Heading south from Buenos Aires in 1952, 23 year-old Che Guevara circled South America on a motorbike, with a friend. His diaries of their epic journey are a tale of high drama, low comedy, disaster and discovery. Retracing his route even approximately may not influence your political philosophy, but it will provide you with a particular insight into the nature of South America as a continent, and to the historical and geographic reasons for collective aspects of its social cultures.
Of course, your trip will be much more comfortable but if the main roads are paved, and you travel in an air-conditioned bus or car or train, you can still find the sleepy, sun and wind-parched villages in the dust of Patagonia or the Atacama desert, the stone hut shelters of the Andean altiplano, and the broiling humid shacks in the Amazon jungle in which Che sought to quantify workers conditions.
Down Argentina, across the Andes, up Chile to Peru, then from Cuzco through the Amazon headwaters to Iquitos and (via Leticia) Colombia and Venezuela - Che's diaries provide much more than just the inspiration to keep your eyes properly open.
His carefree exuberance is infectious, a reminder to take opportunities to share the back of a dusty truck with whoever, or to swim when the ferry needs pushing. His route goes deep into remote backcountry, to borders and regions which can still be dangerous. Seek help where you can from local people - but use the tourist infrastructure where it is useful. Balance some of your curiosity with caution (eg when hitch-hiking, as Che did), but enjoy unexpected adventures when they happen.
Che's journey did not end in Venezuela. Choose to follow him, and nor will yours: you'll share his lifelong respect for the magnificence of South America, and of its peoples durability.
By motorbike or bus and by boat
WHEN TO GO
Year-round (remembering that in the southern hemisphere, June to August can be very cold; and rainy seasons vary, and are subject to micro- climates along some of the route).
TIME IT TAKES
Che famously took nine months.
Recently, two actors took a year, making a film on the way. You can travel the road by bus and boat in roughly a month, but nearer three months is considered the minimum.
The Chuquicamata copper mine, biggest open-pit mine in the world, in · the Atacama Desert south of Iquique - primary source of Chile's wealth, and Che's indignation that it was US-owned.
The Amazon jungle around the leper colony of San Pablo - with indigenous Indian guides recounting tales and lore of the dense forest.
Cuzco, once capital of the Inca Empire, overprinted with the Hispanic colonial boot - a dangerous but charming city, and base for Machu Picchu.
YOU SHOULD KNOW
1. Outside cities and major tourist attractions, a knowledge of Spanish is invaluable and occasionally vital.
2. Throughout South America, local rules j.. and regulations may not always be those decreed by official federal agency. You must check at the time you want to go.
3. Check, if you plan to enter Colombia via Leticia, how you can proceed either into Colombia or elsewhere in the Amazon basin. It can be notoriously difficult to leave without great expense. Che flew to Bogota.
On this journey, Che never visited Bolivia. But aficionados traveling from Chile to Peru may want to pause and take one of several Bolivian tours based on his later exploits.