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Chapels of Curahuara and Sajama

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July 2019
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I’m going to pick up this blog again. It’s been too long. That said, the focus is likely to change some. I’ll continue to provide some travel information and some discussion of diplomacy, but I’ll expand it to cover my interest in motorcycles, as well.

Most likely, I’ll start with a set of posts on traveling in Southern Utah.

Hiking Monocacy Natural Resource Management Area

Winter Branches

Winter Branches

Living in the Washington area has a lot of advantages.  One advantage it doesn’t have is easy access to the wilderness I seek out for solitude and relaxation.  The closest really satisfying wilderness for me is Dolly Sods, in West Virginia, but that’s a 3-4 hour drive, so I don’t go often.

But there are some great hiking trails close to DC.  The Billy Goat Trail, along the Potomac, is excellent, for one example – challenging hiking, interesting nature, and spectacular views.  But on weekends it is simply mobbed, and even on a weekday you are unlikely to find solitude. So, I am always on the lookout for alternatives.

Which brings me to Monocacy Natural Resource Management Area.  It’s a nice little patch of woods just across the line from Montgomery into Frederick County.  It’s a beautiful area along the Monocacy river, not very developed, with some fun, not very challenging, trails.  But the best thing about it is that it is quite lightly used.  Many of the old trails are somewhat overgrown, and that gives it a bit of a wilderness feel, even though it is small and only a 20 minute ride from home.

Local Hikes and AllTrails (National Geographic) both have (mostly) the same information on this area (wonder who stole it from whom), and AllTrails may have more info in it’s “Pro” section, but I object to paying $30 to access the information I and other hikers provide to National Geographic for free.  So, I’ll provide what I can here and if you have any corrections or additions, put them in the comments. (And we’ll see, maybe Local Hikes and/or AllTrails will steal it and charge for it anyway, right?)

Winter Berries

Winter Berries

Both Local Hikes and AllTrails suggest that the area, “can be an adventure in finding your way around,” but that adventure does seem a bit constrained by the size of the wooded area.  There really is not enough space in Monocacy NRMA to get lost.  If you can keep yourself walking in a straight line for an hour you will inevitably walk to the river or right out of the woods (and from the river you can exit either up or downstream). So getting really lost is not a serious danger for an adult.

Despite the small size (I really think a wilderness area needs to be large enough to get lost in to really be “wilderness.”), I like the Monocacy NRMA.  It’s close, it’s easy, it’s uncrowded and it’s even got some interesting historical aspects. I’ve been going hiking there pretty frequently, and it does help me keep my head while I’m trapped in the urban “wilderness” we call DC.


The Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties lists more than 20 sites of historical interest in and near the Monocacy NRMA, ranging from prehistoric lithic scatters dating back as far as 6000 BC to early 20th century constructions.  Eleven prehistoric archaeological sites in and near the Monocacy NRMA contain(ed) artifacts dating back to periods including the Middle Archaic, Late Archaic, Early Woodland and the Late Woodland (6000 BC to 1100 AD).  The historians posit that indigenous people began to inhabit the Monocacy River Valley during the Late Pleistocene/Holocene transition as glaciers gave way to warmer weather and both flora and fauna adapted to these changing conditions.

While none of the points (arrowheads, spear tips, etc.) typical of the Pleistocene have been found in the sites of the NRMA, a few have been found in other locations in the Monocacy River Valley.  The idea is that a pattern of human habitation which had been focused on locations for quarrying crypto-crystalline stone (for use in points) and for hunting using those points gave way to general foraging as flora began to provide more food and fauna, less.  People likely moved with the seasons and some writers have suggested that the Monocacy River Valley may have been the site of only seasonal or temporary camps for people based along the Potomac.

When explorers and traders reached the Monocacy River, they found no stable indigenous populations.  Apparently, Piscataway/Conoy, Shawnee, Delaware and Catawba Indians all were present in the surrounding area, and Tuscarora Indians established a town either in or just south of the NRMA in about 1712.  The tribe was migrating north to escape the ongoing Tuscarora War in South Carolina, which ended in their defeat.  They ultimately moved on to the north, leaving behind only place names.

For example, two miles up Rt. 28 from the NRMA parking lot the road changes direction and name, becoming Tuscarora Rd.  In a little less than a half-mile, Tuscarora Rd. passes by the Tuscarora Gun Club and then through the small unincorporated village of Tuscarora, before crossing Tuscarora Creek another 1.5 miles further along.  (And, for those with a sweet tooth or hot and tired after a hike in the NRMA, it’s just another 1.5 miles, for a total of 5.5 miles from the NRMA, to Rocky Point Creamery, with excellent ice cream made on site.  Check their unique operating hours on their website before you go to avoid disappointment.)

French explorers Louis Michel and Martin Chartier discovered the mouth of the Monocacy River in 1700.  In 1711, Christof de Graffenried, a Swiss explorer, reported finding Sugarloaf Mountain close nearby.  German and English settlers began arriving in search of fertile land by 1720, and prominent speculators were active obtaining tracts of land in the area by 1732.

The Jehovah-Jireh Farm website suggests that the area may have been more heavily populated hundreds of years ago.  I’m not sure of that, especially with the suburbs now encroaching on the area nearby, but it is clear from the ruins in and around Monocacy that there was some important economic activity taking place.  Walking through Monocacy you will likely cross the slag heap of an 18th Century iron furnace, and come across a lime kiln and some stone walls.  Reportedly, one of the first ever railroads (a track-based system, but with the cars pulled by mules) operated from the iron works to the C&O Canal, just a couple of miles away.

The Hike(s)

MNRMA Map - Click to expand

(click on map to see it complete)

Hiking around the Monocacy NRMA is not physically challenging.  Where there are altitude changes, they are mostly pretty moderate.  The more serious issues are water and mud, after rains, finding your way around, ticks, and the briar patches.  As most of the trails become either long puddles or small brooks after a rainstorm, you will likely want waterproof foot gear.  Most of the trails cross Furnace Branch and its small tributaries multiple times, and in dry weather they can all be jumped or crossed on stepping stones.  In wet weather, however, you are going to be wading most of them — and the crossings are so close together that changing shoes each time is going to be frustrating.  You would be better off with boots that allow you to wade 6-inches or more of water, or to just accept that your feet will get wet.

The trails are mostly unmarked, which is, in my book, a plus.  And since they are lightly used, some of them are pretty overgrown (two more pluses).  Even some of the well established trails are blocked by numerous fallen trees, and where fallen trees have not been removed for some time, the underbrush builds up among them.  This is not a serious problem, since, as I noted, there is little real danger of becoming truly lost, but if you have a particular destination for your hike and your sense of direction is not strong (or if you want to come out the same way you came in and find your car, for example), you might want to use a GPS and my gdb file.

Much of the underbrush is made up of rose bushes and other thorny plants.  Since you are inevitably going to do at least occasional bushwhacking just to get around fallen trees, you are likely to get pretty scratched up if you go hiking in Monocacy in shorts and/or short sleeves.  Similarly, like any other place off the road in Maryland (likely including your backyard) you should keep ticks in mind, especially since they can carry Lyme disease.  Get someone to give your body a good once over when you get home.  Lyme disease does not spread quickly or easily.  Usually a tick will not pass the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium that causes Lyme disease until it has been on your body for more than 36 hours.  As a result, checking your body, or getting someone else to do it, is a very effective way to avoid Lyme disease.  Another best practice is to treat your hiking clothes with permethrin.  Permethrin will kill the ticks before they can bite you, and it is safe for you (check the warnings regarding cats, though, if you have cats).  You can buy permethrin, at exorbitant prices, at any area hiking or sports store.  You can buy it in concentrated form from at a small fraction of the cost.  (Compare retail brands, like Sawyer, which sells 12 oz of 0.5% permethrin concentrate for $10, to Martin’s brand, which sells a quart of 36.8% permethrin concentrate for $22.  Somebody please check my math, but I think that 12 oz of 0.5% permethrin, produced by diluting the Martin brand concentrate costs 11.2 cents!)

It’s worth noting that the Monocacy NRMA is open for hunting, except on Sundays.  While I rarely run into hikers in the NRMA, I do occasionally come across hunters.  The Monocacy River is known as a good bass fishing ground (mostly from canoes/kayaks).

I provide a map and gdb file to cover the area, with the understanding that my explorations of Monocacy have been limited, so the information is not really complete.  Still, it’s probably worth what you are paying for it.


There are a number of interesting places to check out within the Monocacy NRMA.  Here are the ones I’ve been to:

The Quarry

Triangular Blasting Hole

Triangular Blasting Hole

I found the quarry particularly interesting.  It is easy to see the scores in the still standing stone where the holes were chiseled down into the rock.  The scores are triangular in shape, having been cut with a flat chisel which was rotated in between blows of the hammer.  Their

Triangular hole viewed from the bottom, where it had been blown away

Triangular hole viewed from the side, where it had been blown away

triangular shape allowed for more control in the direction of the break of the stone.  The holes were filled with black powder which was ignited to blast the stone from the cliff.  The process is described on the website Stone Structures of Northeastern United States.  I found one stone at the base of the cliff with one of the triangular holes still partially intact.  Perhaps not enough black powder was put in the hole or (more likely) the force of the explosion escaped through a weaker part of the stone leaving part of it unaffected.  In any case, it left the triangular hole completely visible, as you can see in the photos.

The quartzite from this quarry has refractory properties (it withstands high temperatures), which made it useful for lining furnaces, forges and kilns, which you will see below was a major advantage.  This quary was also reportedly the source of some of the stone used to construct the Monocacy Aqueduct and carried on the railway to that location.

The Johnson Iron Furnace

Well, this is not much of a destination, but the story is interesting.  The Johnson brothers, Thomas, Baker, James, and Roger, had built the Catoctin Iron Furnace (still standing), as well as a small forge and a rolling and slitting mill in the area.  They expanded their iron operation in about 1785 with the construction of another iron furnace, usually called the Johnson Furnace, on what became Furnace Branch in the present-day NRMA.  The bellows of this cold blast furnace were powered by a waterwheel on the Furnace Branch, the iron came from local sources and the nearby Point of Rocks deposit, and the forests for miles around, including most of the standing trees on Sugarloaf Mountain, were felled and burned to produce the charcoal for the furnace.

There is nothing left of the furnace building itself, but you will walk right over the slag heap.  The trail crosses the heap right after crossing the bridge and until reaching the next junction. Look down at the trail right after you cross the bridge and you will see lots of glassy stones strewn on the trail.  These are obvious products of the heat from the iron furnace.

The Johnson brothers were pretty prominent in the area.  Thomas Johnson was a friend of George Washington, a member of the Continental Congress, the first Governor of Maryland, and an early justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.  In fact, he wrote the court’s first written opinion, in the case of Georgia v. Brailsford, in 1792.  Roger Johnson ran the furnace, and took sole possession when the brothers divided up their property in 1793.  It continued to operate until about 1820, when it closed due to competition form larger furnaces and, perhaps, the increasing scarcity of the wood necessary for charcoal production.

The Early Railroad

Although I have yet to find them, there are reported to be some signs of an early “railroad” still visible in the Monocacy NRMA.  The railroad was built to carry stone from the Johnson Quarry to the aqueduct when it was under construction. According to T.H.S. Boyd, The History of Montgomery County, Maryland, From Its Earliest Settlement in 1650 to 1879, this railroad used wooden rails – logs with a quarter of their circumference cut away – to keep the iron car wheels on a solid wooden surface all the way along the track.  The railroad was abandoned once the aqueduct was completed, and the rails were likely carried off and used as firewood.  According to the Maryland Historical Trust’s inventory of the MNRMA, remains of the railroad had been reported near the quarry and kiln, but none were found during the inventory (that said, the drafters of the inventory did not find the quarry, either, whereas I found it without great difficulty). I haven’t found them, but haven’t yet looked closely. If you find them, please leave a note in the comments.

The Lime Kiln

The Lime Kiln

The Lime Kiln

The Lime Kiln, in contrast, is not hard to find and is marked on my map. It’s a small building built into the hill behind it.  The date of the building is uncertain — there is no known documentary information about the kiln, but it seems obvious that the lime was produced for use in construction, and possibly in agriculture.  The kiln was used to heat limestone to produce lime for use in mortar and concrete and possibly to condition soil.

The Jehovah-Jireh Farm

Electric Fence Blocking Access to the Farm

Electric Fence Blocking Access to the Farm

There is some good information on the history of the area and some interesting photos posted on the website of a farm which is on (or adjacent to?) the NRMA, the Jehovah-Jireh Farm.  The website of the farm is interesting, as well, for the story of how the family came to be the curators of the property, which they say is a lifetime sinecure provided by the State of Maryland.  Very interesting system.  You will definitely come upon their farm if you do much hiking in the NRMA.  On the above map one of the trails is marked with green “fence” icons and labeled as “electric fence.” It runs along the side of the electric fence, posted with warning signs, that keeps you from crossing over into the Jehovah-Jireh Farm.


There are a few sites nearby that are worth checking out if you are at the Monocacy NRMA.  All of these locations are marked in the gdb file.

Rocky Point Creamery

As noted above, the Creamery is a fun place to stop for a cone after a hike in the NRMA.  It is only about five minutes from the Monocacy NRMA parking lot.

Point of Rocks

Just beyond the Creamery, lies the small unincorporated community of Point of Rocks.  It’s worth checking out for its attractive train station, built for the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad in 1876.  The station now serves as the Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) train stop, but the building is used for storage and offices and is not open to the public.  Still, it’s worth seeing.  The actual “point of rocks” for which the town is named, is the rock formation which protrudes into the water gap which the Potomac has carved through the Catoctin Mountain.  It is just north of the bridge over the Potomac, and is best viewed from the other side of the river.

The Monocacy Aqueduct

The aqueduct is the largest of the eleven aqueducts built for the C&O Canal.  It has been called “one of the finest canal features in the United States.”  It has been fully restored to its original state.  It is built, in part, from stone quarried from the Monocacy NRMA (see above) and carried to the site on the railroad.  It is definitely worth a stop, as it really is a beautiful piece of early American history.  It is only a five minute drive from the NRMA parking lot (but in the opposite direction from the Creamery and Point of Rocks).

Cotasaya Capilla

Cotasaya Capilla, with Nevado Sajama in the Background

Some 2.8 miles beyond the turn for Kellua Kota is another dirt road off to the left. Cotasaya Capilla is two miles off the main road. Not much information is available about the chapel in Cotasaya, but its architecture makes clear that it dates from the same period as the other colonial chapels in the region. In any case, its location and its backdrop of the Sajama Stratovolcano make it a photogenic chapel.

The Chapel at Cotasaya was preserved with funding from the U.S. Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation in 2012 and 2013. When the work was completed, we scheduled with the local communities ceremonies celebrating reopening of the churches. I couldn’t go, unfortunately, as I had to travel to Santa Cruz on urgent business, so Tatyana went, together with Acting Deputy Chief of Mission Mitch Ferguson.

This post is part of a series of posts I am calling the Guide to Chapels of Curahuara and Sajama.

Tatyana and Mitch with Local Leaders

The Bolivian Army’s Mountain Battalion is Based in Curahuara de Carangas and Attended the Ceremony

The Commander of the Mountain Battalion; the Bishop of Oruro; the Local Leader and Padre Gabriel Antequera, the Local Priest All Presided Over the Ceremony

My Beautiful Tatyana

And the Band Played On

German Ambassador Philipp Schauer, the Author of Tour Guide of Iglesias La Paz Y Oruro, Dancing with the Locals

Cute Women . . .

. . . and Children

The Altar, Prepared for Ceremony

Details Above the Altar

Bell Tower Detail, with Alexandra

The Locals Decorated the Entryway with a Mounted Andean Mountain Cat

I was very excited to see this mounted, or stuffed, Andean mountain cat in the photos taken at this event. I was privileged to see an Andean mountain cat run across the road once as I drove around the Sajama, but the glimpse I got was fleeting and I wasn’t certain what I had seen until I saw these photos. The Andean mountain cat is an endangered species. Never successfully held in captivity; Andean mountain cats die soon after being taken. Only some 2,500 are believed to survive today, mostly in the high altitudes of the Andes and only in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru.  The Andean cat primarily hunts the mountain vizcacha, a cousin of the chinchilla. Researchers suspect that the cat previously also hunted the chinchilla, but humans have hunted the chinchilla to extinction in most of its natural range, and close to extinction where it still exists.

Andean Mountain Cat, Closer Up

Local peoples hold the Andean mountain cat as sacred, but that doesn’t seem to be a protection for the cats. In fact, since their skins are used in local ceremonies, particularly the marking ceremonies for their llama and alpaca herds, hunting them has likely contributed to the decline in their populations which is suspected.

Mountain Vizcacha

Ojsani Chapel

The Ojsani Chapel, After Preservation Work Was Completed

The Ojsani Chapel, After Preservation Work Was Completed

About four miles from the Cruze Okoruro (the unmarked intersection of the old road with the new), or some 12 miles from Tomarapi, you arrive at the lovely little chapel of Ojsani.  According to Philipp Schauer, Ojsani Chapel was built in 1854 by Mariano Pacaje, an indigenous man.  The chapel was originally dedicated to Maria Santissima de la Advocacion de las Nieves (St. Mary of the Snows), but today is dedicated to the Lord of Ojsani. The chapel here sits right off the road and it is a beautiful example of colonial architecture.

Preserved as part of the U.S. Embassy project in 2013, the difference between before and after photos is particularly stark.  Take a look at the before:

Ojsani Chapel Prior to Preservation

Ojsani Chapel Prior to Preservation

Unfortunately, due to the press of work, I could not attend the ceremonies for the opening of the preserved chapels.  However, I sent Deputy Chief of Mission Mitch Ferguson in my place and Tatyana accompanied him.  They were met with the usual hospitality of the local people, who greeted them with confetti, food, drink and dancing at each of the six chapels.  The people of the area were particularly effusive at Ojsani.

Banner Over the Entry Way into the Church Grounds

Banner Over the Entry Way into the Church Grounds

Ch'alla, thrown on Mitch and Tatyana by a Local Leader

Ch’alla, thrown on Mitch and Tatyana by a Local Leader

The Chapel, Closer Up. Members of the Mountain Batallion from Curahuara de Carangas Provided a Ceremonial Guard

The Chapel, Closer Up. Members of the Mountain Battalion from Curahuara de Carangas Provided a Ceremonial Guard

The Bishop of Oruro

From Left to Right: Father Gabriel Antequera, Tatyana, The Bishop of Oruro, DCM Mitch Ferguson and German Ambassador Philipp Schauer

Local People Heading into the Church

Local People Heading into the Church

Tatyana Distributing School Supplies to the Children of the Area

Tatyana Distributing School Supplies to the Children of the Area

More School Supplies

More School Supplies

The Restored interior of the Chapel

The Restored interior of the Chapel

View of the Sajama from the Courtyard

View of the Sajama from the Courtyard


The Churches of Curahuara de Carangas and Sajama: In and Near Sajama National Park

Capilla de Ojsani

Capilla de Ojsani

This is the second of two posts that serve as the “backbone” of my Guide to the Churches of Curahuara de Carangas and Sajama.  This post provides directions to the churches and other sites in and near the Sajama National Park, as well as links to descriptions of each of the sites.  The guide is written from the perspective of someone traveling from Curahuara de Carangas, but should be easy to “turn around,” by reading this page from the bottom up and visiting the sites in reverse order.  The first of these two posts is The Churches of Curahuara de Carangas and Sajama: La Paz to Curahuara de Carangas.

This post starts where the first post ended, at the turnoff to Curahuara de Carangas from the La Paz-Arica Road.  Some 7.5 miles beyond the turnoff to Curahuara de Carangas is another small road to the left which takes you to Qilqata Chapel, visible from the road.

Nevado (or Tata) Sajama, in the distance

Nevado (or Tata) Sajama, in the distance

You’ve been seeing Tata (father) Sajama, the highest peak in Bolivia, for much of the trip, but as you continue on from Kellkata, Father Sajama, worshipped as a god by the locals even today, looms up increasingly large in your windshield.

Sajama stands in solitude on the altiplano, apart from its brothers of the western Andean chain some ten miles further west, and our route will take us all the way around the mountain, giving you many different views of all the faces of this impressive 21,463 foot stratovolcano.

Another 11.3 miles further you will come to an intersection, Cruce Okoruro (labeled as such on the map and in the .gdb file). A road turns off to the right from the main road.  This is the old road to Arica.  I traveled it back in 1988 before the new paved road was built.  In fact, I got stuck in the mud somewhere near this turnoff.  In rainy weather, this road may still be impassible.  However, in good weather this is definitely the better route to Tomarapi, as you pass by several chapels on the way and through some very interesting country. Be careful with this turnoff, though. There are several roads turning off, only one of which will take you to Tomarapi, and none of them are marked.  The right road turns immediately into a set of huge hoodoo rocks. You’ll see them from a distance, as they stand on top of a ridge, so that is your cue to turn, if you are not using a GPS (which I strongly recommend).

Hoodoos with Tata Sajama in the background

Hoodoos with Tata Sajama in the background

Shortly after your turn you may want to get out and take a walk among the hoodoos.  Hoodoos are one of the small connections that seemingly link Bolivia with my home state of Utah.  The word is sometimes used to refer to people who practice a type of African-American spiritualism akin to Voodoo.  When early settlers to the western U.S. found the strange rock formations which sometimes look like statues of people with a large hats they variously called them “goblins” and “hoodoos,” and both names are still used today.  In fact, a favorite place of mine in Utah is Goblin Valley State Park, with its extensive concentration of hoodoos.

The hoodoos are common for the first couple of miles down the road to Tomarapi.  At about four miles, you will come upon the Ojsani Chapel, on the left side of the road.  Another 4.2 miles down the road, you will come upon a track off to the left, which goes to the ruins of the Kellua Kota Chapel, just two miles off the main road.

From the turnoff to Kellua Kota Chapel, it is another 2.7 miles to the turnoff on the left to Estancia Khotasaya and the Khotasaya Chapel.  From that turnoff, it is yet another 5.4 miles to Tomarapi.

Tomarapi Chapel in the evening

Tomarapi Chapel in the evening

Albergue Tomarapi is probably your best bet for a place to stay in Sajama National Park.  It is a community-run albergue, or shelter, a cute place to stay with small, clean, functional (but very cold) rooms, showers, and  a small cafe/restaurant.  If you are planning to stay there, you might do well to make a reservation.  Not that it is often full, just that if you are unlucky and they don’t have room, there is pretty much nowhere else to stay.

Vicuñas in the foothills of the Sajama

Vicuñas in the foothills of the Sajama

By the time you are in Tomarapi, you have already entered the Sajama National Park.  The park is intended to protect Tata Sajama and the area around it, an area of particular, if austere, beauty.  From Tomarapi, our route now takes us on a loop around the lonely mountain Sajama, isolated as it is on the altiplano from the Andes range some ten miles to the west.  After leaving Tomarapi, you will pass by Laguna Huana Khota on your right.  This reservoir is habitat for numerous waterfoul and herds of llamas, alpacas and vicuñas are often seen nearby. You should have seen plenty of vicuñas by now, and will continue to see them throughout the park and beyond.

The Hot Springs

The Hot Springs

Some five miles from Tomarapi a track splits off to the right.  If the weather is dry, this road makes a nice loop up away from the mountain for some nice vistas across the bofedales (high altitude wetlands that serve as pasture for the llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas). It comes back down to the main road some 4.2 miles on, but the loop itself is longer, running almost twice that distance.  This loop road runs past the hot springs, Termas Manasaya, where you should definitely stop for a dip in the hot water.  The springs are only about a mile-long cross-country walk from the main road, and can also be reached from the other end of the loop road by turning in for about 1.5 miles at about 9.3 miles from Tomarapi.

The national park area is sparsely enough inhabited to allow for a lot of native wildlife.  Besides the numerous birds and camelids, I have even seen an Andean Cat run across the road.  I considered that to be a true privilege, as not many Bolivians have seen an Andean Cat.  One one of our trips out to the park we also had the luck to come upon a vicuña roundup in progress.  As vicuñas cannot be domesticated and their wool is very valuable for its softness and warmth, the locals round them up every so often and sheer them, freeing them again afterwards.

A Queñua Tree, growing on the side of the Sajama

A Queñua Tree, growing on the side of the Sajama

While you are in the Sajama area, you are going to want to hike up the mountain, at least a bit.  The lower slopes of the mountain are forested exclusively with the queñua tree, in what is reputed to be the highest forest in the world, growing at over 14,000 feet of altitude.  The tree line on the Sajama, considered the highest tree line in the world, is at 17,100 feet of altitude.  In contrast, in no other place on earth do trees grow naturally at an altitude of 14,000 feet, the base altitude of the queñua forest.  (For comparison sake, the other highest tree lines in the world are: 13,800 ft., Khumbu, Himalaya, 13,500 ft., Eastern Cordillera of the Andes, Bolivia, 13,100 ft. Pico de Orizaba, Mexico, and 13,000 ft., Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.  In the U.S. the tree line never exceeds 12,000 ft.)  I hiked up the mountain for a few hours following one of the trails used by climbers of the mountain, but there are many other alternatives.  This trail can be reached by turning left off the main Tomarapi-Sajama road some nine miles from Tomarapi and only about 1500 feet from the right turnoff onto the loop road and to the hot springs.

From the second junction of the loop road with the main Tomarapi-Sajama road, it is only 2.2 miles to the village of Sajama and the Sajama Chapel.  Passing back through Sajama village there is another road running towards the northwest.  This is the road to the geyser field, some 4.5 miles away, another must-see site in Sajama National Park.

Tata Sajama Reflected in Laguna Isla, near Lagunas

Tata Sajama Reflected in Laguna Isla, near Lagunas

Continuing along the main road past Sajama, in about seven miles you will come again to the La Paz-Arica road.  Take a right turn here for the short jaunt (1.5 miles) to Lagunas, where the last of the chapels on our list stands.  From Lagunas, you can also continue on to Chile, visiting Lago Chungara and the Lagunas de Cotacotani in Sajama’s Chilean sister park, the Lauca National Park.

Lagunas de Cotacotani, with the Twin Volcanos Pomerape and Parinacota in the Background, Parque Lauca, Chile

Lagunas de Cotacotani, with the Twin Volcanos Pomerape and Parinacota in the Background, Parque Lauca, Chile

While you are in the area, you would also be well advised to check out the Chulpas Polichromas, some 43 miles south of the La Paz-Arica road.  To get there, take the last left before Tambo Quemado and the Chilean border.

The return trip to La Paz can be taken quickly on the La Paz-Arica road.



The scene of the wilancha: Qilqata Chapel.

A wilancha is an Aymara blessing ceremony.  In this case, the blessing was for the preservation work on half dozen colonial era chapels the U.S. Government was funding.  The wilancha is carried out by sacrificing an animal.  The ceremony is accompanied by a celebration including a feast, music and dancing.  Tatyana and I attended this wilancha at Qilqata Chapel on October 3, 2012.


Each of the guests at the wilancha approaches the sacrificial animal to ask its forgiveness and blessing.


The yatiri, or Aymara shaman, faces the llama across the offering table.


Notice the members of the local military establishment. There is a mountain battalion located in Curahuara de Carangas, and their officers came to the wilancha.


Everyone had their turn at the offering table.


The most important offerings are always alcoholic beverages and coca leaves.


Father Gabriel Antequera, the local parish priest, and I contribute to the offering. Father Gabriel was the local leader and was central to making the preservation project work.


After the ceremony was over, it was time for the festivities.  As is usual on the altiplano, the festivities consisted of eating, drinking, music and dancing.


The band. Every town has its own.


The kids, of course, are always the best (and cutest) dancers.


This girl was a real pro, and she knew it.


And Bolivians are always very patriotic.


They were having so much fun.


Finally the adults get their turn.


I’m no great dancer, but I always have fun dancing.


I love her aguayo (shawl).


Tatyana ended our visit by giving the kids some school materials. As you can see, they were very happy.



Kind of Fun

Diplomatic DiscourseGot an email today from Justin Shuster at Yale University’s The Politic: The Yale College Journal of Politics.  They have just published Diplomatic Discourse, a collection of over 100 interviews with United States Ambassadors, examining careers in the Foreign Service and contemporary issues facing American policy overseas.  I was interviewed for the book back in 2013.  You can buy your copy at  Or if you just want to read the interviews, you can find them on the The Politic website at  Or, you can jump straight to my interview.

Assateague Island

Tatyana and Aliciya Enjoying the Beach

Tatyana and Aliciya Enjoying the Beach

This is a favorite place in the DC area for my family and I. And it’s surprising how many people have been to Ocean City, Maryland, and never taken the short side trip to the Island.

The beaches on Assateague Island are the best preserved wild beaches I’ve seen in this region. What’s more, with a 4WD vehicle or a kayak you can get well away from the crowds.

Aliciya had a great time playing in the waves.

Assateague Island is most famous for its ponies, of course, and for good reason. They are very visible, and very photogenic. They are often seen shrouded in a romantic morning or evening mist or on the beach and they add a rare and interesting element to the Island.  (Quite incredibly, I never got around to taking a photo of the ponies, though.)

That said, they are reportedly a safety hazard, as well. If you spend any significant amount of time on the island, you will be treated to the ubiquitous posters with photos of people who have been bitten (or worse), by getting too close.

Horses are not the only biting beasts on the island, though they are the largest and the easiest to defend yourself against. You definitely want to be well prepared for mosquitoes, and biting flies can reportedly be a problem, as well (we haven’t experienced that one).

Our Campsite:  The sites are quite open and offer little in the way of privacy.

Our Campsite: The sites are quite open and offer little in the way of privacy.

The best way to experience Assateague Island is, no doubt, camping.  We spent several days camping on the island last year, and had a great time.  It’s important to be prepared, though, and you have to be willing to do battle with the insects.

To camp on the island, you need to reserve a campsite, ideally many months in advance.  You can do that online at  We were late reserving, and there were no beach-side spots left.  This year we intend to go again, and we have a beach-side spot reserved.  Being by the beach should (I hope) mean fewer mosquitos.  The campgrounds do have reasonable toilets and cold showers.  In summer, of course, hot water is entirely unnecessary, but it is nice to be able to get the salt off of you.  One strategy for cleaning up is to take a day away from the beach and visit the Frontier Town Water Park not far from Assateague in Berlin, Maryland.  It’s not a great water park, but the kids will have fun on the slides and you will get a nice, hot shower, maybe even cleaning up enough to make a visit to a restaurant in Ocean City.

Relaxing on the Lazy River at Frontier Town Water Park

Relaxing on the Lazy River at Frontier Town Water Park

Wherever you camp on Assateague Island, you are going to want to use an effective strategy against the insects. I treated our clothes and tents with permethrin and we used deet on exposed skin. It worked quite well. I didn’t treat the rainflies on the tents, though, and I think treating them would make a big difference by killing the bugs that congregate outside of the tents waiting to get first bite of you when you get out. We used citronella candles and mosquito coils around camp, and they worked reasonably well. There are lots of alternatives sold in the tourist traps near the park, but you get lots of setups and no refills. It probably makes more sense to bring a whole system, with plenty of refills, from home.

There is a nice visitors center just before going across the causeway to the Island. This should be your first stop on a visit to the Island. You will get lots of useful and interesting information. There is also a rangers post on the island itself, and they can help with basic first aid if you need it.

There are several minor historical sites and maintained trails. Fishing, crabbing, and clamming are also popular activities on Assateague.


Cerro Pirapi and Pirapi Chico Necropolis and Fortress

Chulpa near trailhead

Chulpa near trailhead

About halfway between Caquiaviri and the Bolivia/Chile border at Charaña are two hills on which the ancients chose to build a necropolis and a fortress.  I haven’t had the chance to fully explore these hills, but even the short visits I have made to this area have been very interesting.

Flamingos on Laguna Achiri

Flamingos on Laguna Achiri

Even without climbing the hills you can visit some beautifully constructed stone chulpas (tombs) and nearby is a lagoon which, at least when we were there, was brimming with flamingos and surrounded by llamas and alpacas.

Alpacas Near Laguna Achiri

Alpacas Near Laguna Achiri

Pirapi Hill and Little Pirapi Hill are located just south of Achiri.  They can be reached either from Achiri or from Coro Coro, allowing for an interesting loop trip out across the altiplano to the southwest of Viacha.  In later posts I will cover some of the other stops along the way.  For now, it is worth noting that other possible stops on this circuit include the Century Plants at Comanche, the  Colonial Chapel in Caquiaviri and the post-independence chapel in Achiri.

Various Loops Through Pacajes

Various Loops Through Pacajes

Outtake from 5842-III

Outtake from 5842-III

To visit Cerro Pirapi, follow the directions in Caquiaviri and Pacajes Province.  Those directions take you well beyond Caquiaviri on the road to Achiri.  From Caquiaviri, it is another 30 miles to Achiri.  In Achiri, you take two lefts to get onto the road to Cerro Pirapi.  The two trailheads are about 5.5 miles form Achiri, and there are two entry roads, forming a triangle.  Map 5842-III Cerro Pirapi (which you can find online at covers the area around the hills at the 1:50,000 scale.  You can find larger scale topo maps of the area at the same site.  You can use the attached .gdb file in your gps or in Google Earth.  Here is an outtake from the map, with the gps information plotted on it and the trailheads marked.

Alex Up Against the Chulpa.  As you can see, it's pretty big.  Take a look at the quality of the stone work.

Alex Up Against the Chulpa. As you can see, it’s pretty big. Take a look at the quality of the stone work.

I’ve taken short hikes up the hill from the Cerro Pirapi trailhead.  I included the routes on the .gpd file, but they are not necessary, you can set out in any direction.  The top of the hill looks to be a difficult climb, depending on the direction from which it is approached.  A local guide might be helpful if you want to make it to the top of either or both hills.  In any case, the chulpas are quite accessible, from very close to the trailhead, and there are quite a variety of stone chulpas, round and square and in various states of deterioration.  The stonework on some of them seems to approach Cuzco quality, with stones set together permanently without the use of mortar.


Landscape with Chulpas

Landscape with Chulpas

Round and Square Chulpas.

Round and Square Chulpas.

Tatyana with Chulpa in the Background

Tatyana with Chulpa in the Background

Take a look at the hill behind the Chulpa.  That is Cerro Pirapi.  As you can see, to get on top you will need to find a way up that escarpment.

Take a look at the hill behind the Chulpa. That is Cerro Pirapi. As you can see, to get on top you will need to find a way up that escarpment.

Another nice landscape with chulpas

Another nice landscape with chulpas

And a lone chulpa with the incredible azure sky of  the altiplano in the background.

And a lone chulpa with the incredible azure sky of the altiplano in the background.

Jury Duty

Montgomery County Circuit Court

Montgomery County Circuit Court

It didn’t take Montgomery County long to find me. I’d been living in Maryland about six months when I was notified of my selection as a prospective juror.

The initial notice comes by mail. It contains instructions for trying to get out of service, but Maryland is pretty strict and doesn’t allow an employment exemption, the only way I might claim exemption.

Anyway, it seemed to me that serving on a jury might be an interesting experience, so I was happy to give it a shot.

So, here I am in the jury waiting room, a hall that might hold about 500 people, in a pinch. We are about 375 strangers packed in here today, and it would start getting quite uncomfortable if there were any more of us.

The first 15 arrivals took up positions in the “quiet room,” which has better chairs. Another 10 got the pc’s at the back of the room. There is free wireless for the rest of us, but my phone says the connection is so slow that it’s not worth connecting.

The waiting room is almost new, so it’s clean and pleasant. People are sitting around using their laptops, pads and phones. A few luddites are actually reading books.

And all of this is important because most prospective jurors spend most of their jury duty just waiting around.

In our case, we had to be here at 8:30 am. We spent most of the hour from 9-10 being  congratulated for doing our civic duty and told how important it is – and receiving 5 minutes-worth of practical information.

At 10:30, the first 76 of us were called up. They go to a courtroom to see if they will be selected for the trial. Since there are six trials scheduled to start today, and a second group hasn’t been called yet, it doesn’t seem likely that it will be a short day. They sent another 200 of us to another trial at 1:30 (after giving us an hour-long lunch break.

They do call people up in numerical order, but being called early doesn’t mean much. Even if you are not selected for the trial you are first called up for, you have to come back to the waiting room as you could be sent to another trial.

The system varies by county, but in Montgomery County, the system is “one day or one trial.” That means that if you are not selected for a trial you serve only one day, but if you are selected, you serve for the duration of the trial. They say that once you have served, you won’t go into the lottery again for three to five years.

Of today’s trials, the staff says all are likely to last 1-3 days except one, which is estimated at six days. They allowed those who had good excuses (childcare, doctor appointments, etc.) to opt out of consideration for the long trial.

The state gives you a stipend of $15/day to cover expenses. You get an extra $5 if you are required to be at the courthouse after 6 pm. For a long trial, the stipend jumps to $50/day.

Of course, as a Federal Government employee, I get “court leave,” while on jury duty, so the stipend is all gravy. Best of all, it’s tax free!

They finally sent me to a court room at about 2:30 pm for voir dire.   Voir dire is the process of questioning potential jurors about their background and beliefs in order to determine whether they would be unbiased jury members for a particular trial.  The judge used an interesting semi-in camera technique for voir dire.  First he asked the whole jury pool, some 30 people, all of the questions, one at a time.  Each juror who had an afirmative answer had to stand up and give his or her number.  Then the jurors were called up to the bench by number and asked for their detailed answers out of earshot (mostly) of everyone except the judge and attorneys.

The case was one of personal injury resulting from an automobile accident.  Among the questions the judge asked was, “have you ever had an injury to your back, neck or head?”  That was the only question I answered affirmatively.  When the judge called me up and asked about my injury I told him, “a couple of years ago I was at a rock concert and suffered a crowd-surfing injury.  At that point, the plaintiff’s attorney, a huge man who looked more like a biker than an attorney, started cracking up.  I continued, “I was just standing there listening to the music when a young lady suddenly appeared in my arms; I had to have several sessions of physical therapy.”  Everyone broke out laughing at that point and the plaintiff’s attorney commented, “well, you can’t really complain about that!”

I was juror number 327.  The court accepted up to juror 325 for the jury, so I barely dodged the bullet.