Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad that there are places in the world where we can find “nothing to remind us of any other people or any other land under the sun.” Although South America was not on the itinerary of Twain’s Quaker City voyage, there is a myriad of destinations in our neighboring continent where we can find little to remind us of home.
An hour and a half outside of Chile’s bustling metropolitan capitol en route to Valparaíso and the acclaimed beach resort city of Viña del Mar, I found myself in the sleepy little village of Isla Negra. The rocky shoreline, shingled cottages and brackish air instantly reminded me of coastal Maine. Yet, I knew I was about to enter an unfamiliar world Twain would have declared “foreign from center to circumference.”
I had known Isla Negra to be the location of Pablo Neruda’s most revered home and his final resting place, but I had no idea that the village was part of mainland Chile. I pictured Isla Negra to be an enchanting island in the Pacific Ocean where Neruda could enjoy complete solitude and have the ability to fully compose his thoughts into literary masterpieces. Nevertheless, it didn’t come as a complete surprise to find Neruda’s former village sits humbly amongst his countryman.
A 1971 Nobel Laureate and one of the greatest Spanish-language poets of the 20th century, Pablo Neruda was a prolific writer of passionate love poems, historical epics and political narratives. Forced into exile for his political views as a Senator in the Chilean government, Neruda would write what is claimed to be the general song of South America, Canto General, while hiding and being cared for in the homes of various Chilean families. I had just finished reading Canto General when I arrived in Isla Negra and I was excited to visit the location in which Neruda drafted much of the work’s preliminary poems.
Without directions or signs leading to the home, I headed towards the coast. Knowing Neruda was just as passionate about the sea as the women in his life, I had a feeling he lived with both beloved comforts by his side. After a few minutes on a dirt road overlooking the Pacific, I stumbled onto a home with the following words engraved on a rauli wood beam near the entrance, “I returned from my travels and I began constructing happiness.” At that moment, I knew I had found the home I was looking for.
The self proclaimed “carpenter-poet” had a fond appreciation for the development of his home in Isla Negra and it is no wonder he inscribed such a commemorative poem at the entrance. Originally a cottage of 70 square meters, Neruda consistently remodeled the home to accommodate his magical vision of life and his vast collection of craft he continually amassed from traveling.
Fascinated by Chile’s seas, one of the very first modifications Neruda made to the house was the addition of a grand window in the bedroom overlooking the crashing whitecaps. A man who personified the ocean and praised those who sailed its tempestuous waves, Neruda maintained his home as though it were a ship. Standing resilient in the face of the volatile Pacific Ocean, amidst a rocky shore and a tumultuous winter, the home could easily be imagined displaying a mast and sail. The engulfing spirit of the home and its ability to withstand violent storms characterizes the man who lived in it.
When Neruda died in 1973, his home was confiscated by the military government. After almost 20 years of deteriorating in the hands of authority, the home was recovered by the Neruda Foundation and restored to sailing condition. Along with the house in Isla Negra, the foundation converted two of his other homes into museums; La Sebastiana in Valparaíso and La Chascona in Santiago.
Visitors frequent these homes each year to peer through the windows of Neruda’s poetic life and walk into dreamy museums of worldly collectibles and eclectic craft. I may not have been personally greeted by Neruda when I entered the Isla Negra home, but the walls came alive and told his glorious tales. Each antique is significant and cries out for attention.
Neruda would have you believe that the wooden sirens continue to chant enchanting song and his vast collection of seashells from around the world whisper stories of life at the foot of the foamy shore. From African masks and bottled ships to a life-size wooden horse and a library of his work, Neruda’s home in Isla Negra is truly an island to itself.
Located just an hour and a half from Santiago, I took the Santiago Metro to Universidad de Santiago and entered the Terminal de Sur immediately to the south of the subway station. I asked for the next bus to Isla Negra and I was told to take the bus headed towards Valparaíso/Viña del Mar.
Neruda’s home in Isla Negra is open from 9:30am – 8pm Tuesday through Sunday in the Chilean Summer (January 2 – February 28) and 10am – 6pm Tuesday through Sunday the rest of the year, an English-speaking tour of the home is only 3,500 pesos ($6.75 USD) and reservations are required, http://www.fundacionneruda.org/.