Most travelers visit the city of La Serena for two reasons. For one, La Serena is an immensely popular summer beach destination for Chilean vacationers, and it also serves as the primary hub for exploring the equally popular ElquĂ Valley.
The city of La Serena (which lies about 471km north of Santiago and has a population of about 200,000) was founded in 1544, making it the third oldest city in the country. In its infancy, however, it was almost completely destroyed by fire by the regionâ€™s indigenous people, leading Francisco de Aguirre to rebuild the city on the opposite side of the river. For this reason, the ElquĂ river now divides cityâ€™s geography into two parts: the â€śparte bajaâ€ť (which was burned shortly after it was founded), also known as the half-abandoned and unvisited Las Companias, and the â€śparte alta,â€ť the part of the city visited by most travelers. The cityâ€™s longevity is perhaps best evidenced in its plethora of churches (twenty-nine in all!), stone structures that date back centuries and stand in stark contrast to the modern offices and buildings of commerce that surround them.
Though not a big city, La Serena vibrates with energy and activity during the day. The sunny Plaza de Armas in the center of town has benches surrounding a large central fountain, providing a popular place to sit on a nice afternoon. On the perimeter of this plaza youâ€™ll find the Iglesia Catedral, from which split off the cityâ€™s main commercial avenues, the parallel streets Prat and Cordovez.
The main attraction to the city, however, is its beach, which bursts at the seams with tourists from Argentina and Chile during the summer. Along the beach runs the Avenida del Mar, a strip of nice restaurants and pricey, nothing-special hotels. As with many of Chileâ€™s popular beaches, youâ€™ll have to choose between an over-crowded but lively atmosphere in the summer and a quieter visit in the winter.