Bolivia looks to Ché trail to attract more visitors
'Ché's Trail' is being created to lure tourists to the isolated region of southeast Bolivia where revolutionary icon Ernesto 'Ché' Guevara fought his last battle.
BY TYLER BRIDGES
VALLEGRANDE, Bolivia - The poor peasants and shopkeepers who rejected Ernesto ''Ché'' Guevara when he tried to foment a Communist revolution here 37 years ago have now embraced him in death -- hoping to cash in on a ''Ché's Trail'' for tourists.
Business owners, local government officials and a nonprofit group, Care Bolivia, are putting the final touches on the trail in hopes of bringing more visitors to this isolated mountain region in southeast Bolivia. ''Our goal is for the communities to benefit,'' said Jacqueline Pena y Vlillo, an official with Care Bolivia.
Stops along the way will include campsites, sites of firefights and lookout points that the Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary icon used during his 11 months in Bolivia.
In La Higuera, a village of 50 people, tourists can hike down to the ravine where a sick and wounded Guevara was captured on Oct. 8, 1967, and see the one-time schoolhouse where he was taken and executed the following day. The schoolhouse has been converted into a museum.
A La Higuera resident even claims to have the chair that Guevara sat in before a Bolivian soldier shot him.
Vallegrande, a provincial capital, is where Guevara's lifeless body was taken and put on display several hours after his execution, and it is where his body was secretly buried and then found 30 years later.
Vallegrande Mayor Alfredo García said town folk had feared that the finding of Guevara's skeleton in 1997 would dry up the trickle of foreign tourists who trekked there. Instead, worldwide publicity for the find raised the city's profile. Now 40 to 50 tourists visit a week, he said, mostly from South America and Europe.
García said that any qualms he had about making money off the Communist revolutionary were extinguished during a 1998 visit to the central Cuba city of Santa Clara, where Guevara's remains were reburied. ''I saw shirts, key chains and jackets for sale with his image,'' he said. ``If they profit from him there, why can't we?''
Of course, many others have profited from selling Guevara's image, including makers of watches, skis and beer. He has become the subject of several movies, including The Motorcycle Diaries, released this year. A new Argentine-Mexican movie on him was just filmed in Vallegrande.
García was 12 when Guevara and his band of 50 Bolivian and Cuban guerrillas were hunted down; most were killed. He has unforgettable memories from those days.
''Thanks to the army's propaganda campaign, we were fearful at night and had trouble sleeping,'' García said. ``We were told that the guerrillas would kill our grandparents, rape girls and steal children.''
The unwillingness of the peasants to join his cause bedeviled Guevara.
''The peasant population doesn't help us at all and are turning into [army] informers,'' he wrote in his diary a week before his death.
Vallegrande residents got their first glimpse of Guevara shortly after his execution, when his corpse arrived at the tiny airport, tied to the skids of a helicopter. The body was transported to the laundry room behind the Our Lord of Malta hospital, and laid out unceremoniously on a cement basin used to wash clothes.
The entire town crowded onto the hospital's grounds to glimpse Guevara.
Susana Osinaga was one of the two nurses who washed and dressed the body that morning. ''He had three bullet wounds,'' she said recently, ``one in his heart, one in his left arm and a third in his right shin.''
Osinaga paused and remembered something else: ``He came with his eyes open. That impressed us. He looked like Christ. He had a full beard, long hair and open eyes.''
That image, captured in photographs that have become famous worldwide, transformed how he was viewed in Vallegrande and the surrounding farm communities.
''Now they view him as a saint,'' said Mayor García, ``Saint Ernesto. During Mass, people pray for the soul of Ché. They think he died for us. Not a day goes by when flowers aren't taken to his grave site.''
The gravesite, set amid scrub grass on the far side of the airport, remains an open pit with stone tablets marking the names of Guevara and the other six guerrillas who were buried there. A brick and red tile mausoleum without doors or windows covers the site. Visitors have scrawled graffiti on the walls.
''El Ché Vive!'' wrote one. Ché Lives.
He certainly does, at least as a tourist attraction and icon for Vallegrande's residents.