Walk into La Casa en El Aire, a brightly painted cottage-like coffeehouse in Santiago’s dynamic Bellavista neighbourhood, and you’ll know what Chile’s most famous poet, Pablo Neruda, meant when he said, “I drink to the word, raising / a word or crystalline cup”. La Casa en El Aire is one of many charming Chilean cafes where the poetry and music of yesteryear is alive and well.

From the protest songs of Victor Jara to the emotional sonnets of Gabriela Mistral, the written word is central to Chilean society. The nation’s troubadours and scribes are also its heroes. Journey into Chile’s literary and musical past by following in the footsteps of three of the nation’s most well-known wordsmiths, and you will find a closer connection to the country’s present. 

Pablo Neruda
Begin your trip by touring one of Pablo Neruda’s three homes, now open as museums. In Santiago, Neruda designed La Chascona for himself and his mistress, Matilde Urratia, who later became his third wife. In Valparaiso, Neruda (along with artists Marie Martner and Francisco Velasco) bought and converted a mansion overlooking the bay. They named it La Sebastiana after its original architect, Sebastian Collao. Just south of Valpo in El Quisco, Neruda’s most famous house, Isla Negra, is also where he was buried, according to wishes he expressed in his poem Disposiciones: “Friends, bury me in Isla Negra / facing the sea I know, every rough area / of rocks and waves that my lost eyes / never see.”

All three houses are sights to be seen, as Neruda filled his homes with eclectic assortments of art – from a portrait of Walt Whitman in La Sebastiana, to a desk made from the door of a ship in Isla Negra, to plates with eyes on them in all three.

Like many writers in Chile, Neruda was a political leader and a dissident. A senator for the Communist Party in the 1940s, he was forced into exile when communism was outlawed. After returning to Chile in 1952, he threw his support behind a new socialist candidate, Salvador Allende, who eventually became the country’s first democratically elected socialist president. On 11 September, 1973, Allende was overthrown by a US-backed coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. The new military-led regime ransacked Neruda’s homes of La Chascona and Isla Negra. According to the book Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life, as Pinochet’s troops searched Isla Negra, Neruda implored, "Look around — there's only one thing of danger for you here — poetry."

Just 12 days after the coup, Neruda died. Although the poet’s estate has maintained that he died of prostate cancer, last month Chile launched an investigation into Neruda’s death due to allegations that he was poisoned by Pinochet’s regime.

Victor Jara
While the cause of Neruda’s death is up for debate, the same cannot be said for that of Victor Jara. The protest singer and political activist, famous for songs like the Right to Live in Peace, was arrested, tortured and murdered in the National Stadium by military troops after Pinochet took power in 1973, thus becoming a martyr for Chile. The stadium where he was killed is now named the Victor Jara Stadium in his honour.

Along with singer Violetta Parra, Jara led the nueva canción (new song) movement in Chile. Their music offered intensely political lyrics and folk melodies reflecting strong Andean influences.

To hear Jara’s moving protest songs, start in his home of Santiago. La Casa en El Aire often hosts musicians who harken back to the “new song” era, and at Café Tavelli, singers and spoken word artists take the stage.

Perhaps the best way to pay respects to Jara is by visiting the Victor Jara Foundation. Dedicated to remembering the singer and other human rights activists who have fallen victim to government oppression, the foundation houses a concert venue where young musicians and political activists perform and meet to organize around social issues.

Next, head to enchanting Valparaiso, where the arts scene is as colourful as the European-style buildings. Chilean music and poetry can be heard in Café Vinilo and Bar La Playa.

Gabriela Mistral
About nine hours north of Valparaiso is Vicuña, the birthplace of Gabriela Mistral, the first person in Latin America to win the Nobel prize for literature. There, the Gabriela Mistral Museum exhibits treasures from the author’s literary life – completed and unfinished manuscripts, letters, her desk and her own book collection that she donated to start Vicuña’s first public library.

Southeast of Vicuña, travellers can visit Mistral’s tomb in the town of Monte Grande, where she grew up. Nearby, the schoolhouse where her family lived and her sister worked as a teacher has been turned into a museum called La Casa Escuela.

Back in Santiago, celebrate Mistral’s dedication to art and education at the free Galería de Arte Gabriela Mistral. Then, head over to the Centro Gabriela Mistral, which hosts theatre, music, dance and visual art shows.