Che Guevara: The Motorcycle Diaries

san martín de los andes

The road snakes between the low foothills that sound the beginning of the great cordillera of the Andes, then descends steeply until it reaches an unattractive, miserable town, surrounded in sharp contrast by magnificent, densely wooded mountains. San Martín lies on the yellow-green slopes that melt into the blue depths of Lake Lacar, a narrow tongue of water 35 meters wide and 500 kilometers long. The day it was “discovered” as a tourist haven the town’s climate and transport difficulties were solved and its subsistence secured.

Our first attack on the local clinic completely failed but we were told to try the same tactic at the National Parks’ offices. The superintendent of the park allowed us to stay in one of the tool sheds. The nightwatchman arrived, a huge, fat man weighing 140 kilos with a face as hard as nails, but he treated us very amiably, granting us permission to cook in his hut. That first night passed perfectly. We slept in the shed, content and warm on straw — certainly necessary in those parts where the nights are particularly cold. We bought some beef and set off to walk along the shores of the lake. In the shade of the immense trees, where the wilderness had arrested the advance of civilization, we made plans to build a lab- oratory in this place, when we finished our trip. We imagined great windows that would take in the whole lake, winter blanketing the ground in white; the dinghy we would use to travel from one side to the other; catching fish from a little boat; everlasting excursions into the almost virgin forest.

Although often on our travels we longed to stay in the formidable places we visited, only the Amazon jungle called out to that sedentary part of ourselves as strongly as did this place.

I now know, by an almost fatalistic conformity with the facts, that my destiny is to travel, or perhaps it’s better to say that traveling is our destiny, because Alberto feels the same. Still, there are moments when I think with profound longing of those wonderful areas in our south. Perhaps one day, tired of circling the world, I’ll return to Argentina and settle in the Andean lakes, if not indefinitely then at least for a pause while I shift from one understanding of the world to another.

At dusk we started back and it was dark before we arrived. We were pleasantly surprised to find that Don Pedro Olate, the nightwatchman, had prepared a wonderful barbecue to treat us. We bought wine to return the gesture and ate like lions, just for a change. We were discussing how tasty the meat was and how soon we wouldn’t be eating as extravagantly as we had done in Argentina, when Don Pedro told us he’d been asked to organize a barbecue for the drivers of a motor race taking place on the local track that coming Sunday. He wanted two helpers and offered us the job. “Mind that I can’t pay you, but you can stock up on meat for later.” It seemed like a good idea and we accepted the jobs of first and second assistants to the “Granddaddy of the Southern Argentine Barbecue.”

Both assistants waited for Sunday with a kind of religious enthusiasm. At six in the morning on the day, we started our first job — loading wood on to a truck and taking it to the barbecue site — and we didn’t stop work until 11 a.m. when the distinctive signal was given and everyone threw themselves voraciously on to the tasty ribs.

A very strange person was giving orders whom I addressed with the utmost respect as “Señora” any time I said a word, until one of my fellow workers said: “Hey kid, che, don’t push Don Pendón too far, he’ll get angry.” “Who’s Don Pendón?” I asked, with the kind of gesture some uncultured kid would give. The answer, that Don Pendón was the Señora, left me cold, but not for long.

As always at barbecues, there was far too much meat for everyone, so we were given carte blanche to pursue our vocation as camels. We executed, furthermore, a carefully calculated plan. I pretended to get drunker and drunker and, with every apparent attack of nausea, I staggered off to the stream, a bottle of red wine hidden inside my leather jacket. After five attacks of this type we had the same number of liters of wine stored beneath the fronds of a willow, keeping cool in the water. When everything was over and the moment came to pack up the truck and return to town, I kept up my part, working reluctantly and bickering constantly with Don Pendón. To finish my performance I lay down flat on my back in the grass, utterly unable to take another step. Alberto, acting like a true friend, apologized for my behavior to the boss and stayed behind to look after me as the truck left. When the noise of the engine faded in the distance we jumped up and raced off like colts to the wine that would guarantee us several days of kingly consumption.

Alberto made it first and threw himself under the willow: his face was straight out of a comic film. Not a single bottle remained. Either my drunken state hadn’t fooled anyone, or someone had seen me sneak off with the wine. The fact was, we were as broke as ever, retracing in our minds the smiles that had greeted my drunken antics, trying to find some trace of the irony with which we could identify the thief. To no avail. Lugging the chunk of bread and cheese we’d received and a few kilos of meat for the night, we had to walk back to town. We were well-fed and well-watered, but with our tails between our legs, not so much for the wine but for the fools they’d made of us. Words cannot describe it.

The following day was rainy and cold and we thought the race wouldn’t go ahead. We were waiting for a break in the rain so we could go and cook some meat by the lake when we heard over the loudspeakers that the race was still on. In our role as barbecue assistants we passed free of charge through the entrance gates and, comfortably installed, watched the nation’s drivers in a fairly good car race.

Just as we were thinking of moving on, discussing the best road to take and drinking mate in the doorway of our shed, a jeep arrived, carrying some of Alberto’s friends from the distant and almost mythical Villa Concepción del Tío. We shared big friendly hugs and went immediately to celebrate by filling our guts with frothy liquid, as is the dignified practise on such occasions. They invited us to visit them in the town where they were working, Junín de los Andes, and so we went, lessening the bike’s load by leaving our gear in the National Parks’ shed.

Copyright: © 2005 Aleida March, Che Guevara Studies Center and Ocean Press. Reprinted with their permission. Not to be reproduced in any form without the written permission of Ocean Press. For further information contact Ocean Press at and via its website at