Pablo Neruda lived in a world of his own making. Nowhere is this more evident than in his nautical-themed home at Isla Negra, where he described himself as the captain and his guests as crew. When he had to don a tuxedo to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, he remarked that the garb reminded him of the get-ups he and his friends would wear during costume parties at Isla Negra. All that was missing was the mustache he sometimes painted on. Isla Negra was the first of three homes Neruda built and the one he chose as his last. Today it has become the Museo Neruda.
Set in an area of tall pines, Isla Negra is a village, not an island, twenty-five miles south of Valparaiso. When the poet purchased his property, it contained only a stone tower, left over from a former dwelling which became the starting place for his new home with a view of the sea. The house was built according to Neruda’s design. Some materials came from construction sites and hardware stores around Valparaiso. On wood tablets, the builder would write down what he needed, sending Pablo and his future wife, Matilde, into town to fetch the items.
On the ground floor Neruda asked for three rooms, a huge living room, a room he called the tavern and a dining room. The poet’s bedroom was built above the tavern on pilings to improve the view. The library, which can’t be reached from inside the house, is decorated from antique shops and flea markets they encountered in their travels.
The purposely disorderly garden was designed and tended by Matilde. Of course, it contains more than plants. Among the unusual garden ornaments is a train car, brought six miles to the property after the sawmill that utilized the train shut down. Figuring out how to get it there was a discussion of many months since the road between the train and the Isla Negra site was hilly and contained a bridge. The final scheme was devised by some young acquaintances from the nearby village of Tabo who combined the power of oxen and jeeps. A boat sits permanently moored at the shoreline, where Neruda was fond of entertaining guests.
Visitors preparing for their Chile tours and planning to visit Isla Negra during their travel to Chile may find two books by Neruda of particular interest, the five-volume, autobiographical collection of poems written between 1962 and 1964, Memorial de Isla Negra, and
Una Casa en la arena (A House in the Sand), a collection written during a decade when he lived much of the time at Isla Negra and contains poems to the deceased friends whose names he carved into beams of the house.
It was to Isla Negra that Neruda returned when declining health forced him to resign his ambassadorship in Paris ten months before he died. Here he was finally able to be at peace, reading the books he had collected over decades and gazing out to sea. Though the government fenced off the property after Neruda’s death, it did not deter mourners who adorned the enclosure with tributes and favorite lines of his poetry. The house remained sealed until 1992 when democracy was restored to Chile. Since then, the government has embraced Neruda as a national treasure. Neruda’s final resting place is located on the grounds of Isla Negra with Matilde at his side. His beloved dog is buried here too: “There, not too deep, not too shallow, he will greet me sometime.”
Many more visitors on Chile tours seek out this monument to the quirkiness of the Chilean icon than the more esoteric Neruda destinations in Valparaiso and Santiago. Advance reservations are necessary for the short tour that is conducted of the Isla Negra home.