Uruguay, Peeking in on Pablo Neruda

Uruguay: Home to Poets and Mystics

Mystical Atlantida. Lisa Mercer photos.
Mystical Atlantida. Lisa Mercer photos.

By Lisa Mercer

My husband came home with an odd question: "Where would you rather live," he asked, " Uruguay or Mexico?" We had been thinking about the expat lifestyle, but I never expected Uruguay to be one of the choices. Then, I remembered a photograph.

The girl in the picture wore a red wool cape, which she had just purchased at the crafts market in Colonia, Uruguay. She had the smile of a girl at a country fair. Mark took that picture of me when we went on a one day trip to Colonia from Buenos Aires. It was my only experience of Uruguay.

I remembered that smile, and said "Let's try Uruguay."

Secular Yet Spiritual

"You didn't choose Uruguay, Uruguay chose you," says my Spanish teacher. Many others agree. Asked why they moved here, people will tell you that there is just something about it. Uruguay has a strong separation between church and state, so it's not a religious commitment that attracts new residents. Yet despite its lack of large cathedrals and elaborate religious spectacles, Uruguay remains a small country with a big heart.

As such, it has always been a magnet for mystics and a source of creative energy for the poetic, the spiritual, and the spirited. This sense of mysticism eases its way into the structure of its cities and the architecture of its buildings. It creates a driving force that makes people want to call it home.

Castillo Pittamiglio Frederico Corral.
Castillo Pittamiglio Frederico Corral.

The Architects of Alchemy

Most visitors include a visit to the Mercado del Puerto in their Montevideo itinerary. We are no different. Often referred to as "meatopia" in jest, the Mercato is home to the multi-course grilled meat feast.

If you are a non-meat-eater like me, no worries. The menu offers many alternatives. As I finished eating, I mentally calculated the clothing sizes I brought with me. A walk was definitely in order.

Mercado del Puerto in Montevideo.
Mercado del Puerto in Montevideo.

We began by exploring our surroundings in Ciudad Vieja or old city, then headed for La Rambla, a boardwalk along the Rio de la Plata.

Modern, luxury high-rises dominated the ambiance but when we reached Rambla Ghandi, a replica of the famous Greek, the Victory of Samothrace jutted out from its nondescript surroundings. Sandwiched between two luxury high rises, Castillo Pittamiglio greets visitors, flaunting architectural details that made us stop, look and wonder.

Guided tours of the castle are available on Tuesday and Thursday.

The Castle and Its Architect

The Private Developers Association of Uruguay Construction hired Professor Alberto Roca, an expert on mystical practices, to interpret the spiritual meanings of the shapes and symbols that decorate the castle's interior and exterior.

Humberto Pittamiglio, the castle's owner and architect, designed the castle in 1911 and embellished it with Alchemist, Templar, Masonic, and Rosicrucian symbols and added a labyrinth of secret passageways.

The Victory of Samothrace celebrates an ancient Greek naval victory. It sits on a ship's prow, which points toward the river. This orientation, explains Roca, compares the sea journey to the journey of the soul, and therein lies the basic principles of alchemy. As the alchemist transforms base metals into gold, he transforms himself into a higher spiritual being. The many labyrinths illuminate the philosophy stating that the path to enlightenment is never linear.


Pittamigilio learned about alchemy from Francisco Piria, founder of the city of Piriapolis.

Piria: Jesuit, Alchemist and Kabalist

Francisco Piria was born in Montevideo in 1847. When he came of school age, his parents decided to send him to Italy, to study with a Jesuit monk. They got more than they bargained for. While overseas, Piria developed a passion for the mystic arts of Kabalah and Alchemy. He returned to Uruguay with visions of a city powered by solar energy and structured in accordance with metaphysical principles.

Piriapolis: A Mystical City of Dreams

In 1890, Piria acquired land situated about 62 miles east of Montevideo. He looked at this unoccupied territory, and saw the mountains, lined with virgin forests, cascading toward the sea, where white sand beaches carpeted the water's edge.  His fine-tuned business instincts told him that this coastal region, would make a perfect beach resort.

A metaphysical examination of the area revealed that it fell in line with the harmonious magnetic forces, which formed a triangular connection with Salto, Uruguay and Cordoba Argentina. In mystical practices, the triangle symbolizes positive energy and optimal health. This space was the answer to his dreams. He called it Piriapolis.

Isla Negra
Isla Negra, home of Pablo Neruda.

Even if you are not a believer, something about Piriapolis draws you in and makes you want to stay. I certainly did. Perhaps it's because it has a mountain called Sugarloaf. I spent my nine years in Brookline MA as a Sugarloafer – a devotee of the Sugarloaf Ski Resort in Maine. Like other Loafers, when asked why I liked it, I answered, "It just has a certain energy."

The same applies to Sugarloaf Mountain on Piriapolis. Piria must have felt it. He mined the granite from Sugarloaf Mountain and used it to create an olive orchard, a walnut grove and a vineyard. Then, he embedded the the Tree of Life of the Kabbalists and the constellation of Aquarius into the layout of the entire town.

The architectural styles of the late 19th century Italian villas influenced Piria's plans for his home in Piriapolis. Built in 1897 and perched atop a hill, it embodies all of Piria's mystical beliefs. Statues of Greek Gods, each signifying a metal used in alchemy, line the pathway to the entrance.

Templar flags wave from the castle towers and esoteric symbols hide within the bricks. Local scholars believe that mystical practitioners gathered in the upper floors for astral projection and meditation. Piria's Castle is now open as a public museum.

Piria did not abandon his traditional Christian background after studying mystical arts. Take the chairlift to the top of Cerro San Antonio and climb to the top of the white chapel to Saint Anthony. The summit offers splendid panoramic views of Piriapolis.

castle pria gates

After completing most of the town, all it needed was a grand hotel. The Gran Hotel Argentino served this purpose. Its nightly rates are too steep for our budget, but we did wander around the lobby and explore the ballroom and the splendid stained glass windows.

Atlantida: The Poet's Lovenest

When researching our relocation, I discovered that a Spanish language program called Spanish Uruguay had a program in Atlantida, Uruguay. They even arranged temporary lodging.

Uruguay has a charming custom of naming houses. This was called Isla Negra. I researched the property and discovered that Isla Negra was also the name of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda's home in Chile. Further research lead me to an intriguing link between Neruda and Atlantida, Uruguay.

Neruda: Poet and Politician

Flashback to. 1945. The Chilean populace elect Pablo Neruda, a communist, to the Senate, but his tenure is short-lived. His outspoken criticism of the existing government leads to an order for his arrest. Fearing for his safety, Neruda's loyal supporters smuggle him and his wife to all parts of the globe. A turning point occurs on a trip to Mexico in 1949.

Pablo Neruda's balcony.
Pablo Neruda's balcony.

A disabling bout of phlebitis keeps Neruda in Mexico for longer than his intended stay. His friends hire a beautiful Chilean singer named Matilda Urrutia to care for him. The relationship grows beyond nurse-patient. A passionate affair ensues. Neruda sends his wife back to Chile, but continues to travel in hiding. Matilda follows him to clandestine destinations.

Pablo and Matilde spend their most romantic days at the seaside home of a friend in Atlantida. Neruda writes poetry about their romantic rendezvous, and uses the name Datitla as a code name for Atlantida.

While Pablo writes poems, Matilde gathers flowers from the surrounding floral splendor that characterizes this city. She places them in a scrapbook, filled with Pablo's poems. They call the book Ode to the Flowers of Datitla.

The Neruda house, situated at Calle10 Rambla Playa Mansa, was once a museum, but is now a private residence. If you walk past, it's easy to imagine the lovers enjoying a glass of wine on the balcony, or strolling along the beach at sunset.

Whether you're a mystic or a skeptic, this is the true magic of Uruguay.

Lisa Mercer

From the heart of New York City, to the ski towns of Colorado, to the expat life in coastal Uruguay, Lisa Mercer reveals her diversity of experiences in her writing. She and her husband manage the Uruguay Expat Life website.

If you're traveling through South America, get a rental car from someone you trust--Alamo rents cars throughout Latin America.

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