books about santiago

Visit the home of Pablo Neruda. (Photo: Getty Images)

Culture + Style

3 Books You Need to Read Before You Go to Santiago

For many travelers, our obsession with a country, city, or landmark first grips us when we read a book or a poem that paints a compelling and unforgettable picture of a place. In the case of Chile, the narrowest country in the world, there’s no shortage of books that whisper, “You have to visit this place.”

If you don’t yet know Chile through its literature, try to read these three books before planning your trip. The words of these three writers will prepare you to approach the country and its capital, Santiago, with all of your senses open, ready to enjoy the variety of landscapes and experiences that await you there.

I Explain a Few Things: Selected Poems, by Pablo Neruda, edited by Ilan Stavans

Publishers have released dozens upon dozens of books by Pablo Neruda, Chile’s beloved poet and Nobel Prize winner, and many of these titles are bilingual editions. This particular one is especially notable because it covers a long arc of Neruda’s career and his body of work, and it contains poems translated by some of his best translators.

But for the traveler, try reading between the lines, looking for the essence of Chile in Neruda’s references to the sea, to birds, land, and sky.

And if you want to prepare yourself for a visit to one of his three homes — the one in Isla Negra in particular —we recommend another book, too: My Life with Pablo Neruda, a memoir by Matilde Urrutia, the poet’s third wife.

Urrutia describes the experience of having lived with the poet, and the fever dream/thrift shop that was their home, full of objects that constitute a veritable temple of his fascinations (many of which remain on display today).

My Invented Country, by Isabel Allende

Chilean-American writer, Isabel Allende. (Photo: Getty Images)

Along with Neruda, though writing in a completely different style, Isabel Allende is one of Chile’s most famous writers.

Allende, well-known in the United States (and, in fact, the world over), was the cousin of former president, Salvador Allende, and grew up in Chile during the turbulent years of the Pinochet dictatorship.

Since then, she has written a number of books. One of her most recent titles is My Invented Country, a memoir that traces Chile’s outlines on the map of her life. For Allende, Chile is a country to which she remains attached, even if the relationship between the two isn’t an easy one.

Throughout the memoir, Allende offers the reader an intimate history (and yes, a partially invented one) of Chile, and she describes the food, culture, sense of humor, and warmth of the country’s people, all stimulating the reader’s desire to make their own visit.

Distant Star, by Roberto Bolaño

books about santiago
The Palacio de la Moneda is one of the places where some of the most memorable episodes in 20th-century Chilean history occurred. (Photo: Getty Images)

Bolaño, a native son of Chile, lived the majority of his short life outside his home country.

Similarly, most of his books take place in other countries. But the action in his novella, Distant Star, takes place in Chile, and attempts to make sense of one of the most difficult chapters in modern Chilean history: the Pinochet era.

Though it would be better to dive into The Chile Reader, published in English by Duke University Press, for an introduction to Chilean history, Distant Star makes us feel and understand that history never really resolves itself one and for all.

With this in mind, we can develop a deeper understanding for what we observe during our own journeys.