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article imagePhoto Essay: Toconao — ‘Stone town’ in the silence of the desert Special

By Igor I. Solar     Aug 20, 2013 in Travel
Calama - Toconao, a small town in the Atacama Desert is home to an ancient native community. The charm of the village comes from its plainness, the calm of its people, its special climate, and its lovely religious architecture that has stood the test of time.
The ancient Lickan-antay culture
Located 38 kilometres south of San Pedro de Atacama, on the eastern edge of the Atacama Salt Flats, at 2,475 meters above sea level, the town of little more than 780 people is a small oasis in the desert. The main material used for construction of houses is the volcanic stone called liparita that the villagers also use to make stone handicrafts.
The town's name, meaning "place of stone", comes from Kunza, the ancestral language once spoken by the Atacama indigenous communities of northern Chile and Argentina, and in southern Peru and Bolivia. Researchers have found in the region traces of human development dating back 10,000 years. Representatives of the ancestral Lickan-antay culture still exist in the village, but the Kunza language is considered extinct since the mid-nineteenth century. A few prayers and original ceremonial chants in this ancient language are still recited by heart by the people of Toconao, however they no longer know the meaning of the verses.
Apart from stone handicrafts, the main activity of the inhabitants of this village is agriculture, particularly the production of fruits, using the purity and abundance of the water they have channeled from the mountains. There are also artisans who create items made from the wool of alpaca and llama (South American camelids) dyed with natural tints.
The buildings in Toconao are mostly made of liparita  a volcanic soft stone  which the local people ...
The buildings in Toconao are mostly made of liparita, a volcanic soft stone, which the local people also use to make handicrafts, mainly small replicas of the town's bell tower.
The Toconao Square is surrounded by stone constructions with flat roofs held in place by stones. Bei...
The Toconao Square is surrounded by stone constructions with flat roofs held in place by stones. Being in the middle of the desert, some of the square's vegetation consists of old, thick cactuses.
No much traffic in  downtown  Toconao. This man brought his chair to the middle of the street to enj...
No much traffic in "downtown" Toconao. This man brought his chair to the middle of the street to enjoy the afternoon sunshine.
Toconao Church and Bell Tower
In Toconao is one of the oldest churches in Chile. Its date of construction is uncertain, however it is thought that would be prior to 1744. The church, dedicated to St. Luke, is small, with capacity for 40 people. The structure is made of stone keeping the characteristics of the indigenous-colonial type of buildings. The roof and other interior details are made of cactus wood.
Unlike other churches in the desert, the bell tower was built separately from the chapel. It is opposite the church in the small town square. This is a tower built in three sections of adobe (mud and straw) with a small dome of cactus boards. The architecture of both structures is very simple, but its status of preservation is admirable, and gives the location a great aesthetic and historical value. The Church and the bell tower of St. Luke in Toconao Square were declared a National Historic Landmark in 1951.
Facade and entrance of St. Luke Catholic church of Toconao. The original structure dates from ca. 17...
Facade and entrance of St. Luke Catholic church of Toconao. The original structure dates from ca. 1750. It has been repaired as the original building following earthquakes and fires. Note the small cactus gardens in the front.
The bell tower was built separately from the chapel. It is opposite the church in the small town squ...
The bell tower was built separately from the chapel. It is opposite the church in the small town square.
 Simplicity  describes the interior of St. Luke Catholic Church in Toconao. The walls are made of mu...
"Simplicity" describes the interior of St. Luke Catholic Church in Toconao. The walls are made of mud and straw (adobe) and the roof are cactus boards and straw.
Interior of St. Luke s Church in Toconao. The circular stairway was built using cactus wood.
Interior of St. Luke's Church in Toconao. The circular stairway was built using cactus wood.
More about Toconao, Atacama desert, Antofagasta chile, Lickanantay people, Kunza
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