Founded in 1544, La Serena is Chile’s second oldest city, and probably its most beautiful. Graced with a magnificently preserved colonial center, a romantic seaside location, and easy access to the pisco vineyards and astronomical observatories of the Elqui Valley, La Serena is one of the urban highlights in a country largely known for its natural beauty.
The Colonial Center
The leafy Plaza de Armas, ringed with a collection of Chile’s best colonial structures, makes a great starting point for exploring La Serena’s transporting cityscape. Fully 29 historic churches grace the city center, including the Santa Inés Church, one of the city’s oldest and declared a national monument in 1977.
Also in the city center, the La Recova Market is one of the city’s most important colonial structures. Dating from 1795, the market stands at the corners of Cienguegos and Cantournet streets and boasts two central courtyards and Spanish-colonial arcades. After shopping some of the area’s best handicrafts, visitors can head to the second floor for a bite to eat in one of the restaurants. This is also a great place to take home products made from one of the region’s primary gustatory delicacies, the small, yellow, citric papayas that grow throughout the area.
Some of La Serena’s best colonial houses have been transformed into museums and exhibition spaces. The Archaeological Museum (Cordovez and Cienfuegos streets), which showcases a collection of artifacts from the pre-Colombian tribe of the Atacama and Elqui areas, is housed in a house dating back to 1820. Once the home of the former president Gabriel González Videla, the museum that bears his name is a historical museum of the city of La Serena that also holds a small fine arts collection. In 1981, the beautiful colonial building on the Plaza de Armas was declared a National Monument.
The historic San Francisco Church holds La Serena’s Museum of Religious Art (Balmaceda 640) with its valuable collection of religious objects dating back to the colonial period. Outside the primary historic district, the Mineralogical Museum (Anfión Muñoz 870) displays over 2,000 examples of minerals gathered from around Chile by the explorer Ignacia Domeyko.
The 92 ft (28 m) tower of this lighthouse, built between 1951 and 1953, is currently undergoing a large scale renovation on the heels of being declared a National Monument. The symbol of La Serena, the lighthouse already receives 10,000 visits annually. The first floor of the structure includes a restaurant and exhibition space, and the renovation will transform the seaside area surrounding it into one of the city’s primary recreation centers.
Resorts around La Serena
Though the city of La Serena and its neighbor Coquimbo both have some superb beaches in their own right, just a short drive down the coast various smaller towns offer extensive sun and sand away from the hustle and bustle of the region’s largest urban center. All these resorts are within easy reach of La Serena and provide good surfing spots and outstanding fresh seafood in humble coastal restaurants.
Just 9 miles (15 km) south of Coquimbo along Route 5 – the Panamerican Highway connecting Alaska to Chiloé in the south south – this fisherman’s wharf is best known for its fresh seafood and fishing opportunities. The beaches here also have the best waves in the region, making this the best bet for visitors hoping to do some surfing.
This well-known coastal campsite has electrical hookup for tents and hot water as well as cabins. Probably the best option for those looking to set up camp by the beach, Morrillos is only 15 miles south of Coquimbo.
One of the region’s primary tourist centers, Guanaqueros is about 21 miles down the coast from Coquimbo and La Serena and has a broad range of accommodation options. Fine sand beaches extend for nearly 10 miles along calm, warm waters. In town, scallop empanadas are an unmissable local delicacy.
A small private beach with an excellent diving center, Playa Blanca can be reached using Route D-43, which connects Guanaqueros to Tongoy. From there it is another 3 miles (5 km) by inland road to reach the seaside.
Two separate beaches – Socos and Playa Grande – grace this placid bay 23 miles (38 km) south of Coquimbo. Socos and Playa Grande. Tongoy’s wide variety of accommodations make a great base for a few days of sun and some delicious seafood sampling.