“The first commandment for every good explorer is that an expedition has two points: the point of departure and the point of arrival. If your intention is to make the second theoretical point coincide with the actual point of arrival, don’t think about the means – because the journey is a virtual space that finishes when it finishes, and there are as many means as there are different ways of “finishing.” That is to say, the means are endless.”Che Guevara, Los diarios motocicleta
Author: Ernesto “Che” Guevara
Geographic Area: South America
Original Language: Spanish
I know you recognize the name “Che” Guevara. His face has graced many a shirt and poster around the world, particularly on college campuses. He is best known for being a Communist revolutionary leader in Cuba and in Bolivia. Nicknamed “Che” because of his Argentine accent (making “yo me llamo” sound like “cho me chamo”), his appeal lies in his militancy and his rebellious, anti-capitalist views.
But before he was a military leader, before the beard and beret, he was an asthmatic medical student from Argentina, with dreams of traveling around his continent.
In 1951, as a 23-year-old, he took a year off studying to travel around South America with his friend, Alberto Granado. Their vehicle was an old Norton 500 motorcycle, nicknamed “La Poderosa II,” or “The Mighty One.” Though 500cc is not a bad displacement for a motorcycle, this was an old engine that did not put out nearly as much power as a modern counterpart, as well as carrying two passengers and their gear. Be sure that the name “La Poderosa” was sarcastic.
On this motorcycle, the two young Argentines embarked on a 5,000-mile trip that would take them across Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela. Their voyage took about nine months, and saw them crossing deserts, mountain ranges, and rivers. Along the way they visited Machu Picchu, Indigenous towns, coal miners, and leper colonies.
It’s interesting to note that this was not the first motorcycle journey Che undertook in his former life. The year before, in 1950, he had somehow attached a motor to a bicycle and ridden 2,800 miles on the glorified moped around northern Argentina.
The Motorcycle Diaries is invaluable for two reasons: first, it is an eyewitness account of mid-century Latin America, and second, it is insight into how Che would become his most famous (or infamous) incarnation.
It was especially his encounters with Chilean miners, and witnessing their harsh treatment at the hands of the American-owned mining companies, that fomented his anti-capitalist beliefs. Years later, in Cuba, he would write the following:
“We will see whether some day, some miner will take up his pick in pleasure and go and poison his lungs with a conscious joy.”
To call this book “The Motorcycle Diaries” does not even do it justice, since La Poderosa breaks down about a third of the way through. They continue their journey on foot, in the backs of farm trucks, and by boat. Guevara recounts how, completely broke, he and Alberto would resort to conning people into food and a place to crash for the night.
The book was adapted into a movie in 2004, starring Gael Garcia Bernal. The film was heavily dramatized in parts, but is mostly faithful to Guevara’s notes. I do recommend the movie, just be sure to read the book as well.
Some people may not agree with Che Guevara’s politics nor practices. Indeed, it’s very important to keep in mind that this was an adventure undertaken by Che the med student, not Che the revolutionary. As a matter of fact, my grandfather personally knew Che Guevara, and didn’t have many nice things to say about him. Though he met him only a few years after the events of The Motorcycle Diaries, his personality had already changed sufficiently for him to become a different person than the one who kept the diary. For example, my grandfather says that Che would order executions as if it was nothing.
This is a case in which I would say it’s probably best to separate the art from the artist. I personally agree with a lot of the misgivings Che had about capitalism, and I can see how he would form those beliefs, based on what he saw during this journey. I just don’t agree with the methods he would use later on in his life.
Regardless of who wrote it, The Motorcycle Diaries is a quintessential travel book, and absolutely worth a read. I have even read about people who were so inspired by the book, they got on their own motorcycles and set off in the footsteps–and tire tracks–of Che Guevara.
Speaking of capitalism, if you would like to buy the book for yourself, you may use the link below. In full disclosure, should you choose to make a purchase, I do get a small percentage.