about the depth of the canyon, the colors of the desert landscape, and the unique combination of wilderness and Peruvian culture made this trek stick out in my mind. I did it without a guide and for under $200 and I’d love to share some of my insights with you.

Colca Canyon view from the top

View from the top.

All About Colca Canyon

Before we get started on the how, let’s get into the why. Colca Canyon is one of the most exceptional natural landscapes in Peru. And Peru is a country filled to the brim with jaw-dropping landscapes. But really, Colca Canyon sticks out among the rest.

Once billed as the deepest canyon in the world, Colca Canyon has since been forced to cede that crown to a nearby, but less well-known canyon. Still, second deepest canyon in the world just ain’t that bad, reaching a depth of 10,730ft (3,270m). As a comparison, the Grand Canyon in the United States is only 6,093ft deep.

Located about 8 hours from Arequipa, this Canyon sits below now dead volcanoes and is cut through by the Rio Colca. At the northern end of the Canyon sits the town of Chivay. Up here, the canyon is more of a fertile valley, characterized by small villages and ancient pre-Incan terracing.

As you travel south down the only road on the top of the canyon, you’ll pass by 56 different small villages. The river runs beside you through the valley until suddenly, just a few miles before the final town, it drops away and the canyon opens up below you. The last town perched on the edge of the canyon is Cabanaconde. This is the starting point for the trek.

Colca Canyon is home to a wide variety of unique flora and fauna, the most famous of which is the Andean Condor. This majestic bird can live 70 years and has a wingspan of up to 9 feet. In the Incan mythology, the flying Condor represents heaven.

The people who live in and around Colca Canyon come from two separate cultures: the Cabana culture are a Quechua speaking people, and the Collagua culture are an Aymara speaking people. They continue to live on the land to this day, practicing traditional culture and cultivating their pre-Incan terraces.

Plaza Central Cabanaconde

Central Plaza, Cabanaconde

How to Get to Colca Canyon

Your journey begins from Arequipa, a town that sits slightly inland from the ocean in the middle of a vast desert. You’ll want to get a bus from Arequipa to Cabanaconde. If you can’t find a time to Cabanaconde that works for you, you can get a bus to Chivay and transfer to a local bus that goes from Chivay to Cabanaconde.

From Arequipa, there are several bus companies that run to Cabanaconde. I took Turismo Milagros. Buses to Cabanaconde leave at a range of times, from about 1am until mid-morning. We took a 4am bus that got us to Cabanaconde in time for lunch.

Expect the entire bus journey to take upwards of 8 hours. This bus ride is long, reaches high elevations, and can get extremely cold. Bring a jacket! I didn’t have enough layers and I was freezing in the high elevations.

bus to Colca Canyon

The Itinerary: A 5 Day Trek in Colca Canyon Without a Guide

Day 1: Cabanaconde to San Juan de Chuccho
Day 2: San Juan de Chuccho – Tapay – Malata
Day 3: Malata – Fure – Llahuar
Day 4: Llahuar Hot Springs Day of Rest and Joy
Day 5: Llahuar – Cabanaconde

Without further ado, let’s get into the nitty gritty of what to expect when you hike Colca Canyon without a guide.

Colca Canyon Views

View from the bus near Chivay

What to Pack for Colca Canyon

When I made this trek in 2015, I did it with a partner and we intended to hike completely unassisted. We had the advantage of being based out of the Cusco area where I was living for work at the time. I had brought all of my camping equipment with me when I moved to Peru, so we didn’t need to rent any gear.

For those who are traveling without tents and sleeping bags and stoves, there are guesthouses in certain towns in the valley. For more information about trekking Colca Canyon and staying in guesthouses, I recommended reading this blog post, or this one. You might also be able to rent tents and camping bags and such in Arequipa, but I’m not sure about that.

We carried all of our food into the canyon with us and were able to feed ourselves and cook our own meals until we got to Llahuar, which as you’ll read, by that point we were so starving and tired we were more than happy to pay 10 soles for a home-cooked meal.

For clothing, bring a couple layers. The canyon is in a desert and as such is primarily hot and dry but we did get a few drops rained down on us on the first day, and it got a little chilly at night. I appreciated having my fleece with me during the evenings.

Map of Colca Canyon Trek

Map of Colca Canyon. Yeah…

A note about maps: ideally you should always trek with a topographical, accurate map of the region where you’ll be hiking. To the best of my knowledge, one of those does not exist for this canyon. The best we could find was a cartoon map not drawn to scale. Hopefully, you have better luck.

Day 1: Cabanaconde to San Juan de Chuccho

Our bus from Arequipa dropped us off in the central plaza of Cabanaconde right around lunchtime. We grabbed a quick menu from a shop on the square then walked off to buy some cookies and head for the trailhead.

To get to the trailhead for San Juan de Chuccho, head back out of town up the paved road. After a little while, you’ll see a sort of church and a small soccer field with some bleachers on your left, the trailhead is behind that soccer field. Follow the footpath with hiking boot footprints in it.

colca canyon trail cabanaconde

It begins.

Pretty soon you should start to see some signs pointing you towards a Mirador, towards Tapay, and a kilometer indicator that reads 00. This is the beginning of the long, winding trail to the bottom of the canyon.

The trail begins by cutting along the side of the canyon, offering stunning views to the north and south, as well as a peek down to where you’ll end your day. After this easy beginning, the trail heads down and down and down. In places, it can be quite steep, with slippery loose rock underfoot.

All told, it took us about 3 hours to reach the bridge at the bottom of the canyon, but we may have been slowed down by our heavy packs and camping supplies.

When you reach the canyon floor, you’ll come to a bridge and find a representative who will check your boleto turistico. Cross the bridge and follow the path along the river until you reach San Juan de Chuccho.

bridge before san juan de chuccho colca canyon

Receiving words of wisdom from the keeper of the bridge.

For those hiking without camping gear, there are two guesthouses in San Juan de Chuccho, Roys house or Rivelina’s house. They are probably pretty similar. We camped in an open grassy area below Rivelina’s house and paid them 5 soles for the privilege. Since we brought our own food and camping stove, 5 soles was the total cost of our day.

Day 2: San Juan de Chuccho to Malata via Tapay

We woke early the next morning, ate a quick breakfast of oatmeal, and packed up our campsite. This would be our first full day of hiking in the canyon and we were pumped. As we headed out of San Juan de Chuccho, we struck up a conversation with a local who suggested we hike uphill to Tapay.

I’m sure they had a reason for suggesting this, but in retrospect, I cannot for the life of me remember what it could have been. Maybe the church? Or the views? Anyway, we decided to follow their advice, though it led to a day far more wild than what I had expected.

Colca Canyon without a guide

It was a hot day.

A small trail cuts off of the main road just outside of San Juan and heads uphill towards Tapay. I believe this may have been a local trail. There is a far more well defined and easier trail that heads to Tapay from the bridge from the day before, but we didn’t want to backtrack. Take the local trail, we thought. What could possibly go wrong?

We followed it up through some terraces and farmland, hiking as the sun rose above us and the day got hotter and hotter. We stopped at one point to dip our heads into some cool water flowing down from the mountains far above.

At some point in the terraces, our local trail failed us. It narrowed from a trail to a path, and a path to a “maybe that’s it over there…” and pretty soon we found ourselves climbing through terraces and working our way slowly uphill, trying to reassure each other that eventually, we’d come upon another road to Tapay.

Instead, we came upon a landslide.

Landslide below Tapay Colca Canyon

Yes, I hiked through that. No, it wasn’t a good idea.

Clearly quite recently, a large section of the earth that sat below Tapay had given up the game and come loose, descending into the canyon below in a rush of dust, stone, and heavy boulders. Most sensible people would see a landslide like this and decide to turn back, realizing that Tapay just wasn’t in the cards. We were not sensible people. We pushed on.

If you ever find yourself in this situation, do not do this. Landslides are incredibly dangerous, especially recent ones. You can never be certain that the rocks above you won’t come loose and come crashing down. Choosing to muddle our way up and across a fresh landslide was foolhardy and not worth the risk.

But that’s what we did. It took ages and was unbelievably hot, but we clambered through the freshly fallen silt, our feet sinking into the loose rock up to our knees until we finally worked our way up to the newly constructed road. From there it was a short and easy jaunt into Tapay.

Was Tapay worth a near-death experience? Absolutely not. It’s a small village with a cute church and nice views up and down the canyon. If you can take a regular and safe path to get there, go right ahead. If you decide to follow in my rambling and untrustworthy footsteps, then on your own head be it.

Finally in Tapay, we paused to take some photos and appreciate the view from the church plaza, ate a quick lunch, then descended down the far easier, and well-trafficked path that headed towards Cosñirhua. The little path took some tight switchbacks down then rejoined the road running along the side of the canyon. We followed this for the rest of the day, overlooking Cosñirua then finally stopping to camp for the night somewhere in the vicinity of Malata.

We camped in an unused terrace with the permission of the family living nearby. They were generous enough to let us sleep and cook in their fallow field for free. We bought some cookies and beer from their shop instead.

Colca Canyon without a Guide view from malata

Day 3: Malata to Llahuar via Fure

From Malata, we followed the main road up to a small rise, overlooking Sangalle, better known as the Oasis, down below us. Though the swimming pools and verdant green fields looked tempting, we were determined to experience the fringes of this deep canyon.

Turning our backs on the Oasis, we headed uphill towards Fure.

Fure is a small village tucked away rather far from the rest of the tourist trail. The draw of Fure is the waterfall that sits a further hour’s hike from the village itself. To get there from Malata, the trail was an undulating ribbon of rock cut through a dry and barren land.

We made it to Fure fairly late in the afternoon and although we began to hike down the trail towards the waterfall, we had to admit that we were pushing our luck. Our goal was to camp in Llahuar that evening, but it was certainly going to be at least 3 more hours of hiking until we got there.

Our plan was to hike to Llahuar today and spend tomorrow resting in the hot springs below the village. After the three incredibly intense days of hiking in the canyon, we both felt we deserved a bit of a break and a bit of a soak.

As we sat on some rocks next to the trail, we pondered our two options. Continue towards the waterfall and camp tonight somewhere near Fure, hiking to Llahuar tomorrow and forgoing our rest day, or forgo the waterfall now in favor of hot springs tomorrow?

Hiking from Fure to Llahuar in Colca Canyon

We chose the hot springs.

Abandoning the waterfall, we headed back through Fure. Though I hear that it has guesthouses and shops during the high traffic tourist season, in December of 2015 this village was a ghost town. The shops were closed, there was no sign of a guesthouse. If you arrived here without a guide and without campaign gear in mid to late December, you might find yourself without a place to sleep that night.

Slowly we made our way back down the hillside to Llahuar. It was a long and relentless hike, through farmland, down steep mountainsides, and along irrigation canals. My feet were sore and my legs were rubber by the time we saw Llahuar nestled among the cliffs down below us.

Llahuar Guesthouse

Llahuar Guesthouse

Llahuar itself is a great little village, with a hostel perched above the river and hot springs down below. We met the owner of the hostel, paid a small sum to camp on the grass near the hot springs, then headed up to her restaurant to have our first home cooked meal in two days. The fare was simple, but at the time I felt I had never eaten anything so extravagantly delicious.

meal in llahuar peruvian food papas y arroz con huevo

The best meal of my life.

I slept like a baby that night, eager in anticipation for my day of soaking in hot springs.

Day 4: Resting in Llahuar

Because of the madness of our previous three days of hiking, we made the executive decision to spend an entire day relaxing in the hot springs below Llahuar. It was the best decision we could possibly have made. We pretty much had the place to ourselves. We bought some beers from the hostel and hung out in the steaming hot waters all day, soaking our sore muscles and preparing ourselves for our massive ascent up the canyon wall on the following day. When the water got too hot, we jumped into the icy rushing river below, then slipped back into the warm, sulfurous waters of the hot springs.

Llahuar Guesthouse colca canyon

Llahuar Guesthouse Views

It was heaven.

If you’re hiking Colca Canyon without a guide and have the extra time, I highly recommend taking a rest day in Llahuar. It is totally worth the 5 or 10 soles you’ll pay to camp and eat there.

Day 5: Llahuar to Cabanaconde

Resisting the urge to hitch a ride on the back of the pickup truck that was making the ride from Llahuar to Cabanaconde that morning, we packed up our bags, said goodbye to our elysian hot springs, and began the long and arduous climb up to Cabanaconde.

Up and up and up, that’s all you can expect from this day of hiking. The day gets hotter as the sun rises and you ascend the sheer, rocky, barren walls of the second deepest canyon in the world.

But have no fear, eventually, you’ll get to the top. And then you have to walk a further hour to get back to Cabanaconde.

I exaggerate, but it certainly felt that way after our five-hour climb out of the canyon.

Once back to Cabanaconde, we had a pretty difficult time finding a bus to take us back to Chivay, but I think that’s because it was in that weird time between Christmas and New Years when no one wants to work or do anything. After an hour or two of begging every truck that drove past, we hitch a ride sitting in the back of an open pickup truck.

From Chivay, it was pretty simple to hop onto the next bus for Arequipa. You can’t miss it. There will be at least five men shouting “Arequipa Arequipa Arequiiiiippaaaaaa” in your face the moment you walk in the door of the bus station.

The Takeaway: Colca Canyon is a Hikers Paradise

As with many of the hiking destinations in Peru, Colca Canyon is a treat and a half. Sheer rock walls, verdant green farmland, challenging trails and hospitable locals all make for a wonderful multi-day trek. Combine that with the fact that it’s totally doable without a guide and without real camping gear and you’ve got yourself a winner. Hiking Colca Canyon without a guide is fun, rewarding, and easy. Just do it.


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How to Hike Colca Canyon without a Guide - What to do in Peru

How to Hike Colca Canyon without a Guide - What to do in Peru