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Wednesday April 17th 2024

Diarios de Motocicleta (The Motorcycle Diaries) | 2012

The Motorcycle Diaries filming location: Machu Picchu, Peru
The Motorcycle Diaries filming location: Machu Picchu, Peru | Photograph: Wikimedia / pululante

Walter Salles’ film (shot on a 16-week schedule, in sequence, and wherever possible, on the real locations of the Latin American journey) focuses on the journals of the young Ernesto Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal), nicknamed Fuser (‘furious’, for his no-holds-barred approach to rugby), travelling around Latin America with his pal, Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) and witnessing firsthand the inequity and poverty which fuelled his later revolutionary zeal.

Now, Che Guevara was (a) an inspiring visionary who helped liberate Cuba from a corrupt dictatorship (if you-re on the Left, (b) a ruthless ideologue who helped enslave Cuba under a totalitarian dictatorship (if you’re on the Right), or (c) that guy on the posters who sang with The Doors and ODd on a speedball at the Marmont (if you’re under 25).

If you want to recreate Guevara’s journey authentically, you’ll need a 1939 Norton 500 in good working order. Otherwise, cheat and use a tour company. The trip covers around 5,000 miles, west from Buenos Aires, Argentina, through Patagonia and into Chile, north along the Andes to Machu Picchu and finally to the Guajira Peninsula in Venezuela.

Ernesto and Alberto, and their long-suffering Norton, La Poderosa, start out from Buenos Aires, Argentina, passing through the city’s Plaza Once, and stopping at first to visit Ernesto’s posh girlfriend, Chichina, who’s staying in Miramar, on the coast about 200 miles south of Buenos Aires which, in the 50s, was a rich, and exclusively white, resort.

The journey proper finds the pair heading west toward the Chilean border. The film skips quickly across Argentina to the beautifully photogenic Lake District and the lakeside village of Villa la Angostura, in the south of Neuquen province, at the northeastern shore of Lago Nahuel Huapi.

At the lake’s southern tip, San Carlos de Bariloche, Ernesto is taken ill, after wading into the freezing water to retrieve the duck shot down by Alberto, and they spend the night at the railway station, before crossing the border into Chile at Lago Frias, where mountains rise dramatically from the lake’s waters.

There’s a less-than-grand entrance to the town of Temuco, pushing the ailing bike, but fleeting fame follows a bogus interview with the newspaper; El Diario Austral. Scenes were filmed at Freire, to the south; and in Lautaro, just to the north, where the bike gets fixed for free, but where Ernesto and Alberto are chased out of town after coming on to the local womenfolk (an incident apparently invented for the film).

As La Poderosa finally gives up the ghost and the two continue on foot, the lives of the people they meet begin to encroach, and the film’s tone darkens. At Valparaiso, the historic port west of Chile’s capital, Santiago, there’s bad news for Ernesto, and he and Alberto glumly descend in the funicular railway running between the surrounding hills and the lower town. As much a feature of the city as San Fran’s cable cars, there are 15 of these ‘ascensores’, built between 1883 and 1916, still operating.

From Valparaiso, they tramp through the barren, lunar landscape of the Atacama Desert, where the plight of a Communist couple, on the road looking for work after being evicted from their land, only deepens their awareness of injustice.

The Atacama, incidentally, stretches north into Peru, where, between Arequipa and Lima, you’ll find the mysterious Nazca Lines These giant, stylised drawings – birds, spiders, lizards – etched on the plains, are best seen from the air, which led to the kind of barking mad theories expounded in cable documentaries at four in the morning. The strange patterns were clearly made, not by aliens, but by the indigenous Nazca people, between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago, though why still remains a riddle.

The search for casual labour brings Ernesto and Alberto’s travelling companions to the US-owned ‘Anaconda Copper Company’, the real mine visited by Guevara, and still operating. It’s at Chuquicamata, about ten miles from Calama, east of Antofagasta. “This is not a tourist attraction” scowls the foreman, but, ironically, it now is. One of the world's largest open-cast mines, it is now state owned. You can visit from 10am daily: you’ll need to produce your passport, and make a donation. Head for Oficina Ayuda a la Infancia, at the top of Avenida JM Carrera.

Following the Andes north, the pair enter Peru, and the city of Cusco, “the heart of America”. In an improvised scene, they are given cocoa leaves to chew – which helps alleviate effects of high altitude. Actually, most of the ‘Cuzco’ scene was filmed in the village of Ollantaytambo, in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. If you’re travelling from Cuzco to Machu Picchu, stop off at Ollantaytambo, not only for the unique village, but for its fortified temple, the only Inca stronghold to withstand Spanish attack.

Arriving at the fortified Inca city 45 miles northwest of Cusco, Ernesto is understandably awestruck by his first glimpse of Machu Picchu (‘old mountain’ in the local language), It seems to have been something of a royal retreat, built between 1460 and 1470. Remote and little-known, it fell prey to disease and internal strife, and, by the time of the Spanish conquest in 1532, it was already forgotten. The complex of terraces was rediscovered by American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911. It’s best to visit during the dry season, between May and September. If you’re not doing the motorcycle trip, fly to Cusco (allow a couple of days to acclimatise to the altitude) and take the train to Aguas Calientes (not forgetting to stop off at Ollantaytambo). From here, there’s a bus ride, with thirteen hair-raising hairpin curves, to Machu Picchu.

Moving on to Lima, Dr Pesce sets the two medical students on the final part of their journey, along the Amazon to San Pablo, and what was a ‘leper colony’ when Guevara visited. It’s a hospice for what is now termed Hansen’s Disease, 250 miles east of Iquitos. You can visit and, from a gift shop, buy handicrafts made by the residents. For the film, the hospital was recreated at Santa María del Ojeal, at the end of Sinchiquy Creek. The set has remained, now used as local authority offices.

The epilogue, featuring the real Alberto Granado, was filmed in Havana, Cuba.