Tag Archives: Ruta del Che

Inspired and protected by the man himself

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Views from on the road to La Higuera

I think it would be better for you to return here’, said an Argentinian I met in Casa la Cultura in Vallegrande. He’d just got back from La Higuera, which he said was well worth the two and a half hour journey but where he could not recommend spending the night.

It’s very, very basic’, he told me. ‘Are there places to sleep? Somewhere to eat?’ I asked. ‘Sure’, he said. ‘Then I’m all good with it’, I said. I guess I didn’t fully anticipate just how rustic things would be.

There wasn’t a guide available for my trip from Vallegrande to La Higuera but Gonzalo at the Casa la Cultura sorted me out a taxi and assured me that the driver would take me to all the places on the Che Guevara trail, most importantly the school house where Che was held captive for a couple of days, and the execution site to where he was marched off, hands tied, to face his shotgun death.

Would organising it independently work out for me? In a way, yes.

The journey over to La Higuera took me along pitted mud roads, making for a bumpy ride. Dust swirled around inside the car, coating my teeth and skin and drying my eyes. Upfront, the woman covered her babies face. Once again I had a driver with a partner in tow.

We climbed higher and higher, winding up into the mountains, driving close to a steep drop edge. Painting views stretched out into the far distance, a vast, green mountainous vista that my little compact camera failed to capture with any conviction.

I realised that had I wanted to trek this stretch of trail, as I’d initially hoped to do, it would have actually been pretty straightforward due to the regular signposting for La Ruta del Che. But at a distance of 58km it would have required at least one camp out. I had no gear (and very little idea) so maybe the recommended way of the taxi was the best way after all.

At around 2,500m the road flattened out to a rocky, tough shrub landscape peppered with little yellow flowers and dead trees. Cows paused in our path, skinny donkeys munched on foliage and the occasional pig ambled along the roadside.

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Dead trees on the road to La Higuera

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On the road to La Higuera

We stopped by some guys carrying farm tools heading home after a day’s work on the land. The driver and his wife started a shout conversation with a guy belted on to an electricity pylon, doing some repairs I guessed. Or just hanging out. Who knows. Smile sounded speech got the driver’s eyebrows twitching before they all exchanged goodbyes and we continued.

Just before La Higuera, the driver stopped at a little shrine with three plaques. Our first stop-off. It was a little underwhelming, predominantly because I didn’t really understand what I was looking at. An English speaking guide at this point would have been great.

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A random little memorial outside of La Higuera

And then we were in La Higuera, a little cluster of fifteen houses, nearly all bearing homemade signs offering beds for 20Bs. but few showing any sign of being open for business.

The driver turned off the engine at the top of the village close to the statues of Che Guevara and buildings grafittied with quotes and stencilled images. He went on the hunt for the key to the museum.

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Statue at top of village of La Higuera, Che’s place of capture and death

Two young girls approached me about a place to stay. Their mother came out. ‘Tomorrow is better for the museum’ she said, ‘Do you want a bed?It was in the old schoolhouse, right in amongst history.

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Che´s room on the left and my room on the right

After an impossible attempt at trying to ask where Che’s assassination site was and trying to ascertain whether the driver would take me as intended, I gave up and the taxi driver, his wife and their three month baby set off.

Dusk was falling and I was hungry. ‘Is there somewhere I can get some food?’ I asked my hostess. ‘Si’, she said, ‘come with me’. I followed her through the village to her friend’s kitchen and sat down to a candlelit meal of rice, eggs, chips and sliced tomatoes – a tasty, plain dinner that more than satisfied my unintentional day of fasting. All was silent save for the chatter of insects, the sound of me eating and the occasional clanking of cutlery as the owner pottered around the kitchen. Her husband sat close by, watching, occasionally talking quietly.

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Waiting for dinner as dusk sets in

I was glad that I’d replaced the batteries in my head torch back in Samaipata because the walk back was country dark and unfamiliar. The warm glow of candlelight shone out of some houses and a small generator disturbed the peace in one place. Along my way I passed a few villagers. ‘Buenos noches’ was repeatedly exchanged.

Just before I got back to my private six bed dorm, I saw a little shop sign. Craving some sweetness, I stepped inside to see someone’s living space and a few shelves to the side stocked with basics and biscuits. Dessert came in the form of some coconut wafers which I sat and munched sitting on the step between my room and the open fronted school house room where Che spent his last couple of days.

Bed time came early. I blew out my candle and lay wrapped up cosy in the dark, imagining how not that long ago, in 1967, Che must have been lying next door in his cold, concrete room with an undoubtedable awareness that he was about to die. I wondered if he was ready for death; whether he was scared; whether he felt he’d made his mark or whether he felt that he’d  failed.

Sometimes I’m scared of the dark and quiet, but not this night. In a room full of Che pictures, with a doorway by which is painted a rainbow representation of Che, I knew that if any ghost haunted this place then I’d be able to learn even more and count myself privileged for having the experience. I almost wanted to believe in ghosts.

And that night I felt calm, centred and open to life. I slept heavily, dreamt lots and my mind was filled with great ideas about where my future could lead and what little bit of good I might be able to offer the world. One day.

This place had some power. Che might have been killed but somehow his energy lives on in the walls and in the earth of La Higuera, and I was lucky enough to tap into it for a split second in time.

So, another random day filled with precious moments. And you know what? The complete lack of tourists, of electricity, of warm showers, of English ability; it was all wonderful.

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The taxi ride through the Casa la Cultura in Vallegrande cost 300Bs. but I had been approached by another street taxi driver who said he’d do it for nearly half of that. Under the promise that I was going to be shown ALL of the sites, including the execution site, I did feel a bit short-changed when it was pretty much a pick-up and drop-off situation.300Bs. covers a return, although I decided to continue on a different route to Sucre. Food in La Higuera cost me 10Bs, and the alojamiento 20Bs. Had I been able to access the museum, it would have also cost 10Bs.

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Where Che lay rotting, lost in a shallow grave

I WAS PARTLY FOLLOWING La Ruta del Che, the trail within Bolivia that Che Guevara is said to have taken shortly before his capture and execution at the age of 39. Che and his men were in Bolivia to try and win support from Bolivians and the surrounding countries, but overall reports suggest that his efforts weren’t wholly successful.

After Che was killed, his body was moved from La Higuera to Vallegrande where it was laid out across the hard, concrete basins of the hospital laundry, the lavanderia. He was half naked, his eyes were forced open, his body mutilated. A warning to other wannabe political rebels.

I stood for a while in front of the open fronted room and took in this scene. Graffiti covered every inch of the walls, messages of appreciation amongst modern day fighting talk. The simplest scribble states Gracias Che.

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The hospital lavanderia in Vallegrande where Che lay for a couple of days on display

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Painted on the outside of existing hospital buildings

A small group of us headed to the next part, the memorial. Why we needed three guides with us, who knows. Maybe they just wanted to visit the site again themselves?

The memorial, under lock and key, is a well preserved little place only accessible through booking with the Casa de la Cultura. Inside the light building are carefully framed photos from throughout Che’s life and newspaper clippings from various events connected to Bolivia.

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World class sign for Che Guevara’s memorial, Vallegrande

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Che and his crew’s well-maintained memorial, Vallegrande

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Che photos in the memorial building

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The guides tried to convince me that this was Che shortly before he died.                         He sure looks old for 39!

The centre piece is the shallow grave where Che and six of his men were hidden for thirty years before being discovered and sent back to their respective home countries. In 1997, Che’s body was exhumed and repatriated back to Cuba.

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The shallow grave

Not really the place for big smile or thumbs up photos, one of the guides was insistent to photograph me in front of absolutely everything. ‘Now here’, he’d say, grabbing my hand and dragging me to the next part of the room to stand awkwardly in front of yet another a photo display whilst he took ownership of my camera. ‘And now here, he said physically positioning me in front of the grave, ‘now outside’.

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Me and a load of revolutionaries. Oh yeah.

I felt that this little part of the trip was partly being hijacked by a snap happy helpful, so I turned the camera on him, and he loved it.

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Drama and more with the additional guide

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The Casa de la Cultura is located on the main plaza, Plaza 26 de Enero, and is full of Che cuttings and information. Here they can provide you with a wealth of information and help to organise onward trips to La Higuera (the place of Che’s capture and execution). Entrance the memorial and the lavanderia costs 30Bs. It is possible to book tours that take in the two Vallegrande sights and then explore the other places en route and within La Higuera, but costs are high and it can be worth organising your own transport, as I did.

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What a day to arrive! Vallegrande celebrates

Vallegrande is a town with about 6,000 inhabitants situated 118km from where I’d been staying in Samaipata. I’d taken a two and a half hour bus journey cramped in the aisle amongst sleeping babies and bulky bags. As the only gringa on board, I had stuck out like a sore thumb and had been the centre of attention and the butt of teenage jokes that I couldn’t understand. But I’d arrived, sorted out some lovely accommodation and life was sweet.

I was only spending one day in the town and coincidentally, it was a party weekend. Once I’d dropped my bags in Hotel Plaza Pueblo and eaten some cake with the family who ran the place, I decided to get out there and explore a little.

I wandered down a cobbled street to Plaza Rubén Terrezas where, on the taxi driver’s recommendation, I bought some bread which I nibbled as I ventured over to the main plaza.

Plaza 26 de Enero was heaving with people and stalls, the weekend fiesta to celebrate ‘400 years of the foundation of the city of Montes Claros Jesus and the Knights of Vallegrande’ (now there’s a mouthful) kicking off with toffee apples and drinking and dancing to a live band.

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Early evening at the fiesta in the plaza, Vallegrande

A guy started to talk to me as I went looking for a warm drink. ‘You were in the collectivo from Santa Cruz?’ he asked. He looked familiar but not. I wasn’t sure. He bought me a drink, a base shot of Singani topped with hot, frothy milk. Warming and tasty. Perfect for the chilly night air.

You want another?’ he asked having downed his pretty quickly. I decided not. Tipsy, alone and disoriented wouldn’t be the smartest move.

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Singani liquor used for cocktails, and alcoholic milk drinks, apparently

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One local guy get a refill of the alcoholic milk

Whilst I supped my milky drink, an old woman with twinkling eyes started to talk to me, curious about where I was from. And then she told me how she’d known Che Guavara, how he was a good man, agradable, and that she was glad I was following his journey, his route.

I went to watch the dancing. A young guy started to bounce around in front of me, animated, a little drunk. Someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was one of the lads from the back of the bus, bottle of liqueur in hand. He insisted he was 26.

You must try some’ said Daniel pouring red viscous liquid into a plastic tumbler. I had a small shot. A little sickly, sweet and fruity, it’s what I’d seen a lot of people sipping on around the square.

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Arocco, Daniel’s friend, turned up. More shots were dealt and soon the two of them were swigging from the bottle. They rattled away in fast Spanish. I nodded, said yes, said no, told them I didn’t understand. I picked up the odd word but more often than not lost the context of what was being said.

Later, Arocco insisted that he was the great-great-nephew of Che, but unfortunately that was all the information I could glean from his extended, passionate soliloquy. Evidently, he rated the guy (a stark contrast to both boys’ response to the Bolivian president Evo Morales).

I didn’t know what to believe. There seemed to be plenty of people with a connection to Che, real or imagined. I guess it didn’t really matter. The sentiment was loud and clear.

In the plaza the musicians packed up, hefty speakers were bussed away and the crowds started to dissipate. I found my way back through poorly lit streets to Hotel Plaza Pueblo, said goodnight to the family and crashed out in my massive twin room, wondering what other unplanned adventures lay ahead.
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In Vallegrande I stayed in Hotel Restaurante “Plaza Pueblo” on Calle Virrey Mendoza no. 132, Vallegrande and paid 70Bs. (£6.35/US$10.20) for solo occupation in a twin room with shared bathroom. Breakfast was included but was basic. The hotel is a short walk from the market, and the main plaza, Plaza 26 de Enero, is only a little further along.

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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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