The Motorcycle Diaries
A Photo Essay & Movie Review
I’ve taken only three trips to South America: once to Peru, once to Chile, and once to Argentina and Chile to do our ExpeditionPlus! bicycle tour across the continent. As I watched The Motorcycle Diaries for the second time I was struck by how much Che Guevara and I overlapped in our explorations of this vast and fascinating continent. The photos in this essay try to document that overlap while giving you some suggestions of where you might consider going if you plan a trip.
The Brazilian film director Walter Salles has given us a new opportunity to get to know Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the iconic 20th century revolutionary, by resurrecting this early diary of a trip taken by the young medical student and his friend, Alberto Granado, around South America in 1952. The adventure was to be undertaken on a 1939 patched-together motorcycle which, seriously overloaded, proved the wrong choice for the bad roads and length of the trip. The two novice travelers crashed their motorcycle a dozen times before finally destroying it less than halfway into their trip.
Some critics of the film complain that the film stops short of portraying the life of Che, the revolutionary. Indeed, the movie ends with Che and his traveling companion parting ways in the Amazon basin as one heads off for a medical internship in Venezuela and the other heads back to Argentina to complete his studies. But the film is surprisingly true to Che’s diary and shows the subtle steps he took to becoming a socialist revolutionary who would eventually become Fidel Castro’s spokesman to the world after the Cuban revolution.
The journey of these two young men began in Buenos Aires in January 1952 and proceeded to the south, then clockwise around South America, across Patagonia, up the length of Chile, into Peru to Machu Picchu, down the Amazon basin, ending, eventually in Venezuela. Che eventually went back to Argentina to finish his medical degree while Alberto stayed on and worked in Venezuela.
Che Guevara’s motorcycle diaries are the starting point for anyone wanting to understand the odyssey that eventually led this young revolutionary to Guatemala, Mexico and to the Sierra Maestra Mountains of eastern Cuba where Castro’s revolution began in 1956.
We owe Walter Salles our gratitude for bringing this story to light since most non-Spanish speakers would remain ignorant of Che’s early travel diary without this film. We can look forward to another film, as well, in the next couple of years as Salles’ is collaborating with Francis Ford Coppola on a film of another iconic travel diary, that of Jack Kerouac’s book, On the Road. Stay tuned for that one!
Fruit is still delivered by bicycle in Buenos Aires. This delivery bike is similar to bikes that were used in Buenos Aires for grocery deliveries in 1952 (and, are still used!)
Paola on the beach at Playa Union, near Puerto Madryn. This is well south of Miramar where Che and friend Alberto went to visit Che’s girlfriend before they headed east across the plains of Patagonia.
The church in Bariloche with Lake Nahuel Huapi in the background. Che and Alberto passed through Bariloche on their way to the pass over the Andes.
Paola at Lago Frias in the Andes right at the Chilean-Argentine border. The Motorcycle Diaries shows Alberto and Che going through snow right after they left the lake to cross over the pass into Chile. We didn’t have snow but we delayed our ride a day in January 2007 to avoid a snowstorm! Che did not actually describe riding through snow in his written narrative, one of the few places in the film where Salles invented a scene for the effect.
Pedro de Valdivia, Spanish conquistador and founder of Santiago, Chile – Santiago reminded Che of his home town of Cordoba, Argentina, "our own Mediterranean city."
The abandoned company mining town of Humberstone near Iquique, Chile – North American and European mining companies have mined copper and atmospheric nitrates in Northern Chile since the 19th century. Che was profoundly affected by the working conditions of the miners.
The travelers had noted that their route followed that of Pedro de Valdivia backwards from Santiago, Chile across the Atacama Desert to Cuzco, Peru. Here we are in the main square in Cuzco.
Near the market in Pisac which Che and Alberto visited on their way to Machu Picchu.
In the Motorcycle Diaries Che and Alberto are both shown being photographed in front of this stone wall at Machu Picchu. That’s Rick, not Che.
In the movie Che and Alberto had the leper colony at San Pablo as their destination. It didn’t look much different from this.
The Amazon River boat in the film looked very much like this boat which Rick spent two nights on in April of 2005.