50 years after Che Guevara's death, Nick Boulos walks in the revolutionary's final footsteps through a region that few visitors see
The dusty village of La Higuera, high up in the cacti-studded mountains of southern Bolivia, is unremarkable in almost every way. With fewer than 20 houses and small enough to walk from one end to the other while the kettle boils, it barely warrants inclusion on a map. Yet people come here from all over the world.
They don’t come for the views (as fine as they are), nor for the five-star hotels (there aren’t any). Yet still they come, driven by history and passion.
Life in this blink-and-miss-it hamlet changed overnight 50 years ago when officers marched a man through the unpaved streets and killed him inside the local school, a tiny one-storey building with dirt floors at the very end of town. The date was 9 October 1967 and that man was Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
It has been half a century since the iconic Argentinean revolutionary who helped liberate Cuba was captured and assassinated by the Bolivian army, aged 39. Since then, his image has adorned everything from walls to trainers around the world. But the dramatic end to a dramatic life came after 11 months of living in the inhospitable jungles and mountain peaks of Bolivia, as he sought to initiate a revolution that would spread across South America.
“Che Guevara was a very interesting man,” said local guide Inver. “But also a very divisive one. Many love him but others think he killed the country, intellectually at least.”
Despite his violent methods, Che has been elevated to almost God-like status in these parts, with some even comparing him to Jesus Christ. But to understand his final days and his impact on the Bolivia that he was so passionate about liberating, we must start at the beginning. The beginning of the end at least.
The importance of being Ernesto
Together, Inver and I set off along ‘La Ruta del Che’ (The Route of Che), an unofficial tourist trail that weaves across southern Bolivia, taking in the significant places and sites that threw light on his botched bid to overthrow Bolivian President René Barrientos and spark a revolution that would spread across the continent.
“The most rewarding thing about following the Che Trail is not just the history but the opportunity to experience a region of Bolivia that is often overlooked,” added Inver. “Most go to La Paz, Lake Titicaca and the salt flats of Uyuni, but the other places are equally as rich.”
We started in Santa Cruz, a bustling city with charming colonial buildings, where Che, then brandishing a fake passport, arrived incognito and dressed as a clean-shaven old man with thick glasses, a flat cap and bald head. Prior to swapping his tweed jacket for his green fatigues and the big city for the wild jungle, Che presumably popped along to the Los Pozos market to pick up a few essentials.
Today, the fresh produce market is considered the largest in the country with hundreds of stalls sandwiched together tightly. I was struck by the sheer volume of goods on offer: tomatoes in the tens of thousands, pile upon pile of pineapples and papayas, an avalanche of avocadoes.
Elsewhere, the heads of pigs sat on butcher’s counters, each with a glum expression and their tongues hanging out while nearby ravenous shoppers slurped on bowls of freshly boiled intestines. All the while, men weaved through the commotion, shouting for space as they pushed the market’s answer to shopping trolleys: wheelbarrows laden with fresh herbs and vegetables, including some of Bolivia’s 200 varieties of potato.
The market’s most curious corner, however, lay elsewhere. Located next door to a stall selling coca leaves – huge sacks filled with the fragrant plants chewed by locals far and wide – was a booth that appeared, upon first glance at least, to be selling soft toys. But as I approached closer, I realised the ‘teddies’ hanging from the rafters were in fact the fully formed foetuses of llamas – white, fluffy and slightly bigger than a cat. These aborted creatures are used as offerings to Pachamama (Mother Earth), and often buried in the foundations of buildings in the belief that they keep the construction workers safe.
Leaving Santa Cruz behind, we travelled south, towards the foothills of the Andes. Our first stop wasn’t an official one on La Ruta del Che, and lay just after a sharp bend of the mountain road and beside a cluster of three houses and one small shop. There wasn’t much happening in the small community of Cuevas when I met Juana Cruz, who had just finished work, picking limes in a nearby field.
“My grandmother would often talk about the day she met Che,” she told me as we sat in her shady courtyard, its crumbling walls a mix of white and mustard yellow.
“He and a few others appeared out of nowhere. They were carrying guns and trying to find a way to Samaipata, a town nearby. She said they were nice but ordered everyone into their homes, so nobody could tell the military what they were doing.”
The Bolivian government, backed by the American CIA, were hot on Che’s tail the moment he arrived in the country. By this time he was a renowned guerilla, having achieved revolutionary success in Cuba and a government position alongside Fidel Castro. But he was restless, and after several fruitless months in the Congo training rebel forces there, he returned to his dream of liberating the rest of Latin America, having witnessed its extreme social inequality first-hand during his youthful travels around the continent. Bolivia – in the very heart of South America – seemed the perfect place to start.
The next few hours were passed driving through wide valleys dotted with vineyards and modern houses that wouldn’t look out of place on Grand Designs. One even boasted its own lighthouse – quite a surreal sight to encounter in a landlocked country.
Before long we reached the town of Vallegrande, where we made straight for the local hospital – not because of anything unfortunate, but to see the very spot where the world learned of Guevara’s demise. I strolled through the gates of the quiet Señor de la Malta hospital, passing nurses pushing an old lady on a bed and doctors in white coats who didn’t bat an eyelid at our presence. We headed straight towards a small, open-sided shelter behind the main building. Once the hospital’s laundry room, Che’s shirtless body, studded with gunshot wounds, was placed on the stone sinks (which remain in place still) for two days in 1967 as the international press gathered and the town’s curious residents shuffled past. With his eyes open, some described his body as ‘Christ like’.
It was within these once bare walls, now scrawled in tributes (one read: ‘Thank you for your example’), where Che’s hands were later amputated, to be sent away for official identification.
The rest of his remains then vanished. In one of the biggest mysteries of the whole tale, various stories circulated as the government refused to divulge their whereabouts. Several decades went by with no definitive answer until they were discovered in an unmarked common grave beside the town’s landing strip.
The spot still exists (though his remains were removed to Cuba in 1997), the sunken pit now encased in a specially built modern mausoleum that pays tribute to the guerrilla with a revealing black-and-white photo exhibition chronicling his life: Che riding a scooter as a toddler; Che playing chess; Che, the family man, with his own children.
The small museum in the neighbouring building, meanwhile, showcased some rather more graphic images of his lifeless body, taken when it was on show in the hospital’s laundry room.
I had almost erased these from my mind by the time we went for dinner at Café Santa Clara, located on the corner of the town’s pretty central square, where young couples sat huddled together against the chill on green benches. Inside, huge oil paintings depicting Che in repose – gunshot wounds and all – hung on its walls, though no one in the diner seemed to be unsettled by the idea of chomping down on a cheeseburger in their presence.
But let’s pause and take a step back. If Vallegrande was all about the aftermath, how did the world’s most famous revolutionary end up dead in a laundry room? “For that, we must travel further,” said Inver.
Driving deeper into the dark and arid mountains, I devoured Che’s Bolivian Diary, the account of his final 11 months, which ends abruptly on 7 October 1967, the day before his capture. I read tales of hunting turkeys, commandeering locals who chanced upon them, hikes across valleys and streams, feuds within the camp and deadly skirmishes with an enemy that was closing in on all sides.
The road weaved higher and higher with every twist and turn until it seemed like the whole world was beneath us. I stared out at the mass of crumpled valleys below and across towards the endless peaks that encircled us and unfolded into the distance. I contemplated the challenge that faced both camps and pondered Che’s passion, his choices, his methods and ideologies. To believe that two-dozen men could change a continent by inching slowly through a remote wilderness was admirable. But did they truly think it was possible? And did the troops in hot pursuit ever consider that finding them in such vast terrain was beyond expectations?
Moments later, we veered off the main road, a trail of dust swirling in our wake, and down a rock driveway towards an isolated house. Waiting to greet us was Santos, a local man wearing a yellow and purple football shirt and whose smile revealed that he only had his canine teeth remaining. Beside him stood his trusted dog, Rocky.
It was time to stretch our legs, and together we set off for Quebrada del Churo, a lonely spot on the forest floor. The long descent took us over an hour on account of the steep and slippery trail, the rising sun, and views that were bold enough to stop us in our tracks. The narrow trail came to a ridge, revealing the lush forest and stream beyond the sheer drop at our feet. It was down there that Che and his band of 16 merry men spent their final night of freedom. A local potato farmer had spotted them and alerted the authorities. The end was nigh.
“Che Guevara was a good man. His vision of equality was beautiful. He wanted the same rights for everyone,” said Santos as we continued, Rocky panting loudly and leading the way. “But the government issued propaganda, telling people that the communists were here to steal their land. Many were frightened of them,” he explained.
We passed the abandoned ruins of two stone and mud houses that once belonged to a mother and her two daughters, who were described by Che in the last entry of his diary as ‘one crippled and one halfdwarfed’. They, too, had spotted the men and were paid $50 for their silence.
Che didn’t give up easily. The battle lasted several hours, gunshots ringing through the forest. According to reports, he fought gallantly until a shot rendered his rifle useless.
And, so, to La Higuera, which lay about an hour’s walk away. In some ways the wider world changed forever when Che entered that school building. Strangely, though, it wasn’t his first time in this small hamlet. He had visited some days beforehand, emerging unexpectedly from the forest in search of food while his comrade, a chap by the name of Coco, used the telephone in the nearby telegraph house. That building is now a hostel, with a sign recalling its past hanging proudly outside the entrance.
I strolled through the almost entirely deserted hamlet. Just a few locals milled around, sitting in a small plaza now dominated by busts and a larger-than-life statue glorifying the famous guerrilla. Many of the locals who were here 50 years ago are no longer around, having either died or been driven away by the town’s role in history. A few quick-thinking individuals, however, saw a chance to make a fast buck. In the years that followed, some sold pieces of earth labelled ‘the soil and blood of Che’ from the spot where he died; others charged travellers to hear a first-hand account of that fateful day.
A demure woman came rushing along the road to open the former school building for us. Its small, musky interior was occupied by old school desks, its walls covered in handwritten scrawls dedicated to Che, and passport-sized photos of the devotees who had journeyed here. My gaze gravitated towards a lone chair, wobbly, wooden and stationed beside the door: the very one, supposedly, that Che was sat on during his final curtain call.
As I looked at the chair, it seemed so small an end for such a colossal figure. But that’s the point of the trail: to put a place to ‘that face’. By walking the land whose freedom Che fought for, it felt like I’d peered beneath the murals and seen a little of the human behind the icon.
The author travelled with specialist tour operator Journey Latin America (journeylatinamerica.co.uk, 020 8600 1881), which offers tailormade trips across Bolivia. An 11-day guided itinerary taking in La Paz, Santa Cruz and the Che Guevara Trail, and including time in Sucre, costs from £2,736 per person. This price includes accommodation, international flights, transfers and most meals, as well as full board on the Che Trail.
Options are limited in Bolivia’s smaller towns and remoter spots, such as Vallegrande. While comfortable, stays there are often basic and sometimes lack hot water and Wifi. However, in Bolivia’s larger cities, many mid-range hotels tick all the right boxes, with a decent option here likely to set you back around US$60 to $160 (£44-£118) per night.
Sucre’s Hotel Parador Santa Maria Real (parador.com.bo) is clean and comfortable.
The colonial-style Hotel Rosario (hotelrosario.com) is nestled in the centre of La Paz.