By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 23, 2003

The weather-beaten ship's hatch Pablo Neruda used as a desk sits majestically in one corner. The tuxedo the famed poet wore when he accepted the 1971 Nobel Prize hangs in an upstairs closet, still neatly pressed. And nearby, facing the sea he loved, is the bed where he took his final breath more than three decades ago. After wandering around Neruda's house in the oceanside Chilean village of Isla Negra for the better part of a morning, I strolled outside and brought my literary sojourn to this South American country to an end.

Or so I thought.

As a longtime admirer of Neruda, Isabel Allende and other Chilean writers, I had wondered what kind of culture had produced them. In April, after re-reading my dog-eared anthology of odes to the Atacama Desert and other far-flung Chilean locales, I decided to pack a bag and see for myself.

In the stately capital city of Santiago, I had spent four days visiting literary monuments and haunts in the area: the elaborate mural in Santiago's Cerro San Lucia park of the poet Gabriela Mistral, whose emotional verses made her Chile's first Nobel Laureate, in 1945; the art-filled homes where Neruda had lived; and Cafe Tavelli, which doubles as a watering hole and performance place for the city's best-known writers, where I heard a spirited reading by four poets.

I had even paced along Calle Cueto, a street of ramshackle houses on the edge of the city, in search of the mansion Allende had used as a model for the house of spirits, the magical abode at the center of her first novel, until finally someone told me it had been razed. On a couple of evenings I wound up at Cafe Las Lanzas, the hangout of the moment for Santiago's young, hip scribes, where I sipped goblets of Chilean chardonnay and bantered about prose.

And now, following my visit to Neruda's house in Isla Negra, I leaned against a bus sign and prepared for the 11/2-hour ride back to Santiago. A young couple in jeans and backpacks made their way toward me along the dusty road. They greeted me in Spanish, chatted briefly, then invited me to join them for tea.

Within minutes I was huddled before a fire on a brisk, autumnal afternoon in the cafe of La Candela, a cozy guesthouse around the corner, sipping Darjeeling and swapping tales from the road with Anna and Miguel, travelers from the desert regions of northern Chile. Like me, they had made the trip from Santiago earlier that morning, especially to see Neruda's house.

The tour, we agreed, had been rushed, the guide too brusque. But the quirky relics of Neruda's life -- the life-size horse carved of wood, voluptuous figurines taken from the masts of ships, collections of everything from wooden Spanish stirrups to African masks -- had made the visit worthwhile.

I told them how I had strolled along the rocky shore below the house, imagining Neruda moseying a few footsteps ahead. I had stopped at the site where the poet and his wife, Matilde Urrutia, are buried, in a simple plot marked only by a placard. Standing before it, I was sure that the spirits of the couple were looking at me from inside the house.

Eventually, Miguel acknowledged that our meeting was not altogether a coincidence. "I spotted you at the Neruda museum," he said. "I invited you here because I have something to share with you, if you don't mind."

"Of course not," I said, leaning forward.

Even for the casual visitor, a literary sojourn makes for an easy entree to Santiago and environs. To be sure, the city, probably the most underrated South American capital, has a lot else going for it. The Pre-Columbian Art Museum and other repositories of paintings and pottery have impressive collections. The cuisine, featuring Chile's famous sea bass and wines, is first-rate. Among urban areas in this region, it has one of the lowest rates of pickpocketing and other crimes against tourists. The dollar is strong here, too, making it more affordable than Europe and many places in the Caribbean. But with its population of 5 million, and myriad neighborhoods, public squares and parks, Santiago can seem to a newcomer like a South American version of Los Angeles: a city without a center.

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