La Serena, the City of Churches
La Serena is Chile's second-oldest city.
There was a native settlement here, then the Spanish
founded an outpost here in 1543 or 1544.
Santiago, Chile's oldest city, had been founded in 1540.
La Serena was meant to be a stopping point
between Santiago and Peru.
A native uprising in 1549 totally destroyed and burned the Spanish outpost, and killed most of the Spanish inhabitants. Pedro Gutiérrez de Valdivia, the first royal governor of Chile, ordered Captain Francisco de Aguirre to re-establish the city. De Aguirre built it where the Plaza de Armas is today. Now Avienda Francisco de Aguirre is the main avenue through the city.
I had been in Valparaiso. I returned to Santiago, where the Terminal San Borja at the Metro and train Estación Central provides frequent bus service to the north.
Chilean inter-city buses are very nice. Your ticket has an assigned seat, your baggage is securely checked, it's much like an airline trip without the dehumanizing airport experience.
Inter-city bus tickets are in salon cama and salon semi-cama class — full berth cabin, and half-berth cabin. The seating is nicer than on the nicest Amtrak trains in the U.S., which in turn are far nicer than most airline seats.
Below is my semi-cama seat. This is second class! Greyhound, the U.S. national bus system, is a nightmare in comparison to this.
It's a little over 470 kilometers from Santiago to La Serena, six to seven hours by bus. North in the Central Valley, through the mountains, then most of the trip close to the coast.
La Serena is in Norte Chico, the "Small North" zone. Within that, La Serena is the capital of the Coquimbo Region, one of Chile's 16 top-level administrative divisions. This is the narrowest region of Chile, with the Andes mountains coming down very close to the coastline. The city has a cool desert climate.
I arrived late in the evening. I walked from the bus terminal to the Aji Verde Hostel, and got checked in. Then I went out to get a late dinner.
The next morning, I went up to the top rooftop level for a look over La Serena. Aji Verde is slightly uphill, so you look out over most everything else and see the bay in the distance.
The large building with a dark roof and arched balconies is Mercado La Recova, where I'll get breakfast.
There are several levels at the Aji Verde, with more than one level of open rooftop.
I was in a room in the bottom level. Its courtyard was open to the sky. I was there in mid-winter, for the July 2019 solar eclipse. It got down to within a few degrees of freezing at night. But, like everywhere else I stayed in Chile, there were plenty of warm blankets and the beds were cozy.
The Aji Verde looks much smaller from the street side. The ground slopes down steeply, there are two floors open to the sky below the level of the sidewalk.
Mercado La Recova
To the left to the corner, then down the slope to the Mercado La Recova.
The interior on the ground floor is almost entirely aimed at the tourist business. La Serena and the nearby Comquimbo are popular vacation spots for Chileans. Foreign visitors are mostly from Argentina.
The upper level is filled with restaurants. The exterior of the ground floor has small cafés and shops selling groceries and meats.
Time for breakfast. Coffee and el completo, a "one with everything" hot dog, with chopped onions and tomatoes, mayonnaise, and guacamole.
Taxis line up along the side of the market.
Bands were playing while I was there, part of the city's eclipse promotion. Chile promoted the eclipse and associated astronomy at the national, regional, and local levels. Professional astronomers gave presentations in the main square of La Serena. ISO-certified eclipse glasses were sold cheaply and given away with meals and drinks.
La Serena hosts offices for the organizations operating the numerous astronomical observatories north of the city.
The interior of the market has open courtyards.
Later in the day, the nearby restaurant was a great place to get lunch.
Chilean TV has something like the old Dean Martin variety hour. It was playing in the restaurant.
Here's the menu.
I chose the pollo con arroz, which also came with tomatoes, pico de gallo, and bread.
Colonial Revival Architecture
Chile is almost entirely coastline. Especially in the Coquimbo region, you simply can't get very far from the ocean while staying within the country.
The Atacama Trench, or the Peru–Chile Trench, reaches a depth of over 8,000 meters just off the western coast of South America. It is created by the Nazca Plate subducting or irregularly moving beneath the South American Plate.
The plate movement creates the Andes mountain chain, the coastal mountain chain in Chile, and the general roughness of terrain. The irregularity of the movement causes the frequent severe earthquakes. The MW 9.5 earthquake near Valdivia in 1960 was the strongest earthquake ever recorded.
Chilean structures are frequently destroyed and rebuilt. In 1948–1952, President Gabriel González Videla, a native of La Serena, came up with the "Plan Serena".
La Serena was to restore buildings in the Spanish Colonial Revival style. US ships came to the adjacent city of Coquimbo to load copper and other minerals. They came south carrying Oregon pine as ballast, which they sold to construction firms in La Serena. Restoration work used the Oregon pine and adobe. City regulations continue to require the neo-colonial design.
The result is that La Serena has the largest and most significant zona tipica or urban "traditional area" in all of Chile.
The many churches of the city, however, are largely built with stone quarried nearby. This is the Iglesia de San Agustín.
The street Arturo Prat runs west from the front of the church. It is named for a naval hero killed during the War of the Pacific of 1879–1884, in which Chile fought a Bolivian-Peruvian alliance over coastal territory in the Atacama Desert.
Three blocks down, you reach the Municipalidad de La Serena, on the northeast corner of the Plaza de Armas.
Reaching the corner, I turn to look south. I'm looking south along the east side of the plaza. That's the cathedral at the end of the block.
The cathedral dates from the 19th century.
Spanish conquistadores built cities in a standard military grid design. The main square is the Plaza de Armas, literally "Weapons Square" but meaning "Parade Square". Every city in Chile has a Plaza de Armas. In Mexico the analogous space is called El Zócalo, in Central America it's Parque Central.
Correos Chile, the post office, is at the northwest corner. I found that Chile is a nearly post-postal society. There aren't many postcards for sale, and you have to find a post office to mail anything. I didn't notice mail boxes anywhere.
Here's an elaborate theatre on the Plaza de Armes. Next door is the studio for Radio San Bartolomé, named for the city's patron saint.
Many vendors were set up on the Plaza de Armas for the eclipse.
On the Santander Bank building, look above the Plaza de Armas street sign. In Chile, buildings bear the names of their architects.
The local wireless provider has a traditionally designed building.
Iglesia de Santo Domingo is just off Plaza de Armas.
Strong earthquakes off the coastline can make for deadly tsunami. This area is about two kilometers inland and slightly elevated, it should be a safety zone.
Constitución, about 280 km south of Valparaiso, was hit by a tsunami estimated to be 15 meters high after the 2010 8.8 Mw earthquake.
The Red Cross is in an older style of building.
Below is a Cruz Verde or Green Cross pharmacy, along the pedestrian-only section of Arturo Prat.
Nearby is a different elaborate design for the Banco Estado.
The Coquimbo Region Health Service building has a traditional look.
I don't think there is any multiplexing of signals in Chile. Everything gets its own cable or wire.
This is the Colegio Germán Riesco.
La Serena Neighborhoods
Now to simply wander some more, taking in the local everyday life. With plenty of overhead wires, of course.
Chile properly marks sidewalks for low-vision pedestrians. Someone with a cane could follow the path down the sidewalk, and recognize the curb cuts at streets.
In the U.S. there is just a small pad of dots at the edge of the street, with no indication of which direction to go.
Minibuses connect to outlying areas, and the nearby city of Coquimbo.
Here I'm looking east on Arturo Prat to the Iglesia de San Agustín.
Stoplight jugglers run out into the crosswalk, set up, and put on a show during each red light.
And for a touch of the other side of the Pacific, La Serena has "The Best of the Kawaii World".
The dancers come out on the Plaza de Armas in the evening.
The eclipse vendors are busy.
Former Train Station
Passenger rail transportation in Chile has been scaled way back. The former train station sits beside narrow-gauge tracks that now carry only freight, taking ore from nearby mines to the mineral port in Coquimbo.
The former train station in La Serena is now Centro Cultural Gregorio de la Fuente.
El Faro y Playa
I'm starting to walk the 2‐2.5 kilometer route from the center to El Faro, the lighthouse, and the beach. I'm looking down the central walkway of Avienda Francisco de Aguirre, which I will follow all the way to the shore.
The building with the large mural is part of Universidad Central La Serena.
Getting closer, I can see El Faro in the distance.
A nearby structure was ruined by an earthquake.
The ruined arches provide canvas for Chile's many muralists.
Below, I'm looking west across the bay to Coquimbo. The bay opens to the Pacific toward the right.
Looking north along the beach, I'm looking toward where we'll go for the eclipse.
La Serena was in the path of totality. But by driving to the north, we were right on the centerline and had a slightly longer totality experience.
Now I'm headed back to the center.
Avienda Francisco de Aguirre
Here is Talleres de la Escula Tecnica Feminina, the workshops of the girls' technical school.
This is the Liceo Tecnico Marta Brunet, a technical high school.
And now I'm back where I started that walk, at the east end of the divided avenue. That's the main fire department headquarters beyond the next intersection.
The day after the eclipse, the buses running south out of Coquimbo were mostly full. There was only one with available seats, and it didn't leave until late afternoon. The few others with seats left late in the evening and ran overnight.
I got a ticket on that bus to Santiago, but I would have a long wait until it left.
So, I walked down to the bay-side harbor in Coquimbo.
There is a bustling fish market there.
There are restaurants in the market.
Restaurants and homes have a wide range of choices of seafood.
You can also buy individual servings of ceviche.
Outside the market, many restaurants have seating upstairs with views over the harbor.
I went upstairs to El Romane for lunch.
Seafood stew and Chilean vino tinto.
Eventually the bus arrived and I rode south to Santiago, soon to continue further south.