Photo Essay: On the Che Guevara Trail 50 Years After his Death in Bolivia

On October 9, 1967 Ernesto Che Guevara, an Argentinean doctor and a driving force of the Cuban Revolution, along with Fidel Castro, was killed in a tiny town in Bolivia. Fifty years after his death, the Che Guevara legend remains vivid around the world. But there’s a lot about his death that we didn’t know (including a helicopter ride, amputated hands, and a secret burial site) until we traveled to Central Bolivia and took a guided tour of the town of Vallegrande where his body was brought after he was killed in nearby La Higuera.

50th anniversary Che's death banner La Paz Bolivia

This mural, on a college building in La Paz, Bolivia, marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Che Guevara with a message that seems like a dig at Bolivian President Evo Morales, reflecting the still-political nature of Che’s legend in Latin America.

On the Che Guevara Trail in Bolivia

First of all, the so-called Che Trail isn’t a trail at all. It’s a grab bag of sites that mark the end of Che’s life and form part of his lasting legacy. In the town of La Higuera, where he was killed, you’ll find an imposing bust of the revolutionary. But the main sites, including the Señor de Malta hospital where his body was taken and the Ernesto Guevara Mausoleum which memorializes the spot where his body was unceremoniously buried, are in the town of Vallegrande. Here’s our photo tour.

Ernesto Che Guevara Mural Vallegrande Bolivia 50th anniversary Che's death

A Che mural in Vallegrande, Bolivia where his body was taken on October 9, 1967.

Che Morgue Hospital Senor de Malta-Vallegrande, Bolivia

The morgue where Che Guevara’s body was taken after he was killed in nearby La Higuera, Bolivia following his captured by local forces who were being aided by the CIA.

Laundry Hospital Senor de Malta Vallegrande, Bolivia

Che Guevara’s body was washed in this laundry room behind the Señor de Malta hospital in Vallegrande, Bolivia.

Vallegrade Hospital Laundry Che Guevara body displayed

The old hospital laundry room where Che Guevara’s body was washed has become a makeshift shrine.

Photo of Che Guevara body being displayed in Vallegrande Bolivia hospital laundry (credit - Freddy Albert)

Some people who saw Che Guevara’s body shortly after his death remarked on his lifelike and even Christ-like appearance. Some even said they felt his eyes following them. (credit: Freddy Albert)

Che Ernesto Guevara Mausoleo VillaGrande Bolivia

The Ernesto Guevara Mausoleum marks the spot where his remains, along with six other revolutionaries, were secretly buried in 1967. In 1997 the bones were found and Che’s body was sent to Cuba for burial.

Che Guevara Mausoleum Villagrande Bolivia

The Ernesto Guevara Mausoleum in Vallegrande, Bolivia.

Che Gvevara grave buried Vallegrande Bolivia

Stone plaques now mark the spot where the bones of Che Guevara and six comrades were found in Vallegrande, Bolivia. Che’s plaque reads “Argentino Cubano”.

Che Gvevara handwritten diaries - Che museum Vallegrande Bolivia

Some of Che’s diaries are on display in the recently-renovated Che museum next to the Ernesto Guevara Mausoleum in Vallegrande, Bolivia.

What you won’t see in Vallegrande is any sign of Che merchandise, like the t-shirts which have become as common around the world as Bob Marley t-shirts.

Get all the travel details you need to do the Che Trail in Bolivia and read even more about what we learned about the life and legend of Che Guevara during our tour (including that bit about the helicopter and the amputated hands) in our complete story about the Che tour for Bio.com (the website for the Biography TV channel).

Here’s more about travel in Bolivia

 

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Where We’ve Been: September 2017 Road Trip Driving Route in Bolivia

After weeks in the cold high-altitude Altiplano, often over 13,000 feet (4,000 meters), our Bolivian road trip focused on exploring central Bolivia in September of 2017, where we enjoyed a comparatively mild climate at moderate elevations between 5,000 and 9,000 feet (1,500  and 2,800 meters). In total, we drove 2,022 miles (3,254 km) in Bolivia in September of 2017. Along the way we traveled to a former Bolivian capital city (Sucre) and ended in the current capital city (La Paz) with time spent exploring Samipata, Amboro National Park, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, Torotoro National Park and Sajama National Park plus the Tiwanaku archaeological site. You can see the same spectacular scenery that we saw through the windshield of our truck in the drive-lapse video at the end of this post.

Nevado Sajama Volcano Bolivia's highest point

Where we’ve been: September 2017 road trip in Bolivia

We began the month in the beautiful colonial city of Sucre which was Bolivia’s first capital and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From Sucre we explored the nearby Cordillera de Los Frailes with its pre-Columbian cave paintings and dinosaur footprints.

From Sucre we drove the old (read: unpaved) Cochabamba to Santa Cruz “highway” where road construction in preparation for paving is making the route even more of a mess. We finally arrived at the pleasant town of Samaipata where we hiked to the Nido del Condor (condor’s nest) to watch at least a dozen condors glide in the strong winds they love.

We also visited Vallegrande and explored the Che Trail where we learned a lot about  revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara who was killed by the Bolivian military (with CIA assistance) in the nearby town of La Higuera before his body was displayed and then secretly buried in Vallegrande.

night sky and milky way from Refugio los Volcanes Bolivia

Next up was Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia’s largest city, where we stayed at a hotel called Inboccalupo which is probably our most unexpected boutique hotel experience of the year. From Santa Cruz we visited the remote Refugio Los Volcanes (pictured above) on the edge of Amboro National Park.

Then it was a long drive to Cochabamba, which sits in a giant valley of the same name, before heading to the little-visited Incan ruins of Incallajta and the nearby colonial town of Totora. Then we visited the spectacular Torotoro National Park with its breathtaking yet easily accessible canyon, dinosaur footprints, rock walls covered in marine fossils, and beautiful rock formations.

The only problem is that the road between Cochabamba and the Torotoro National Park is mostly made of cobblestones. This meant driving about 60 miles (100 km) on cobblestones each way. This will soon be a thing of the past, however, since a new highway between Cochabamba and Sucre is being constructed and it will pass nearby the park, dramatically reducing the drive time on cobblestones.

Torotoro Canyon bolivia

After leaving Torotoro National Park (that’s us in the park, above), we passed through Cochabamba again on our way back up to the high-altitude Altiplano. Our first stop was Curahuara de Carangas with its richly painted Colonial church, generously known as the “Sistine Chapel of the Andes”. Our next stop was Sajama National Park, home to Nevado Sajama which is the highest peak in Bolivia at 21,463 feet (6,542 meters).

Sajama National Park also contains hot springs and geysers, lakes with flamingos, and more Colonial churches. Nearby, along the Rio Lauca, we visited some unique chullpas (pre-Columbian burial towers) on which you can still see some painting (and human bones inside).

The end of the month found us at the pre-Incan archaeological site of Tiwanaku, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, before returning to La Paz, Bolivia’s capital.

Our complete road trip driving route map for September 2017 is below:

And don’t miss the chance to see what we saw out there on the road in Bolivia in September of 2017 in our drive-lapse video, below. It was, as always, shot by our Brinno camera which is attached to our dashboard.

 

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The Most Interesting Border (So Far) – Las Lajas Sanctuary in Colombia and Topiary Cemetery in Ecuador

We’ve crossed nearly 60 borders in the Americas so far on our little road trip and they’re usually dead boring. But not this one. When you cross between Ipiales, Colombia and Tulcán, Ecuador you can visit two totally travel worthy sites, the Disney-esque Las Lajas Sanctuary on the Colombia side and a massive topiary filled cemetery on the Ecuador side, in a single day.

Las Lajas Sanctuary Ipiales, Colombia

Las Lajas Sanctuary in Colombia near the border with Ecuador.

Las Lajas Sanctuary in Colombia

Less than 10 miles (16 km) from the border with Ecuador you will find the most elaborate and unexpected church in Colombia. The Gothic revival style Las Lajas Sanctuary dominates a narrow gorge and was built between 1916 and 1949. The massive stone church rises 330 feet from the bottom of the canyon where the Guáitara River rages. The elaborate Roman Catholic church is accessed via a 160-foot-long stone foot bridge. 

The Las Lajas Sanctuary may look a bit Disney-esque, but it’s a serious pilgrimage site.

But the Las Lajas Sanctuary isn’t just famous for its location and architecture (which looks like something straight out of Europe, or Disneyland). In 1754, an indigenous woman named Maria Mueces and her deaf-mute daughter, Rosa, were walking through the gorge when Rosa wandered into a cave and suddenly spoke.

What the previously deaf and mute woman said was that she’d seen a woman carrying a baby. This was eventually interpreted as a sighting of the Virgin Mary and the deaf-mute woman’s sudden ability to speak was considered a miracle. Now thousands of pilgrims visit Las Lajas each year.

Tourist lama photo Las Lajas Sanctuary - Ipiales, Colombia

We’re not sure what photo opps with dressed up llamas have to do with purported miracles, but it’s a thing at Las Lajas Sanctuary.

When we were there a cable car was in the final stages of construction. If you visit now you can ride the teleferico instead of walking up and down to the sanctuary. You will also find the cheapest bed in Colombia at the sanctuary where you can sleep in a spartan nun’s room at a nearby cloister for less than US$10 for two people

Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

The topiary-filled Municipal Cemetery in Tulcán, Ecuador near the border with Colombia.

Municipal Cemetery in Ecuador

About five miles (8 km) from the border on the outskirts of the town of Tulcán you’ll find the Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán.

Topiary Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

Flora and fauna and Aztec and Egyptian imagery inspired the elaborate topiary in the Municipal Cemetery in Tulcán.

In the 1930s, local gardener Josè Maria Azael Franco began sculpting the cypress bushes that grow in the cemetery where he worked. Inspired by Ecuadorian flora, fauna and indigenous cultures, including animals from the Galapagos Islands plus themes from Roman, Incan, Aztec, and Egyptian culture, Mr. Franco shaped the plants, which can live for 500 years and grow more than 100 feet (33 meters) tall.

Gardening Topiary Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

A gardener keeps things tidy in the Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán.

Over the years every cypress was transformed until the cemetery was, in Mr. Franco’s own words, “so beautiful it invites one to die.” The Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán now has more than 100 enormous, intricate creations covering the three-acre site, which some of Mr. Franco’s sons now maintain following the creator’s death.

Topiary gardens Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

We loved the topiary crucifix in the Municipal Cemetery in Tulcán.

These cross-border sites were so interesting that we did a story about them for Atlas Obscura, where you’ll find even more details about what could be the most interesting border in the Americas.

Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

You can walk through this topiary tunnel in the Municipal Cemetery in Tulcán.

 

Here’s more about travel in Colombia

Here’s more about travel in Ecuador

 

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Go Green – Laguna Verde & Volcán Azufral, Colombia

It is not easy to get to Laguna Verde, the very green lake inside the very active Azufral Volcano, but it’s worth the effort required on the road and on the trail to enjoy this place as a day trip from Pasto or Ipiales, Colombia.

Laguna Verde Colombia

Laguna Verde inside the active Azufral Volcano in Colombia.

Getting to Laguna Verde and Volcán Azufral

From Pasto it took us about 1.5 hours to reach the square in the town of Túquerres where we asked for directions to the volcano and were told to continue on a paved road out of town. That turned into a dirt road for a few miles before we reached a small shop and living quarters for the caretakers of the Azufral Natural Reserve. There’s a large parking lot there along with clean bathrooms (500 COP or about US$0.15). When we were there we were not charged an entry fee, but some travelers are now reporting a 2,000 COP (about US$0.70) entry fee.

Click here to see a full size image of this panoramic shot of Laguna Verde.

If you don’t have your own vehicle, check out this Laguna Verde post from Emily and Andrew of Along Dusty Roads. It has detailed information about getting to Laguna Verde from Pasto using public transportation and taxis.

Hiking trail to Laguna Verde Colombia

Karen braving high winds on the hike to Laguna Verde.

The hike to Laguna Verde and Volcán Azufral

From the parking lot it’s a 3 mile (5 km) hike (each way) along a narrow, disused dirt road to reach the rim of the volcano where you get views inside the crater–unless things are clouded in which happens a lot.

Laguna Verde, living up to its name.

Inside the crater you’ll actually see two lakes, a green one and a greener one. It’s intense color comes from high levels of sulphur emitted by the active volcano which has many vents and lets out many gasses.

Laguna Verde and Volcán Azufral volcanic vents Colombia

Volcanic vents made white by gasses expelled by the very active Azufral Volcano.

Getting to Laguna Verde itself requires another half mile walk down from the rim along a steep trail that is a slippery, muddy nightmare when wet.

Be prepared for the cold, the wind. At times gusts were so strong we had to plant our feet, turn our backs to the wind, and brace for impact, which explains why this section of trail is called the Wind Trail. Overall weather conditions can change quickly so layer up. And be prepared for strong sun (wear your highest SPF even on cloudy days) and the altitude. The parking lot is at 11,950 feet (3,642 meters) and the volcano rim is up above 13,000 feet (4,000 meters). 

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