Pablo Neruda's home away from home: La Isla Negra

Of all three of Pablo Neruda’s house-cum-museums, La Casa de la Isla Negra is the least frequented by extranjeros. The reason is easy enough to grasp; it does not enjoy the convenient locations of La Chascona in Santiago or La Sebastiana in Valparaiso, and as such can simply pass under the radar of many travellers. However, for bona-fide Neruda zealots, a trip to La Isla Negra is not to be missed.

View from Neruda's home
View from Neruda's home

Renamed ‘The Black Isle’ by Neruda after the rocky outcropping in front of his house, La Isla Negra is actually a beachfront town rather than a true island. Its location roughly two hours from Santiago afforded Neruda the solitude from the hustle and bustle of the city – combined with stunning ocean views - which he required to compose his poetry. It was actually his favourite residence and became a labour of love for him, spending almost thirty years redeveloping and extending the original building.

Neruda meticulously planned every detail of the house. The general nautical theme is in keeping with his other residences and speaks of his love for the ocean. Rope-spun bannisters help visitors up spiral staircases, whilst tiny corridors and porthole-like windows emulate the interior of a ship. Figureheads of vessels, an astonishing array of seashells, a writing desk carved from driftwood and ashtrays made from shipyard leftovers are all par for the course when it comes to a Neruda abode.

Bust of Neruda, with house behind
Bust of Neruda, with house behind

Immediately upon entering the house, visitors can sense that this one had perhaps even more emotional significance for the man than his other two beloved homes. A bar adorned with the names of deceased friends is situated beneath Neruda’s bedroom to allow him to “sleep on top of them”. The locomotive in the front yard reminded the poet of his father, who was a railway employee. Even the zinc roof of his covacha (writing ‘cave’) was designed to amplify the pitter-patter of rain and evoke memories of his childhood.

So nostalgic was the man that he even built an entire room to house a relic from his childhood years. Every day on his way to school in the town of Temuco, Neruda would stop in to a toy shop to pet a life-size wooden horse. Upon learning the place had burned down, Neruda immediately inquired about the horse and was able to successfully purchase it at auction. He then proceeded to construct a room specifically to house the creature, and, upon its completion, invited round three friends to celebrate and told them to bring a tail for it. Not having clarified which friend was to bring the tail, they each turned up with one, causing Neruda to dub the giant toy “the happiest horse in the world” for possessing three tails.

Final resting place of Pablo and Matilde
Final resting place of Pablo and Matilde

Such delightful anecdotes abound in Neruda’s favourite home, and the sheer volume of its collection is reason enough to strike out for the remote town. It was indeed this remoteness that allowed the house to retain most of its interior, since La Chascona and La Sebastiana were both repeatedly ransacked under the Pinochet regime. After his death in 1973, his wife Matilde Urrutia fought tirelessly to retain the quirky atmosphere of the house, and now she and Neruda currently reside in the tomb outside the edifice, facing the ocean that her husband loved so dearly.

To get to Isla Negra, take a bus from Santiago to El Tabo and ask the driver to let you off in the town.
To return, take a micro or taxi to El Tabo or El Quisco and buy a bus ticket from there.
La Casa de la Isla Negra opening times: 10-6pm, $4000.
For reduced waiting times, book in advance.
Although extranjeros may miss out La Isla Negra, Chileans (especially school groups) most certainly do not, and the museum is perennially busy.

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