La Serena is a peaceful city on the Chilean coast, about six hours drive north of Santiago. It is free of high-rises and traffic, small and compact, and cheap compared to Santiago. In the city, there’s not much left from the colonial days, but enough things to see to keep someone occupied for more than half a day.
Plaza de Armas
Life is centered around Plaza de Armas, which is lined with government and religious buildings. In the center is a sculpture and fountain. There are tall trees, plenty of benches, and some street vendors.
The Catedral de La Serena sits on the southeast corner of the plaza. The current cathedral was built in 1844, while the original church was destroyed in 1680 by English pirate Bartholomew Sharp. The tomb of conquistador Francisco de Aguirre is inside. He was the founder of the city. Next to the cathedral is the Palacio Arzobispal (Archbishop’s Palace) and the red and white Tribunales de Justicia (courthouse).
On the opposite side of Plaza de Armas sits the Casa Museo Gabriel González Videla. It was a 19th century home once used by the former Chilean president Gabriel González Videla. The museum holds personal items of the president. On the north side of the plaza is the headquarters of the regional government.
Down the hill to the west of Plaza de Armas, I found the Jardín Japonés. This was my favorite part of the city. It’s the largest Japanese garden in all of Latin America. There are bonzai trees and several other shrubs, flowers, and plants.
I enjoyed the serenity of the garden, walking along the paths past bridges and pagodas. Families with children were excited about the pond with fish, ducks, and swans. Admission is CLP $1,000 (as of March 2014).
One of the most interesting historic buildings I found was Casa Jiliberto, built in 1898. It’s just a couple blocks north of the Iglesia de San Agustín.
The city center of La Serena has a few beautiful streets to walk down, notably Calle Arturo Prat and Avenida Balmaceda. There are shops, cafés, and restaurants along them.
Francisco de Aguirre
Finally, there is a park running the length of Francisco de Aguirre. It’s lined with replicas of Greek and Roman statues. At the very end is a statue of the conquistador himself.