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At the southern point of the Atacama Desert is the Elqui Valley. Ideally visited as a day-trip or overnight camping excursion from La Serena, it is a place of outstanding natural beauty. Its most notable feature is its clear skies – the clearest in the southern hemisphere – and consequently it is worth staying until a little later in the day when the sun sets and millions of stars can be seen. It has also been associated in the past with extra-terrestrial phenomena, and is home to a number of observatories that can be visited if booked in advance. Additionally, there are a number of distilleries in the area producing pisco, a Chilean form of brandy, which is worth a try.
La Serena is home to 29 churches in total, which is a disproportionately large number for a city of its size. The main cathedral is on the central square, Plaza de Armas, and is surprisingly low-key compared to the more usual city cathedrals. The inside is not in the typical ostentatious Catholic style, but is instead decorated quite simply with a modest painted ceiling as its main feature. Other notable churches include Iglesia Santo Domingo with its unique bell tower, and Iglesia San Francisco, which was built in the early 1600s, making it La Serena’s oldest church.
The neighboring town of Coquimbo is slightly smaller and less touristic than La Serena. Its main attraction is the Cruz del Tercer Milenio, a huge cross, 83 meters tall and made of concrete, that sits on a hill and lights up at night. Visitors can go up to the top in an elevator, which provides fantastic views of Coquimbo and across the bay to La Serena. Since it is primarily a religious construction, there is also a lovely chapel to explore. The town of Coquimbo itself does not offer many other attractions, but is full of neocolonial architecture, which makes for quite a pleasant stroll away from the beach crowds in La Serena.
La Serena’s main history museum is named after Chile’s president from 1946-52, who also happened to be from La Serena. González Videla has a mixed legacy (including exiling Chile’s most famous poet, Pablo Neruda, from the country) and the exhibitions don’t really cover his own history, but the museum is full of other historic artifacts as well as some modern art. The building itself is in the old house of González Videla, a lovely 18th century mansion which is an artifact in itself. It is also handily located on Plaza de Armas, and admission is free.
Playa El Faro is La Serena’s central beach, and is named after its iconic lighthouse (faro). The lighthouse is not operational but is open for visitors to climb to the top. Designed and built in the 1950s, it has quite a different style of architecture to many of the other buildings in La Serena, and its location at the end of the city’s main road has made it quite a landmark. The road running all along the beachfront (or rambla) is the Avenida del Mar, where many of La Serena’s restaurants and bars are located; the architecture is quite different from La Serena’s old quarter, and is specifically designed for tourism.
This particular observatory, just a short drive from La Serena, is specifically built for tourists who want to understand more about the region’s stargazing and telescopes. There is no scientific research conducted here but it does have a telescope of its own that tourists can experience for themselves. The other observatories in the region do offer tours but are mainly for research and so do not have tourists in mind. Collowara on the other hand is certainly worth a visit for anyone interested in astronomy. The tours are in the evening so visitors can look at the stars, or it is possible to stay overnight in the nearby town of Andocollo.
Given the number of beach areas in La Serena, there are plenty of places for visitors to indulge in some watersport activities, including surfing and windsurfing. Many of the beaches, especially the ones closer to the lighthouse, have strong currents which are not safe for swimmers but are ideal for surfers (if a beach has signs saying ‘No Apta’, that means it is not safe to swim). There are plenty of small local businesses along the beachfront offering equipment rentals or lessons. During the summer months the beaches closer to the town, including Playa El Faro, can get very busy and congested – some quieter alternatives include Playa Tongoy and Playa Totoralillo.
Punta de Choros is a couple of hours drive away from La Serena, so a day trip is recommended. Visitors will find an array of marine wildlife, including dolphins, sea lions, whales (if you’re very lucky), and in particular Humboldt penguins. From Punta de Choros (the town itself is not particularly exciting), visitors can take a boat out to one of the three islands that make up the Humboldt Penguin National Park, with the option of staying on the boat and watching the wildlife from afar or getting off onto one of the islands (at extra cost). It is best to book a tour in advance, with EcoTurismo being one of the most popular tour companies.
This Japanese garden is a quiet oasis from the busy tourist center of La Serena, especially during the summer months. Also known as the Kokoro No Niwa garden, it was created as a symbol of the cooperation between Chilean and Japanese businesses that operated in the region’s mining industry. It is apparently the largest Japanese garden in South America, and features classic Japanese elements of garden design such as koi carp, pagodas, waterfalls and curved bridges. While it will only take a couple of hours to look around, it is a perfect break from the usual bustling atmosphere of La Serena.
Fray Jorge National Park is a UNESCO Biosphere reserve, due to its abundance of woodland and consequent ecosystem. The highlight is the cloud forest, which is a quite a contrast from the semi-arid desert that visitors pass through on the drive from La Serena – especially given the distinct drop in temperature as you go higher up the mountain. There is not a lot of wildlife (mainly birds and small forest animals), but the attraction of it is the enchanting and eerie atmosphere of a wet forest in the middle of the Atacama desert.