In Search of Che’s Last Stand

Story by Jared Marley// Photos by Jared Marley
December 1 2014

Bolivia is a motorcyclist’s playground, featuring desert, jungle, lush foothills, salt flats and dry, semi-desert canyons, with twisty gravel roads everywhere

After I summit a pass four vertical kilometres above the Pacific Ocean, a grinning border official asks me to pay a special fee, just a little something for his troubles, before stamping me into Bolivia. His office features a collection of graphic accident-scene photos warning motorists of the dangers of the road; several feature the mangled remains of motorcyclists. A few truckers are sitting outside of the office, enjoying cervezas in the sun.

It is not an auspicious beginning, but I feel relieved to be in Bolivia. After I explain to our good border guard that I do not have enough money to pay him – something he confirms with one glance at my dilapidated Honda CGL125 – he welcomes me to his country with genuine warmth.

I had come to Bolivia to see where Che Guevara told his executioners, “Shoot coward, you are only going to kill a man.” But first, a visit to the capital city, La Paz.

S. America La PazThe Spanish conquistadors must have specifically looked for the most inconvenient place in the world for a capital. La Paz is perched in a rugged canyon under the Cordillera Real, home to some of the tallest mountains on the planet. The city varies in altitude from 3500 to 4000 metres above sea level. Twenty-degree grade roads are the norm. My motorcycle and I both gasp for breath at this altitude as we try to negotiate the crowded city streets.

However, the first hole-in-the-wall mechanic I see produces a handful of carburetor jets. Bolivia is abjectly poor. And yet, after exchanging a few words, the mechanic shakes my hand and passes over a couple new jets. He refuses to take any payment.

Bolivians are reputed to be unfriendly to foreigners, and they have legitimate reasons. From the Spanish conquest to the present, foreign governments have made a practice of military or economic interventions. And we tourists inflate prices to the point that many Bolivians will never be able to see many of their greatest natural and cultural treasures. I take the time to speak to people and to show humility; a little bit of Spanish goes a long way.

From La Paz, I head south toward Che Guevara’s last stand at the village of La Higuera. First I have to get out of La Paz, which, like everything in Bolivia, is easier said than done.

A Perfect Companion

The rules of the road seem to be: if you can go, then go. If not, try anyway. I also encounter the first of what will be nearly incessant police checkpoints. My first instinct is to pull over and politely surrender meticulously organized documents, but this is Bolivia. Instead, I kick down into second, keep my revs low, look anywhere except at the police, and drive through. For some reason, this works every time.

As I leave the urban centre and head for the remote highlands, my 125 cc, single-cylinder tyke appears woefully underpowered for the road ahead.

Honda developed the CGL125 in 1976 as a third-world variant of the CB 125 commuter. Its simple engine is designed to continue running with little to no preventive maintenance. And it has continued running. For nearly 40 years, Honda has left the basic design alone, with only a couple of “modern” adaptations – an electric start and fuel gauge.

The CG’s indestructible engine can also handle Bolivia’s frequently sketchy gas situation. When gas is available (and often it’s not), assume it isn’t clean. The village gas station is usually a Bolivian matron dressed in the traditional bowler hat peddling fuel in two-litre pop bottles. The government dramatically subsidizes prices – except for foreigners. We pay nearly three times the going rate, and it’s legal, or as legal as anything gets here.
There are disadvantages to the CG, namely a painfully slow cruising speed. But in Bolivia, a well-tuned 125 is one of the fastest vehicles on the road. Through the bleak and impoverished altiplano, I speed past trucks and old Land Cruisers. I’m leaning into hairpin corners and switching from gravel to paved roads at will. Bolivia’s subtle magic makes my worn 125 feel like a big adventure-tourer.

Battered But Not Beaten

Bolivia ValleyI am enjoying the view of the Rio Grande below, Bob Marley is telling me not to worry through my iPod, and I am only a few kilometres away from La Higuera, the village where Che Guevera was executed. My back end slips out on the loose gravel, and while I am trying to regain control, my front tire hits a large rock, putting me into a nasty high side. It isn’t a bad crash – but it isn’t a minor one, either. My knee is cut and left wrist badly sprained, maybe broken. Worse, my headlight is pushed through the electronics, leaving me stranded.

I give up trying to fix the bike and lock it to a tree. Eventually, a longhaired Argentine couple in a VW bus pick me up and we drive the rest of the way to La Higuera. We spend the night speaking with Irma Rosado, who fed Che his last meal. She talks about life in La Higuera as well as Che’s impact on her life and Bolivia in general.

She, with many other Bolivians, regard him as San Ernesto, a saint who died for people he didn’t know. The Argentines and I make dinner, and a few other locals come by to share food and stories. My wrist is too sore to set up my tent, so Señora Rosado lets me sleep on a straw mattress in her shed.
La Higuera is a small, remote village, and much like the rest of rural Bolivia, it has remained almost the same since Che’s time. Life continues the way it always has – with a little comic relief every once in a while from gringos on motorcycles.

I hitch a ride back to my bike the next day. After an improvised repair with zip ties, mechanic’s wire and duct tape, I have a great evening ride descending into the dripping-hot Pampas – the plains on the verge of the Amazon rainforest.

Highs and Lows

Che Guevera on wallOne of Bolivia’s most remarkable features is an intensely varying geography. Straddling the spine of the Americas, Bolivia contains the high altiplano – a lifeless desert three to four kilometres above sea level – the Amazon jungle, lush foothills in the east, and dry, semi-desert canyons in the west. In one day you can see condors flying high above the Andes, and later, you can fish for piranha out of the Amazon basin.

For motorcyclists, this means an unending playground of challenging terrain, where pavement is the exception and straight or flat roads are almost non-existent. Throw in a daily dose of jaw-dropping, this-place-is-too-beautiful-to-exist moments, and it’s a wonder that every motorcyclist on the planet isn’t heading here as fast as possible.

Bolivia is also raw. Whether it is the rampant alcoholism or the still-present bullet holes in the schoolhouse wall where Che Guevera was executed, Bolivians do not hide the gritty details.

After La Higuera, I enjoy great riding through hill country into Bolivia’s most populous city, Santa Cruz. I bypass traffic, find a great (and cheap) countryside resort to stay in, and even manage to sweet-talk my way into buying gas at the local price. This place is finally making sense to me.

The Road of Death

I take a long loop through the Amazonas region, but to get out of the Amazon and back up into the high altiplano, one must take the North Yungus Road – The Death Road or El Camino de la Muerte, which holds the dubious distinction of being the world’s most dangerous road. The road hugs cliff faces as it ascends from nearly sea level to the summit of the Andes. It used to be the only connection between La Paz and the Amazon, meaning these twisting roads teemed with large trucks, buses and constant traffic.

The road is often narrower than a single lane, with no barrier between you and thousands of feet of thin air. Drivers pass on the left, so they have a clear view of how much room there is between their tire and the cliff edge. I am very grateful to be riding a bike; cars and buses fall frequently. Mishaps kill about 300 people annually; there are never survivors. I stop for fuel before the crux of the pass. The man at the station is very drunk, and he passes me a beer, free of charge, then tries to hand me another. It’s not reassuring to think that he’s been doing the same to every driver this morning. His wife stands beside him. The One and Only Eventually, I go south to Argentina, passing through Cerro Potosi, once the world’s richest silver mine. It is still mined today by small collectives. But after 400 years of constant tunnelling, it reminds me more of a beehive.

I spend my last night in Bolivia camping under the shadows of a gigantic cactus oasis in the middle of the Salar de Uyuni – the world’s largest salt flat. This country has continually surprised me, built me up, and let me down. It’s not an easy place to ride, but small acts of kindness, like the motorcyclist who took the time out of his day to guide me through his town, make it all worthwhile. Bolivia has a way of picking you back up after knocking you down. I enter Argentina. A strap on my luggage breaks in the border line-up, dumping my bags across the pavement. The officious border agents are not impressed. They don’t ask for a bribe, but they don’t smile either. There really is only one Bolivia.


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