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Home/Stories and articles/Tourism
July 2005

Cartagena, Las Cruces and Isla Negra:
Chilean poets and their beach houses

It is here were you could find people like Pablo Neruda, Vicente Huidobro and, still, Nicanor Parra.

By Dario Osses

Chile’s most popular seaside town took its name from Juan de Cartagena, who at the beginning of the 17th Century owned an hacienda in San Antonio. Before the arrival of the Spaniards, all this land was the property of the changos, then led by the cacique Huechun.

During the middle of the 19th Century, the changos’ descendents still inhabited the large beach between Cartagena and Las Cruces. Historian Jose Toribio Medina went walking down the beach collecting traces of those old Indian populations that made their living from fishing. With what he found, he published one of the first anthropological articles ever made by a Chilean investigator.

It’s been said that at the time of the Pacific War the region was subject to some military drafts. Some of the Indians were then drafted, but others escaped. That’s how this area began being more and more desolate. Years later, it had to be rediscovered and populated again, but this time as a summer vacation town.

Lunch at La Marquesa
Before the train to Melipilla even existed, vacationists arrived to this town in horse cars and horses, after seven or eight hours of travel. The next day, they would ride around the hills, looking for a place to have lunch and make their horses rest. The most visited place was a big hacienda called La Marquesa, a name that has even been part of our literary tradition. Its owner was one of our most original novelists, Pilo Yáñez, also known as Juan Emar.

In order to write his novel Gran señor y rajadiablos, Eduardo Barrios got a job as manager of La Marquesa. That’s how he got to know Chile’s rural world.

In that same hacienda, lived for a while several Spanish republicans that arrived there after the Civil War. Their story was part of the plot of a novel that had a big success both in Chile and the US during the 90s: Elena Castedo’s El Paraíso.

When the Melipilla train started working, the trip was considerably shortened; and even more when, in 1911, the railway extended its line to Puerto Viejo, in San Antonio, where there had been built wharfs, small docks and piers for the ongoing port activity. You could then travel by horse car to Cartagena. This trip had to be made with at least four horses, since it included a very steep hill.

Two spaces are open
In 1922, the train finally arrived to Cartagena. From there up to Las Cruces, over the beach began the building of a new animal-traction train. With time, the roads that connected Santiago with the coast also improved. In February of 1927, the first car-race between Santiago and Cartagena was organized. The winner, Aladino Azzari, made the journey in almost the same time we now take on driving those highways.

The beginning of communications with the coast, meant the opening of two new spaces: one ritual, one mythical. The first was the seaside town as a stage for social rituals and summer life. On the other hand, painters and writers began building their own images of what our coastal landscape was: cliffs, rocks, waves... all put together like in a mythical space, that since then has filled several pages and canvases. Somehow, the seaside began being seen as a space for creation and reflection.

Tutelary poets
One of the first poets who moved to the coast was Manuel Magallanes Moure. In Cartagena he wrote his novel La casa junto al mar (House by the sea), which was published in 1957.

Painter Juan Francisco González used to go to Las Cruces before it became a holiday spot. Jimena, his granddaughter, remembers the summers the family used to have there. Every season, González would paint three or four new canvases. He would go out walking, and when he found something attractive he painted it immediately; could be a sea landscape or a peasant, with whom he enjoyed very much having a conversation.

There are many coastal towns in Chile that have a specific poet as a kind of tutelary genius. That's the case of Isla Negra, which used to be a wild and hard to reach beach when Pablo Neruda settled there, in 1938, looking for a place to write his Canto general. Isla Negra was then known as Las Gaviotas. There were a few stone houses built by Eladio Sobrino, a Spanish seaman who had sailed to the Pacific, lost his ship in Punta Arenas, and decided to stay in Chile. That was one of the houses Neruda bought. In his book Una casa en la arena, he poetically rebuilds the house and its surroundings.

There was a group of writers that called themselves "Los Diez" (The Ten), led by Pedro Prado. They had plans for building a tower there at Las Cruces, but only the sketches (made by Julio Bertrand) were left.

But Las Cruces' one and only poetic genius is Nicanor Parra. He moved about 15 years ago to one of the traditional houses by the sea, one that was then known as "the black castle". It was an impressive wooden building, all covered with tiles, with three levels in its main building, and other five in a tower. It was built by architect Hector Hernandez for Rodolfo Marin, Colchagua's intendant in 1919. The black castle was inspired in the picturesque style which so influenced Chile's seaside architecture. Unfortunately, a fire brought down the whole building. So the poet had to move to the house just on the side, from which he had a full view of the small beach.

During the spring of 2004, Las Cruces and many visitors celebrated the 90 years of age of Nicanor Parra, with ninety bell tolls from the church’s tower ¾built by famous painter and architect Pedro Subercaseux¾ and ninety kites flying from the beach.

To live and die in Cartagena

Cartagena’s tutelary poet is Vicente Huidobro.

On September 24th, 1947, a few months before his death, Huidobro told his friend, Spanish poet Juan Larrea, that he had inherited part of a big hacienda by the sea from his parents and grandparents. There he lived in peace, silently working on the garden of that simple rural house.

The poet enjoyed inviting his friends to this house in Cartagena. Among the most frequent visitors was Eduardo Anguita, who was always amusing Vladimir, Huidobro’s son, with a story about a world full of dwarfs, right under the sand of the beach.

In his Huidobro biography, La marcha infinita, Volodia Teitelboim wrote that when the poet was returning from his last trip to Europe, during the final years of his life, what he found in that house was a full retreat. It was a time in which he enjoyed horseback riding with his dogs.

Huidobro used to travel by train from Santiago to the Cartagena station. On the last days of December, 1947, he made again the journey in order to spend New Year’s Eve by the sea. As usual, he walked from the station to his house (which was located uphill), carrying his suitcase all by himself. Maybe the effort was what caused him a brain stroke.

His biographer, Volodia Teitelboim, wrote that 1947 was his most terrible year. The poet was bedridden, struggling between life and death, when the guests started arriving to his house. Some years later, writer Eduardo Anguita would remember how the toll of the bells and the fireworks made Huidobro sit in his bed, all upset. He could not recognize those people, and told everyone he felt afraid, but didn’t know of what.

The poet died in his house of Cartagena the evening of Friday January the 2nd, 1948. The town’s mayor lent a tomb in the so-called Fishermen’s Cemetery for a temporary burial (later he would be moved to the part of his house that he had previously chosen for his eternal rest). In one of the articles compiled in the book Pretérito presente, Chilean literary critic Alone wrote about a ceremony which he described as “sad, pathetic, weird, desolate and so terribly meaningful”. The poet’s funeral was “that endless march behind an hermetic car: mystery painted in black. To walk down to the sea, by the hillside, and follow the path of sand, dunes and eucalyptus…”.

The procession eventually arrived to a very small cemetery hidden behind some houses. It was hard to pass the coffin through such a narrow door. “When they tried to put it on the grave, it wouldn’t fit. Impossible. So they looked around and saw an empty space not so far away”, writes Alone. Somebody said that space was owned by such and such, and then somebody replied that this person would probably not die soon. So they measured the grave’s mouth and the coffin with a tree branch, and when they were sure it would fit, they just left it there.

Alone ends up analyzing how Huidobro, who had always thought that the stage that his country offered him was narrow and avaricious, ended up “marching escorted by peasants from his inherited ranch to the least exotic of Chile’s graves”; with an incongruence so typical of him.

Workers say that when the poet’s remains were taken from the place he had been left, then came a flock of about fifty birds that followed the coffin all the way to the final tomb.

So Huidobro stayed forever in Cartagena. There were many legends around this story. Some said, for instance, that he appears by night as a ghost-JINETE. Volodia Teitelboim writes that, considering the occultism studies he had taken in Paris and some of his texts about supernatural worlds, he probably wouldn’t have minded being transformed into a local superstition. 

To Cartagena also retired writer Luis Enrique Delano. His house, near the now destroyed train station, was later inherited by his son Poli Delano, who became one of the main organizers for many Arts and Culture festivals that were made in Cartagena during the 90s.

Painter and writer Adolfo Couve also chose to live and die in Cartagena.

The say it’s childhood the true country of poets.  Maybe their second country is some seaside town.



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