I admit, I’d completely forgotten that Che Guevara had been killed in Bolivia. In fact (and my ex-flatmates will attest to this), my general knowledge regarding this particular historical figure is certainly sub-par. Once, not long after beginning to learn Spanish, my Barcelona flatties and I thought it would be a great test of our exciting new abilities to watch The Motorcycle Diaries without subtitles.
Yes, excellent. I enjoyed it very much indeed: The landscapes, Gael García Bernal’s general gorgeousness…until at the very end of the film, perhaps in the credits, the following escaped my lips:
“Ohhh, was that movie about Che Guevara?” I’d missed the entire point. I henceforth blame my Spanish skills at the time, but the fact that I once also misunderstood the plot of The Fast and the Furious suggests that I simply zone out during even the most easy to follow storylines.
But here I was on La Ruta del Che (The Che Route) with Adalí and his friend Fermin (who he’d naughtily brought along to share profits with…).
The day before in Vallegrande, we’d visited the hospital space where Che’s body had been laid out, as well as the site of the other (previously mass) graves of 12 other guerillas; now made memorials. The next day was to trace some of their last footsteps.
A day following Che’s last footsteps
Armed with an enormous bag of coca leaves, we set off at 8am, passing through hot, winding roads and occasionally stopping for Adalí to point out a river or valley in the distance and tell the story of how certain members of the gang had been forced to ford the waters, or were finally captured in those parts (the group had separated into three to escape capture).
Finally, after passing through Pucará, we arrived at the site of the fabled Quebrada del Churo; a potato field at the base of a steep valley where Che and six of his companions were captured.
After making the descent into the Quebrada, we were rewarded with a prize: Don Florencio, the owner of the land, was there working.
Florencio was a quiet man, tanned leathery by years of working in such a harsh climate. He gratefully accepted the gift of coca leaves offered by Adalí and sat, elbows on knees, expertly molding them into the requisite ball which he placed in his right cheek. He watched us silently, occasionally resting his eyes on me; blue eyes which were alight with life and mischief…and questions and tales he did not seem ready to share.
Instead, Adalí told of how during the late sixties, Don Florencio had rented out this very land to a farmer, one Pedro Peña, who had been working in the fields late one afternoon when the guerillas passed through. Frightened by their presence, Peña had waited until daybreak to run to nearby village La Higuera to alert the authorities. Thus, he was ultimately responsible for their later capture, believed to be at the very rock where we sat chatting.
We stayed a good hour with Florencio, moving on to other themes: Bolivia, Australia, politics…before it was time for us to move on and for Florencio to return to this potatoes.
And so up we went, rising out of the Quebrada in the midday sun, throats parched as soon as we took a sip. The sun burned and reflected off the pale dirt, the path was at once hilly, rocky and slippery, and the spiny bushes framing it pricked us spitefully.
But at least we had a path
Che and his six companions as they ascended this very dry, hostile slope, would have been forced to bush bash their way through the prickly terrain. It gave you a taste, if a very little one, of how difficult their last days would have been.
Making it half way up the slope, we arrived at the ruins of Virginia’s house (better known as La Enana) whose mother had been held capture by the gang and questioned as to the whereabouts of the military they knew was searching for them in the area. She has since died, but when interviewed as an adult by journalists and Che enthusiasts, La Enana described Che’s presence as “…like Jesus.”
Finally making it out of the Quebrada, we shared a few words with Don Florencio’s wife and daughter (both very shy women clearly uncomfortable with the attention the history of their land brought them) before starting down the hill towards La Higuera: The site of the execution of Che and his two companions not killed during the ambush in the potato patch.
La Higuera – the site of the executions
La Higuera itself is now essentially a shrine to Che and a point of welcome for the many Cuban students of medicine placed in Bolivia as a sort of exchange between the two countries. Here, you are let into the school room where the three guerillas were finally executed.
Of course, the room has been remodeled somewhat. Interestingly, faithful accounts do not exist as to exactly how the men were killed. However, the tale of the nerves of the solider assigned the task of executing Che seem to retain a place in history. Supposedly, he was unable to shoot, left the room before re-entering, misfiring and shooting his victim in the leg before being told by Che himself not to be afraid. According to legend, the soldier then aimed and fired cleanly.
He is still alive and lives in Santa Cruz; though for obvious reasons, does not often talk of these events.
- Vallegrande is ususally used as a base point for visiting La Ruta del Che. Points of interest in La Ruta del Che include the hospital and two memorials (in Vallegrande iself); the Quebrada del Churo and La Higuera (within a three hour drive of the town).
- Contracting a guide is the easiest way to see everything, but is expensive if you are alone. I hired Adalí through Vallegrande’s tourist office on Plaza 25 de Mayo and paid 400Bs (about US$60) as a sole punter. Prices decrease for larger groups of up to three.
- Buses leave semi-regularly for Pucará (located between Vallegrande and La Higuera) or a taxi will take you for about 200Bs. However, from there you would have to walk to La Quebrada (about two hours) and La Higuera (about three, depending on fitness and the heat of the day).
- In Vallegrande, it is possible to see the hospital alone, but you will need someone to let you into the locked memorial sites.
- In La Quebrada, you would need to pre-arrange with the family to walk through their property.
- In La Higuera, simply ask for the person responsible for opening the old school house.
- Contracting a guide saves a lot of logistical problems, and makes the experience more interesting through the stories they (should!) tell you. Contract your excursion in a group to save money.