Sitting by the mouth of the Río Elqui, 11km north of Coquimbo and 88km north of Ovalle, LA SERENA is for many visitors their first taste of northern Chile, after whizzing straight up from Santiago by road or air. Situated 2km inland from the northern sweep of the Bahía de Coquimbo, the city centre is an attractive mix of pale colonial-style houses, carefully restored churches and bustling crowds. Aside from the noteworthy Museo Arqueológico, the city’s main appeal lies in just strolling the streets and squares, admiring the grand old houses, browsing through the numerous craft markets, wandering in and out of its many stone churches and hanging out in the leafy, central Plaza de Armas.
In the warmer months, hordes of Chilean tourists head for the six-kilometre beach, just 3km away along the Avenida del Mar – a rather charmless esplanade lined with oceanfront aparthotels and cabañas that are gloomily empty out of season. La Serena is also surrounded by some rewarding places to visit. Close at hand, and with good bus and colectivo connections, are the fine beaches at Tongoy and, above all, the glorious Elqui Valley, one of the must-sees of the region.
La Serena is Chile’s second-oldest city, with a history chequered by violence and drama. Founded by Pedro de Valdivia in 1544 as a staging post on the way to Peru, it got off to an unpromising start when it was completely destroyed in an Indian attack four years later. Undeterred, Valdivia refounded the city in a new location the following year, but La Serena continued to lead a precarious existence, subjected to frequent and often violent raids by pirates, many of them British.
Happier times arrived in the nineteenth century, when the discovery of large silver deposits at Arqueros, just north of La Serena, marked the beginning of the region’s great silver boom. These heady days saw the erection of some of the city’s finest mansions and churches, as the mining magnates competed in their efforts to dazzle with their wealth.
In the 1940s, Gabriel González Videla, president of Chile and a local Serenense, instituted his “Plan Serena”, through which the city developed its signature architectural style. One of the key elements of Videla’s urban remodelling scheme was the vigorous promotion of the Spanish colonial style, with facades restored or rebuilt on existing structures and strict stylistic controls imposed on new ones. Unimaginative and inflexible though some claimed these measures to be, the results are undeniably pleasing, and La Serena boasts an architectural harmony and beauty noticeably lacking in most Chilean cities.