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Chapels of Curahuara and Sajama

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Curahuara de Carangas, the Sistine Chapel of the Altiplano, and Santa Barbara

Part of the mural depicting the last judgement

Part of the mural depicting the last judgement

Curahuara de Carangas is the largest town in the area, and host to two churches, one of them renowned as the Sistine Chapel of the Altiplano for its spectacular murals.  It is also one of your few choices for provisions and accommodations in this area of the altiplano.  Curahuara was a population center long before the Spanish arrived in Bolivia.  Many believe that the final battle of the Inca conquest of the Aymara Señorios, or mini-states, took place at the mountain fortress, Pucara Monterani, only one kilometer from Curahuara.  During colonial times the town hosted a royal tax collection office intended to control the traffic in silver, much of which passed along the ancient route to the coast.

Traditional local leaders, or "jilakatanaka" in Aymara, at the main door of the chapel, which is painted in renaissance style.

Traditional local leaders, or “jilakatanaka” in Aymara, at the main door of the chapel, which is painted in renaissance style.

Nonetheless, until the construction of the bridge over the Desaguadero River some ten years ago, Curahuara was relatively isolated, despite its proximity to La Paz and Oruro.  For weeks or more at a time the whole area would be cut off due to the flooding of the river.  That made the town a useful place for placing dissidents in internal exile, and Curahuara served as a high-security prison for political prisoners in the 1950’s.  At present, Curahuara hosts a regiment of mountain troops who take advantage of the rugged and rocky terrain in the area to practice their skills.

Whatever else you may see in the area, and even if you are just driving straight through to the Chilean border, do not fail to stop in Curahuara to see the chapel, known officially as the “Iglesia de Santiago de Carangas” or Church of James of Carangas.  It is one of the most important cultural sites in Bolivia.  You would also be very well served to obtain Padre Gabriel Antequera’s book, Capilla Sixtina del Altiplano Boliviano, which provides a thorough description, focusing on an analysis of the murals, and many photos of the chapel (in Spanish only).  For a shorter English-language description of the church, its history, and the surrounding area (and much more), see Ambassador Philipp Schauer’s excellent Guía turística de/Tour guide of Iglesias Rurales: La Paz y Oruro

A view of the Chapel of Curahuara de Carangas.  The bell tower was completed later and is separate from the chapel.

A view of the Chapel of Curahuara de Carangas. The bell tower was completed later and is separate from the chapel.

The construction of the chapel began in the late 16th century, and was completed in 1608. It was built by a local cacique (as was very common) by the name of Baltasar Cachagas and by Gonzalo Larama, his deputy.  The portraits of the two leaders are located behind one of the altars.  The chapel is an adobe building with a straw roof and a separate bell tower. It’s a beautiful church, but what really sets it apart are the murals that decorate almost all of the interior wall space.  Much of the mural art is the oldest to be found in Bolivia.  The chapel was restored with financing from Germany a few years back and, though some of the murals have been damaged and cannot be fully restored, it is nonetheless in beautiful condition.

Detail of the mural of the final judgement, my favorite.  This is hell, in case you couldn't tell.

Detail of the mural of the final judgement, my favorite. This is hell, in case you couldn’t tell.

The murals were painted by indigenous masters under the guidance of the priests and were intended for educational and missionary purposes, as well as for decoration. The murals appear to cover all the basic doctrine of the Catholic Church. What’s most fascinating to me is the mix of Catholicism and the preexisting indigenous beliefs – the syncretism – represented in many of the murals.  The chapel is dedicated to James (Santiago in Spanish), who corresponds to Illapa, the Aymara God of thunder, lighting, rain, hail, snow and wind.  Padre Gabriel can give you a great tour and tell you what saints correspond to which of the Aymara Gods.

Santa Barbara, after restoration

Santa Barbara, after restoration

Santa Barbara

If you need evidence that Curahuara de Carangas is more than your average altiplano town, here it is: there are TWO beautiful colonial-era chapels in Curahuara.  I haven’t seen another small town with two.  And Santa Barbara may be smaller and humbler, but it is still a beautiful little chapel.  Santa Barbara was built in the late colonial period (1885-90) of stone on the hillside overlooking Curahuara.  With its two bell towers and whitewashed walls, and given its location, it is quite attractive today.  Just 18 months ago, however, the area surrounding the church was scattered with garbage and the churchyard itself was put to use as a restroom.  The building itself was crumbling.

Santa Barbara, before restoration

Santa Barbara, before restoration

According to Philipp Schauer, there are some 50 colonial-era capillas in the area around Curahuara and running to the Chilean border.  From my observation, most of them are ruined or in the process of falling back to the dust from which they were built.  In 2010, the U.S. Embassy began a series of projects under the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation intended to preserve 11 of these chapels.  Santa Barbara was in the second of the two tranches of chapels to be repaired and preserved.

Tatyana and Aliciya entering the church grounds before preservation.

Tatyana and Aliciya entering the church grounds before preservation.

The gate and church, pre-preservation

The gate and church, pre-preservation

For the re-opening of the church, when it was finished, the locals put together a procession

For the re-opening of the church, when it was finished, the locals put together a procession.  Here we see a mix of the troops from the Mountain Regiment based in Curahuara and local leaders.

Mountain troops carried the image of Santiago, in full military regalia, to the church for the ceremony.

Mountain troops carried the image of Santiago, in full military regalia, to the church for the ceremony.

Mitch, Aruna, Philipp Schauer, and Tatyana, together with the Bishop of Oruro and Padre Gabriel Antequera at the ceremony for the completion of the preservation work.

Mitch, Aruna, Philipp Schauer, and Tatyana, together with the Bishop of Oruro and Padre Gabriel Antequera at the ceremony for the completion of the preservation work.

Tatyana handed out some school materials to the kids.

Tatyana handed out some school materials to the kids.

Inside the chapel

Inside the chapel

Other Things to Look For

The Curahuara de Carangas area has other attractions besides its churches.  I’m told that some of the best rock climbing to be had in Bolivia is in the area.  On a clear day, the view from Pukara Monterani is said to be spectacular.  Pultuma cave reportedly houses rock paintings of llamas.  There are also chulpas, painted in white and gray, some 10 miles from Curahuara on the road to Totora.  There are limited directions to these sites in Schauer’s book.

Getting to Curahuara is no challenge at all.  The left turn is marked very clearly on the road out to Tambo Quemado from Patacamaya, some 11 miles beyond Huchusuma Chapel.

Comments

Pingback from Preservando o talento dos povos indígenas | ShareAmerica
Time August 7, 2015 at 6:45 am

[…] Embora as capelas sejam católicas romanas, seu interior é decorado com imagens de cosmologia e história dos aimarás, que vivem nos Andes há mais de 2 mil anos. A arte de uma capela é tão bela que é conhecida como “a Capela Sistina do Altiplano*”. […]

Pingback from Preserving the gifts of indigenous peoples | ShareAmerica
Time August 7, 2015 at 1:27 pm

[…] Although the chapels are Roman Catholic, their interiors are decorated with images from the cosmology and history of the Aymara, who have lived in the Andes for more than 2,000 years. The art of one chapel is so beautiful that it’s known as “the Sistine Chapel of the Altiplano.” […]

Pingback from Larry Memmott's Blog » The Churches of Curahuara de Carangas and Sajama: La Paz to Tomarapi
Time February 14, 2016 at 4:55 pm

[…] turnoff to Curahuara de Carangas, well marked to the south (left).  Take the turnoff to reach the Capilla de Curahuara de Carangas, known as the Sixtine Chapel of the Altplano, as well as the Capill… in Curahuara and the Chapel at Quilviri, some 2.5 miles south of the road into Curahuara de […]

Pingback from Larry Memmott's Blog » Preserving Colonial Churches
Time February 16, 2016 at 10:27 am

[…] 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 […]

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