This article was first published in the August 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine
Julia Cortes remembers the day clearly: 8 October 1967. She was a trainee teacher at the tiny schoolhouse in La Higuera, a remote and dusty pueblo lost among Bolivia’s eastern lowlands. When Bolivian troops commandeered the school as a makeshift prison for a wounded combatant, she was charged with bringing the prisoner food. “I remember the man was blessed with great charisma and intelligence,” she says. “I brought him soup and we talked. He was very polite and respectful to me.” Little did she know at that time, but that man was Che Guevara (left) and she was to be one of the last people to see him alive.
Che had travelled to Bolivia in November 1966 to mobilise a social revolution. Instead of liberating the rural underclass, however, he was betrayed by the local community and, after being wounded in a gun battle, he was captured by Bolivian troops. Then next morning, when Julia returned with his breakfast, the soldiers had already executed him. His lifeless body was taken to the Señor de Malta Hospital in the nearby town of Vallegrande, where the corpse was paraded before the world’s media. The bodies of Che and his fellow guerrillas were secretly dumped in unmarked graves. His corpse was only unearthed and returned to Cuba for burial in 1997.
Until recently, following in Che’s final footsteps entailed running the gauntlet of lost-in-time settlements and rough, dirt-track roads. But the inauguration of an official Che route has opened up the region to a fledgling backpacker trail, fuelled by interest in the cult of Che with films like The Motorcycle Diaries. Backed by international non-governmental organisations, the trail aims to generate vital income for the indigenous community in what is one of the poorest rural areas of Bolivia.
Under the auspices of the project, the local Guarani people are employed in cultural projects, improving services available to tourists and as official trail guides, charged with explaining events at various stages of the trail. The organisers sought the support of Che’s daughter in Cuba to rubberstamp the initiative.
There are, in fact, three routes through Che country, all retracing journeys as documented in his final tome, Bolivian Diary. Of the three, the northern trail that runs from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the economic powerhouse city of southern Bolivia, via Vallegrande to La Higuera, is the most accessible. Tour operators in Santa Cruz will arrange three to five-day itineraries by jeep, or independent travellers can catch bone-shaking local transport as far as Vallegrande, after which a four-wheel drive will be required due to the perilous state of the roads.
Along the trail, the scenery changes rapidly from lush, tropical vegetation to a rough scrub, dotted only with cacti and the occasional roaming mule. The route is marked by a combination of roadside panels and ceramic tiles while the Argentine artist, Rodolfo Saavedra, was commissioned to paint a selection of Che-inspired murals at key locations prior to the official launch.
Vallegrande remains the best place to stay along the trail. Standards are basic but functional with simple lodgings and cheap but cheerful restaurants. The town’s Casa de Cultura is home to a striking collection of black-and-white photographs that bring to life the tumultuous events of Che’s last stand. Across town at the Señor de Malta Hospital, the laundry outhouse where journalists snapped images of Che’s corpse, is starting to resemble Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris’s Pere-Lachaise cemetery – a site of international pilgrimage. The burgeoning graffiti collection from across the world features a mix of revolutionary slogans and emotional tributes.
La Higuera, two hours heading south-west along the trail, is dominated by an imposing stone-carved bust of Che, erected in 1997 to mark the 30th anniversary of his death. The schoolhouse is the Holy Grail for the steady ant trail of Che pilgrims but remains virtually unchanged from the fateful day of his capture. As the sun blisters the scrub land and the mules seek shade under towering cacti, the local Che guide unlocks the schoolhouse door for me to gaze upon snatches of revolutionary slogans daubed like bloodstains across the faded walls. One particular inscription catches my eye. It reads: “Through this door one man walked out to eternity”.
David Atkinson is a travel writer who has co-authored several Lonely Planet books
Tourist information: www.lata.org Consult the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for the latest country advice prior to travel – www.fco.gov.uk
Best time to go: March–June
Recommended read: Che Guevara, Bolivian Diary, translated by Lucia Alvarez De Toledo, (Pimlico, £8.99)