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Che Guevara’s Travels – The Motorcycle Diaries and More

Before becoming a world-renowned revolutionary and a symbol of revolutions, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was an Argentine medical student weary of school and eager to explore the world. Operating on a tight budget, he initially embarked on long bicycle rides. Later, challenged to go on a solo journey, he covered 4,000 miles. After his return, accompanied by his friend Alberto Granado, they set off on a 1939 Norton 500cc Poderosa II ("The Mighty II") for another epic adventure. The journey spanned Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and Miami, before Guevara returned home to Buenos Aires.

Che Guevara loved to travel. His father wrote that with time he came to understand, “his obsession with travelling was just another part of his zeal for learning”.

Ernesto’s first noteworthy journey on his own took place in 1950, when he toured all of central and northern Argentina by a motorized bicycle -a trip of some 4,000 miles. Earlier I have already written about that journey! Check it out please…

Che Guevara setting out on a 2,800 mile solo motorbike trip through the Argentine Northwest in 1950

Upon completion of his bicycle journey he continued studying and also worked as a nurse on trading and petroleum ships of the Argentine national shipping-company. This allowed Guevara to travel from the south of Argentina to Brazil, Venezuela and Trinidad.


He also fell in love for the first time. The object of his affection was the 16-year-old daughter of one of Córdoba’s wealthiest families. Her name was María del Carmen “Chichina” Ferreyra, and they met in October 1950 at a wedding in Córdoba attended by Ernesto and his family.


At the beginning of 1951, Ernesto needed to earn some money, so he signed up to serve as a ship’s nurse on Argentina’s merchant marine freighters and oil tankers. Between February and June 1951, he made various trips back and forth between Argentina and Brazil, Venezuela, and the Caribbean islands. These trips gave him plenty of time to study for his medical exams and exposed him to life at sea as well as most of the ports of call on the Atlantic Coast of South America and in the Caribbean. At the end of June 1951, he went back to medical school.


On one of his visits to Córdoba to see Chichina, he also visited his friends, the Granado brothers. In the course of a conversation with Alberto Granado while working on his motorcycle, nicknamed La Poderosa (the Powerful One), the idea of making a year-long trip together took shape. Ernesto’s account of this momentous occasion is as follows:


Che Guevara kick starts La Poderosa

Our fantasizing took us to faraway places, sailing tropical seas, traveling through Asia. And suddenly, slipping in as if part of our fantasy, came the question: “Why don’t we go to North America?” “North America? How?” “On La Poderosa, man.” That’s how the trip came about, and it never deviated from the general principle laid down then: improvisation. My task before leaving was to take as many exams in as many subjects as possible; Alberto’s to get the bike ready for the long journey. At that stage, the momentousness of our endeavor hadn’t dawned on us, all we could see was the dusty road ahead and us on our bike devouring kilometers in the flight northward.


When Ernesto revealed his travel plans to his family, they were astonished to discover that he intended to be away for an entire year, especially considering their son was both a severe asthmatic and a medical student on the verge of completing his studies. His romantic involvement with Chichina was another reason for them to dissuade Che. When his father asked him about her, Ernesto said: “If she loves me, she’ll wait.”

Che Guevara with Alberto Granado aboard their Mambo-Tango wooden raft on the Amazon River in June 1952

However, Granado, also a doctor, assuaged their concerns by guaranteeing that Guevara would return to finish his degree, a commitment he ultimately fulfilled.

Che Guevara’s “The Motorcycle Diaries” which were published many years after his death, provide a valuable personal narrative of this journey. Written while he was traveling around South America in his early 20s, they shed light on a little-known period in his young adulthood and provide important insights into his personality and the development of his views about the world. Ironically, most of this trip was not made on a motorcycle.

An episode from movie "The Motorcycle Diaries"

Guevara and the 29-year-old Granado soon set off from Buenos Aires, Argentina, astride a 1939 Norton 500 cc motorcycle they named La Poderosa II ("The Mighty II") with the idea of eventually spending a few weeks volunteering at the San Pablo Leper colony in Peru on the banks of the Amazon River. In total, the journey took Guevara through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and to Miami, before returning home to Buenos Aires.


The first stop: Miramar, Argentina, a small resort where Guevara's girlfriend, Chichina, was spending the summer with her upper-class family. Two days stretched into eight, and upon leaving, Chichina gave Guevara a gold bracelet.

Several weeks later, in the Andean mountain resort of Bariloche, Ernesto found a letter from Chichina waiting for him at the local post office, where they had previously arranged he would pick up his mail. In this letter, she informed him that she had decided not to wait for him. In his diary, he wrote the following about his reactions: "I read and re-read the incredible letter. Suddenly, all my dreams of home, bound up with the eyes that saw me off in Miramar, were shattered, apparently for no good reason" (page 35). Although he was clearly hurt and wanted at first to write "a weepy letter," he realized it was hopeless to convince her to change her mind. He also wrote: "I thought I loved her until this moment when I realized I couldn't feel, I had to think her back again."

The next day, Ernesto and Alberto crossed a mountain lake into Chile on a leaking ferryboat that they kept afloat by pumping out the bilge water in return for their free passage. On this boat, they met some Chilean doctors who told them there was a leper colony on Easter Island (Rapa Nui, or Isla de Pascua), some 2,000 miles from mainland Chile in the southeastern Pacific. As Ernesto wrote in his diary: "It was a wonderful island, they said, and our scientific appetites were whetted" (page 37). They resolved to travel to the island and asked one of the doctors to give them a letter of introduction to the president of the Friends of Easter Island in Valparaíso, where they hoped they could secure passage on a ship going to the island.


An episode from movie "The Motorcycle Diaries"

With their money running low, they were forced to freeload their way through southern Chile. In the southern port city of Valdivia, they dropped in on the local newspaper, which interviewed them for an article about their journey. As a result, they decided in a gesture of great magnanimity to dedicate their trip to the city since it was celebrating the 400th anniversary of its founding. At their next stop, in the picturesque central Chilean town of Temuco, they were interviewed again by the local newspaper, which was printed under the title: "Two Argentine Leprology Experts Tour South America by Motorbike".

Ernesto's account in his diary of this article and their short stay in Temuco reveals some of the flavor of their trip at this point as well as his tongue-in-cheek view of their freeloading style of travel. He wrote:


"We had asked permission to leave the bike in the garage of a man who lived on the outskirts, and we now made our way there, no longer just a pair of reasonably likeable bums with a bike in tow. No, we were now 'the experts,' and that's how we were treated. We spent the day fixing the bike, and a little dark maid kept coming up with edible treats. At five o'clock, after a sumptuous 'snack' laid on by our host, we said goodbye to Temuco and headed north".


They didn't get very far before they noticed their back tire had a puncture that they couldn't fix. They were worried they would have to spend the night in the open, but as Ernesto recounts in his diary: "We weren't just anybody now, we were 'the experts'; we soon found a railway worker who took us to his house where we were treated like kings".


An episode from movie "The Motorcycle Diaries"

They fixed the tire at a garage the next day and resumed their trip, but they soon encountered more trouble. Without any warning, their motorcycle veered sideways and threw them off. The crash broke the bike's steering column and smashed its gearbox. This was the beginning of the end of La Poderosa. Although they managed to weld the steering column and fix the gearbox at a local garage, the bike was never the same again.

While they were working on the bike at this garage, they bummed something to eat and drink at the homes of the curiosity seekers who dropped by to see the two famous travelers working on their motorcycle.

On their last night in Temuco, they were invited by the mechanics at the garage to have drinks with them and go to a village dance, where Ernesto got drunk and caused an altercation on the dance floor. He wrote the following account of this incident in his diary:

“Chilean wine is very good, and I was downing it at an amazing rate, so by the time we went on to the village dance, I felt ready for anything. One of the mechanics from the garage, a particularly nice guy, asked me to dance with his wife because he had been mixing his drinks and was the worse for wear. His wife was pretty randy [feeling horny] and obviously in the mood, and I, full of Chilean wine, took her by the hand to lead her outside. She followed me docilely but then realized her husband was watching and changed her mind. I was in no state to listen to reason, and we had a bit of a barney [quarrel] in the middle of the dance floor, resulting in me pulling her toward one of the doors with everybody watching. She tried to kick me, and as I was pulling her, she lost her balance and went crashing to the floor”.

He and Alberto had to quickly leave the scene, "pursued by a swarm of enraged dancers." Since they had now worn out the hospitality of their local hosts, they left the next day, but only after having lunch at the house of the family that lived next to the garage.


On the road north to Santiago, they had another bad spill on the motorcycle, and they had to repair it once again. Shortly thereafter, the bike finally gave its last gasp going up a steep hill, and they had to hitch a lift on a truck going to the town of Los Angeles. They arranged to stay in a volunteer fire station in Los Angeles and in a few days found a truck to take them and the bike to Santiago, where they left the corpse of La Poderosa at a garage. At this point in their journey, Ernesto noted they ceased being "motorized bums" and became "non-motorized bums".

From this point forward, they had to rely on their freeloading skills to hitch rides, bum meals and lodgings, work odd jobs when they could, and panhandle their way northward to Peru.


An episode from movie "The Motorcycle Diaries"

They went from Santiago to Valparaíso only to discover there were no ships leaving from this port city to go to Easter Island for another six months. While they were in Valparaíso, they made friends with the owner of a bar named La Gioconda (the name of a famous Italian opera and another name for the Mona Lisa painting). The bar owner would not let them pay for their food or drink and even let them sleep in the kitchen. He was fond of saying: "Today it’s your turn, tomorrow it’ll be mine". While they were there, he asked Ernesto to visit one of his elderly customers who was suffering from asthma and a bad heart.


Ernesto’s comments in his diary about this old woman reveal a great deal about his social views at this stage in his life. He observed that "the poor thing was in an awful state, breathing the smell of stale sweat and dirty feet that filled her room, mixed with the dust from a couple of armchairs," which were "the only luxuries in her house". Such circumstances, he said, made a doctor feel powerless and long for change that would end the social injustices of the present order.

From Valparaíso, Ernesto and Alberto stowed away on a boat that was headed for the northern port of Antofagasta. They were discovered after the boat was at sea and forced to do menial chores such as cleaning the latrines and the decks. However, at night, the captain invited them to drink and play cards with him. When they arrived in Antofagasta, they tried to stow away on another boat headed farther north, but they were caught before it sailed and put on shore. Instead, they traveled north overland through the desert by hitching rides on trucks. So it was that they ended up visiting Chile’s largest copper mine at Chuquicamata.


The movie poster of "The Motorcycle Diaries"

While getting a tour of the mine he asked how many men died in its creation. At the time it was run by U.S. mining monopolies of Anaconda and Kennecott and thus was viewed by many as a symbol of "imperialist gringo domination". A meeting with a homeless communist couple in search of mining work made a particularly strong impression on Guevara, who wrote: "By the light of the single candle ... the contracted features of the worker gave off a mysterious and tragic air ... the couple, frozen stiff in the desert night, hugging one another, were a live representation of the proletariat of any part of the world."


From Chuquicamata, Ernesto and Alberto hitchhiked to the Peruvian border. In Peru, they adopted a pattern of hitching rides on the trucks carrying people and freight between the main towns, asking if they could stay overnight in the guard stations of the Peruvian Civil Guard (the country’s paramilitary national police force) or the hospitals in the towns where they stopped. As they traveled, they came in close contact with Peru’s exploited and suffering Indian masses, who represent a majority of the population. They saw how the Indians of the Peruvian altiplano (high plateau) were (and still are) exploited and oppressed.


The movie poster of the Spanish-language film "The Motorcycle Diaries"

In Tarata, Peru, Ernesto wrote in his diary about how the local Peruvian Indians (the Aymarás) “are not the same proud race that time after time rose up against Inca rule and forced them to maintain a permanent army on their borders”; rather, they had become “a defeated race” since the Spanish Conquest and centuries of colonial domination.

After they left Tarata, they traveled on the same truck with a schoolteacher who had been fired by the government because he was a member of the leftist APRA party (American Popular Revolutionary Alliance). He was part Indian and seemed to know a great deal about Peru’s indigenous cultures and customs.

The teacher told Ernesto and Alberto about the need to establish schools for the Indians that would teach them to “value their own world” and that would “enable them to play a useful role within it.” He also spoke about “the need to change completely the present system of education,” which he said “on the rare occasions it does offer Indians an education (education, that is, according to the white man’s criteria), only fills them with shame and resentment, leaving them unable to help their fellow Indians and at a tremendous disadvantage in a white society which is hostile to them”.


Alberto Granado's book cover "Traveling with Che Guevara The Making of a Revolutionary"

Because of their interest in leprosy, they went to Lima, the capital city of Peru, to meet Dr. Hugo Pesce, a well-known expert in leprology and a university professor. Dr. Pesce put them up in the leper hospital he ran in Lima and invited them to eat dinner at his house, which they did just about every night while they stayed in Lima. They divided their time between the leper hospital and the National Museum of the Archaeology, Anthropology, and History of Peru, which presents the history of Peru from prehistoric times to the colonial era.


Ernesto also had long conversations about philosophy, politics, and critical health issues in Latin America with Dr. Pesce, who was a disciple of the Peruvian Marxist philosopher José Carlos Mariátegui and a prominent member of the Peruvian Communist Party.


In Lima, Ernesto and Alberto decided to give up their original objective of traveling to the United States. They chose Venezuela as their ultimate destination after first visiting Dr. Pesce’s largest treatment center for lepers in Peru’s Amazonian region. When they were ready to leave, the patients of the leper hospital in Lima gave them an emotional send-off party. They were very touched by the affectionate farewell the patients gave them and by the small collection of money the patients presented them for their trip.


Their destination when they set out from Lima was the San Pablo leper colony situated on the banks of the Amazon River. They hitchhiked from Lima to Pucallpa and then took a boat down the Ucayali River (one of the headwaters of the Amazon) to Iquitos. From Iquitos, they took another boat down the Amazon to the San Pablo leper colony. Once there, they volunteered to work in the leprosarium’s laboratory and endeared themselves to both the staff and the patients. They played soccer with the patients, took them on hikes, and even led them on hunting expeditions.


While they were at the colony, Ernesto turned 24, and the staff threw a birthday party for him.

The next day, after saying their final good-byes, they cast off in a raft, named Mambo-Tango, built for them by one of the staff members so they could go down the river to Leticia, Colombia, where the borders of Colombia, Peru, and Brazil meet on the upper Amazon.


In Leticia, they got 50 percent off on the weekly flight to Bogotá and made some money coaching and playing for the town’s soccer team. When they arrived in Bogotá, they obtained permission to stay at a hospital where they were offered jobs in the leprosy service. However, they had a run-in with the local police over a knife Ernesto carried with him that was a present from his brother Roberto. They were harassed so badly by the police they decided to leave for Venezuela as soon as possible.

They made their way to Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. Alberto looked up a doctor who was a specialist in leprology. Impressed by Alberto’s interest in leprosy, the doctor offered him a position in his laboratory. At about the same time, Ernesto ran into an uncle who had an airplane that he used to transport racehorses between Buenos Aires and Miami. The uncle told Ernesto that he could return with him to Buenos Aires if he wanted to resume his studies at medical school. Ernesto and Alberto made a pact: Alberto would accept the job offered him and stay in Venezuela, while Ernesto would go back to Buenos Aires to graduate from medical school and then return to Venezuela to work with Alberto. It was the end of July 1952 when they said good-bye in Caracas.


In one of the last entries in his diary, Ernesto commented on how much he missed Alberto. He said: “I’m always turning around to tell him something and then I realize he’s not there.” And he added: “All these months we’ve been together through thick and thin and the habit of dreaming the same dreams in similar situations has made us even closer.”


When Ernesto left Caracas, the plane he took went to Miami, where it was scheduled to stop before returning to Buenos Aires. However, when they got to Miami, the plane had mechanical problems, so it had to be repaired before it could leave for Buenos Aires. Ernesto took advantage of this opportunity to get to know the city (pages 153–54). As it turned out, he had to wait a whole month for the plane to be repaired. He had no money, but he was able to stay in a small hotel by promising to pay the bill from Buenos Aires as soon as he returned, which he did. During the month that he stayed in Miami, Ernesto visited the beaches and hung around with an Argentine student he met, who helped him find a job as a dishwasher in one of Miami’s restaurants. When the plane was repaired, he flew back to Buenos Aires. It was September 1952.

In the prologue he wrote for Ernesto’s The Motorcycle Diaries, his father emphasizes that we can see in this written account of Ernesto’s eight-month journey that he “had faith in himself as well as the will to succeed, and a tremendous determination to achieve what he set out to do”.

Guevara's 1950s journeys profoundly shaped his worldview, setting the stage for his revolutionary path. Witnessing the widespread endemic poverty, oppression and disenfranchisement throughout Latin America, and influenced by his readings of Marxist literature, Guevara later decided that the only solution for the region's structural inequalities was armed revolution.

The Motorcycle Diaries, initially unpublished, uncovers Ernesto's evolving political consciousness and early socialist inclinations. Unlike zealous do-gooders, Guevara's narrative revealed a genuine desire to help others without self-righteousness.

The book was first published in 1993 as Notas de viaje by Casa Editora Abril in Havana, Cuba. The first English edition was brought out by Verso Books in 1995.

In 2004, Aleida Guevara explained that her father had not intended his diary to be published, and that it consisted of "a sheaf of typewritten pages". But already in the 1980s, his family worked on his unpublished manuscripts.

Renowned actor, producer, and director Robert Redford brought The Motorcycle Diaries to life, a film adaptation of Ernesto Guevara's transformative journey across Latin America. Directed by Walter Salles, the 2004-2005 release starred Gael García Bernal as the young Ernesto and Rodrigo de la Serna as Alberto Granado. Despite critical success and an Oscar win, the film faced limited U.S. distribution, earning $16 million domestically but flourishing with a $40 million global revenue.

This article contains excerpts from Richard Harris's book "Che Guevara: A Biography"


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