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Chapels of Curahuara and Sajama

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September 2012
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Preserving Colonial Churches

Huchusuma Chapel, after repair

A week ago Friday, Tatyana and I were privileged to be part of a new project the Embassy is financing.  Under the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation, the Embassy will help to restore five colonial-era chapels in the Curahuara de Carangas region of Oruro Department.  Two years ago the embassy financed the restoration of six churches in the same area.

Tatyana and I visited three colonial chapels, the Curahuara de Carangas Chapel, sometimes called the Sistine Chapel of the Altiplano, the Huchusuma Chapel, which the Embassy helped to preserve in 2010 and the Qilcata Chapel, which we will help preserve this year.

Kellkata Chapel, not yet restored

There are dozens of beautiful colonial-era churches on the Altiplano.  In his excellent guide to the rural churches of La Paz and Oruro Departments (Guía turística de / Tour guide of Iglesias Rurales), Philipp Schauer, the German Ambassador to Bolivia, identifies and describes 25 churches.  Only two of the eleven churches we are preserving are listed, so that takes the total up to 34.  There are, no doubt, still more.

As Ambassador Schauer’s book illustrates very well, the colonial churches provide an interesting starting point for explorations of the altiplano.  Besides describing the churches themselves, Ambassador Schauer provides maps and directions for reaching them and interesting information on other things to see and do in the area.  In fact, our recent trip to Comanche to see the Puya Raimondii, was also inspired by his book.

The Preservation Projects

In 2001 the U.S. Congress established the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation.  Under this program, U.S. Embassies around the world submit proposals to the Department of State for projects to preserve cultural heritage worldwide.  Projects compete for funding with other proposals from around the world.  The U.S. Embassy in La Paz, Bolivia has won funding for projects restoring 45 paintings from the 17th and 18th century recovered from remote churches and convents in Oruro, establishing a national digital archive of photography for Bolivia, and preserving two exceptional rock art sites at Betanzos featuring polychrome designs and a sequence of different traditions spanning thousands of years, among others.

Inside Kellkata Chapel

In 2010, the U.S. Embassy won funding for the preservation of six colonial chapels in Oruro Department; the chapels of Huchusuma, Sajama, Lagunas, Rosapata, Tomarapi, and Lerko.  All the chapels were built by the native people of the region during colonial times and remain important religious and community centers even today.  Unfortunately, though, these beautiful and important expressions of faith and culture had fallen into disrepair.  For 2012, we have won funding for preservation of another five chapels, those of Qilcata, Cotasaya, Quilviri, Santa Barbara, and Ojasani.

Now, with funding from the Ambassadors Fund, the advice and technical skills of Bolivian architects, and the hard work of the local people who will carry out most of the construction, these chapels are being preserved.  The local people have committed themselves to maintain the chapels after the are preserved.  In some cases, further efforts to fully restore the chapels might make sense later.

Update:  In 2013, the Department of State published a book on the projects of the Ambassador’s fund.  Eighteen projects from around the world were showcased.  Our project preserving the chapels of the altiplano was among them.  You can download a digital (pdf) version of the book here.

Our Visit to Two Chapels

Tatyana and I traveled to Curahuara de Carangas on August 31 to visit some of the churches and present the funding for the new project to Father Gabriel Antequera, who is the parish priest responsible for all these chapels and a key partner in their preservation.

Discussing the Repairs

First, we visited the Huchusuma Chapel which was preserved in 2010.  This beautiful chapel sits alone off to the left of Highway 4, the road to Arica, some 15 miles before Curahuara de Carangas (on the road from La Paz).  It’s a beautiful white chapel with Nevado Sajama behind it in the distance.

From Huchusuma, we continued on 20 miles, beyond the turnoff to Curahuara, to Qilcata Chapel, which is also off to the left of the road.  Qilcata needs a great deal of work to get it into the same shape as Huchusuma, but it is already a very beautiful building.

With the village kids

The local people were very welcoming, as they are everywhere we go.  The Chapels are clearly very important to them, and they turned out in large numbers to meet us and thank us for the support.  They invited us very warmly and insistently to return for the ceremony which will launch the construction, a wilancha which involves sacrificing a llama and anointing the four corners of the building with its blood to bless the building and the work.

The Sistine Chapel of the Altiplano: Curahuara de Carangas


The murals are gorgeous, and their variety is astounding.

The Curahuara de Carangas Chapel was completed in 1608 and the internal walls and ceiling were painted at that time with murals (other murals were added later).  These murals were the first painted in Bolivia and account for the nickname of the church.  The murals mix traditional indigenous themes with Catholic motifs.  The rockwork of the walkway to the main entrance of the church also combines indigenous and Catholic symbolism.  The church is dedicated to Santiago (St. James) who has been connected in the decorative murals to Illapa, the Aymara God of thunder, lightning, wind, rain, hail and snow.  For a much more extensive history of the church and explanation of some of the decorative themes, see Ambassador Schauer’s book.

The Santa Barbara Chapel, which we will also be restoring, is also in Curahuara de Carangas.

Getting There

To Curahuara (click to enlarge)

Three Chapels (click to enlarge)

This is an easy one.  The La Paz – Tambo Quemado (Arica, Chile) road is one of the most important in the country.  As such, it is well paved and signed.  At Patacamaya, some 40 miles beyond the toll booth on Rt. 1 south to Oruro, take the well-marked right toward Tambo Quemado and Arica, beyond.  About 48 miles down that road, you will see the Huchusuma Chapel on the left.  Kellkata Chapel is another 20 miles down the road.  This .gdb file provides the GPS coordinates and track to all three chapels.  For information on using .gdb files, see Using a GPS in Kyrgyzstan (or anywhere) and Using Google Earth and “.gdb” Files.

For more photos check out Larry Memmott Photography.


Pingback from Larry Memmott's Blog » Getting to Sajama National Park
Time October 13, 2012 at 9:38 pm

[…] portion of the journey is described in my article on Curahuara de Carangas, misleadingly entitled Preserving Colonial Churches.  From Kellkata Chapel, described in that article, continue on down the asphalt road for another […]

Pingback from Larry Memmott's Blog » Huchusuma Chapel
Time November 28, 2013 at 6:21 pm

[…] Huchusuma Chapel is the first of the Curahuara-area chapels on our route.  In fact, in the area of Curahuara de Carangas and Sajama there are more than 50 chapels, most of which were constructed in the colonial era.  Some are mere ruins, at this point, while others are beautifully constructed and maintained.  Huchusuma Chapel is one of 11 chapels which have been preserved by the U.S. Embassy with funding from the U.S. Department of State Ambassador’s Fund…. […]

Pingback from Larry Memmott's Blog » Rosapata and Lirqu
Time December 15, 2013 at 5:38 pm

[…] Both of these chapels were repaired with funding from the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation of the U.S. Government.  The project was sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in La Paz and carried out in 2011.  For a little more information on the project, which in total has repaired and preserved 11 colonial-era chapels on the Altiplano, see Preserving Colonial Churches. […]

Pingback from Larry Memmott's Blog » The Chapel at Quilviri
Time February 8, 2014 at 8:17 pm

[…] Quilviri is one of the 11 chapels restored with funding from the U.S. Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation fro…. […]

Pingback from Larry Memmott's Blog » Qilqata Chapel
Time February 9, 2014 at 3:58 pm

[…] Back on the Patacamaya-Tambo Quemado road, you arrive at the Qilqata Chapel (sometimes Kelcata) only about seven miles from the turnoff to Curahuara de Carangas.  The chapel is only a third of a mile off the road and is plainly visible on your left. Qilqata is a cute little chapel with a walled courtyard and one bell tower.  It is one of the 11 chapels restored/preserved with funding from the U.S. Embassy. […]

Pingback from Larry Memmott's Blog » Wilancha!
Time June 15, 2015 at 10:08 pm

[…] 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 […]

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