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Plaza de Armas, Santiago

Chile: Land of Pablo Neruda, from Santiago to Valparaiso

Most visits to Chile begin in Santiago, with a vibe of energy that blends the traditional with cosmopolitan modernity. The rich cultural scene and abundance of 19th century Beaux-Arts architecture gives it a European feel, with a decidedly South American flavor.

And it is the home to celebrated Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda, who is still lovingly embraced by Chileans today in spite of his lengthy exile from his own home country. Neruda kept several homes in Chile, for his family or mistresses, and although two of them were raided and ransacked following the Pinochet coup and Neruda's death in 1973, all three houses are open to the public today.

Pablo Neruda's House in Santiago

Neruda's residence in Santiago, La Chascona, is tucked away in the Bohemian neighborhood of Bella Vista. This home was built for Matilde Urrutia, at the time his secret lover, and the name (which means the uncombed) is a homage to her abundantly flowing red locks of hair. The house was largely restored by Matilde after Neruda's death, and is now a wonderful museum with collections of Chilean and foreign paintings, African wood carvings and Neruda's original chinaware and cutlery.

Exploring Santiago Neighborhoods

Time given to meandering the Bella Vista neighborhoods is also well spent, full of trendy restaurants, bars, shops and art galleries. Other neighborhoods are just as interesting, from the quiet back streets of Barrio Yungay to the frenetic energy of Plaza de Armas, the main square. A fantastic way to explore the city is on bicycle, with a tour guide such as Andreas Garrido, an architect who started the Paseos en Bicicleta bicycle tour company.

Bikes are a terrific way to explore the dense capitol city, and are Garrido's only mode of transportation. "We will let the city speak to us today," he poetically advises as he leads a tour group to Old Santiago.

From La Moneda presidential headquarters to Plaza de Armas and the colorful Central Market, there exudes a sense of Chile's incredible, and sometimes brutal, history.

Plaque by Neruda house in 
Valparaiso "A hundred years ago we wanted to be French," Garrido says of his country. "Chile is changing so rapidly, and we are right in the middle of it. Under the dictatorship, no one came here. We were always overshadowed by Buenos Aires. But now that the New York Times put Santiago as the top place to visit, everyone is coming."

Santiago is a very culturally rich city; in addition to the influence of Pablo Neruda, you can also visit the Centro Gabriela Mistral to immerse in Chile's literary heros. And there are two things you shouldn't miss in Santiago for the experience alone: a completo, a Chilean hot dog topped with mayo, tomato and avocado which is their most popular fast food; and leggy coffee, which is served in shops where the baristas wear impossibly short skirts. Basically, the Latin coffee house version of Hooter's.

Valparaiso

A couple of hours due west from Santiago lies the lovely coastal town of Valparaiso, which hugs the Pacific cliffsides like a crumbling Latin American San Francisco.

This was the first Chilean city discovered by the Spanish, when they came down from Peru in 1536. It was the main port of the country for many years, the richest and most commercial city in Chile, and was attacked by pirates frequently. But in the early 1900s, the opening of the Panama Canal changed all that, altering Valparaiso's importance.

The steep, winding streets are filled with colorful murals and all roads seem to lead to La Sebastiana, Neruda's second home. The home is named after Sebastian Collado, a Spanish builder from whom Neruda bought the house, and sets of narrow staircases end in a breathtaking view of the city and ocean below. Plaque by Neruda house in Valparaiso

"The Pacific Ocean went off the map," Neruda wrote of his Valparaiso home. "There was nowhere to put it. It was so big and messy and blue that it couldn't fit anywhere. That is why they left it in front of my window."

Although this was the home where Neruda spent the least amount of time, La Sebastiana was home to many festive parties. In fact, the tiny bar is one of the most interesting rooms in the house. He associated this place with happiness and celebration, and his many belongings on display show his playful side.

Isla Negra

Neruda's third home, and perhaps the best-known, is La Isla Negra on a rugged, isolated shoreline not far from Valparaiso. It is the most widely-visited today, with frequent tour buses and group tours inside the house. Although it is significant and still interesting, the tours and crowds make it difficult to take your time and really absorb the feeling of the home, and Neruda, as you can in the Santiago and Valparaiso houses.

Neruda in fact compared himself and his art to that of a builder. "I work with different materials than a bricklayer," he wrote. "Words -- that's all."


Shelley Seale
is a freelance writer by trade, but a vagabond by nature. Her absolute favorite thing to do is travel, and she loves exploring - and even getting lost in - new and foreign places. She has written for National Geographic, Andrew Harper Traveler, Go Nomad, BootsnAll Travel, Just Cause magazine and many others. She has written several books, including The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India and the Insiders Guide to Seattle. You can visit her website HowToTravelForFree.net
Date published: 07/22/2012


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