“Friends, bury me at Isla Negra,
before the sea I know, before each wrinkled stretch of stones,
and before the waves my lost eyes
will see no more...”
(‘Disposiciones’, Canto general, 1950)
Rootling nosily through the cluttered house of someone else is one of those irresistibly guilty pleasures. Merciless social convention might tend to dictate that we restrain ourselves, but on Chile’s ragged Pacific coastline lies an answer to the prayers of all those dying to delve, discover, and be delighted...
Neruda's house at Isla Negra
Of all the three Pablo Neruda houses you can visit, perhaps the most romantic and dramatic of all is that perched above the wave-washed sands of Isla Negra. Snugly nestled on the shores of a rocky headland, the roar of the Pacific Ocean, the crash of the frothing waves hurling themselves on to jagged rocks, and the whistling, salt-encrusted wind combine to make paying a call at Neruda’s favourite house an utterly unforgettable visit.
When Neruda returned to Chile from Europe in 1937, he sought the perfect place to disappear to and write what went on to be one of his masterpieces: the collection Canto general, an epic poem providing a founding myth for the Americas separate to the culturally predominant European narratives. And the house at Isla Negra was everything sea-loving Neruda had dreamt of.
Waves and rocks at Isla Negra
Neruda wrote in his memoirs that the ‘wild coast of Isla Negra, with the tumultuous oceanic movement, allowed me to surrender with passion to the venture of my new song.’ The poet named the property Isla Negra (meaning ‘Black Island’), changing it from its original name of Las Gaviotas (‘Sea Gulls’). Possibly inspired by the black rocks on the beach, the house did indeed become a figurative deserted island for Neruda to escape to, his personal oasis, and somewhere to be alone and let his poetic imagination soar.
The plot at Isla Negra originally belonged to Don Eladio Sobrino, a Spanish sailor, who sold the land and stone hut to Neruda in 1938. It was late in 1943 that Neruda engaged the Catalan architect Germán Rodríguez Arías to help him renovate the house and transform it into the house of his dreams, speckled and splashed with the salty spray of the Pacific. The house required four years of devoted work, and the finished product is an eclectic masterpiece, with every nook and cranny a veritable shrine to his oddities and curios, whispering confidentially the secrets, memories, and past adventures of their eccentric owner...
Neruda's house is filled to the brim with objects he fell in love with over the years
Following the 1973 coup, soldiers raided the house at Isla Negra, only to be confronted by an angry Neruda, who told them: “Look around, there's only one thing of danger for you here – poetry.” They left without taking a single one of his invaluable collector’s items.
Today you can visit the grave of Neruda and his third wife Matilde in the gardens of the house. It was only in 1992, two years after the dictatorship ended, that Neruda’s wishes to be buried at Isla Negra were fulfilled, having been buried previously in Santiago’s Cementerio General. He was laid to rest beside his beloved Matilde Urrutia, eternally facing the froth and swell of an ocean he loved and knew so well.
Reflecting Neruda’s famous love of the sea, the house has the air of a ship, with old, creaking wooden floorboards, porthole windows, low ceilings, and a huge anchor moored into the garden outside. Enormous windows afford breathtaking, panoramic views of an infinite ocean swallowing the horizon beyond. Neruda first encountered the immensity of the ocean at Puerto Saavedra in southern Chile and, whilst he was entranced by the myths and legends of the churning waves, he also said he feared the sea and its awesome power. He thus always described himself as a ‘sailor on land’. He had the roof of Isla Negra made from zinc so he could listen to the pitter-pattering song of the pouring rain, and colourful shells were set into the floor at the entrance to welcome and massage the feet of visiting friends.
The anchor in the garden at Isla Negra
Once inside the house, you can expect surprises around every corner, from huge wooden figureheads Neruda salvaged from ship graveyards, to the long, pearlescent tusk of a Norwegian narwhal; from monstrous beetles pinned carefully in his collector’s cabinet, to a tiny, apparently inoffensive bathroom, but whose walls are, on closer inspection, covered with vintage pictures of women in various states of undress. Neruda called himself a cosista (a ‘thingist’), rather than a collector, and he saw the magic in the mundane, the beauty in the banal. Oozing with the poet’s own quirks, the house is a fusion of cultures and experiences amassed during Neruda’s travels across the globe and through life, just like his poetry, and just like the man himself.
You can enjoy Neruda’s extensive shell collection in a room especially built to house it by the Pablo Neruda Foundation, and peek into the cosy bar, whose design and decor were inspired by a Parisian bistro. Neruda carved the names of seventeen of his friends who had passed away into the beams, meaning even death could not stop him from sharing a quiet drink with them. The house is also the grand stable of a large wooden horse Neruda remembered from a toy shop as a child, and which he had brought north from southern Chile upon learning that the shop was closing down years later. The horse had lost its tail over the years, however, and three generous friends presented Neruda with replacements. Unwilling to choose, Neruda gave the horse all three, making it ‘the happiest horse in the world’ in his whimsical eyes.
The bar with the names of Neruda's friends engraved in the beams
Armed with a curious eye, an open mind, and a twinkling sense of humour, the enchanting house at Isla Negra is the ideal half-day excursion for any traveller seeking out the chaotically charming cosista who chuckles quietly behind the glittering Nobel Prize.
Stone bust of Neruda carved into the rock on the beach below, gazing eternally out to sea
Pullman Buses run every quarter of an hour or so to Isla Negra from Valparaíso (taking one and a half hours), whilst there are also regular buses from Santiago (one hour and forty-five minutes). Audio guides, available in Spanish, English, French, German and Portuguese, regale you with delightful anecdotes and tales about the house and its owner as you make your way round. If you plan to visit during the popular summer season, make sure you arrive as soon after 10.00AM as possible to ensure a ticket for the day, since these tend to sell out very quickly - the charismatic Neruda remains in high social demand today, and indeed we would expect no less!
Which is your favourite Pablo Neruda house? Let us know!