by Troy Johnson
Ernesto “Che” Guevara is well known to most of us as the great leftist revolutionary who helped Castro to overthrow Batista’s Cuban government in the late 1950s then fought in the Congo and organized guerrilla fighters throughout Central America in the 1960s until meeting his demise at the hands of the Bolivian Army in 1967. What is not well known is that Che Guevara spent the early 1950s traveling around South America on two wheels. In 1950 he made a 4000 mile tour around northern Argentina on a moped and in 1952 he and a friend set out to travel from Argentina to North America by motorcycle exploring much of South America along the way. This trip is the subject of The Motorcycle Diaries.
Guevara kept a diary as he, Alberto Granado and a Norton 500 named La Poderosa II (The Powerful One) made their way across South America. Later in life Guevara went back to the diary and rewrote it as a narrative leaving us (and himself) with a well written travelogue and fascinating look at the moral development of the young Che Guevara.
Only the first quarter of the journey is made by motorcycle which is fortunate for Guevara and Granado. If La Poderosa had lived past its fatal crash and final resting spot in Santiago, Chile Che Guevara may have not. Traveling with La Poderosa consists of as much time spent falling off a motorcycle as riding a motorcycle. Apparently the overloaded Norton was a bit hard to handle on the poor roads. Early in the book La Poderosa crashes six times in one day!
The trip is continued from Santiago by hitching rides, stowing away on boats, lots of walking and even a bit of flying. The two young doctors travel as bums but slip easily between the company of the proletariat and the well-to-do. Whoever will give them a meal and shelter is their friend.
The Motorcycle Diaries is a fascinating look at the culture of South America in the 1950s. Recommended.