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Chile’s second-oldest town lures tourists with its crescent of a dozen sandy beaches, uniquely neocolonial architecture, and dry desert air. Travelers using La Serena as a base take advantage of those clear skies in the nearby Elqui Valley, the first International Dark Sky Sanctuary in the world, renowned for its stargazing. The desert’s natural beauty brings people in for its spring bloom, while late spring through early fall offers excellent whale watching conditions. And, as capital of the Coquimbo Region, La Serena serves as a hub for the area’s prominent wine and pisco industries, with plenty of opportunities to taste local products in town and on tours to nearby estates.
The nearest major airport to La Serena is about five hours away by car or seven hours by bus in the capital city of Santiago (SCL) — and connects to flights all over the world from most major airlines. La Serena’s own small airport, La Florida (LSC), offers several departures daily for the one-hour flight to Santiago. It also offers flights to a few other destinations around northern Chile. Once in La Serena, you can rent a car from major international companies or navigate the ample transportation options, including private and collective taxis, ride shares, and various types of buses — public, tour, and long distance.
The desert climate of La Serena means you can leave your raincoat at home, as almost no rain falls outside of June, July, and August. Even in those winter months, the days stay moderately warm, with high temperatures averaging around 60 degrees Fahrenheit ― a number that goes up by about ten degrees in summer. The pleasantly warm temperatures in December, January, and February bring the beachgoers, so don’t forget your sunglasses and plenty of sunscreen. The crisp desert air cools off at night, though, with lows averaging around 45 degrees Fahrenheit in winter and just below 60 degrees in summer, so pack a few warm layers.
Twelve beaches along La Serena’s sweeping shoreline line this “Avenue of the Sea,” almost all of them excellent for swimming, sunbathing, and beach sports. This pleasant pathway for walking and lane for biking, well maintained and well lit at night, runs along the beach side of the street throughout town and into neighboring Coquimbo, while restaurants and bars line the inland side, along with other useful businesses, like bike rentals.
One of Chile’s most important winemaking (and pisco distilling) regions by day and a hub of astrotourism at night, the Elqui Valley sits on the southern edge of the Atacama Desert, about an hour from La Serena, and is well served by local tours and transportation. About a dozen observatories cater to stargazers, helping you understand what you can see thanks to the clear skies, dry weather, and high altitude.
A bit of a drive and a quick boat ride from La Serena brings you to the three islands of the National Humboldt Penguin Reserve — of which only Isla Damas allows you to visit. Scenic white sand beaches and crystal-clear water play second fiddle to the real attraction: the wildlife, including Humboldt penguins and bottlenose dolphins.