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
Sunday 21 September 1997
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.
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.
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