Through careful restoration of its 19th-century center, Coquimbo, a gritty, tough port city of 150,000, has captured the area's nightlife crowds, much to the chagrin of cross-town rivals in La Serena. Though Pedro Velásquez, the mayor pushing for the ambitious renewal, has run into trouble for misusing public funds, the turnaround has been remarkable, particularly in the Barrio Inglés, a neighborhood named for the mostly English foreigners who built the houses in the port's 19th-century heyday. It's like a little Valparaíso, with old mansions turned into restaurants and bars, including the elegant London House, Argandoña 350, on Plaza Prat (tel. 51/323911; www.londonhouse.cl); the Club de Jazz at Aldunate 739 (tel. 51/288784), which is considered the best live jazz venue in Chile, outside of Santiago; Blue Moon, Sierra 51 (tel. 51/312110; www.bluemoon.cl), an informal bar and dance club; and De Costa a Costa, at Aldunate 51 (no phone), a restaurant and bar with sweeping coastal views, serving a good selection of imported and draft beer, and hosting quality live music on the weekends.
Annually, Coquimbo hosts Chile's biggest popular festival, La Pampilla, during Independence Day festivities from September 18 to 20. It's a massive, utterly Chilean folk event with popular concerts, but it might be a little rough for those who are annoyed by heavy drinking. There's also a string of beachfront villages farther south, including Guanaqueros and Tongoy, popular for their wide, sandy beaches and seafood.
Conquimbo's sights include a small, restored 19th-century fort at the end of the peninsula, with an 1868 English cannon and a cafe; the swanky Barrio Inglés, a secluded enclave of restored mansions that were built by some of the finest craftsmen during the city's mining heyday; the church designed by famed French engineer Alexandre Gustave Eiffel in the Guayacán neighborhood; the English cemetery in the same neighborhood; and the 36m-tall (118-ft.) mosque. The mosque was built by Moroccan craftsmen at the behest of Mayor Velásquez and funded by King Mohammed VI of Morocco, though few Muslims actually live in town. It's near the bus station (Rodoviario Coquimbo, Av. Varela 1300; tel. 51/326651). The biggest and ugliest of Velásquez's latest projects is the gigantic hilltop Cross of the Third Millennium, a sculpture that was built to commemorate 2,000 years of Christianity and that now dominates the skyline.
The Norte Chico's dry, clear nights and skies, which are visible only from the Southern Hemisphere, have inspired a cluster of observatories that are among the most advanced in the world. You can visit these for free on Saturdays during the daytime, but must reserve via phone or e-mail weeks before your trip in order to do so.
Near Vicuña are Observatorio Cerro Tololo (tel. 51/205200; www.ctio.noao.edu; Sat 9am-noon and 1-5pm) and Observatorio Gemini (tel. 2/365-4441; www.gemini.edu; no scheduled tours). North toward Domeyko are Observatorio Astronómico La Silla (tel. 2/205200; www.ls.eso.org; contact firstname.lastname@example.org), open September through June on Saturday from 1:30 to 4:30pm, and Observatorio Astronómico Las Campanas (tel. 51/224680; www.lco.cl), open Saturday from 2:30 to 5pm. Both Las Campanas and La Silla are quite a distance from La Serena -- around a 90-minute drive.
You might prefer to look through a telescope yourself, and you can at three tourist observatories. The closest to La Serena is the Centro Astronómico Cerro Mayu, 27km (17 miles) east of La Serena (tel. 51/224508; Tues-Sat 6pm-midnight); admission is $5 (£3.30) for adults, $3 (£2) for students and seniors. If you are staying in Pisco Elqui or Vicuña, your best option is Observatorio Cerro Mamalluca (tel. 51/411352; www.mamalluca.org; daily 9am-8pm except Oct 30, Dec 24-25 and 31, and Jan 1); tours in English or Spanish cost $6 (£4) for adults, $3 (£2) for children. Tours are geared toward those with a basic knowledge and begin at 9pm and last for 2 hours (minibus transfers leave from Vicuña each night at 8:30pm). Tour groups are rather large (often as many as 30 people), which means that there is a lot of standing around in the cold while you await your turn to look through the telescope. Near Andacollo, 60km (37 miles) southwest of La Serena, is Observatorio Astronómico Collowara (tel. 51/432964; www.collowara.cl; reserve at Urmeneta 599 in Andacollo); it costs $6 (£4) for adults, $3 (£2) for children.
Reserva Nacional Pinguino Humboldt
Three rocky islands in the Pacific 110km (68 miles) north of La Serena form the Reserva Nacional Pingüino de Humboldt, a small 860-hectare (2,125-acre) preserve remarkable for its abundant marine wildlife, such as its namesake species of penguin, sea lions, sea otters, and bottlenose dolphins. Other cetaceans have also been sighted on occasion, including fin and blue whales and other species of dolphins. You can disembark on one of the islands, Isla Damas, which has two beautiful beaches and a small campsite (reserve at Conaf in La Serena; tel. 51/272798).
The friendly fishermen in Punta de Choros offer boat trips to the island, and the desert hamlet offers pleasant accommodations, including the rustic Cabañas Amarilis (tel. 9/447-5200; www.ananucas.cl), charming, well equipped cabins close to the main square and the beach. Memo Ruz (tel. 9/534-3644; www.puntadechorosmemoruz.cl) is a tourist center that organizes activities, including diving tours, and also has several sturdy, modern beachside cabins with terraces for rent. Tour agencies in La Serena offer day trips to the preserve. You can book a multiday sea-kayaking, scuba diving, or fishing trip to the islands through Kayak Australis (tel. 2/650-8264; www.kayakaustralis.com) or Yak Expediciones (tel. 9/299-6487; www.yakexpediciones.cl); book early as dates for these trips are limited. Note that trips in the winter months can be very windy, making for choppy water.
The phenomenon known as the Desierto Florido, or flowering desert, occurs when enough rain falls in the winter months to trigger an explosion of colors, carpeting hundreds of square kilometers of parched, barren desert with endemic wildflowers that appear almost hallucinogenic in color. There is really no way to predict when this will happen, especially because winter rainfall seems to be decreasing annually, but a rough guess would put the chances at every 4 or 5 years. Some 70 species, including the rare red lion's claw -- protected in the Llanos de Challe national park -- the violet guanaco's foot, or the blue field sigh, brighten the drab desert near Vallenar, a town 187km (116 miles) north of La Serena. They crop up with at least 35mm (1 1/3 in.) of water; a good year demands some 55mm (2 1/4 in.). When the desert blooms, you'll have from late July to October to visit, with flowers closer to the coast opening their petals later than those in the Central Valley.
Tours are available in season from La Serena, or drive north on the Pan-American Highway (Rte. 5), remembering to fill your tank before departing. From Vallenar, loop to the west to the coast, head north to Llanos de Challe national park, then back southwest to Vallenar.
Fray Jorge National Park
In an otherwise arid area, plants have clutched enough moisture from the desert fog (camanchaca) that regularly rolls in from the ocean to form vegetation amazingly similar to Patagonian rainforests. A UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, Fray Jorge National Park is actually a remnant of those same forests that has held on from the end of the last ice age. Sadly, since its discovery in 1627 by Franciscan friar Jorge, settlers chopped down much of the original forest, leaving just 400 wooded hectares (990 acres) out of a total 9,959 hectares (24,610 acres) protected in the national park. Beyond a visitor center, a short hilltop trail leads through the forest and offers views of the steep drop to the Pacific. The best time to visit is late October and November, when its flowers bloom. Park wildlife includes birds of prey, hummingbirds, guanacos, gray and culpeo foxes, along with sea otters and Humboldt penguins along the shore. Fray Jorge is about 100km (62 miles) due south from La Serena on the Pan-American Highway. Tours are available from La Serena. The park is open daily from 9am to 4pm, and an hour later in January and February. Admission for adults is $3 (£2) and $1 (70p) for children.
As the limited trail means your visit to Fray Jorge will likely be short, I recommend you combine it with a visit to the Valle del Encanto National Historic Monument, 14km (9 miles) from the Pan-American Highway. The park holds 30 petroglyphs chiseled into the stones by the El Molle culture from around A.D. 700, though objects dating from as far back as 2000 B.C. have been found. The park is open daily from 8am to 4:30pm; admission is 60¢ (40p) for adults, 20¢ (15p) for children. There are also thermal pools at the Socos spa and hotel (tel. 53/198-2505; www.termasocos.cl).
Farther inland from Fray Jorge are Ovalle, whose museum holds a very good collection of Diaguita pottery, and Andacollo, a mining village that hosts one of Chile's main religious celebrations. In honor of the Virgin Mary, an astounding 400,000 pilgrims congregate here on December 26, following a tradition begun in 1584. Including Fray Jorge, this 318km (197-mile) loop can be done in a day with a rental car, but it will be a long one as roads to Andacollo are not all paved and some have hairpin mountain turns. You might want to consider an overnight stay at Socos.
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.