In the footsteps of a world legend

Che Guevara died 30 years ago in Bolivia. Now you can trace the route of his guerrillas across this wild country, writes Stacy Marking

It was Queen Victoria who declared that Bolivia - like lesbianism - did not exist. The story was this: the Bolivian President felt insulted by the British consul, who was then tied backwards on a donkey and driven from La Paz. Naturally the Queen demanded that gunboats should shell the city, and when she learned that the de facto capital stood 12,400 feet above sea level in the Andes, she expunged it from British maps and consigned the country to oblivion.

And there, in terms of British consciousness, Bolivia has remained: the domain of railway experts and mining engineers, Nazi hunters and a generation of backpackers, usually on their way to somewhere else. Basically the country has had trouble with its image: Bolivia holds the world record for coup d'etats (more than 180 in the 152 years since independence). It is famous for the disappearance of Colonel Fawcett in the Twenties and the discovery of Klaus Barbie in the Seventies. In the Nineties it is best known for coca, the raw stuff of cocaine, which is turned into paste in Peru and crack in Colombia.

But none of this gives Bolivia credit for its spectacular landscape, its vibrant local life, and the absence of tourists in its beautiful colonial towns. There is a great divide between the bleak Andes and the warmer eastern plains; between the kollas of La Paz and the cambas of Santa Cruz; between Spanish and the incompatible Indian languages. Whenever there's a change of government, every last official job, even the village schoolteacher and the prison population, seems to swap. This illuminates the contrasts of this huge, still wild country.

It's a country where adventures still happen: for example, I met the Englishman I'm married to on a lorry from Bolivia to Peru, after I had been expelled (wrongly) as a Maoist spy. Once I was in La Paz when there were nine presidents in three days, one of them an Admiral of the Fleet - a surprise appointment in a landlocked country. The Navy rules the waves of Lake Titicaca, the high inland sea, which is often considered the country's greatest attraction.

Ironically, though, Che Guevara, who died in Bolivia 30 years ago this October, may have become Bolivia's big tourist draw. Tracing his steps, you travel from La Paz right across the Cordillera de los Andes, the mountains that form the backbone of the whole of South America, to the eastern plains of Santa Cruz.

La Paz clings to the edge of a deep circular crater that spirals its way down from El Alto. The poor adobe housing gives way to fine colonial churches and then modern skyscrapers. The city drops a further 2,000 feet to pleasant, leafy suburbs at the base of this well, where the military barracks and social clubs nestle. It is wonderful at dusk, as the clear light fades to blue and the cold cuts in. A myriad of twinkling lights come on, illuminating the whole bowl of La Paz as if Christmas has suddenly arrived.

Seventy per cent of the population is reckoned as Indian (mainly Quechua and Aymara), and the life of the city is vibrant with Indian life. The markets are dominated by the cholitas, fascinating in multiple skirts and bowler hats, babies slung in brilliant shawls on their backs. At their stalls, they sell vegetables, coca leaves, bags, batteries, packs of cards. Radios blare, mainly the chicha music where electric guitars meet Andean pipes. And there's Spanish rap too.

You can make your way east from La Paz by air to Cochabamba or Santa Cruz, or you can choose from the myriad of buses. Even more cheaply go by lorry, perched in the cold open air, clinging to a central plank of wood for dear life. The landscape softens as the bumpy road reaches Cochabamba, This is the region of the Yungas, the subtropical valleys of high rainfall and balmy temperatures where there are thriving bushes of coffee and legally- grown coca, the new ora verde or green gold.

A young man with spectacular gold teeth makes his way down the overcrowded bus handing out tea bags. He shouts to make himself heard above the rattle of gears: this mate, made from herbs and coca leaves, is medicinal, it's particularly efficacious for travellers - and it looks as though we'll need it.

The bus now takes the low road to Santa Cruz, the capital of eastern Bolivia. It's a vibrant, noisy town that has quadrupled in size and prosperity in the past decade. It is the home town of the erstwhile military dictator, Hugo Banzer, who has just been reinvented as a democratically elected president. The city is now awash with Rolex watches, fourwheel drives, Calvin Klein pants and Tommy Hilfiger jackets. The new money takes a distinctly macho turn in Santa Cruz, now one of the drug capitals of the world.

The newest trade, however, is in Che Guevara. From Santa Cruz I take a bus to the old colonial town of Vallegrande, where he was buried. The bus is crammed to the hilt, winding its hair-raising way along a spectacular road. Rain has washed down red mud, granite boulders and purple paper flowers that mark the sites of previous disasters.

The remote town of Vallegrande was founded by the Spanish in 1612, a trading post between Peru and Paraguay. They built the cathedral and historic colonnades round the huge white-paved Plaza de Armas. All the Spanish settlers were ennobled, which has given the Vallegrandinos a strong sense of their own worth. In the town hall hangs a rumpled portrait of Simon Bolivar but, until Che Guevara's ill-fated guerrilla campaign, history had left the town stranded.

It has been in the news twice in the past 30 years. It is the place where the famous pictures of the dead Guevara, looking like the deposed Christ, were taken on 9 October 1967. The melancholy little building in which he lay still stands deserted in the hospital grounds, haunted by its history and a steady stream of visitors. The people of Vallegrande have never forgotten how they came here to pay their respects to his body. Some even cut locks of his hair. And then the body was "disappeared" by the Bolivian military and the CIA.

Suddenly this summer Vallegrande was back in the news. Che's body was unearthed, discovered in a communal grave outside the walls of the town's cemetery. It was an emotional moment, and the news went round the world. The myth of Che is more potent than ever.

The charisma and ideals of "El Che" are admired and revered by the people of Vallegrande, who have set up the Fondacion Ernesto Che Guevara to commemorate the man and his ideals - if not his methods. There is to be an international festival to mark the 30th anniversary of his death. From 5-11 October, a festival of ideology, music and arts, is to be held in Vallegrande. The writer Gabriel Garca Marquez, and other Latin American artists, writers and Nobel prize-winners are attending.

Even the government is promoting maps and information to lead travellers along La Ruta del Che, the route of Guevara's guerrilla band, marking the spots where the combatientes travelled, fought and died. The Ministry of Tourism has maps that follow their journey along the rivers ancahaus, Masicur and the Rio Grande. Dirt roads lead over the hostile terrain to the tiny village of La Higuera, where Guevara was captured and then killed in cold blood in the school house.

The bus from Santa Cruz passes the spot where six of the guerrillas hijacked a truck and drove to Samaipata, a resort town with a fine pre-Incan temple. They briefly occupied the town to buy medicine for their leader's asthma, and escaped with ten soldiers as hostages, later leaving them by the road stripped of their clothes, to make their own way home. Along a road to the east lies the valley of the Yeso where four more guerrillas died, including Tania, the only woman among them. In July there was a plane crash here. On a secret airstrip, a Brazilian Cessna hit a red Toyota bearing a load of cocaine. Helicopters circled, US agents appeared, unknown bodies were borne away - the results so similar, the ideology so different, for drugs not guerrillas now rule the jungles of east Bolivia.

The Vallegrandinos are expecting up to three thousand visitors and participants for the festival in memory of El Che. There are about 250 hotel beds in Vallegrande, in six residencials, adapted from historic colonial houses. Some are pleasant and pretty, but they offer few facilities. Each room may have four or five beds in it. The communal showers sport terrifying arrays of electrical wiring about 12 inches from the showerhead. Maybe that's why I never managed to get hot water out of them. Like Scarborough, it's very bracing.

During the festival there'll be accommodation in private houses. Take your own soap, towel and loo paper. A camp site is also being organised but it can be bitterly cold at night. As one of the founders of the Fondacion Ernesto Che Guevara says: "There'll be discomfort and disorganisation, but what an encounter with Latin American culture and music, what a spirit of solidarity, justice and liberty. As Newsweek, that symbol of North American culture, splashed all over its cover in July: Che lives!"

Bolivia Fact file: GETTING THERE Fly from London to La Paz or Santa Cruz via Miami, Caracas, Buenos Aires or Sao Paolo. From La Paz to Santa Cruz, there are daily flights ($90) and many buses, which take about 24 hours, but are cheap. There is also the "Death Train" to Santa Cruz from Corumb in Brazil for the more intrepid. This is scheduled to take a day but has been known to take three or more in wet weather. It is notorious for the sort of demanding-money-with-menaces you get when there is serious drug smuggling about.

ACCOMMODATION:

There are six guest houses in Vallegrande, with a total of about 250 beds. In normal times a bed costs about $3, and you get what you pay for. Whatever happens, take a sleeping bag - there's going to be a drastic shortage of beds. Private accommodation brings direct contact with families, but you'll have to speak Spanish, or at least take an adequate phrase book. Camping: Vallegrande is in the mountains so provide for cold nights. Loo paper is never provided; take your own towel and soap too.

THE FESTIVAL OF CHE GUEVARA

5-11 October 1997: From Santa Cruz to Vallegrande there are buses ($4) and taxis ($60) which will surely soar in price for the festival. Regular buses are packed, and must be booked a day or two in advance at the Santa Cruz bus station. There are counters for each private firm in the basement: look for the signs of Senor de los Milagros or Flota Bolivar. The University of Santa Cruz and festival organisers will also be running coaches. It is unlikely you can book in advance, so allow a few days in Santa Cruz.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SQL Developer (TSQL, SSRS, SSAS) Fund Manager - London

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer (TSQL, S...

    Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, Angular.JS)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, An...

    Front-End UI/UX Developer (HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, Ang

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End UI/U...

    C#.NET Server Side Developer (C#, XML, WCF, Unit Testing,SQL)

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C#.NET ...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition