In Australia, the beach conjures up images of sand, surf and, most importantly, sun. It’s a place where you go to put your skin cells in trauma, eat ice cream and find some solace from the heat in the waves. Generally speaking, unless you’re a hardcore surfer or a nut, the beach is a summer place because on a hot day, it’s a cool place to be.

In Chile, the approach to the beach is quite different. It’s a place to go to when you want to escape the city regardless of the weather. This is partly because even in summer, swimming in Chile is not a thing for the faint hearted. Thanks to a nasty natural phenomenon known as the Humboldt Current, the water off most of Chile’s expansive coastline is exceedingly chilly, even in mid-summer. Instead of just throwing themselves into the waves, Chileans also enjoy standing on the rocks and watching them…for hours. For them, the beach is a cool place to go when you want to get back to nature without having to throw yourself into the water.

So even though the temperature was dropping and the skies were ominously grey when the relatively short (three-day) Easter long weekend came around, I headed for the beach with Leonel, Yennifer and another couple. Our destination was Isla Negra or Black Island, which is neither black nor an island. Despite the misleading name, Isla Negra remains popular with Chilean and foreign tourists because it is home to the ‘best’ of Pablo Neruda’s three houses. The late, great Nobel Prize winning poet is a national hero in Chile and all of his eccentric homes have been converted into museums. In love with sailing but prone to bouts of seasickness, Neruda designed his houses to resemble ships and filled them with artworks, expansive bottle collections and bright coloured wine glasses. And as well as having one of Pablo Neruda’s houses, Isla Negra also has a beach.

There was a chill in the air as we set off from Santiago and with typical Chilean concern, Yeniffer checked that I had packed wisely: “Have you brought a proper jacket?” she said looking at the thin, woollen jumper I was wearing. “It’s going to be cold at the beach.” I assured her I had packed a decent jacket in my backpack but as I did, I began to realise that I wouldn’t be needing the boardshorts that I had stuffed in on top of it.

Putting aside our better judgement, the five of us squeezed into Leonel’s motorised shopping trolley on the evening of Maundy Thursday and headed west, towards the Pacific Ocean. It was a tight fit in the car but at least it wasn’t cold. Outside, the story was different; the wind was fierce and the dark clouds blocked out the stars. Things weren’t any better on the roads as drivers, keen to get to the coast as quickly as possible, lurched from lane to lane with little regard for safety.

When we arrived in Isla Negra, we headed straight for the cabin we had booked. In Australia, a cabin refers to a purpose built, free-standing holiday home in a caravan park or holiday reserve. Here in Chile, a cabin, or cabana, means a section of someone’s house, which is set aside for tourists and holiday makers.

Our cabin was the ground floor of a two-storey house and it had three bedrooms, a combined living and dining area, a small kitchen and a tiny bathroom with poor ventilation, a leaking basin and a drainless floor. On the upside, it had hot water. The house had not been designed with building codes in mind and I was constantly ducking my head to avoid low doorways and exposed beams. But the cabin had its own enigmatic charm. According to the calendar on the wall, it was still December 2010 and although it was clearly out of date, it seemed fitting for a holiday at the beach.

When we arrived, the owner of the house was absent, having just returned to Santiago for her mother in law’s funeral. She had arranged for her neighbour to hand over the keys and when we pulled up at 12.30am, she stepped out of the shadows to greet us. After unpacking the shopping trolley and dumping our bags inside, we decided to brave the cold and headed down to the beach in our jackets and scarves. As we made our way past Pablo Neruda’s favourite house, five stray dogs joined us and followed us down to the sand. They were pretty excited at the prospect of human company and they yelped and gave their tails a fierce workout to express their excitement.

The beach itself was rocky, with an impressive collection of large boulders breaking out of the sand like sentinels guarding the coast. We sat on the rocks and watched as the waves crashed into the shore and felt the cold spray on our faces. Their were no other people around and the dogs danced along the edge of the water with their tails still wagging.

Overnight it rained and the dirt roads throughout Isla Negra turned to mud. The wind was cold, the sky was grey. Bed seemed like the best place to be so where stayed there most of Good Friday morning. When we finally did get up, we drove a couple of kilometres down the coast to a slightly bigger town where we stocked up on food supplies.

Sitting on the roof of the bakery across the road from the supermarket was a two-metre high Santa statue, waving his plaster hand at the passing traffic. Being Easter, it was clearly out of place but just like the calendar in the cabin, the giant Santa seemed appropriate for a beachside vacation.

By the time we got to Pablo Neruda’s house it was late afternoon and the place was packed. The guides at the window told us that they were not admitting anyone else that day. We turned around and headed to a nearby restaurant for a dinner of fried fish and shellfish soup. The sky was grey, the wind was cold, we weren’t swimming and we hadn’t visited Pablo Neruda’s famous house but it didn’t matter.

It was just nice to be by the sea, enjoying the fresh air, the huge waves and the even bigger horizon. I was starting to understand the Chilean’s perspective of the beach.

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