Revising Isla Negra

Revising Isla Negra
By James Reed

It’s no wonder Pablo Neruda could write «los versos mas tristes» the evening he wrote «Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.» With a house like the one Neruda had on Isla Negra, who wouldn’t aspire to be Latin America’s most romantic poet of the 20th century? Visiting any of Neruda’s three houses in Chile is old hat, a guaranteed tourist trap. But they’re still worth seeing. Neruda spent his days in Chile at either La Chascona (in Santiago’s Bellavista barrio) or La Sebastiana in Valparaiso, but he considered his home to be on Isla Negra.

Even in the heart of winter, Isla Negra is like an oasis. Santiago was cold and uninviting the day my friend and I left at noon for the tiny town, but within two hours there was sun and crashing waves on the Pacific Ocean.

You’ll be dropped off on a dirt road with a sign that says «Museo» pointing you to the right. There are makeshift crafts booths shaded by bamboo roofs that offer tacky souvenirs, but if you’re looking for a suede wallet that has one of Neruda’s love poems inscribed on it, you’re in luck.

You would need a good hour or two to enjoy each of Neruda’s rooms. Unfortunately, the tours are rather rushed, and you’ll probably find yourself lagging behind the rest of the group if you stop to look at each of the African and Southeast Asian masks that line a corridor.

What’s most impressive about Neruda’s home is the sheer diversity of its contents. Neruda spent several years abroad as a Chilean diplomat in Asia, Mexico and Spain, among his other travels.

He brought back plenty of reminders of his days outside of Chile. He was particularly fond of anything that dealt with the sea or navigation, and there are a handful of female mastheads and navigational instruments scattered about the house to prove it. And there’s no doubt that Neruda had a penchant for extravagant collections: seashells, mastheads, telescopes, colored-glass jugs and, curiously, postcards from the French Revolution.

The Pablo Neruda Foundation owns the house, and before entering the house, you should visit the museum’s gift shop. There you’ll find a decent variety of Neruda’s poetry and memoirs, not to mention some posters of the Nobel poet with Socialist President Salvador Allende. There’s also an artsy café with lovely views of the sea, but it’s pretty pricey. Walk a block or two down the road, and you’ll find plenty of restaurants for coffee or a snack.

Fortunately, once you exit house, thoroughly convinced that your own house is terribly unromantic and ugly, you can spend as long as you want snooping around the museum. Neruda was buried was his third wife, Matilde Urrutia, and their grave sits on a modest platform that looks out onto the ocean.

Before heading out, be sure to swing around the corner from the museum and head to the beach. This is where Burning Patience (the Chilean film that inspired the Oscar-winning Il Postino) was filmed. You can climb on the rocks and take postcard-worthy photos.

To get to Isla Negra, take a Pullman bus from either the Santiago or Alameda bus stations. One-way tickets cost $4, and buses leave every 20 minutes. Buy a return ticket at the Pullman ticket office a block up from where you’re dropped off.

Museum admission is $2 for students and $4 for adults, and it entitles you to a tour either in English or Spanish. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.