Dating from around 1750, the chime tower is in the main square ("plaza"), and although it belongs to the San Lucas church, it is not next to it, but in front of it across the narrow cobblestoned street.
Two interesting features make it special: it was built using the same volcanic stone bricks, which were put together using mud, and its door, made entirely in tamarugo wood and using no nails -nor anything metallic- at all; to assemble it, leather and vegetal ropes were used and wood planks were tied together.
This chime tower is reproduced in most volcanic stone souvenirs sold in Toconao, San Pedro and the Norte Grande, so if it looks somewhat familiar to you, you already know why.
The local church dates from a few years earlier than the chime tower (probably from around 1744), and is cozy and well-kept.
It is not usually open to visitors off the religious service times, although its guardian opens it at the arrival of tour groups; a small tip is paid by the tour operators, but rarely expected from visitors themselves.
Both the church and the chime tower are National Monuments.
The local religious festivity is held on October 18
Nikon F4s, Nikkor 20 mm., 1/60 sec., f. 11, POL filter, Kodak Ektachrome Elite 100 Professional slide film
Toconao's main feature is its distinctive architecture: volcanic stone bricks and slabs ingeniously assembled to build houses, walls and even pathways, in the same manner as their ancestors did from centuries ago.
Check the assemblying in those buildings, and see how their builders managed to create a fairly precise match, although in these days, mortar is been used to fill the spaces in between and make the construction process faster and in accordance with modern requirements.
Apart of that, the winding streets and narrow alleys will always keep something interesting for a photographer around the corner: old wooden doors, windows, shepherds, the landscape in perspective... the best light hours are those after 4 PM in summer, when the Sun falls from a westerly direction, creating a beautiful "depth" effect on houses and mountains.
Also, walk directly to the W (downstreet) and find any entrance path through the orchards; these are private owned, but wandering travellers are always greeted and left alone to wander at will. After crossing the orchard strip, there is a fine sand area, and the desert.
Photo: Nikon F4s, Nikkor 20 mm., f.5,6, 1/20 sec., POL filter, Kodak Ektachrome Elite 100 Professional slide film
The Quebrada de Jerez (Jerez Creek) is a quite hidden, fresh spot of green located east of town.
"Finding" it is a surprise by every means, as it appears suddenly out of the desert dry crust like a green mirage.
It is visited by tours en route to the Salar (salt pan), although the time given to visit it is quite short, and is not worth the $ 1000 entrance fee levied by the local indigenous community, which is not included in the tour price, and is valid for a whole day stay (one does it better by visiting it on one's own).
Despite this, exploring the narrow canyon is an extremely pleasant, refreshing and peaceful adventure, and if you want, you can camp anywhere in it.
Campsites with showers, toilets and tables are built in the area nearest to the entrance, but the real interest is found walking upstream for as far as you can.
Unlike in San Pedro, the water from the stream is good for drinking, as it does not contain arsenic nor any noxious minerals.
After the ticket booth, the road continues to the creek, passing by the quarry from where the stones used to build Toconao's houses are extracted.
The permit for camping should be obtained beforehand in Toconao, at the indian manager's house (ask around).
If you camp there, please BRING BACK ALL of your TRASH
Photo: Nikon F4s, Nikkor 20 mm., f.16, 1/60 sec., POL filter, Kodak Ektachrome Elite 100 slide film
There are a few (2 or 3) small, family-run basic restaurants in Toconao, not always open and, when open, with a variable (so to speak) offer.
This is because visitors who come here have already had lunch, or are on their way to have dinner in San Pedro (the last returning bus is at 6 PM), and personnel from the mining company have their own restaurant service.
In spite of this, there is a small restaurant in front of the square (Restaurant Licancabur, at the corner of Huaytiquina and Lascar) which serves simple but tasty homemade cazuelas and ajiacos at reasonable prices, and another two on Lascar street, 2 blocks upstreet from the plaza.
Favorite Dish: Don't dream of fancy, elaborate cuisine nor local special dishes, but think of the standard miner's fare instead.
It is probable that drinks (soft drinks, beer, etc.) could be warm, so if you want a cold one, you may need to add ice (don't worry: Toconao's water is arsenic-free, and tastes great... it is actually as good as Concepcion's water)
Talking to the owners and waitresses (usually, all of them are Toconao-born, or living for a long time here) can be quite interesting, as they have local stories and legends to tell, just for the fun of sharing them with "outsiders".
Ask for legends on the "hidden" ghost city of talabre, and the stories about the many recent volcanic eruptions of the neighbouring volcanoes (Spanish essential).
Buses Frontera del Norte go to Toconao from San Pedro de Atacama, every day, at 7 AM, 1100 AM, 130 PM and 400 PM.
All, but ther earlier one, leave from Calama and after passing San Pedro continue to its destination.
Buses leave from the company office, on Licancabur street, and can be taken also at the main bus "terminal" (behind the museum) and on the road out of San Pedro to Toconao (in front of Camping Quilarcay).
The trip takes about 35'.
Ticket cost $ 500 (US$ 0,90). No reservation necessary.
The last returning bus from Toconao to San Pedro leaves at 600 PM.
Yes, the light.
It is harsh and aggressive in the late morning and early afternoon hours, but after the Sun begins to fall to the west, it turns into a delicate, crisp-clear Andean light, pure and warmly shaded.
Fondest memory: The whitewashed walls of some houses -like the one in the photograph, on the N side of the church- get that sunset colors and one could spend the whole afternoon just relaxing at the gradual change of the light colors.
Take the right music, or book, or both, or maybe nothing at all, and let your mind wander away from all that noise in San Pedro (especially in summer...).
Nikon F4s, Nikkor 80-200 f.2,8, 1/500 sec., f.5,6-8, +2/3 stop overexposure, no filter, Kodak Ektachrome Elite 100 Professional slide film