Revolutionary road: on the trail of Che Guevara’s last days in Bolivia

(THE GUARDIAN) Deep in southern Bolivia – where peaks and cacti soar and condors glide – is a cluster of white-washed homes and a former classroom turned shrine. Inside this school house, 50 years ago this October, the world’s most famous revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, was executed.

Today, the room where the 39-year-old was killed on Oct 9, 1967, is decorated with pictures, messages, flags and, weirdly, driving licences, by visitors who have paid homage to the Argentinian revolutionary.

The chair, where it’s said Guevara was sitting when executed, is lost in the tableaux of eulogies and pictures pinned to the wall by Che’s admirers from around the world, who have made the pilgrimage to the village of La Higuera over the last 50 years (La Higuera Museum, 8am-noon, 2pm-6pm, admission £1 (S$1.80)).

With Mr Roli Galarza Meneces as my guide, I had set off in search of where Che was captured by the Bolivian army. Roli’s father, a nurse, helped Che track down medicine for his asthma in the pretty colonial town of Samaipata, which is the gateway to the Che Trail we’re taking.

The Quebrada del Churo ravine is 3km north of La Higuera. There, we trekked down for an hour through gorse and banana palms under a blue sky to where Che’s men had hidden. Just beyond is a mosaic memorial and the fig tree the injured Che was hiding behind when apprehended by elite Bolivian troops. Roli scattered coca leaves at the site.

“I’m offering the coca to the spirit of Che to say thank you,” he said. “Che was unique; he was a failure but at least he tried. When I’m here I have a sense of injustice. It was 500 men against Che’s men.”

Emerging from the ravine we headed towards the high-altitude huddle of 17 homes at La Higuera via the same trail used by the captured Che. The walls of La Higuera’s buildings now beam with images of his face. Amid the painted propaganda, I met 70-year-old Irma Rosado at her Store Estrella. Irma was asked to take peanut soup to Che by soldiers guarding the CIA’s most-wanted in the school room. He was executed there by a volunteer sergeant at about 1.10pm.

“I was shaking so much,” she said. “I could hardly see his face as he had a beard like a goat. The only thing he said to me was ‘Gracias niña’.” Guevara pitched up in Bolivia to foment revolution and arrived, in disguise, in La Paz in 1966, staying in room 504 at the Hotel Copacabana (Zona 9, Av Illampu, £30 a night). Ask at the hotel reception and they will show you the room. Che and his guerrillas then set up a base in the south of Bolivia before trying to secure local support and recruit fighters.

La Higuera’s two hostels expect plenty of Che pilgrims for the 50th anniversary commemorations. Casa del Telegrafista (rooms from £10 per person, +591 6773 3362) is hosting a Che photo exhibition (until June 2018), and discussions. For gourmet meals (beef bourguignon marinated in red wine for two days) and Che conversation go to Los Amigos (rooms from £9 per person). Both can arrange local guides.

Che’s corpse was helicoptered to Hospital Señor de la Malta at Vallegrande, 60km north of La Higuera. It’s a small town with cobbled streets and roofs carpeted with moss. Here, the Che route is structured and an official guide is required to see all three official sites – as the hospital is still functioning. There are six guided visits a day (£4.50 per person) and guides can be found at the tourist information centre (Plaza Principal 26 de Enero, +591 7009 1023).

Mr Leo Lino, one of the guides, joined Roli and me and showed us the Vallegrande hospital’s backyard laundry where Che’s body was taken for identification and displayed to the world’s press. The walls and wash basin are scrawled with adoring graffiti. Leo told me locals light candles appealing to “San Ernesto” to cure illnesses: “Many people say their illness has been cured around here.” This belief in miracles from a dead Che emerged when his lifeless eyes appeared to follow observers around the room. The scene, captured by Bolivian photographer Freddy Alborta, was likened to Andrea Mantegna’s Dead Christ by art critic John Berger in 1968.


A teenager wearing a hat bearing the image of "Che" Guevara visits the hospital laundry room where the revolutionary's body was shown to the press 50 years ago in Vallegrande, Bolivia. PHOTO: AP

Not everyone sees Che as a hero but in Vallegrande he is honoured every October, his death marked by concerts and events. For what’s on this year, check the Facebook page of Turismo Vallegrande Bolivia and the 50aniversarioche.bo website. On 9 October an official act of remembrance will be held in Vallegrande. Cuban first vice president Miguel Díaz-Canel will attend as well as Che’s four children (who all live in Cuba). Acts of homage will be held in La Higuera on 8 and 9 October.

As we entered the hospital’s former morgue on the tour, Roli whispered, “This is where they cut off Che’s hands.” They were severed by a doctor for fingerprint ID, though they later went missing, a cause célèbre highlighted in the documentary The Hands of Che Guevara .

From the morgue it was back out into the open air and to the garden of remembrance, which is decorated in memorial stones to honour the fighters who died during Che’s Bolivia campaign. Last October, a new Che museum opened, as part of the Centro Cultural Ernesto Che Guevara, next to the air strip where his body was dumped in 1967. The museum features photographs, posters and assorted artwork relating to Che and his campaigns. And behind the centre is the memorial building erected over the site where his body lay in an unmarked grave until unearthed in a search in the 90s.

At the Café Galeria de Arte Santa Clara, on Vallegrande’s main plaza, under a vast portrait of Guevara in death, I asked Roli why Che’s Bolivia experiment failed.

“The locals were afraid to sell food to the guerrillas and they were afraid of dollars. Also, the US sent Green Beret Ralph “Pappy” Shelton to train the Bolivian army in counter-guerilla tactics.” Just two weeks after their training, Che had been captured and the order came from Bolivian bosses: “Di buen día a Papá” (Say good morning to dad): the code to kill Che Guevara.

Che might have died 50 years ago but Bolivian President Evo Morales has revived his spirit and his name has been rehabilitated in Bolivia, Roli told me. As we left the trail, the walls of a nearby town, daubed with a slogan, seemed to speak this truth: “Che, more present than ever.”

• The trip was provided by Journey Latin America , which has 11-day holidays to Bolivia taking in the Che Trail, Santa Cruz, Sucre and La Paz, from £2,736 per person, including flights, full-board during the Che Trail, breakfast daily, excursions and transfers.