This week I had one of the best experiences of my entire journey so far. I visited the village of La Higuera where Ernesto “Che” Guevara and his fellow troops were hunted down, captured and murdered by the Bolivian Army and the CIA in October of 1967. I guess I should start my tale from the beginning.
I started my journey in Santa Cruz de la Sierra which is a huge city in Eastern Bolivia. My guidebook did not have much to say about my upcoming journey to La Higuera. It said to take a bus to Vallegrande where there are Several pleasant, basic places to stay on or around the plaza. It gave a few details about taking a bus from Vallegrande to the village of Pucara from where there is transport to La Higuera. It also mentioned some Che tours and said if considering a tour, book locally, not from La Paz. Fair enough I thought. So while I was in Santa Cruz I walked around and looked for a tour operator but did not see anything of the like. Oh, well I figured. Once I get to Vallegrande there will be all kinds of people trying to get me to go on their Che tour.
My journey started on Tuesday (June 15th) and the only one bus I could find that went from Santa Cruz to Vallegrande left at 6:30pm and arrived at 1am they said. I was not wild about arriving in a new city that I knew nothing about at 1am but I figured how bad could it be. So I got on the bus and it started out with only myself and one other passenger on it. Interesting considering how full the other buses I had been on so far in Bolivia had been. Kids laying in the aisle and people standing for hours and hours because there were no seats. But the bus plodded along for a while and soon we stopped to pick up some more passengers. But only a few people got on board. So 1 am came and went and I could only see blackness out of my bus window. Finally about 1:30 am we rolled into town. I asked the bus usher kid where there was a hotel and he pointed and said towards the plaza. So I walked up to the plaza which was only a block away and looked around. No hotels or anything. So I picked a street to walk up and didn´t see anything that direction either. I went back to the plaza and picked a different road and started heading up it. The whole time I didn´t see a soul around. All of the people who were on the bus with me had promptly hopped into taxis and disappeared. As I was walking along a couple blocks I spied another plaza and figured this must be the plaza the kid and my guidebook were talking about. There was a residencia right on the corner so I rang their bell a few times and waited but no signs of life. Moving on I found a couple more residencias but no one was home at those either. Shit I thought. What am I to do now. So I picked another street and walked up it. I came to a residencia with some lights on and could hear some people talking and a tv going. I rang their bell and knocked and waited and waited but no one came to the door. So I went back to the plaza. There was a place that I thought might be a hotel but had a weird word on their sign. I knocked and the door creaked open. I poked my head in and shouted “Hola.” But didn´t hear anyone. So I crept in slowly and looked around. I found myself in a courtyard with possible bedrooms all along the upper level of the courtyard. So I walked up the stairs hoping I would find an empty room I could crash in and figure things out in the morning. But all the rooms where under construction and there were no beds anywhere. So I quickly made my way back out to the plaza and closed the door. I was considering sleeping on one of the many park benches, but was not wild about the idea. I decided to go give one more knock at some of the places I had already tried. I was walking across the plaza when I saw a taxi creeping along the street. I hailed him and asked him if he knew of a hotel that was open. He said sure so I hopped in and off we went. Two blocks down the street and he pulled up to a building that was still being built. He said it was a new hotel. It was 2 am and I did not really care too much as long as I was not on the park bench. So he knocked at the door for a bit then I heard a woman say she was coming. Whew! She opened up and was super friendly and took me up to a room. I drifted off into a deep slumber and was awoken at 10:30 the next morning by someone knocking on my door. I answered and there was a different lady who started spouting all this stuff off and the only words I could pick out were man, work, key and room. I told here I didn´t understand and then she just walked away. Not quite sure what to make of it I decided it was probably time to get up and try to track down a Che tour. So I got up and hit the streets of Vallegrande. Things looked much better when it was not the middle of the night and I walked up along the main street and over to the first plaza that I had seen but did not see any tour places. So I decided to eat and then deal with it. I popped into a place and had their lunch which was soup followed by chicken and rice. I admit that I don´t really like to try new weird foods but I was really hungry so I was going to eat whatever they brought me. The soup had some very odd mystery meat in it. At first I thought the small round meat tubes were ham but after trying some of them I am still stumped as to what they were. Anyways, I ate most of the food and then set out of figure out how to get to La Higuera. I stopped to talk to a taxi driver and he reconfirmed my guidebook´s bus story. But I wanted to go then, I did not want to have to wait until the next morning and try to hassle with all kinds of crazy buses. The feeling that I was in the middle of nowhere was starting to sink in. So I took the kid up on his taxi offer of 150 BS (US$20) to drive me to La Higuera. First we headed over to my hotel to grab my pack. He dropped me off and went to go get some gas. So I go to walk into the door to find a big fat lock on the door. Great I thought. I tried fiddling with it and tried my room key even though I knew it would not work. I stood there calling out “¡Hola!” hoping someone was inside even though I knew no one was. So I stood back and surveyed the situation. I knew I didn´t want to stand here all day waiting for the owners to come home. There were no windows yet and on the part of the hotel that was going to be the foyer they had two large windows that were covered up by a big piece of metal. I pushed the metal and it gave way, it was just held up by a board from the inside of the hotel. So I removed the metal and was about to try to climb in through the window when I heard some lady shouting behind me. The lady who had woken me up this morning. She disappeared for a second and then came back waving a key. Then our conversation from this morning made sense to me. The owners were going to work and left the key with her. So I apologized for the window and put the piece of metal back. She let me in and I paid her then ran up to my room to grab my stuff. My taxi driver, Jamie, showed back up and we were off I thought. But apparently Jamie was worried about driving so far away (60km) and he kept asking me how long I was going to stay in La Higuera. One hour? Two? I told him I was going to stay a couple days and he didn´t seem to like that idea so he tried to find another taxi driver to take me. But apparently no one was up for the trip. So we went off to go and get gas which he had apparently not done before. Then stop by his house so he could grab a quick lunch and then we were off. It took a good two and a half hours to get to Pucara and along the way Jamie and I talked about a bunch of different stuff. He asked me why I was going to La Higuera and I told him to visit Che. He said “oh, is he still there?” I said well no they took his body to Cuba in 1997. Then Jamie asked “oh, is he living in Cuba then?” So I had to give Jamie a brief history lesson about Che. Jamie was more concerned about what kind of food we had and how big people were in the USA though. In Pucara Jamie had to ask directions on how to get to La Higuera. I asked him “Haven´t you been there before?” “Once, but it was night and I wasn´t driving.” Alright then. So we got some directions and kept driving along for the last bit of the drive. We finally made it to La Higuera. Jamie pulled the taxi up next to the big bust statue of Che and tossed my bad out and got out of there in a flash.
So I am standing in this remote Bolivian village next to the Che statue with my backpack and no clue what to do next. There were some buildings around mostly houses but two little stores. The statue of che and a little plaza with another statue of Che. And that is La Higuera. A lady peeked her head out from the store and beckoned me over so I headed over and said hi and asked if there was anyplace to stay here. She said yeah, just wait a minute. Apparently the gringo alarm had gone off the second my taxi pulled up and the call went out because shortly after an older guy with hardly any teeth strolled up to me and asked if I needed a place to stay. Yep I said so he told me to follow him and we went down the street to the old school house where Che was held prisoner before he was murdered. After that he took me to the new school house where they have a dormitory with four bunk beds. So I tossed down my pack in the empty room and went to see the next item on the agenda, the schools library. My new buddy, Manuel started asking where I was from and he was amazed when I told him I was American. He said that Americans did not come to La Higuera very often. He told me he had some dollars that he wanted me to look at. So I went back to his house with him and while he was searching for his dollars inside a little old lady, Manuel´s 110 year old grandmother, came hobbling over the wood and rock fence from the corn field. She could barely walk and had a constant shake going. Manuel came back with a $100 bill and said that someone had given it to him in 1998. In La Higuera it is hard enough to get change for a 100 BS (About US$13) much less a $100. Manuel asked me to change it for him so I did, giving him the four twenties I had and then the rest in Bolivianos. After that Manuel hopped up to grab his Che book that he had. But Manuel dosen´t read so he flipped through the whole book showing me all the photos in it and telling me about the Cubanos. He said he would come and get me in the morning to take me to the El Churo valley where Che was captured. So I left Manuel´s house and headed back towards the school, stopping to buy some snacks at the shop. There were a couple little kids following me around so I invited them to play cards with me. So we played war for a while and then their mom called them home. So I just relaxed and went to bed early that night.
Thursday morning Manuel comes in to collect me a bit before 8am. I had just woken up and was still laying in bed so he said something about having a coffee then we will go to El Churo. So I got ready and headed out front to street but did not seen Manuel anywhere. The lady from the “other” store beckoned me over and fixed me a coffee. The town drunk was already hard at work finishing a beer at 8:30am in the store. I finished my coffee and headed off to find Manuel. I went to his house but he was not there so I went back to the plaza and hung out there for a while. He showed up just before 9 am with a small machete and asked if I was ready to go. We started off walking on the road for a bit and then set out onto a dirt path going uphill. Manuel was wildly swinging around his machete clearing the path for us as we went. There were some pretty steep parts so I got to breathing pretty hard and that led Manuel to enquire about my weight. I told him that I was 140 Kilos and that just blew him away. He said that I needed to live with him and eat what he eats for a month and then I would be 100 Kilos, which was as he figured it as much as anyone ever needed to weigh. I agreed with him. So we kept walking along with Manuel turning around every now and then to say “140 Kilos, keep walking.” We made it to the top of the ravine and then started going down a very steep incline. That part was easy enough but I knew that I would be dying on the trek back up. All along the way Manuel would point out where the Army soldiers had been positioned, which was pretty much all over the place as they had 1,800 soldiers in the area to capture Che´s small group of twenty or so revolutionaries. Che had been trekking along the river near there and after a few encounters with the Army had become trapped in the valley. As Manuel and I walked down to the valley floor Manuel pointed out where Che and his troops had been chased and finally we reached the spot where Che had been captured. He had been shot several times in the leg and his rifle had been shot and he was taking cover behind a large rock with one of his soldiers when the Army troops surrounded him. Che told the Army troops “Do not shoot! I am Che Guevara and worth more to you alive than dead.” So they captured him and took him back to the school house in La Higuera. Manuel and I stayed there for a bit while I took in the area around me. It was pretty erie being there and I could imagine the gun shots being fired and the soldiers running around through the bushes and trees. After a few photos Manuel and I started the long trek back to La Higuera. It had taken just under two hours to reach the end of our hike and took a tad bit longer to get back to town. Along the steep climb back up I had to stop and rest quite a few times and as we sat and rested Manuel would tell me about Che and his troops. How they had visited nearby villages and talked to the villagers and when they collected food from the villagers they always paid for everything that they took. Manuel told me that the day after Che was captured the troops there received the order to kill him. So two soldiers went walking down the street with a beer in both hands and arguing over who would shot Che. The soldier entered the school house drunk with is gun ready to shoot Che who was bound and laying on the floor. As the solder hesitated before he shot Che told him “Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man!” And then gun shoots echoed throughout the village as the villagers were hiding away in their houses. After a bit more sweating and grunting I made it back to the top of the valley and to the road. We were pleasantly strolling back to town on the road when Manuel suddenly jumped back as a meter long snake slithered in front of us. Manual swiftly chopped it right in half with his machete and then pried open the snakes mouth with a stick to show me the fangs. After that excitement we made it back to town and had some lunch and a few beers. Then I went off to take a nap and rest up.
About 7 pm Manuel came into the bunkhouse to get me and we went next door to the store for some beers. We had a couple beers then I went down to the other store to have dinner. There were a couple of guys just totally drunk there and the Señora made me some dinner which was unfortunately the same thing I had for lunch. Rice, carrots and potatoes which was good when it was warm at lunchtime. But the second time around it was cold and not quite as tasty. But I munched down as much as I could stomach and headed back to the first store to have a few more beers with Manuel. There was another lively villager in the store and the younger Señora who owned the store. I kept buying the beers and the four of us were drinking and having a good time. While I was gone at dinner two boom boxes were produced and the music was flowing. The folks there took a keen interest in me and kept asking me about the USA and how far away it was. When I told them that I had been to Chile, Argentina and Peru first they didn´t know what to make of that. Santa Cruz de la Sierra was as far as most of them had ever been. They all wanted me to come back and buy a house in La Higuera. They said for a $1,000 I could buy a real nice house with two rooms. I think around midnight or so we learned that there was no more beer. So the Señora mixed up some sort of concoction that we drank for a bit. Then I said my goodnights and stumbled back to my bed. I was just about to crawl into bed when Manuel came in and we ended up staying up for an hour or so having a drunken conversation. Then he took off and I went to sleep.
I was sleeping away when I heard the door open and Manuel came in and sat down on my bed. It was 9am. He said that there was a car in town that was going to leave later that afternoon and would take me back to Vallegrande. Good I thought. So I went back to sleep for a bit. Manuel came back a while later and told me that the car had left already. Manuel asked the driver to wait but apparently they didn´t want to. But Manuel assured me that on Fridays there was lots of traffic through the town so it shouldn´t be a problem. So I started to get up and get ready. I had just come back from brushing my teeth in the very deluxe bathroom (seriously!) and Manuel came in with the two little kids in tow to tell me there was another car in town and the driver was waiting for me. So I packed up really quit and headed out. But when I got outside the car had left! So I set up camp on the side of the road to ensure that I did not miss another opportunity. I only had to wait about half and hour before a taxi came driving into town in the direction of Vallegrande. So I ran down to the taxi and the guy asked where I wanted to go, I said Vallegrande and he said get on in. I was set. So I grabbed my pack and hopped in the back seat. We drove down the road a bit and the guy in the passenger seat got out to go have a jaw flap with one of the locals. There was a little old guy all dressed up with his slacks, sweater and top hat in the back seat with me and the young taxi driver. I shortly figured out that the guy in the passenger seat had hired the taxi and was driving around visiting his friends and looking for cows to buy. So after a bit he was ready to go and I said goodbye to Manuel who had sauntered over to the taxi. He said “Bye, I shall see you when you return.” and we drove off. After a bit we arrived in Pucara and stopped there while the guy went around for about two hours to talk to people. It was nice day out and they have a nice plaza there so I hung out and there was a group of locals who were taking a mid day siesta and invited me to share some beer with them. Eventually the guy came walking down the street with this huge bull and as he stopped to talk to his buddies who were hanging out in the plaza the bull started to ram a small van that was parked on the street. So the guy ran the cow down the street and told the taxi to follow him. So I climbed in and we were off. The guy put the cow in a fenced in pasture on the edge of the village and we started the drive towards Vallegrande. We got to town and it looked a lot nicer then my first trip there. Maybe because I knew I could find a hotel because it was still daylight! So I headed back down to the plaza and and went to the Hotel Copacabana. I rested up for a bit and had a shower to cleanse off the dust and headed off to try to figure out the bus scene and find some dinner. I went to the bus office which had a sign saying they had buses to Sucre, which is where I wanted to go, and asked what time they left. The lady started in on this confusing deal saying that I would have to switch buses in a town called Mataral but that the bus left at one pm. So I said ok and I paid for a ticket. Then I reconfirmed that the bus was leaving from the office at one tomorrow. She said, no you have to go to Mataral on another bus down the street and then wait for your bus in Mataral which will come at 7pm. Ok, I thought. Easy enough. I went and found a place to eat and had a great hamburger and a ice cold Coca-Cola for 5 BS (70 cents) and went back to my hotel room.
Saturday morning and I was going to try to escape from Vallegrande. I got all packed and walked around to get some photos. I figured out where my bus left from and had a great lunch at the same little restaurant. As I was walking over to the bus I noticed the strap on my red daypack was about to come unsown. It had come undone a month or two ago but I had sewn it up then. But this time it looked a lot worse. I passed a shoe repair shop so I popped in to see if they could fix it up for me. The kid at the sewing machine said he could certainly fix it and while he was working on it a really drunk guy came into the shop and started talking to me. I was talking to him and asked him, “Are you fixing your shoes here?” The kid fixing my backpack and his buddy both looked and me and rolled their eyes and told me he was the owner of the store. Herman was a very friendly guy and invited me to sleep in his store if I wanted. But I politely refused and told him I had to catch the bus in a bit. After the kid was done repairing my daypack I had some time to kill so I bought a couple beers for us to drink and then headed out to get on the bus. On the bus ride I discovered that my CD Player and only source of entertainment had gone tits up. The radio still works but for some reason it won´t spin the disc around or after starting it and stopping it a bunch will but makes a horrible sound and will only play about half a song before stopping. I also discovered that I had lost my sunglasses at some point in the recent past. We reached Mataral after only and hour and I got off the bus, almost forgetting all my cds, but a lady handed them to me out the window. I asked the bus helper guy where to wait for the bus and he pointed across the street. He asked if I was going to Sucre and I replied that I was. He said “Oh, your gonna have to wait a long time. The bus does not pass until 8 or 9 at night.” Not much I could do I thought and I started my waiting by the side of the road. Mataral is basically a few little shops and restaurants and a fork in the road where truckers stop to have a snack and check their tires ( quite a past time for Bolivian drivers! ) It was 2 pm. Around 4 I went across the street to have a Fanta and kill some more time. But after nursing my Fanta for two hours I went back to my waiting spot. I had no music, no book to read other then my guidebook and nothing to do. So I sat there. Seven o´clock came and went and no sign of any bus. Eight o´clock came and went and still no bus. An old guy who was waiting for a different bus asked me where I was going and when I told him Sucre said “Oh, that bus does not pass until late. Until 10 or 10:30.” Well there was not much I could do but wait. After it got dark it was hard to tell which of the approaching vehicles were trucks or buses so at every approaching headlight I ran out to the side to the side of the road to hope that it would be my bus. There were some smaller buses that passed and stopped but they were all going to local towns near there. Nine came and went and then a few buses started to come. I was pretty sure that the bus company that I had a ticket for was named Bolivar. But I didn´t care and was ready to hop on any bus going to Sucre even if I had to buy another 40 BS ($5) ticket. Four big buses blew right past me without even thinking about stopping and I was hoping that my bus would be kind enough to stop. I figured that they knew they were supposed to pick me up because the lady at the Vallegrande office had called the Santa Cruz office to book my ticket for me. But I didn´t put too much faith in that. So I waited a bit more. Finally I saw my Bolivar bus approaching and the glowing “Sucre” sign in the window beckoning to me. So I started waving my arms like a madman and it stopped for me. I tossed my backpack below and hoped on board. My receipt that I had said seat number eleven. But I knew that there was little chance of my seat being empty, but I did not care. I would have sat on the floor. I hoped and and went back to try to find a seat. The driver turned the inside light on and there were kids lining the aisle and everyone in the totally packed bus was soundly asleep. The bus helper kid asked for my ticket and I gave him the receipt deal I had been given. He said “No, where’s your ticket?” and I told him that I had already paid for it and this was all I was given. So he tells me to wait a second and goes back up front. Then all the lights go out and I am standing in the isle with a bunch of kids behind me and unsure of where any empty seats were. So I waited a few minutes for the kid to come back but he never did. Luckily a friendly passenger told me there was an empty seat towards the front so I hobbled my way up there and sat down relaxed and damn happy to be on the bus. We drove all through the night and finally made it to Sucre about 7:30 am.
Eating pizza for lunch today while listening to The Beatles and watching a steady stream of gringos walk past the restaurant I was a bit sad that I had left the peacefulness and beauty of La Higuera. But I sure will not miss trying to get there or away again!