The llamas must have good agents – they get all the good press. There they are on the front covers of the guidebooks and all the tourist literature, along with the volcanoes, brightly coloured rugs and shawls and Aymaran women sporting bowler hats. But there’s much more to Bolivia than alpacas and the altiplano, as I discovered when I set off to explore the east of the country (The Oriente) where Che Guevara finally met his end at the hands of the Bolivian army (with a little help from the Americans).
My first stop east was the town of Cochabamba. I’d booked a day bus with TransCopacabana and had high hopes for a luxury bus. In adjacent bays stood double-deckers with on board toilets and aircon. Then I found mine. As so often happens, I seemed to have booked the most decrepit vehicle possible, broken seats, no aircon, no loo with a 7 or 8 hour journey to look forward to. Despite being rushed onto the bus, we left an hour late. I’ve discovered that bus departure times in Bolivia are merely an expression of vague hope. In fact it’s only on the big intercity routes that you have buses (flotas) with set times. In the smaller places you are dependent on shared taxis and vans (trufis) and small buses (micros) which often only leave when full.Cochabamba sits at 2500 metres above sea level and has a Mediterranean feel to it, very different to La Paz. There’s not a huge amount to do, but there’s a beautiful colonial square and the fascinating Convento de Santa Teresa where you can take a guided tour. For centuries nuns lived here all their life with no contact with the outside world whatsoever. I also went to La Cancha, Bolivia’s biggest and most frenetic market. It seemed as if you could buy just about anything there and it was easy to get lost. I did twice! Further east way down in the lowlands lies Santa Cruz, where it’s supposed to be hot and steamy, but the cold front that’s been following me around made it there too. It’s a city that moves to a very different beat. It’s an agricultural heartland and its inhabitants are generally rich landowners who do not support the president, Evo Morales. Everywhere you go in the highlands, Evo’s power base, you see graffiti proclaiming “Evo Si” – Evo Yes. Here you can see graffiti encouraging people to vote no in the recent referendum in which Evo asked the people to support a change in the constitution which would have allowed him to stand for a fourth term.
A few hours away in the hills outside Santa Cruz is Samaipata, a great little village with lots of restaurants run by expats from France, Spain, Canada and Brazil, which means you can finally get some decent food and eat something other than fried chicken. On the outskirts of town is El Fuerte, sometimes billed as Bolivia’s Machu Picchu. It isn’t, of course, but it’s an intriguing site all the same. It’s basically a huge rock with animals carved into it and ceremonial shrines.
I had a wet, muddy but rewarding hike into the cloud forest of Parque Nacional Amboro which is just 40 minutes away. It lived up to its name by being completely shrouded in mist and cloud, so there were no views to be had of the surrounding mountains, but it was very atmospheric and the giant ferns were impressive.
My last stop in the Oriente was Vallegrande, where in 1967 Che Guevara’s corpse was laid out in a hospital laundry room to show the world he had been killed. I took a trufi from Samaipata. The driver was driving with one hand and using the other to stuff coca leaves in his mouth. At first when you arrive in Bolivia it looks like a lot of men are suffering from inflamed molars, but in fact their cheek is full of coca leaves. To me the taste is very bitter, but the tea is good and really helps with altitude sickness.
In Vallegrande I visited the hospital, the Che museum and the mausoleum which marks the site where the remains of Che and six of his comrades were finally unearthed in 1997 after one of the Bolivian soldiers involved in the secret burial finally revealed the location. All the sites are quite poignant and moving. The laundry room is covered in graffiti, the museum has a book of remembrance still in use and the gardens of the mausoleum have trees planted by his brother, a daughter and other heroes of the Cuban Revolution.
Whatever your opinion of Che, it’s a fascinating look back at history and his total dedication to the revolution is undeniable. Even after almost 50 years he still exerts an influence on many people. My guide told me he was 20 when the body was disinterred and from that moment his curiosity was aroused. The sites are tranquil and the countryside surrounding Vallegrande is beautiful. It provided the perfect conclusion to my Eastern odyssey.