‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.