Many tour operators offer excursions in and around La Serena, including transportation to the observatories. Check with your hotel regarding quality as some get poor reviews, notably Talinay and Intimahina. For day tours of the city or 2- or 3-night specialist packages, including visits to vineyards, nature preserves, and archaeological monuments, as well as a pisco tasting and astronomy lessons, check with Ingservtur, Matta 611 (tel. 51/220165; www.ingservtur.cl), or O.V.I. Travel, Balmaceda 1126 (tel. 51/340541; www.ovitravel.cl). For more athletic activities, including horseback riding, surf camps, ocean kayaking, mountain biking, and camping, contact Chilesafari, Matta 367 (tel. 51/225138; www.chilesafari.com). There's also the little Poisson surfing school (tel. 9/894-9128) right on the beach on Avenida del Mar.

Churches

La Serena's most recent urban renewal includes expensive, bilingual (Spanish/English), but ridiculously illegible glass historic markers on its main landmarks, including the most important of its 30-odd churches. Most, including the 1844-56 cathedral, date back to the 19th-century silver mining boom. Three attractive stone colonial churches bear special mention; admission is free but opening hours are irregular.

Mannerist, late-16th-century San Francisco church at Eduardo de la Barra and Balmaceda, was the only religious building to survive the destruction wreaked by English pirate Bartholomew Sharp in 1680. Supported by meter-thick walls, the stone facade (stone churches are a rarity in Chile) is beautifully carved with ornate Baroque flourishes.

Rebuilt in the mid-18th century in the wake of pirate Edward Davis's 1685 raid, Santo Domingo church is located on a small square on Cordovez just off the main plaza. It boasts a simple, airy interior, a 16th-century baptismal font, and an attractive courtyard; an ill-fitting, neo-Renaissance bell tower was attached in the early 20th century.

Following the expulsion of the Jesuits in the late 18th century, the Augustinians laid claim to San Agustín church, across from the Recova market on Cienfuegos. It has a similar Italian Renaissance style to that of Santo Domingo and was restored between 1985 and 1995 according to the original 17th-century plan.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.