Isla Negra (by John Koelsch)
Out on the central Chilean coast, between the major seaports of Valparaiso and San Antonio, a string of modest-sized resort towns and fishing villages rise up above the sometimes rocky beaches of the Pacific Ocean due west from Santiago. It is a pleasant and picturesque coastline, with an invitingly agreeable climate. Ample accommodations and decent services can be found all along the coastal highway that stretches from Algorrobo on the north on down through the succeeding settlements of El Quisco, El Tabo, Las Cruces and Cartagena, as well as in the port of San Antonio on the south end.
Located about four kilometers south of El Quisco is Isla Negra, which is the fabled beach home of Chile’s immortal poet and literary giant, Pablo Neruda, which is now registered as a Chilean national monument, restored and maintained as a museum by the Fundacion Pablo Neruda. The eclectic home there which overlooks a strikingly beautiful beach of mixed sand and rocky outcroppings was the personal favorite among the three houses owned by the poet (the other two being La Sebastiana in Valparaiso and La Chascona in the Barrio Bellavista of Santiago), and because of that Neruda is entombed there in the garden below the house alongside his beloved third wife, Mathilde.
Despite its name, Isla Negra is not an island, but rather, a small coastal settlement through which the decent paved coastal highway runs as the major commerce link to San Antonio to the south. The house is located within a rather imposing fenced compound with a parking lot that faces the highway. Within the compound the house and its various accessory buildings is concealed from the outside by dense trees and other vegetation, and motor access beyond the entrance is restricted to maintenance and delivery vehicles. On a normal day, the parking lot at the entrance to Neruda’s compound here is full, which means that the immediate surrounding community has become fairly geared to providing auxiliary services to this significant tourist attraction. If one does not come to Isla Negra by bus, then there are numerous privately-owned satellite parking lots within walking distance that will charge a nominal fee to park.
PABLO NERUDA HOUSE
The complex at Isla Negra boasts of several buildings, including one which includes a reception room, a small projection theater, a bookstore featuring the published works of Neruda as well as various related items, and a café where one can be served lunch or coffee, and specializes in recipes favored by the poet himself. The story of Isla Negra goes back to 1939 when Neruda bought the site overlooking the sea and built the house there himself. The retreat became his favorite place to write during his later years, and, like his other homes, he delighted in filling its rooms with an incredible array of esoteric ship’s figureheads and unique nautical miscellanea mixed in with an almost unbelievable assortment of literary flotsam accumulated over a lifetime. The combination of everything, both inside the house and out in the grounds and the garden of the compound is an unmistakable sense of the poet’s presence regardless of the fact that he has been gone for over thirty years. It is well worth the time, money and effort to visit.
MY VISIT IN NOVEMBER 2005
I visited Isla Negra in November 2005, driving out from Santiago shortly after my arrival from North America on the first leg of a multi-month visit to Chile and Argentina. I followed the main highway that leads past Santiago’s Pudahuel Airport, which goes to Valparaiso. But since there is not a direct coastal road that runs south from Valparaiso I needed to exit a few kilometers before reaching Casablanca on the turnoff to Algarrobo, which would lead me out to the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
After visiting La Chascona, which is Neruda’s house in Bellavista (Santiago) a few days before, I was not really expecting to find Isla Negra to be such a popular place, but it was obvious as I came into the hamlet from the north and immediately was confronted with a sudden confined urban rush of buses, cars, delivery vehicles and pedestrians in such a small place. Since by nature I am not one who can readily adapt to sudden changes in traffic, I opted to just drive by the Casa de Neruda and proceed on down the highway for another four kilometers to El Tabo, where I booked myself into a quaint little cottage overlooking the ocean. I decided to take it easy and just enjoy the beach on that day and would make my visit to Isla Negra the following morning.
When I awoke the next day the strong rays of the sun were already burning off the cloud bank which had rolled in from the Pacific and I found great pleasure in basking in the warm sunshine out on the front steps of my cabin with a good hot cup of coffee. It was a Saturday, and I supposed that meant it would be a busy tourist day up at Isla Negra. That didn’t bother me because I had all day to enjoy both this space as well as the Neruda museum, as I had not scheduled anything else until tomorrow’s departure for Pichilemu.
So I spent the entire morning lazily walking the beach below El Tabo and enjoying the ocean smells in the gentle breezes as I strolled along, taking in all of the peacefulness of the moment. After lunch I drove up to Isla Negra, where my predictions of marked tourist activity proved to be accurate. The main parking lot was full, so I proceeded into the hamlet and had no trouble finding a private parking lot to park my rental pickup truck.
It was a short walk to the entrance. Past the high fence and the point where vehicle restrictions are in effect the road forked, with the way to the left leading down to the rocky beach and the way to the right going to Neruda’s house. I came into the reception building and discovered that an English language tour had just started, and if I rushed in I could catch it, otherwise I’d have to wait an hour for the next one. The fee for the English tour was 3,100 Chilean pesos (just under $6 US). I paid it and was rushed by one of the attendants straight up to the room in the house where the tour guide was already busy describing items and filling in his troupe with an ongoing flurry of Neruda anecdotes. I was disappointed that I had missed his introduction, but was not shy about asking him to repeat a couple of things so that I could feel that I got my money’s worth.
We were led from room to room, each containing its own unique clutter of objects. Just as I had learned when I had gone on the tour of Neruda’s La Chascona in Santiago a few days before, Neruda had a fixation on all sorts of things that related to the sea. And these things he collected, obviously obsessively so, but it was clear that everything he had salvaged was something unique. These things all had character, and as such, they mirrored the character of the poet himself, and one could definitely tell that the materials preserved there were like an echo of the essence of the private Neruda, much more than the public, Nobel Prize-winning poet who is known and loved the world over. It was a very insightful tour. And I would add that in reflecting on the experience, I would say I was amused by much of it in a very whimsical way. And I suppose that such could have been my impression of Neruda the man had I been able to have known him beyond his poetry during his lifetime.
Once the tour had ended we were ushered out of the house by our tour guide, but we were allowed to wander freely over the grounds and through the garden, down to the tomb of Pablo and Mathilde and to stay as long as we liked. The view from the tomb is stunning, set as it is down from the house and on a broad rocky outcropping overlooking the beach below and the sea beyond. I lingered there for a time, and then went back up into the reception building, where I browsed through the collections of books and various bits of memorabilia on sale in the bookstore. I ended up buying a small but powerful little book that contained Neruda’s “La Lampara en la tierra” and his signature poem, “Alturas de Macchu Picchu” (cost about $7 US), and then left the compound, retrieved my rental truck and drove back to my cabin at El Tabo, where I sat down and immediately read the poems.
It had been a remarkable visit during a remarkable day. I would think that anyone who is interested in Neruda, his poetry, or in the literature of Chile would find themselves enamored by this place, and if they cannot travel from Santiago to this part of the coast, at least to take the time to visit La Chascona, which is Neruda’s home there in the Barrio Bellavista of the Chilean capitol.
Entrance to the house itself is limited to the tours, which are available in Spanish, English or French. They are conducted between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. and take about 40 minutes, Tuesday through Sunday. They are closed on Monday. Rates were 3,100 Chilean pesos per person in November 2005 but may be slightly higher now. Discounts are available for students and for Chilean senior citizens.