Article Updated April 2016
Located about 421 km (261.6 miles) north of Santiago, La Serena is a quaint, coastal town with picturesque architecture and wide beaches. La Serena is a popular summer destination, with activities ranging from venturing to nearby islands crowded with penguins to rolling the dice at the town’s casino. Stretch out on the beach, gaze at the planets and stars spread across one of the world’s clearest skies, or even venture further inland to the Valle del Elqui (Elqui Valley), a vineyard-filled valley surrounded by desert and mountains. To get you started, here are 10 sights and activities you won’t want to miss in and around La Serena and the Valle del Elqui.
1. Faro Monumental
Visit the Faro Monumental, the lighthouse of La Serena, located at the very end of the street Francisco de Aguirre, which heads straight to the beach. Jorge Cisternas Larenas built this iconic landmark, designed by Ramiro Pérez Arce, between 1951 and 1953. When I visited, in April 2014, the lighthouse was undergoing repairs and was closed to visitors, usually it is open daily from 10am – 5pm. However, even though I couldn’t see the view from the top, the ground-level panorama of the deserted, endless beach punctuated by the colorful red and white structure had its own austere, windswept beauty.
2. La Serena’s Beaches
Lounge on the wide, sandy beaches. La Serena’s spacious, golden beaches stretch for miles, and if you dare to plunge into the chilly water, look for the signs to direct you to the designated swimming areas of the beach. Some parts of the beach, closer towards the lighthouse, tend to have stronger currents and rip tides. If you’re a surfer or want to learn, there are several small companies dispersed along the beaches offering surfing rentals and lessons.
3. Kokoro No Niwa Japanese Garden
Wander through the Kokoro No Niwa Japanese Garden, also known as El Parque Jardín del Corazón or Parque Japonés de La Serena. Located at the corner of Eduardo de la Barra and Ruta 5 norte, this peaceful landscape invites everyone to enter and relax. The largest Japanese garden in South America, it opened in 1994 as part of the 450th anniversary of the founding of La Serena, and it was the result of donations from both Chilean and Japanese mining companies. The garden is a short walk from the main square, and close by you can stop and have lunch at Ayawasi, a delectable vegetarian restaurant with a fresh menu, local as well as imported beers, and reasonable prices. Kokoro No Niwa Japanese Garden is open daily, from 10am to 8pm during the summer, and from 10am to 6pm during the winter. The entrance fee is $1.000 CLP.
4. La Recova
Go to La Recova, a busy artisanal market in la Serena. Here you can buy jars of sweetened papayas, a classic fruit from the area, along with manjar, also popularly know in South America as dulce de leche. It is a South American favorite, and comes in many flavors in Chile, such as manjar-café, and manjar-lúcuma, people use it as a topping or filling for many desserts. Vendors also sell souvenirs and clothing, but sweets are the most common items you’ll see there.
5. Enjoy Casino
Try your luck at Enjoy Casino. This large casino is part of a hotel and technically is located in Coquimbo, a port city just to the south of La Serena. From slot machines to poker to dancing, Enjoy offers plenty of nocturnal distractions. You can find it about 7.7 km south of the main square in La Serena at Avenida Peñuela 56, Coquimbo, Chile. If you have a car, you can easily find the casino by driving south from La Serena along the beach, on Avenida del Mar. If you don’t have access to your own vehicle, a taxi from the center of town should cost a little more than $7.000 CLP, or about $14 USD. I didn’t try the local bus system in La Serena. However, like in most towns in Chile, the micros (public buses), are a popular method of transportation, and each ride should cost you less than $1 USD. If you want to use one, ask at your accommodations as they should be able to help you find one that fits your needs.
6. National Humboldt Penguin Reserve
Take a day trip to visit the National Humboldt Penguin Reserve made up of three islands: Isla Damas, Isla Choros, and Isla Chañaral. This reserve, created on January 3, 1990, and maintained by CONAF (Chile’s National Forest Corporation, or Corporación Nacional Forestal), is dedicated to the protection of Humboldt penguins, sea lions, bottlenose dolphins, whales, and other marine life. Because the trio of islands is about a two-hour drive from La Serena, followed by a short boat ride, tours require a full day. The majority of the tours leave at 8am or 8:30am, and they don’t return to La Serena until the evening. Tours start at around $30.000 CLP and include a full day visiting the islands, usually with the opportunity to walk around Isla Damas, and many include lunch. A prominent tour company is Ecoturismo, but there are numerous other tour companies from which to choose.
Tour an observatory in Vicuña. The clear skies of La Serena and the Elqui Valley make this area one of the best places in the world to observe the galaxies, and scientists and tourists alike visit the region to gaze at the stars. There are several observatories you can tour. One observatory that is currently operational is the famous Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory which can be toured during the day. While you won’t see the stars first-hand on a tour of the Tololo Observatory, you will see how a research facility and its telescopes operate. Tours must be scheduled through the Tololo Observatory itself, and the requirements are much more stringent than those of more touristic observatories: tours are only given on Saturdays, bookings must be made at least a month in advance, and permits are required to drive there (via private transport).
A much more tourist-friendly observatory is Mamalluca, which was created specifically to educate the public and to expand the tourism industry. Several tour companies can take you here in the evenings on any day of the week to see the stars. Popular tour companies include Turismo Astronómico and Ecoturismo, but check with your hotel or hostel for what they recommend. Many accommodations offer coordinated tours at a discounted price. The tour of Mamalluca that my friend and I went on picked us up from our hostel at 7pm and dropped us back off around 11pm. Tours can be requested in English or in Spanish, and while it’s best to call at least a day or two ahead to make a reservation, our hostel called earlier that same day and was able to make one for us. During high season, make sure to call or e-mail at least a few days in advance to ensure your spot. It cost us $18.000 CLP each, and we learned about the constellations of the Southern hemisphere, saw Saturn’s rings, and I took the photograph of the moon below. The photo was taken with a Canon, point and shoot camera, which the tour guide helped me align with the telescope. So don’t worry if you don’t have a fancy SLR, bring any camera you have, and don’t forget to dress warmly (pants, jackets, hats, and gloves) it gets cold in the desert at night. You can also stay in Vicuna for a night and take the tour from there which only costs $5.000 CLP including transportation. Make sure to check the lunar calendar before you book your tour, to plan your visit based on which phase the moon will be in.
8. Pisco Tastings
Taste pisco at the headquarters of Gabriela Mistral in Pisco Elqui. Pisco is the traditional and emblematic alcohol of Chile. It is fermented from grapes in the Elqui Valley, and a longstanding debate exists between Chileans and Peruvians as to which country invented it first. The most famous way to delight in this classic drink is by trying a pisco sour, a fresh, tangy cocktail you can find in almost every bar. Chileans also mix pisco with Coke (a piscola), and Sprite. There are several pisco distilleries near la Serena and Pisco Elqui, including Gabriela Mistral, and Capel. Gabriela Mistral, in Pisco Elqui, is a classic, and the hour-long tour of the vineyards, the grounds, and the distillery, ending in a pisco tasting and a complementary pisco sour, was beautiful. For $6.000 CLP, it was also very reasonably priced. Don’t miss out on gaining a deeper understanding of Chile’s most famous drink.
9. Horseback Riding
Stargaze on a nighttime horseback ride in Pisco Elqui. There are several companies that offer these unique celestial tours, including Caballo Elqui. Daytime horseback riding excursions are also offered. Unfortunately when I visited Pisco Elqui, I was not able to experience a nighttime tour, but stargazing while riding a horse through the hills and mountains of the Elqui Valley was at the top of my list.
Camp in the mystical Elqui Valley. There are several campsites to choose from in Elqui Valley. In the small town of Pisco Elqui, Camping Refugio del Angel is an idyllic spot, with ample space, potable water, bathrooms and facilities to wash clothes, hot water, and firewood available for purchase. I camped there and was very comfortable between the weeping willows and serene river ($7.000 per person per night during low season, $8.000 high season). You’ll need to bring all of your own equipment if you decide to camp (tent, sleeping bag, flashlight, cooking supplies, and other camping supplies). It isn’t necessary to bring a stove, as you can cook over the campfire if you’d like, or eat out at a nearby restaurant if you prefer. You can easily find food and groceries at corner stores throughout the town. Everything is within walking distance from the main square, which is where the buses from La Serena and Vicuña drop passengers off.
When to go
The summer months of January and February are the high season for La Serena and the Valle del Elqui. Hot days and cool nights are typical. The large temperature differences between night and day is one of the reasons why pisco is manufactured in the Valle del Elqui; the temperature changes lead to a higher sugar content in the grapes, which then go on to make particularly delicious pisco with high alcohol content. Keep in mind summer can mean large crowds and packed campgrounds (in Pisco Elqui). I went with a friend in April, and we were some of the only tourists in town. While there are some benefits to planning your trip during low season—discounts, tranquility, and flexibility, we also noticed a disadvantage. Some of the more touristic activities in Pisco Elqui were not offered, such as the nighttime horseback ride and star tour. Call to make sure the companies that provide these excursions are operating when you plan on going and expect that a few might not offer excursions during low season.
Where to Eat and Stay
If you’re looking for a lovely, clean hostel to stay at in La Serena, I highly recommend Hostal el Arbol. The hostel is very cozy, with helpful hosts, and offers a home-cooked breakfast. The staff helped us coordinate our tour to Mamalluca and readily gave us directions and tips.
The previously mentioned restaurant Ayawasi is located near the Hostal. It has wonderfully fresh vegetarian cuisine, and its three-course menú of the day is a bargain.
Check the weather forecast ahead of time and bring layers and a jacket for the cold nights.
While the temperatures at night drop, the dry heat of the day bakes and burns. Bring sunscreen and water to stay comfortable and hydrated.
How to get there
By plane: Flights leave daily from Santiago’s Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport (SCL) and arrive at La Florida Airport (LSC) in La Serena. Two airlines offer flights to La Serena: LAN and Sky Airline. The Santiago airport is easily accessible by public and private transportation.
By bus: Many bus companies offer frequent trips from Santiago to La Serena. A ticket with Tur-Bus can cost as little as $5.900 CLP and you will arrive in La Serena in about 6 hours.
To get to the Elqui Valley, including the towns of Vicuña (about an hour’s drive from La Serena) and Pisco Elqui (about 2 hours from La Serena; 1 hour past Vicuña), you can catch a bus or a colectivo from the main bus terminal, at the corner of the street called Amunátegui and Avenida El Santo, in La Serena. There are a few companies that go to the Elqui Valley, including Via Elqui, and buses leave every hour. Buses also leave from nearby the market, La Recova. So head there if there are no tickets, leaving in the next couple hours, available at the main bus terminal. Take a taxi to La Recovasince, it’s a long walk, just ask the locals where the buses to Pisco Elqui leave from. The Sol del Elqui bus to Pisco Elqui one-way trip cost $3.000 CLP each, which we paid right as we got on the bus.
By car: For the convenience and comfort of operating on your own schedule, driving a rental car could be an enticing option. From Santiago, you can drive North along the coast on Ruta 5, la Panamericana (the main highway through Northern Chile). Once reaching La Serena, you can make your way to Vicuña and then to Pisco Elqui by taking Ruta 41 East towards Valle del Elqui.
The town of Coquimbo juts out into the Pacific just south of La Serena. Its crowning monument is the Cruz del Tercer Milenio (Third Millenium Cross), completed in 2001 and adorning the highest hill on the coast in that area. With amazing views of the beaches during the day, an incredible outlook point to enjoy the sunset, an observatory at the top, and a museum and a chapel, this nearby monument proves itself a beautiful place to visit. A long, winding road, best traveled by car, will take you to the monument. It’s open daily from 9am – 7pm January-February, and 9:30am – 6pm the rest of the year. Entrance is $2.000 CLP and $500 CLP for seniors with ID. The admission fee grants you access to the museum, and the upper gazebos located in the arms of the cross. Access to the church is free, if you want to attend Mass it’s held every Sunday at 4pm.
There’s always more places to explore in Valle Elqui! If you’re tired of pisco sour, go wine tasting!
While driving up to La Serena from Santiago, you’ll pass near other small towns situated around scenic beaches.
This story was accurate when published. Please be sure to confirm all details directly with the sites in question before planning your trip.
To learn more about Leah, read her bio!