Travel review: Chile - Poetry in ocean

Santiago

Santiago

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Cafes doubling as catwalks and buildings daubed with street art, Sarah Marshall explores the Chilean homeland of literary great Pablo Neruda.

Looking through the tall bay windows, beyond the jumble of chaotic rooftops and bristling palm trees, lies the silky blue Pacific Ocean.

Surrounded by pieces of maritime memorabilia, I easily imagine myself on one of the great ships that once docked in Chilean seaside town Valparaiso and the four-storey house, wedged into one of Valparaiso’s 45 hills, aptly reflects the life of Chile’s maverick Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda, who made his home here in the 1960s.

During the late 19th century this now laid back coastal town enjoyed a former life as one of the most important ports in South America. All that changed though in 1914 when the Panama Canal opened up an alternative trade route, and 100 years later the UNESCO World Heritage site, still linked by well worn, trundling funiculars, is now a magnet for artists, writers and creative types.

Houses in sunshine yellows, pastel pinks and burning reds are stacked into the sky, their walls often decorated with daring murals – from the politically subversive, to the strikingly cool.

Despite ongoing seismic activity in this area, several aristocratic mansions built in the 1920s are still standing and have been transformed into boutique hotels. I stay at Casa Higueras, with rooms echoing past glories, and a bay view from the Montealegre restaurant that would certainly have pleased Pablo Neruda.

Hanging out in bars and dining spaces is a way of life in Valparaiso – not only for the culinary pleasures afforded, but also the chance encounters. The owner of nearby Cafe del Pintor tells me about a young French girl who sat down at a table next to a blank white wall and immediately identified it as a canvas for her next mural. The space is now covered with bicycles, birds and steam ships spiralling from a bearded man’s pipe; her interpretation of the dream-like town.

Like Pablo Neruda, many artists seek escapism in Valparaiso, but the free and easy aesthetics also seem to be filtering through to nearby Chilean capital Santiago, a two-hour drive away.

This is where Neruda spent a great deal of his time, at La Chascona, a house built in honour of his lover Matilde Urrutia. Since the poet’s death in 1973 and the subsequent rise and fall of notorious dictator Pinochet, the city has drastically changed.

Improved flight links, such as the KLM route operating from the UK through Amsterdam, have tempted more foreigners to explore a destination that’s surprisingly European in character.

Standing beneath a puzzling display of spray paint, dismembered toy dolls and battered trainers, in a backstreet of the trendy Barrio Lastarria, I can only imagine Neruda would have smiled wryly and approved of this modern work of street art.

Due to subsequent earthquakes, many of Santiago’s historical buildings have been destroyed; the cathedral in Plaza de Armas is in its fifth incarnation. The Lastarria Boutique Hotel, where I stayed, is one of the few surviving colonial mansions.

Close to several art galleries and Cerro Santa Lucia, one of the city’s most popular parks, its location is excellent. A candle-lit pool area in the garden, and bedrooms overlooking the leafy streets, are reminders Santiago is now the sort of stylish destination that might feature as a photo shoot location in Vogue.

A thick curtain of white smog has been drawn across the Andes, which hug the city, but the view from the top of Cerro Santa Lucia is impressive. Skyscrapers tower almost as high as the snow-capped peaks, showcasing a modern city that’s withstood the test of seismic shifts – both physically and politically.

Few people bring up Pinochet in conversation, but many vestiges from his oppressive reign of terror, which lasted until 1990, can still be found. A former torture centre at Londres 38 in downtown now functions as a memorial to the 40,000 people who disappeared during his regime, while dive bar La Piojera, once popular with dissidents, is still open for business.

I call into the raucous drinking hole, and after declining house speciality the Terremoto (meaning earthquake) – a shocking pink concoction of white wine and Fernet, topped with a dollop of pineapple ice cream – I head for what I mistakenly assume to be a more sober coffee at Cafe Caribe on Paseo Ahumada. Curvy waitresses in low-cut micro-minis parade up and down a raised catwalk in the mirror-lined room, serving coffees accompanied by more than just one lump or two.

Known as “cafe con piernas” (coffee with legs), venues such as this were championed by businessmen in the 1970s, fed up with the conservative political regime. Now female patrons are just as welcome, although they tend to shy away from hardcore establishments, where baristas appear to have fashioned bikinis from flimsy serviettes.

Thankfully, the dress code is not so minimal in Borago, a wildly creative restaurant that rates eighth in Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Chef Rodolfo Guzman and his team prepare dishes with ingredients foraged from the entire 2,600 mile length of Chile.

Highlights of a mammoth tasting menu include a Pisco Sour made with mora berries from Patagonia, and a squid ink cracker topped with goat’s cheese, floating on pureed samphire. The dish is named Cremosa de Isla Negra, a coastal town south of Valparaiso, christened by Pablo Neruda, who owned a third residence here. “The Pacific Ocean overflowed the map,” he once said of his front room vista. “There was no place to put it. It was so big, unruly and blue that it fitted nowhere. That’s why they left it in front of my window.” Biting into my dish, I have a good indication of Isla Negra’s appeal. At times baffling but thoroughly brilliant, Neruda’s Chile is a work of art.

• Sarah Marshall was a guest of HighLives Travel (020 8144 2629, www.highlives.co.uk) who offers tailor-made trips to Chile. Doubles at Lastarria Boutique Hotel (www.lastarriahotel.com) cost from £143. Doubles at Casa Higueras (www.casahigueras.cl/en) start from 230 US dollars.

Fly to Santiago de Chile from 19 UK airports daily with Air France via Paris (www.airfrance.com) and three times a week with KLM via Amsterdam (www.klm.com). Prices start at £594.

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