Site menu:

Assistant Secretary Billingslea Visit to Kuwait

I’m going to mix it up and add a bit to the “diplomatic” subject of this blog by re-posting here social media and other items regarding my work in Kuwait. Here’s the first such item:

From Facebook, August 6, 2019
The translate feature massacred A/S Billingslea’s name. Guess I was lucky not to be named.

Grand Canyon South Rim Side Trip

Morning and Evening Views are Earned by Spending the Night

Las Vegas to Grand Canyon, approximately 4:15 to either the north or south rim of the canyon.  The south rim is the more common destination, and is what I was thinking of as a side trip from Las Vegas, but the north rim is an interesting alternative which fits right into the Southern Utah itinerary.

If you haven’t been to the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas is the best the jumping off point for that excursion, as well. The south rim of the Grand Canyon can be visited in a day trip from Las Vegas. However, if you have time, I would strongly recommend spending more time there.  There are a variety of campgrounds, but most require advance reservations, and they fill up very early. 

There are Lots of Different Views of the Canyon, and They Change with Every Passing Minute

We stayed at Ten X Campground in the Kaibab National Forest and Desert View Campground in Grand Canyon National Park during our 2016 trip. 

Route to the Grand Canyon South Entrance and Campgrounds

Ten X Campground is 271 miles (four hours) from Las Vegas and about a 20-minute drive from the canyon itself, but is located at elevation in a pine forest, so is cooler when temperatures are high.  One morning we awoke to a herd of elk passing through the camp. 

Visitor in Our Camp – Tent is Visible in the Background

Keep your food and possessions well protected. We were witnesses to a violent raid on a neighboring campsite by a flock of massive ravens, who consumed all of the food and destroyed a lot of other property to get at it.  One good thing about Ten X is that reservations are not accepted and campsites are not in such high demand as at the park.  We stayed at Ten X our first night at the Canyon, as we arrived late and didn’t want to risk not finding a place.

We then moved to Desert View Campground, about 30 miles (50 minutes) from Ten X and right on the rim of the Canyon.  It’s actually further from the Visitor Center than Ten X, but the whole drive is along the rim of the canyon with viewpoints all along the route. Desert View is also first-come, first-served, but it fills up early, so if you are going directly there from Vegas, you will need to arrive early. The other campgrounds in the park require reservations, which can be made, and may be filled up, a year in advance.

Aliciya and Christina Hiking Down Into the Canyon

We did a day hike down into the canyon. If you do that, make sure you have lots of water with you. Aliciya fell in love with the Canyon and says we will be returning to do the hike through the canyon and up the other side.  That’s a trip you would want to make in the spring or fall.

A Southern Utah Itinerary

Zion National Park


(NOTE: This is the first of a series of posts providing a short itinerary for exploring Southern Utah. Over the coming weeks, I will add posts on all the destinations listed below, including maps, directions, photos and details. As I add the new posts, links from this post will go live.)

Zion.  Arches. Coral Pink Sand Dunes. Goblin Valley. Bryce Canyon. Natural Bridges. Grand Staircase – Escalante. Kodachrome Basin. Dead Horse Point. Canyonlands. The Grand Canyon.  There is more national park, monument, and forest land in Utah than in any other State of the United States (with the exception of Alaska – hardly a fair comparison).  If you haven’t been, you need to go.  These are some of the most spectacular locations on earth.

Most of my travel posts have provided information on how to get to places that few westerners have visited in exotic countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Bolivia.  These will be different.  There is a great deal of information available online and in books on traveling in Southern Utah.  I won’t try to duplicate that information, but I think a simple itinerary for the tremendous travel opportunities in Southern Utah could help people visualize the possibilities.  Here’s my version of that itinerary.

First, a word to the wise. The date on this blog post is in 2019, but most of the information was gathered on my last trip through the area, in 2016. I guarantee that it was what I believed to be the case back then.  Beyond that, I’m sure my information is worth at least as much as you have paid me for it.

The Itinerary, in Short

While there are some options, and this loop itinerary can be started at any point along the way, the broad outlines of the itinerary are pretty clear.  I’ll start in Las Vegas, since it is the closest major gateway to the region.  I’ll put optional stops and routes in parentheses (but, of course, all the stops are optional). Here’s the itinerary:

Full Itinerary

Overview Map

Outbound Half

First Half of the Trip

Las Vegas

(Side Trip to South Rim of the Grand Canyon)
Zion National Park
Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park
Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument

Kodachrome Basin State Park

Bryce Canyon National Park
Capitol Reef National Park
Goblin Valley State Park

(Green River Melon Festival)

Dead Horse Point State Park
Arches National Park

The Return Leg

The Return Trip (view image to see larger version)
Canyonlands National Park

Bears Ears National Monument

Natural Bridges National Monument

Monument Valley

The Damn Dam

Grand Canyon, North Rim

(Colorado City)

Las Vegas

All of these destinations are within easy driving range of each other (the itinerary contemplates about 2-4 hours driving between destinations).


This itinerary is intended for a road trip.  You can rent a car in Las Vegas and return it there when you end the trip. A SUV is not necessary for most of this trip, but you might feel more secure in a capable SUV with good ground clearance on some of the dirt roads.


The best way to visit these locations is by camping in them.  Generally, there are no accommodations (beyond camping) at the locations themselves, so if you stay in hotels/motels that means more travel time and less time in the parks themselves.  Also, you will likely miss the beauty these places represent during the “golden hours” at and around sunrise and sunset and at night.

If you plan to camp, many places require advance reservations.  However, there are generally alternatives for the late planners among us.  Information on some of these locations is included below.  For camping, seriously consider the State Parks.  Utah State parks generally feature flush toilets and hot showers, neither of which are available on the Federal properties. Also, while the Feds allow reservations up to a year in advance, and are often all reserved shortly thereafter, the State parks only open for reservations three months in advance (but you better be online when they open up, if you are going at a busy time).


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.