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474km (295 miles) N of Santiago

Founded in 1544 on a bluff just south of the Elqui River's entry into the Pacific, La Serena is Chile's second oldest city (the oldest is Santiago, established in 1541). Now home to some 150,000 inhabitants, it alone among the country's larger cities still sports more than just a few memories of Spanish architectural heritage; low-slung colonial houses, beautifully restored churches, and kaleidoscopic crafts markets are all on offer. La Serena is by far the most harmonious city in the entire country; and, with the bucolic and mystical delights of the Elqui Valley less than an hour's drive away and nature preserves both to the south and to the north, La Serena is a worthy destination in its own right.

Chile was one of Spain's poorest, remotest colonies, limiting what could be spent on architecture, and much of what at first glance appears old in La Serena in fact was built rather recently. The town's architecture fails to match the beauty of the colonial gems of the Andean countries, Mexico, or Cuba, but art fans will love the few, attractive Mannerist-style (late Renaissance) stone churches that survived the multiple pirate raids. Most of the city was built during the silver boom times of the 19th century or after 1950 in imitation baroque style, in the wake of the 1948 "neocolonial" plan hatched by President Gabriel González Videla, who hailed from the city. Church spires dominate the skyline, and even the shopping mall respects the traditional style. For several years, construction companies have been pushing for the right to build high-rises downtown. Fortunately, so far at least, city planners have resisted. Hopefully, La Serena will not suffer the same sad fate suffered by most Chilean cities. La Serena has seen notable improvement in the past few years -- many of those ugly electrical and phone cables that mar so many towns have, at least in the city center, been buried under new stone paving -- and nowhere else in the country will you get a better impression of what it was like in the old days. Plus, the beaches are among Chile's finest -- having eclipsed Viña del Mar in terms of beach scene cachet -- and in season, you'll find plenty of activities.