In the heart of beautiful Barrio Bellavista, with its tree-lined streets, artsy shops and bohemian galleries, you’ll find the former house of Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda and his beloved La Chascona. The airy abode was built by Santiago’s favorite son for his mistress, and later wife, singer Matilde Urrutia.
Called “La Chascona,” a Quechua word for “tousled,” for her unruly mane of red hair, her love affair with Neruda remained secret for almost a decade, hidden away here in Santiago. Neruda kept several residences, including one in Michoacan, Mexico, with his wife, Delia de Carril. His three homes in Chile are now preserved by the Pablo Neruda Foundation as “casas museos” or “house museums”. This one, Casa Museo Isla Negra, on Isla Negra and Casa Museo La Sebastiana, in Valparaiso can all be visited.
You’ll probably whirl through the Bellavista neighborhood anyway, to climb Cerro San Cristobal for its marvelous city views (“bella vista” means “beautiful view”), visit the Santiago Zoo or simply peruse the shops selling lapis lazuli, a deep blue stone found only in Chile and Afghanistan. Bellavista still attracts Chile’s artists, poets and dreamers. The bohemian feel of its shops, restaurants and nightlife makes this one of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods. Try to come on a weekend, when the evening handicrafts market brightens up the length of Pío Nono.
You must visit La Chascona on a guided tour. Spanish speakers can just show up and tours leave almost hourly. If you’d prefer yours in English or French, it’s better to make reservations at least one day in advance through the Neruda Foundation website.
The tour takes about an hour, taking in the architectural details that were originally planned by Catalan architect German Rodriguez Arias, but modified and improved upon by Neruda himself. The house hasn’t been kept in its original state, but instead displays many of the collections and mementos of Neruda and Urrutia, including a famous portrait of the singer by Diego Rivera, framed with her long hair flowing out of control.
You’ll also learn the story of the couple, immortalized in the 1964 movie “Il Postino.” Part of the story is how they met on a stroll and eventually purchased this place in 1953, carefully concealing their affair from a Chilean public they thought would certainly disapprove. They eventually married, however, and lived out lives of poetry and song, until the slaughter of President Salvador Allende and installation of a foreign-run military dictatorship in 1973.
Neruda, a very public supporter of Allende and avowed leftist, died of natural causes just a few days after the coup. To dissuade his fans, the military diverted a stream to flood La Chascona, and closed all of Neruda’s homes to visitors. Urrutia, not dissuaded, rebuilt the home and lived here until her death in 1985. It is now one of the most popular attractions in Santiago.
Though a casa museo may not sound like an inspiring spot to enjoy an afternoon, the poetic beauty, historic significance and spiritual depth of the visit puts a smile on most travelers’ faces. Enjoy!