Tag Archives: history

A solo mission to start the Che Guevara trail

I WATCHED THE BUS FLY past. I’d been waiting for nearly four hours for the bus from Samaipata to Vallegrande, perched on my bag by the roadside, dust kicking up in my face every time a vehicle went by. Everyone I had asked had told me a different time. If I waited long enough, a bus would show eventually. I wasn’t too worried.

This was the start of my solo adventure to follow some of Che Guevara’s footsteps, apart from that I was bussing and taxiing it rather than hiking the trail. Apparently, disappointingly, this was the way of La Ruta del Che for us followers.

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My stray dog companion whilst waiting for the bus. They get attached.

A few minutes earlier I had given in to the wait and bought a cup of tea in a café, a thinly veiled excuse to use their bathroom. ‘In half an hour’, a woman told me, ‘mas o menos’. I sipped my te con carnela and was pondering why Che’s men had come to Samaipata, raided the town and robbed the police station when I looked up to see the bus drive on by. I waved madly. The woman ran and waved. But there was no stopping it. Dammit.

I was bundled into a taxi intent on getting me to the bus. The windscreen was broken, the seat belt didn’t work and the driver had a heavy right foot. After a few miles he pointed up the hill. Sure enough, there was the bus, winding up into the mountains. We gained ground. We overtook. We waved and beeped the horn and eventually it stopped.

I had to perch upfront until we reached the next village. The two young lads driving the bus didn’t say a thing and any conversation I tried to initiate was shutdown. Music played loudly, the guys kept their cool.

And then we took a refreshment break in Mairana where I tried to be inconspicuous as men and women and children stared shamelessly at the solo gringa.

Finally into the main bus section and I took a pew. A guy with a gammy eye wasn’t impressed and got me to move. Not wanting to offend anyone else, I waited to find a spare seat.

Everywhere was full so for the rest of the trip I wobbled around on a little plastic stool in the aisle at the back amongst groups of teenagers from Santa Cruz who fed me peanuts, took photos with my camera and teased their friend about being in love with me. A Quechua-English mix would apparently be okay, they agreed. The poor kid looked like he wanted to die.

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Teenage happy clicky: dusk in one of the villages we pass through

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Teenage happy clicky: a typical, rural Bolivian mud brick building

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Teenage happy clicky: mountain landscape on the road to Vallegrande

I arrived into a dark bus terminal in Vallegrande two and a half hours later with no idea of where I was going to stay. I hate turning up anywhere at night, particularly when I’m alone. But sometimes it just works out.

A kind soul sorted me out a taxi that dropped me off at a lovely, family run hotel where half an hour later I was celebrating a birthday, eating cake and meeting the in-laws and babies to be.

Us Bolivianos are warm and welcoming people’, one of the girls told me, ‘You will meet so many friendly people on your travels in Bolivia’. My earlier judgement calls were truly being challenged.

Vallegrande, the town where Che Guevara’s body was initially displayed and buried back in 1967, was opening its arms to me.

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I got my information about La Ruta del Che from Roadrunners in Samaipata. Austrian Olaf is an enthusiastic, helpful guy who gave me so many ideas and completely re-inspired me to go off and do some adventuring by myself. La Ruta del Che is the route that Che Guevara and his men are said to have taken before they was arrested and assassinated in La Higuera, although there is considerable ambiguity surrounding the exact roads. What is more certain is where Che’s body was displayed, where he was held and where he died.

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Exploring El Fuerte (and why it’s worth paying for a guide)

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Setting off from the little bit of bliss a.k.a. El Jardin in Samaipata

Together with three German backpackers, I set off on foot along the road out of Samaipata through a landscape of mountains and greenery. ‘It could almost be Germany’, said one of the girls, ‘and that could easily be my home town’, she said, pointing at buildings nestled in an arboreous valley.

We turned off on to a dusty road and before long reached a junction. ‘If we want to go to the river, we need to go down here’, I said. I’d forgotten my map but it seemed right.

It wasn’t. After a kilometre of steep climbing a woman stopped us. ‘Go back and continue on the other road’, she told us, so we backtracked and walked a while longer, breath short at times.

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Continuing the climb to El Fuerte

Yesterday’s dull skies and drizzle had made way for a brilliant blue sky. Bright green plants clung to red rock faces and rough emerald coloured stones popped out of the red road dust. Sun and full colour saturation and fresh, mountain air. Stunning.

A little downward respite took us to the Rio El Fuerte. A woman pointed to where we could swim. ‘Dos bolivianos’, she said, hand outstretched. We each dropped two coins into her palm and headed off upstream.

Whether we reached the right place or not, who knows, but the smooth, stone landscape through which the river had carved a course proved to be a perfect stop point. We dipped into plunge pools, dunked our heads under miniature waterfalls and lay out on flat, warm rocks to dry off. We chatted and then were quiet, listening to the gentle rush of water and watching blue and yellow butterflies and little fluffs of cloud and the feint, slim crescent of the moon in a midday sky. Our own private paradise.

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River and plunge pool find before finishing the climb to El Fuerte

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Dip, dry and relax

But it was time to push on and continue the climb until eventually we arrived at the entrance to El Fuerte, no other tourists to be seen.

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The final push to El Fuerte. A flat bit. At last.

A guide approached us and spoke in English. ‘I’m Cecilio’, he said, ‘I can show you the ruins for 70 bolivianos’. The others declined and we all started to walk away, but then I stopped.

A few days earlier I’d chatted to Olaf at Roadrunners and his words were now screaming at me: ‘…get a guide, it’s a much better experience… you get a better understanding…’.

I knew he was right. Without the information I’d be looking at piles of rock, I’d fly around the site and it would only hold my attention momentarily because, well, I just wouldn’t get it.

So I retracted and paid up and for the next hour and a half Cecilio accompanied us around partially reconstructed ruins and the main hunk of rock known as El Fuerte. Regularly he stopped us and drew in the sand to help illustrate his explanations.

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Cecelio’s lessons at El Fuerte

He pointed out the stark, unusual geographical meeting point of mountains and jungle and rolling hills, and he described how cut-out doorways were used as lookouts by the Amazonians whereas the Incas used them to display their dead.

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The main El Fuerte rock

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Reconstructed ruins at El Fuerte

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Ruins at El Fuerte

Cecilio also stopped at various points to show us South American medicinal plants, including the carqueja used for liver treatment. ‘First a few beers’, he said, ‘then carqueja tea. It’s good’.

The echo point was fun, the views spectacular and the walk was varied and definitely not difficult, whilst Cecelio’s talks were enlightening and entertaining. He clearly loved the Incas for their organisation and significant progression of the site into a structured, well-built place where society was carefully managed (including assigning defined roles working the land or weaving or knotting alpaca wool, or sending girls of eighteen to marry into a different tribe or village to avoid inbreeding).

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Views from El Fuerte

And we stifled giggles when not only Incas were praised for the hundredth time, but we left with confident knowledge that it was German archaeologists that had discovered many of the buildings and artefacts. And it was in 1995. It has stuck. Thanks Cecelio.

Whilst we had barely noticed the climb up to El Fuerte due to Cecelio’s regular stops and energetic explanations, the bounce back down was still a relief. We were last out, gates were locked behind us.

We could have walked back to Samaipata but the offer of a ride back to town – 50Bs. (US$7.29/£4.51) for the four of us – was too tempting. We clambered on board a bench seat ride with some of the guides.

The car rattled and bumped down the dirt track. ‘Us poor Bolivianos’, said Lenny, an older woman whose eyes danced mischievously, ‘we can’t even afford a good car’. She grinned and then chatted away, keen to practise her English.

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The wonderfully warm and chatty Lenny and a journey of laughter from El Fuerte to Samaipata

Back in Samaipata we jumped down from the back of the vehicle. ‘Gordo’, said Lenny, ‘I’m fat and old. It’s difficult’. And with another big smile she said goodbye.

Could I have done this without a guide? Sure. There’s a clear route to follow with signposted lookouts. But, there are no information points or plaques and even with the pre-information from the museum, I would have struggled to make sense of the place.

For me it was worth it. For someone simply wanting to tick something off a list, or a history buff with a lot of reading under their belt, maybe not.

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How to piss off historians

I don’t really care too much for archaeological sites and museum full of excavated relics. In all fairness, it’s probably ignorance, although I also think it’s a lot to do with the lack of interactivity. I like to do stuff, not just see things.

But I was staying two and a half hours from Santa Cruz in the little Bolivian town of Samaipata where their top attraction was the nearby historical site of El Fuerte (The Fortress). To bypass the whole shebang would be wrong.

But first: a trip to the Centro de Investigaciones Arqueológicas y Antropológicas in Samaipata itself where I paid 50Bs. (US$7.29 / £4.50) for joint entry to the museum and the site.

The curator unlocked door after door for me to reveal rooms full of cased cultural artefacts dating from 200-1550AD. Fragrance burners, double handled bowls with faces, drinking vessels used for rituals and a host of ornaments didn’t hold my attention for long. I’m sorry. I really tried to study the pieces, read the accompanying plaques, appreciate the handiwork but overall it was only marginally more interesting than I anticipated.

Am I really just a product of the push buttons, flashy lights and visuals generation? Or is that too easy a cop-out? I want to be interested, I want to discover, I want to learn. So why wasn’t I in love with this experience?

The film screening, again to a solo audience of me, was thankfully subtitled (any curious information in the museum was written in Spanish where I could just about pick out the odd comment but missed the flow of discussion and full meaning).

The film was actually pretty interesting, outlining El Fuerte’s strategic position between Asunción, Paraguay and Lima, Peru, and talking through the different occupations of the site from the Chané people of the Amazonian time through to the Incas and the invading Spaniards.

But it was still a lot of watching and listening and I wanted to be doing.

(Okay, I confess. In truth I was glad to gain a basic understanding before seeing the actual ruins. And actually, I only wish that I’d had a guide with me to translate and retell the stories of the various museum pieces).

I hoped, then, that the site itself would inspire some history love in me. Positioned 8km east of Samaipata, UNESCO certainly thinks El Fuerte is worth the hype having awarded it with World Heritage Site status back in 1998.

Time to get strapped into well-worn walking shoes, hike the rugged hill and find out why the place is so popular.

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Why I’m not so sure that I’ll go with ‘Happy New Year’

The countdown begins, the clock strikes midnight, we all cheer and cuddle and kiss friends and family to celebrate the start of a new year. (Or, if you’re on the road, you kiss and cuddle total strangers). But why is it such an event? The pressure, the build-up, the inevitable anti-climax? The broken resolutions, the resulting guilt and frustration? Is it really worth all the emotional bother?

Personally, I love New Year, not so much New Year’s Eve, but New Year itself. It symbolises a new start, a clean slate, a chance to put past hurts behind you and begin positively with the next chapter of your life. But really, why should a date matter? Even more so when the date is flawed and our whole calendar is a corrupt twisting of older methods of time telling.

When you’re travelling I believe that you’re even more likely to bump into people who open your eyes to new ideas. This whole calendar concept was only really introduced to me a week or so ago when I asked a new friend how important Christmas and New Year were to him. ‘What’s more important,’ he said, ‘is that we’ve just had the longest day of the year, the summer solstice’ (I’m in New Zealand). He argued that the modern calendar is a bastardised way of organising the year that has little to do with the circular pattern of life during a solar/lunar year and more to do with politics, religion and self-interest. I did some basic research…

THE ROMAN CALENDAR

The old Roman calendar was ‘originally was determined by the cycles of the moon and the seasons of the agricultural year‘ and used to be ten months in length with an extra little bit for the winter period. The first day of the year was March 1st and if you know a little Latin then it makes sense that October, for example, would be the eighth month and December the tenth. Some time around 600 B.C. a Roman ruler called Pompilius introduced January and February in order to account for the preious gap in the calendar for winter, and made January the first month of the year. It was all still a bit unpredictable: some years had twelve months, others thirteen, and a year averaged between 355 and 378 days. Pompilus is supposedly also responsible for focusing the calendar on religion rather than landwork but more surprising is that the priests of the Roman Empire are said to have ‘exploited the calendar for political ends, inserting days and even months into the calendar to keep the politicians they favored in office’. So overall, a bit of an odd system and one that was most definitely fluid and corrupt.

THE JULIAN CALENDAR

Julius Ceaser got a bit frustrated by this random system and decided to do a reform that was more structured: a twelve month calendar that was based somewhat on the solar year and where each month would have either 30 or 31 days, apart from February – the end of the year – which would have to be shortened to align with the solar system. Not wanting to be forgotten, in 44 B.C. Julius Ceaser changed the month Quintilis to Julius (July), a trick later employed by the emperor Augustus who changed Sextilis to, you guessed it, Augustus (August). All a bit self-indulgent. Augustus also supposedly wanted his month to be a full month, so after some shifting around, 31 days were assigned to the month of August. But there were still some problems with the Julian calendar, namely discrepancies when compared with the solar year that meant every few years everything went out of sync. Again, a bit of a flawed system.

THE GREGORIAN CALENDER

In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII devised a calendar that was much more in tune with the solar year and had a better ‘formula for calculating leap years’, but the UK decided to be sticklers and it was only in 1752 following the British Calendar Act of 1751 that Brits finally aligned with their neighbouring countries, losing 11 days in the process. It was also here that the beginning of the legal year is said to have been moved from March to January.

So surely the Gregorian, our current system, is a good system? But why can’t we work with something a bit more solar or lunar orientated? ‘The Muslim calendar is the only purely lunar calendar in widespread use today’ with religious celebrations occurring in relation to the moon’s waxing and waning and therefore the corresponding dates on a Gregorian calendar are pretty randomised. The Chinese calendar, as another example, is lunisolar, based on the cycles of the moon where ‘the beginning of the year can fall anywhere between late January and the middle of February’. Better systems more in tune with the earth and its surroundings?

So what?

Back to the present and my travels. For New Year’s Eve I was lucky enough to be invited to a gathering up near Whangerei, New Zealand, where I played beer pong and got tipsy and did a bit of bad dancing. All this discussion and research had left me a bit confused. Is it just because as human beings we crave a definite timeline as opposed to a more natural rhythm? Is counting days in such a methodical way necessary? What’s wrong with going by nature instead? Is New Year, as we know it, really New Year? March does indeed seem to make more sense to me with the onset of spring and the bursting through of plants, and lambs being born, and just that ‘new start’ feeling you get at that time of the year.

So was I going to turn down an invite to a little party because of new knowledge and a sense that our calendar was created in order to pander to political and religious and social activities rather than the natural ebb and flow of life, and as a result is a bit of a corrupt system? And that therefore New Year was a bit of a farce? No, of course not. It would have just been bad form. I went, I saw in the New Year and I conquered some time demons.

So, what the hell. Happy New Year. Really.

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Ancient modern Ecuador: four facts

  1. There are three tribes remaining in Ecuador, two of which are nomadic and don’t want any communication with the rest of us. The third, the matriarchal Wuaorani tribe, allow contact. I wonder whether having a female chief affected the decision to be more open about sharing their culture (the other tribes are polygamous and maybe the male chiefs are more concerned with spreading their seed than spreading the word)? (I know, far too simplistic, and I do appreciate the difficulties in managing modern world contact to avoid adversely affecting national and cultural traditions.)
  2. In Inca times, when a chief died, his wife was given a drink containing a strong, lethal dose of mescaline so that she could go to ‘sleep’ with her husband and enter the next life with him.
  3. The size of the earrings of tribe members signifies their importance within the tribe, hence the leader will have some serious holiness going on. It made me think back to British tribes – modern day ones – where there seems to be a similar hierarchy in relation to the amount and size of the piercings (and tattoos).
  4. Huge, heavy four and a half metre blow pipes are still used today (I had a go with one; it’s difficult to hold but fairly straight forward to line up). A muscular anaesthetic, found in the jungle and supposedly utilised in modern western medicine, is placed on the darts. It paralyses the animal, usually a monkey, but doesn’t contaminate the meat.

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