Following the formative road trip of the young Guevara and the Mighty One
The journey that politicised Che is still full of magic – and deprivation
Che Guevara: spawned a cadre of enthusiastic imitators when he went pillion with his friend Alberto Granado on their now legendary motorcycle tour of South America. Photograph: Grey Villet/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Unmarked entrance to Punta Peuco, the special prison for Pinochet-era human rights violators, near Santiago. Photograph: Peter Murtagh
Guards at the entrance to Punta Peuco, the special jail for junta-era human rights violation inmates. Photograph: Peter Murtagh
Shanty cafe on Route 5 near Santiago. Photograph: Peter Murtagh
More reliable than Che’s Norton 500: Peter Murtagh’s rented Honda Falcon 400 and the Andes in the background.
Gael Garcia Bernal as Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and Rodrigo de la Serna as Alberto Granado in Walter Salles’s film ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’.
It was inevitable, I guess, that one day my turn would come.
Che (of course he wasn’t called that when he and Alberto set off from Buenos Aires in January 1952 astride Alberto’s rather dodgy Norton 500; that nickname was bestowed later by the Cubans) crossed the Andes from Argentina and entered Chile by what appears to be a wonderfully scenic route – boat rides across several small mountain lakes from Puerto Blest in Argentina (“the pompously named Puerto Blest,” as Che put it) to Petrohué in Chile.
Thereafter, the pair spluttered and stuttered and staggered and mostly fell their way through Chile’s stunningly beautiful lake region as the-less-than-aptly-named La Poderosa (“the Mighty One”) gradually fell apart – serial punctures, front forks banjaxed, gearbox smashed, brakes failed. The bike finally died at Malleco, a village famous for its railway viaduct, which runs alongside the Pan-American Highway.
This confluence was rather fortunate for Che and Alberto, because thereafter, The Motorcycle Diaries was actually an account of hitch-hiking on trucks north to Santiago and then stowing away on a ship from Valparaiso up the coast to the Atacama Desert, and from there more hitching to Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Miami and back again to Argentina.
Santiago de Chile is today a big, bustling, vibrant capital city, a place of gleaming, glass-facade buildings, among them Latin America’s highest, the Costanera Centre, standing 300 earthquake-defying metres tall. The city is home to about six million of Chile’s population of 16 million.
When Che and Alberto arrived on March 1st, 1952 (yes, it took them two months to get there), the city had about 1.5 million residents.
In his book, the only place in Santiago that Che mentions visiting is the Cerro Santa Lucía, the spot where, on February 12th, 1541, Pedro de Valdivia founded the city.
Today Santa Lucía is a national monument, a stunningly beautiful city centre park, the centrepiece of which is a 70-metre high rock outcrop (it is actually the remains of a defunct volcano). It is a warren of stairways and passages, fountains and statues, flower beds and trees, and benches and lawns strewn on a sunny day with courting couples. And all topped off with a castle.
Down below, the city whizzes along fat, multi-laned highways (one of them named, inevitably, Bernardo O’Higgins) but it remains a pool of calm, notwithstanding the wow factor of the enormous, over-the-top, baroque cascading fountain of Neptune at the main entrance.
Charles Darwin had a soft spot for Santa Lucía, who is, ironically, patron saint of the blind. In 1831, Darwin climbed Santa Lucía and marvelled at the panoramic views it afforded across the city and to the rear, looking up at the snow-capped Andes, the breathtaking backdrop to Santiago. “Certainly most striking,” he noted.
Che, however, was evidently unmoved. “The following day,” he wrote (that would be the day after trying to navigate the idiocies of Argentine and Peruvian diplomacy to obtain visas and also get a garage to mend the hopeless Mighty One), “we climbed up Santa Lucía, a rocky formation in the centre of the city with its own particular history. . .”