Copa Coya: The Greatest Hike Ever?

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to travel to the Atacama Desert in Chile.  Many hikes were had.  Many were awesome.  This one was probably the most awesome.



Copa Coya is an almost volcano.  It tried, but never quite made it.  Evidence of its attempt include geothermal springs and geysers nearby.  If you’re touring the Atacama a lot of groups visit Copa Coya just for the geysers and springs.  If you’re into hiking, skip the geysers and go for the hike.  You can always take a dip in the hot springs after the hike.


You’ll want to acclimate to the altitude before attempting Copa Coya.  Our max altitude was 14,500f/4,420m.

Lets refer to the Oracle at Wikipedia for a description of how the human body handles this altitude:

  • High altitude: 1,500 to 3,500 metres (4,900 to 11,500 ft) – The onset of physiological effects of diminished inspiratory oxygen pressure (PiO2) includes decreased exercise performance and increased ventilation (lower arterial PCO2). Minor impairment exists in arterial oxygen transport (arterial oxygen saturation (SaO2) at least 90%), but arterial PO2 is significantly diminished. Because of the large number of people who ascend rapidly to altitudes between 2,400 and 4,000 m, high-altitude illness is common in this range.[8]
  • Very high altitude: 3,500 to 5,500 metres (11,500 to 18,000 ft) – Maximum SaO2 falls below 90% as the arterial PO2 falls below 60mmHg. Extreme hypoxemia may occur during exercise, during sleep, and in the presence of high altitude pulmonary edema or other acute lung conditions. Severe altitude illness occurs most commonly in this range.[8]
  • Extreme altitude: above 5,500 metres (18,000 ft) – Marked hypoxemia, hypocapnia, and alkalosis are characteristic of extreme altitudes. Progressive deterioration of physiologic function eventually outstrips acclimatization. As a result, no permanent human habitation occurs above 6,000 m. A period of acclimatization is necessary when ascending to extreme altitude; abrupt ascent without supplemental oxygen for other than brief exposures invites severe altitude sickness.[8]

Thank you Wikipedia.  That was eloquently put.

The hike took us around Copa Coya.  From what I hear some hikes summit it.  Would it be worth it?  I’m not sure that it isn’t.  That said, Copa Coya offers more than long distance views and is the hiking equivalent of diving a vibrant reef.

It even has plants that look like coral!


This plant is called Llareta, and despite its moss like appearance it has leaves.  They just are all stuck together in a dense mass.  The plant is hard to the touch and historically was harvested for use as a fuel source.  Apparently it burns readily.  But it grows really slowly.  This specimen is probably 3,000 years old.

Other things you’ll see include:

This picture contains more than an impressive llareta. Look just above and to the right of it.


If you look carefully in these pictures you’ll see something that resembles a cross between a rabit and a chinchilla.  This critter is a viscacha!  And they are everywhere in Copa Coya.  They can bound up vertical rock faces in less time than is believable.

The hike was about 4.5 miles/7.25km and took us 2 hours 20 minutes.  We didn’t power through the hike, but there were stretches that were basically rock climbing.

At the end of the hike you can choose between the longer, less steep ascent along an old llareta harvesting road (the Chilean equivalent of logging roads I suppose) or you can just set your sights on the saddle of the hill and climb.


We opted for the steeper climb as we were using Copa Coya as a preparatory hike for climbing Lascar.

Our guide offered us two pieces of advice:

1) Find your pace.  If you are stopping for to breathe you’re walking too fast.

2) Switchbacks will let you conquer any climb.

So through the combination of walking slowly and switching back (10 times over 1/4 mile with 400′ elevation change [0.4km/123m]) we finished our hike.

The numbers themselves might not sound impressive, but bear in mind there is only 61% as much oxygen at 14,000 feet.

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After the hike we feasted (hiking at altitude makes you hungry!) and took a dip in the hot-spring fed pool.  I can’t think of a better way to end a hike.

On the drive back we came across a herd of vicuna in a lagoon.

No vicuna in this picture. But those little ostrich like specs? They’re Darwin’s Rhea, called suri by the locals.
This big guy looked to be the alpha male. He had just gotten done chasing 2 smaller males off.

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