Sometime in 1966 on a remote farm not far from here (Vallegrande, Bolivia) Che Guevara along with a rag tag team of militants set up a military camp. He hoped to liberate South America from social oppression and American Imperialism. He helped Castro topple the Fulgencia Batista Cuban dictatorship in 1959. As such was granted senior positions in the Castro government. But Guevara wanted to come to the aid of Communist regimes all over the world — he tried to convince Castro that the this was their destiny. But as Ché prepared to journey to Africa to fight for Communism in the Congo, Castro forced him to sign a letter of resignation — communicating clearly that he and Cuba condemned these military activities. After some success in the Congo, Ché wanted nothing to do with Castro’s bureaucratization of Marxists ideals, so he took his cause back home — to Latin America.
And that brings us to Vallegrande and his remote military camp some miles away. Why Bolivia? Its location was strategically important. From this base in central Bolivia Ché had access to the borders of Chile, Argentina, Peru, Brazil and Paraguay all just hours away. His plan was to convince Communist leaders throughout the continent to join him in revolution. But a meeting with the leader of the Bolivian communist party turned fateful for Che — he would not gain their support and therefore was on his own. He then marched through the farms of the campesino trying to convince the people that they were oppressed and inspire the poor to fight for social revolution. This failed too. So for the next 7 or 8 months Ché’s army, divided into small battalions ,ensued a number of bloody battles, leaving casualties on both sides of the fence. The C.I.A. stepped in and trained the Bolivian army in anti-guerilla strategy and battle tactics. And on October 8, 1967 the Bolivian Army captured Guevara. They took him to a single school room in the small pueblo of La Higuera about 20 miles from here. The next day he was executed.
Vallegrande fits into this scheme as the final resting place for the man who’s perhaps most famous quote is:
“Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome, provided that this, our battle cry, may have reached some receptive ear, that another hand may be extended to wield our weapons, and that other men be ready to intone our funeral dirge with the staccato singing of the machine guns and new battle cries of war and victory.”
Yet his iconic image as a beret-clad warrior graces t-shirts, car and bus windows and on walls of so many Latin American homes and businesses. Che was taken to Vallegrande by helicopter and laid to rest for people to see in the hospital laundry room. He was eventually buried and information relating to his execution and burial place remained a mystery until the mid-1990’s when, after a nearly two-year search the Bolivian Government with help from several relief and aid organizations, Ché’s body was found under the airport here in Vallegrande.
So Vallegrande has become somewhat of a Mecca for Che fans worldwide. For in the minds of motorcyclists the notion of a pro-military action inclined revolutionary might not settle well, but as one of the early motorcycle explorers of this fascinating continent (now made famous by Walter Salles “Motorcycle Diaries”) a journey here peaks the curiosity for learning the fateful history of Che Guevara. While I don’t think UNESCO will anytime soon recognize this as a historical site, the Bolivian Government has started a tourism project called the Ché Trail. Vallegrande sits at the north end of a trek that will follow the last movements of Che Guevara and his rag-tag team of guerillas.
I was packed up early this morning, but when Jeremiah stood pale and sickly at his door, I knew my efforts were in vain. While he still had a good inventory of toilet paper, he was in no mood to challenge his bowls and fatigue on his bike. I made errands for the man that not long ago helped get me and my bike back to safety. So a trip to the pharmacy for meds, and to the market for juice and water. He rejected the bread and crackers for fear of what they might bring. But this gave me a chance to wander the streets of Vallegrande. We landed here in the midst of Dias de las Muertas – a time when the dead come back and party. So everyone escapes during the day and early evening to the cemeteries where they grace the stones with colorful wreathes and flowers and bring gifts and vices for the dead to enjoy when they come back for one or two days.
By the next morning we awoke to the sounds of rustling outside the window. A couple trucks loaded with motocross bikes stayed the night. Not only were the locals celebrating the dead, but motorcycles, quads and more were preparing a “caravan” along the Che Trail. We met a group from Cochabamba, one of the bigger cities in Bolivia. One of the guys wanted to trade his XR400 for my BMW. After thinking about the roads, the spills and the journey ahead, I almost considered. But then I’d have to forgo many of my belongings, including this computer. And then where would we be? Once the blog posts stopped, you’d think I disappeared. Maybe you’d even suggest looking under the airport for my body. But no. I’d be flying across the dirt relishing in my newfound freedom from the burden of the weight of lots of spare parts, first aid stuff, camping and camera gear and more. But I quickly chased the idea from my brain thinking of the fun and fury of fascinating terrain and cultural experiences I will continue to discover and share as I cross new borders.
Jeremiah moved excruciatingly slow this morning. He was still hurting. But we both knew we had to move on. According to reports it’d take 4 hours to get to Santa Cruz. I still needed to find a solution to my illegal motorcycle. And I had some unfinished business to deal with back in California. Getting to Santa Cruz, the largest city in Bolivia, would afford me the opportunity to take care of these things before retreating back into the boonies for more adventure and discovery. But before we kissed Vallegrande goodbye we needed to see the tiny Che Guevara museum. It was here once again I was reminded of the silly policy many museums and cultural exhibits follow in South America: charging a separate admission price for foreigners than nationals. I joked with the clerk suggesting that as much time I’ve spent in Bolivia this year that I should be considered a national. Didn’t work. In the States everyone pays the same price for entrance to National Parks, museums and exhibits — for the most part.
Inside I was surprised that the exhibition was fairly interesting, save that I’ve never seen more photographs of a cadaver in a museum in my life. The exhibits were bilingual and while it only took 10-15 minutes to see the entire museum, I came out with even more of an understanding of Che Guevara. As for Jeremiah, looking at him you might mistake him a candidate for a cadaver photo shoot. Needless to say, he looked bad. He hemmed and hawed. Sat down. Mumbled some, then finally made a move.
But boy what a miraculous recovery he seemed to make when we arrived two hours later at El Fuerte de Samaipata – The Fort of Samaipata – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Not much is known about El Fuerte other than is was some sort of pre-Inca ceremonial site which was later used by the Incas and Colonialists. It sits high on a cliff offering expansive views of the Andes and nearby Parque Naciional Amboró – a uniquely geographically situated location where three ecosystems converge – the Amazon Basin, the desolate and dry Northern Chaco and the Andes. The ride up to the site is nothing short of incredible. For about five miles you ride into a small gorge, cross a river and climb up, up and up on a narrow rock and dirt road that precariously hugs the cliff. Afterwords, we begin our spill to lower elevation and rising temperatures to the city of Santa Cruz. As for Jeremiah, he seemed to have no problem climbing the steep incline and never-ending stairs to platforms where we gazed onto carvings and ruins of ceremonial and administrative sites for this little known pre-Inca civilization. Yet as the sun waned and the clock ticked, I became worried about getting into Santa Cruz on a Friday night. First, it’s supposedly a huge city and finding anything in the chaotic mess of traffic, taxis, burros and bumps can have you driving circles for hours. Plus, if it’s as hot as everyone says, we’re going to be sweating in our riding gear. Finally, I needed to handle my business with Aduana (customs) before they closed. But we trekked on and continued walking through these fabulous ruins.
I guess we should have heeded my advice to leave a bit earlier. Because still 30 minutes outside Santa Cruz we lost our sunlight. To make matters worse it started to rain. This poses a huge problem with face-shields and oncoming traffic with lights. In short, it’s nearly impossible to see. The glare, combined with the refractive games lights on water droplets play, does nothing for visibility. Raising the shield is only a temporary solution until your eyes are pelted tired. Not good when every click (km) or two speed bumps pop up. And they’re usually impossible to see. Making riding even more unpredictable. Jeremiah pulled over to make some adjustments to his gear.
He lifts his face-shield and yells over to me, “What a nightmare.”