Including Iglesia Catedral and Iglesia Santo Domingo on the Plaza de Armas, a remarkable 29 churches dot La Serena, lending an almost fairy-tale look to the city. This proliferation of places of worship dates from the earliest days of the city, when all the religious orders established bases to provide shelter for their clergy’s frequent journeys between Santiago and Lima (the viceregal capital). Nearly all the churches are built of stone, which is unusual for Chile, and all are in mint condition.

Standing at the corner of Balmaceda and de la Barra, the Iglesia San Francisco is one of La Serena’s oldest churches, though the date of its construction is unknown, as the city archives were burnt in the pirate Sharp’s raid of 1680. Its huge walls are one metre thick, covered in a stone facade carved in fanciful Baroque designs. Inside, the Museo de Arte Religioso contains a small but impressive collection of religious sculpture and paintings from the colonial period.

Beautiful for its very plainness, the 1755 Iglesia San Agustín, on the corner of Cienfuegos and Cantournet, was originally the Jesuit church but was taken over by the Augustinians after the Jesuits were expelled from Chile in 1767. Its honey-toned stone walls were badly damaged in the 1975 earthquake, but have been skilfully restored. On the northern edge of town, overlooking the banks of the Río Elqui, the recently restored seventeenth-century Iglesia Santa Inés was constructed on the site of a rudimentary chapel erected by the first colonists and its thick white adobe walls recall the Andean churches of the northern altiplano.

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