'Che' trail paved with tourism promise

The spirit of capitalist enterprise is flourishing in the footsteps of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary who died in his unsuccessful attempt to bring communism to Bolivia.

Last Modified: 11 Jun 2006 04:55 GMT
A new generation of South American leaders revere 'Che'

The spirit of capitalist enterprise is flourishing in the footsteps of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary who died in his unsuccessful attempt to bring communism to Bolivia.

Enterprising Bolivians think the time is ripe to expand tourism by increasing the trickle of international leftists who travel to Bolivia to pay homage to Che. He was shot in 1967, at the age of 39, and became a revolutionary icon.

"There are great conditions now to develop the (Che) business," said Karen Wachtel, who owns the Chaco Guarani Tours travel agency and played a key role in developing the "Che trail" which connects the landmarks of Guevara's guerrilla campaign.

"The left is gaining strength in Latin America and here in Bolivia, there is a much, much talk about Che Guevara."

Bolivia's leftist president, Evo Morales, hung a huge portrait of Che Guevara in the presidential palace after he took office in January and the revolutionary leader is often mentioned in speeches by members of the ruling Movement Towards Socialism.

But it is small entrepreneurs, not a socialist state, who are looking to profit from Che Guevara.

Leftwing pilgrimage

The way to do that, tourism operators say, is to offer tours that combine leftwing pilgrimage with adventurous eco-tourism - on foot, horseback or four-wheel-drive vehicle - through rugged mountain areas which have barely changed over the past 40 years.

One  project, started with a $436,000 grant from the Bank for International Development, aims to turn haciendas (ranches) along the "Che trail" - which stretches 800km from Camiri in the South to Vallegrande in the North - into Che museums and way stations for travellers.

"This is a work in progress," said Alvaro de la Quintana, director of Haciendas del Chaco. "It includes recreating the central camp from where Che directed his campaign."

Bolivian soldiers with the body of
Che after he was shot in 1967

Not even the most optimistic entrepreneurs dream of anything resembling mass tourism, but they do see a glint of tourist gold in a remote region that has never attracted visitors in great numbers.

In Camiri, a town of cobble-stoned streets, Che-related sites yet to be developed include the cell where the French intellectual Regis Debray was held during his trial for having been part of Che's guerrilla group. The case attracted world-wide attention and drew scores of international correspondents to Camiri.

"We are trying to track down the papers and notebooks Debray had in his cell and restore it to how it looked in 1967," said Wachtel.

Another sight she wants to turn into a tourist attraction: The hotel room where Haydee Tamara Bunke, the flamboyant Cuban spy known as Tania the Guerrilla, stayed before her cover was blown and she became the only woman to fight alongside Guevara.

No admirers

Ironically, some of those involved in establishing a tourism infrastructure for Che nostalgia tours are no admirers of his revolutionary philosophy, an attitude they share with the Bolivian peasants he vainly tried to turn into anti-government guerrillas.

A week before his death, after his 50-odd Cuban and Bolivian fighters were surrounded by 1,800 army soldiers, Guevara complained in his diary: "The peasant population does not help us at all and are turning into informers."

Middle-class Bolivians were equally wary. "I grew up in Camiri," said Wachtel, "and I never forget the sight of the helicopters with bodies of young soldiers strapped to their skids flying over our house on their way to burial. We attended a wake practically every day."

Visitors to Cuba can retrace Che's
steps from Bayamo to Havana

Wachtel says she realised the potential of Guevara tourism after a she had a public spat over his Bolivian activities with Roberto Robaina, then-Cuban foreign minister, at a Latin American tourism conference in Havana in 1994.

"I disagreed with his version of history and afterwards people came up to me and talked about it, and I realised we could use Che for our benefit."

The Bolivian Che trail, officially inaugurated in 2004, has a serious Cuban rival, the Ruta Guerrillero, a 1,480km haul for hardcore fans. The route retraces the advance of Column 8, the rebel unit Guevara headed, from Bayamo in eastern Cuba to Havana.

No precise numbers

Neither Cubaism, the Cuban company that offers trips covering the route, nor the Bolivians involved in Guevara tourism have precise numbers of tourists or overall revenues.

Both are in competition for Che dollars with website thechestore.com, which says it has "the largest collection of Che Guevara merchandise found anywhere in the world".

Its offers "Che T-shirts, Che tank tops, Che club shirts, Che hoodies, Che headwear, Che military wear, Che collectibles, Che clearance, Che new titles, Che top sellers, Che books, Che DVDs/videos, Che music, Che posters."

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