In La Serena, there’s the Faro Monumental, the big lighthouse that marks the beginning of Avenida del Mar and provides an endless source of inspiration for tacky souvenirs. But at the other end of the 11-kilometre-long beach, on top of a hill, there’s another city with another giant structure and, I suspected, another batch of tacky souvenirs—Coquimbo and the Cruz del Tercer Milenio.
I Googled it—I had never heard of it. Apparently, the cross built in 2001 to mark the 2,000 years since the birth of Jesus is considered the tallest monument in South America. “Taller than the Cristo Redentor,” locals assured me. I’m pretty sure God, Jesus and the whole family have seen better tribute than a 83-metre-tall and 40-metre-wide concrete cross but hey, the Vatican approved, so surely, it knows best.
The colectivo from La Serena dropped me off between the shore and the hills, in a pedestrian street close to a mall. Most stores were closed and it was dead quiet, surprisingly so for a sunny Saturday afternoon. A few block further, I stumbled upon the main plaza—shockingly, yet another “Plaza de Armas”–and a tourist info booth.
Coquimbo was so quiet that the employee had taken his shoes off and I woke him up from a nap.
“Would you have a map?”
“Sure!” he replied with a yawn. “So, if you want to go to the Cruz del Tercer Milenio, you can follow the red path here. Although I don’t recommend it, the neighbourhood is a bit… well, just don’t walk through it. Oh, there’s a Fort, but you probably don’t want to go there alone, on foot.”
Right. So, where could I go? He shrugged. I wasn’t even properly dressed for a visit to the Centro Cultural Mohamed VI, the mosque, an unusual sight in South America (especially right below the cross…).
I didn’t feel like climbing the hills. It seemed like it would be easy to get lost in the maze of streets and it did look a bit favela-ish. Better not wander around alone.
So, I went downhill, all the way to the port, where I was greeted by pirate ships—corsairs wroke havoc throughout the region in the 16th and 17th centuries—and a lively fish market. The cebicherías were worth a look, with colourful displays of seafood marinated in lemon juice and the biggest fishes I had ever seen. That’s where everybody was, enjoying deep-fried mariscos empanadas and fish sandwiches.
After that, I walked all the way back to La Serena, which amazed many locals—“but there are BUSES!” “You WALKED ON THE BEACH??” (For the record, it took me less than two hours and I did it again the next day, lovely walk along the Pacific Ocean, what’s wrong with that?)