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Bolivia - Ruta del Che and the route to Uyuni

From the Jesuit Missions we had a long day drive to camp at Espejillos, a waterfall and swimming holes. The drive involved a river crossing and happily the van didn't stop mid-river. The next morning off we went for a swim. Whilst Rachel headed up to see the waterfall, I used the slippery surface to complete a perfect 'half pike and triple axle', landing on my butt - a large bruise to follow.

From there, we drove towards Samaipata and the start of the Ruta del Che, stopping briefly to speak to a recommended guide. Whilst with him, I repeated my impressive leap of earlier, this time on a dry surface, with the same style landing. For good measure and extra points, I suffered a little whiplash on landing. With my butt bruise bruised and a few extra scrapes, we continued on to the archaeological site of El Fuerte, a pre-Inca and Inca site. After a quick tour of the carved rock, we continued to Samaipata proper, where we met up with friends Okan, Donna & Indigo (still aged 5). After a quick catch up, we headed off to find a restaurant. Later, back at the van, Rachel in sympathetic nurse mode (very rare) decided to inspect the bruised left cheek. I obligingly dropped my shorts as the 5 year-old sticks his head into the van and says "what ya doing?"...

Samaipata is a good looking little town with some good restaurants and bars. It's a hub for tours into Amboró National Park. Sadly rain stopped us from visiting the park, so we didn't get to see the giant ferns, but chose instead to continue on to Vallegrande. Once there we took a Che Guevara tour. First stop the local hospital, where in October 1967, Che's body was placed on the wash house sink - on display for trophy photos and for the locals to walk past. Apparently the latter was meant as a warning to anyone having revolutionary thoughts. However, this had a completely opposite effect and the little laundry building and the small mortuary with slab have been preserved as a shrine. The tour continued on to a small graveyard - Fosa de Guerrilleros - a memorial to 12 of the guerrillas whose bodies were finally exhumed from unmarked graves in the late 1990's and identified. One of them, Tania, the only female in the guerrilla force. Finally, we were taken to the Che Mausoleum and museum. It marks the site where the remains of Che and five others were found in 1997.

Carrying on the Ruta del Che, but avoiding the worst of the route, we then drove through the mountains to La Higuera. Che was captured alive nearby and subsequently shot at the village school. We camped in the gardens of the Casa del Telegráfista. This former telegraph office, used by the military during the campaign, is now owned by Juan Lebras and his wife Odette. Juan is an expert on the Guerrilla campaign and anything Che, having spent his life studying the last 12 days before Che was caught. The office is mentioned in Guevara's diary and is where two of the guerrillas died from wounds after capture. The following morning we set off with Juan, his 8 year old son Inti (named after the youngest guerrilla), three lively French pensioners and huge bag of Coca leaves. We were taken on a mountain hike. This was a rough path down into the valley. Inhospitable terrain is an understatement as it seemed every plant/tree needled, slashed or sliced. Luckily for us, one of the French guys appeared to volunteer himself and took all the group injuries. We arrived at a clearing, nominally marked as the point of capture for Che - Quebrada del Churo. Whilst stopping for a rest, our ill-fated French companion offered us coca leaves to chew and gave us a talk on the benefits of said leaves. We declined as we weren't suffering in the altitude. Then Juan offered to take us to the real location where Che was captured, so we were taken deeper into the valley and ended up at the actual position of his last battle and capture (confirmed later by museum maps). A brilliant but hard hike, taking some five hours. To cap off the hike, our sliced/diced, battered and bruised, coca chewing pensioner almost didn't make it back - he'd added dehydration and exhaustion to his woes and had to be nursed out of the valley...

To top off the Che experience, we visited the schoolroom in La Higuera, where Che was shot, once again turned into a shrine. 2017 had been the 50th anniversary of Mr Guevara's demise and the ex-soldier, who had captured him, visited Juan at the Casa del Telegráfista. That gets us pretty close on Points of Separation!!....'I know a man, who knew a man, who' etc., etc..

From La Higuera, we travelled cross country through the valley of the Rio Grande, crossing the river just south of the spot where the Tania and her team of guerrillas had been ambushed, having been betrayed by a local.

As we continued south and west, we arrived in Sucre, the Constitutional capital of Bolivia and another place known as 'The White City'. Once again we met up with Donna, Okan and Indigo and it was there that we would decide to join forces and travel the Salar de Uyuni and the Lagunas Route south to the Chile border. Sucre is a great looking, small city with plenty of colonial buildings. There is also place (a working cement plant) where an enormous amount of dinosaur tracks have been discovered.

Our next stop was Potosí, a busy little city, famous for its silver mines, discovered by the Spanish in the 1500s. It is estimated 8 million of the indigenous population died as a result of working in the mines or processing the silver for the Spanish. Grandma's silver teapot doesn't look so good now. The tour of the old Potosí Mint was a real highlight, with much of the original 16th/17th century wooden mule-powered machinery still in good condition. The centre of Potosí has some beautiful buildings in the shadow of the still active mines on the Cerro Rico mountain nearby. We didn't do the mine tour, mainly because there are not many of the population standing at 6'3" - it would have been torture. However, on route to the mine, most tour groups stop at the miners' market, where you can buy gifts for the miners, including dynamite.

The Lagunas route south is calling.

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