La Serena is a Chilean city and commune in Elqui Province and capital of the Coquimbo Region. Founded in 1544, it is the country's third oldest city after Santiago and Arica. It is located 471 km north of Santiago, and has a communal population of 190,716 (2006 projection, and 400,000 the Greater La Serena) and an area of 1,892.80 km². It is one of the fastest-growing areas of Chile, witnessing a population increase of 32.6% between 1992 and 2002.
It was first founded by Spaniard Captain Juan Bohón in September 4 1544 on the orders of Pedro de Valdivia in order to provide a sea link between Santiago and Lima. In 1549 the town was totally destroyed by local Indians and re-founded the same year by Captain Francisco de Aguirre in a safer location. The town has retained its historic architecture and this, along with a selection of beaches (known as Avenida del Mar, "Sea Avenue"), has caused the city to become a significant tourist centre, attracting many foreigners (most of them Argentines from San Juan and Mendoza provinces) during January, and later Santiago residents fleeing February heat.
Its traditional architecture consists of a series of housing and public buildings, of late 19th-century vintage, built with wood from the US state of Oregon brought to Chile as counterweight in sailing vessels coming to Coquimbo, the nearby port, to load copper and other minerals for transport back to the US. This Oregon pine and the use of adobe create the genuine image of the city.
There is also a number of remarkable and valuable small churches built of sedimentary stone quarried 5 km to the north of the Elqui River, having a characteristic color and texture formed by myriad small shells. These churches are all roughly 350 years old and have undergone restoration to varying degrees, bringing them back to their original form. San Francisco, San Agustín, Santo Domingo are the names of a few of them.
The city is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of La Serena. The Cathedral, built from the same stone, dates from the 19th century. It must be said that although it lacks the same historical value as the older churches, this is a stone building in a country prone to seismic activity, and has survived various earthquakes. Indeed, during centuries of existence, there is almost no visible damage. All of these churches, along with others of minor importance, provide a unique urban landscape, an image for the city, giving it the nickname "The City of Churches."
A few of the major sectors are: El Centro ("downtown"), Peñuelas (actually a suburb between La Serena and its sister city Coquimbo), San Joaquín (neighborhood on a hill overlooking the ocean), La Florida, Las Compañías ("the companies"), Cerro Grande ("big hill"), La Antena and the new El Milagro ("the miracle") development.