5 years ago

Ruta del Che on the cheap | La Higuera, Bolivia

 

A 17-hour train journey in Argentina, from Buenos Aires to Córdoba, gave me a chance to check out the Museo del Che, Che Guevara’s childhood home which was converted to a museum.

The visit provided a fascinating look at his life, and it’s where I found out that he was assasinated and buried in Bolivia. Once I looked into it, I decided to hit the Ruta del Che and visit the places where he spent his last days, in the middle-of-nowhere Bolivia.

Of course, I opted to take on the Ruta del Che on the cheap, via public transportation. #Ballinonabudget

Starting in Sucre, I hopped on a Señor de los Milagros bus to Villa Serrano a 9 am (40 Bs). Five hours later, after a very scenic, but nerve-racking ride up and down mountainous switchbacks with deadly drops and no safety barriers, I arrived in the tiny village, where I found out I’d have to spend the night, as the next bus wouldn’t leave til 7 am the next day.

Villa Serrano, Ruta del Che
Stopped in a sleepy little town on the way to Villa Serrano

While walking back to my hostel after lunch, I heard the sweet sounds of soccer coming from a little school supply store. I’d given up on finding a place to watch the Europa League final, so this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I literally walked in, explained my predicament, and asked if I could join him and watch the game.

Luckily Hugo, the owner, said I was welcome to join him and gave me a chair.

Villa Serrano, Ruta del Che
Gracias, Hugo!

We chatted for the next hour or so, watched the fun Sevilla win, and enjoyed some Cokes I bought while he tended to the youthful customers that popped in every 10 minutes.

My night was spent trying to stay warm under four thick blankets (there’s no such thing as heating in hostels in Bolivia), and with cold water being the only option in the shower upon awaking, I decided to forgo cleanliness until I got to La Higuera.

I don’t like skipping showers, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

Off I went on my Ruta del Che expedition at 7 am, spending the next few hours with eyes wide open, jaw on the floor, sweaty palms, and heart at my throat. One of the most memorable bus rides of my life, for sure. We ascenced mountains and descended into valleys, weathering dense fog, muddy roads, constant hairpin turns, and sporadic wildlife. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen sickness bags provided on a bus, with some locals putting them to use and keeping windows open despite the cold morning, leading to a chilly ride.

Tackling the Ruta del Che on huge, old buses and small roads with precipitous drops is not for the faint of heart.

La Higuera

At 10:30 am, shortly after one of the most impressive, beautiful, and dangerous parts of the bus journey, the driver’s assistant hurried me off the bus on the desolate mountain road before it sped off, leaving a thick cloud of dust in its trail.

There I was at the top of a mountain, dusty backpack in hand, officially on the Ruta del Che, completely alone and smiling big; it was such an adventure getting there and I’d yet to reach my destination.

Ruta del Che, La Higuera
Just me and big blue.

I delayered, consolidated my two bags, and followed the signage to La Higuera over the next 2 hours. It didn’t take long to understand why this place made a good hideout: dense foliage, hard access, few people, and a river.

On the way down, I ran into Jacob, an Israeli living in London, who was riding into La Higuera on the motorcycle he rented in La Paz and would eventually take to the Salar de Uyuni salt flats. I also crossed paths with an Argentine couple who were heading off on a hike. Together, we made up 100% of the tourists in La Higuera until the next morning, when everyone besides me left and I’d have the dusty little place all to myself, and the rest of the Ruta del Che, too, for a couple of chill days.

When I finally arrived in La Higuera, I was greeted by Che’s iconic face – you know, the one of him wearing a beret and looking into the distance – and memorable quotes, both of which were plastered on every available wall. The few businesses and one medical center (funded and run by the Cuban government) all had Che names like La Estrella, La Tania, and La Casa del Telegrafista. A giant statue stood tall in front of a star-shaped plaza, and just beyond that were the last couple of buildings in town, including the Che museum, which was built precisely where the school he was shot in once stood.

After grabbing a snack from La Estrella, the owner, a lady in her 70s offered me a bed in a three-bed room she owned across the street. A spartan place with an outdoor bathroom, no hot water, and impoverished conditions, at 20 bolivianos it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Yes, because it was dirt cheap, but also because I could see that things were quite slow in town and she depended on the income to live. Probably the most unsanitary place I’ve stayed in, but it had character and history, I suppose.

For the next 3 days, Doña Irma, a lifetime resident of La Higuera, provided me coffee & bread in the mornings and evenings, which helped with the chilly temperatures, as well as some of the greasiest food ever for lunch or dinner.

Ruta del Che, La Higuera
Doña Irma

After visiting the Che museum (10 Bs), which was mostly hundreds of Argentine government IDs pilgrims had left behind and some memorabilia of questionable authenticity (like the chair he was supposedly shot in, as well as the door where he entered a hero and left a martyr, they claim), I met Jacob for a beer & a good chat early that evening.

Quebrada del Churo

In the morning, I hit the Quebrada del Churo, about a 90-minute hike from La Higuera, where an old man pointed me in the right direction, to a small, unmarked trail, where I got lost once because I chose wrong at a fork.

I knew I was at the right place when I heard the river, saw a clearing, and, as I got closer, noticed a cement star on the ground and Che Guevara’s “Hasta la victoria, siempre!” quote on a couple of benches.

This was it. The spot where Che and his few remaining allies were ambushed and where Che reminded his captors that he was more valuable to them alive than dead.

The small river and swaying of leaves provided the soundtrack to the pensive moments I spent reflecting on what transpired there nearly 50 years earlier. It was insane to consider that his name, image, and message still reverberated and inspired new generations to fight social injustice.

I journaled a while and, with some time on my hands, I decided to throw gloves on them and try to clean up the weeds that were slowly eating up the star. I stopped about 60% of the way through the project when a spider the size of my sanitizer bottle came out of the weeds and damn close to my hand.

Ruta del Che, Quebrada del Churo, near La Higuera
Wanted to finish, but…

On the way back up, the old man asked for 10 Bs admission, which I refused to pay, listing the reasons as to why I wouldn’t (no signage declaring price of entry, badly maintained trail, site in poor conditions) and why I found his demand laughable. It was a matter of principle I wasn’t willing to budge on in hopes that he’d change the way he handled business.

Vallegrande

Two mornings later (no thanks to handwashed clothes that wouldn’t dry and thanks to Irma’s son, Roger, who offered a very convenient lift for 40 Bs) I continued along the Ruta del Che, heading for Vallegrande, the place where Che’s body was put on display for two days in a hospital laundry before his hands were cut off and the rest discarded in an unmarked mass grave. He’d lay there unbeknownst to everyone until 1997, when his body was found, exhumed, and properly buried in Cuba.

The four hour stop was plenty and I left disappointed. The hospital being a public entity was easy to walk into and check out, but the mausoleum was under lock and key with barb wire fencing. I followed the directions for access, which led me back to town where the cultural office was…closed on Sundays, of course.

Who would think tourists would want to visit the only thing of value in this shitty town on a weekend? Infuriating indifference, indeed.

I went back to the cemetery to try my luck again, managing to get past the fencing thanks to the cryptkeeper that lived on site. He let me in through his property for 5 Bs, and while I did not get into the mausoleum, I did have a chance to walk around the nicely maintained site, looking at the trees that Cuban dignitaries, military heroes, and Che’s children had planted, and again spending some time thinking about what had taken place there.

Despite the final hurdle, the few days I spent on the Ruta del Che made for a memorable adventure that was well worth the detour, the early mornings being awakened by roosters, dogs, and drunks knocking on the door crying over a lost lover, and the transportation challenges.

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