- The Washington Times - Friday, September 2, 2005

It’s not hard to feel the lure of the open road in Latin America. Shimmying free of the concrete confinesof the continent’s urban spaces,thetraveler soon breaks into limitlessexpanses of wind-blown grasslands, soaring Andean peaks or pancake-flat pampas.

Inspired by the sumptuous cinematography of Walter Salles’ film “The Motorcycle Diaries,” an account of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s eye-opening voyage through Argentina and beyond, I set out to explore Mr. Guevara’s stomping ground, the rolling hills of Cordoba province in central Argentina.

I didn’t, in the end, uncover any long-lost legacies to Argentina’s most famous son, but I did find that the gentle inclines and big skies of the Sierras de Cordoba provide a perfect setting for a compelling South American road trip.

A long-distance bus had borne me across the approximately 450 miles of pampas that separate Buenos Aires from the province of Cordoba. Few houses or trees broke the smoothness of the steppe. The bus windows filled with cavernous sky, and even the evening sun barely cast a shadow. For 10 hours, there was little to see but vast herds of grazing cattle before the first trace of the Sierras de Cordoba bruised the horizon.

Stopping in the provincial capital to pick up a rental car, I strolled the leafy streets, watching old men playing chess in sun-speckled squares.

I had expected a quiet trip, but a chance meeting over a chessboard transformed my plans. Marcelo Cardeilhac, a devil-may-care Cordoban with a smattering of Hollywood vocabulary, was eager to talk. Just 26 and already divorced, he was footloose and keen to tag along.

I hesitated but took a chance and agreed. It was the right move: Marcelo’s local knowledge and easy manner would open many doors for us.

He was keen to get out of the city, but first he wanted to show me its historical buildings. It was religion, he explained, that first put Cordoba on colonial maps. Soon after Spanish explorers had put down their oars in Argentine waters in 1516, the evangelists arrived. Filled with missionary zeal, Jesuits, Dominicans and Franciscans flocked to Argentina to capture the hearts and souls of the indigenous population.

Many settled in the peaceful valleys of Cordoba province, where they built churches, residences and ranches and brought their unapologetic version of Catholicism to bear on the local Comechingones Indians.

The Jesuits, the first to arrive, also brought European germs, however. Within a century of their arrival in Cordoba, measles had killed many of those the evangelists had hoped to convert.

Nevertheless, the Jesuits turned the city of Cordoba into the economic and cultural muscle of colonial Argentina, building a reputation for scholasticism, fine arts and architecture that far eclipsed the malarial backwater of Buenos Aires.

They bequeathed a legacy of churches, mansions and universities that remain exquisite today, albeit somewhat marooned amid an urban welter of chain stores and neon lighting. We spent a day in the bustling commercial center and soon were ready to leave.

Route 9 snakes north of the city and took us quickly from Cordoba’s sprawl into verdant fields of alfalfa and corn. Chattering flocks of Austral parakeets scattered overhead, their untidy nests crowning every roadside telegraph post.

Moving parallel to the Sierras, we found our first Jesuit site just 30 miles down the road and pulled up at the well-restored residence, church and convent of Jesus Maria.

By the 1650s, Jesuit missions in Argentina had grown wealthy and powerful. Orchards, vineyards, livestock and crops thrived on Cordoba’s fertile land, and the benevolently run estancias drew large numbers of Comechingones to work the soil. With money and men from Europe, the Jesuits’ influence spread spectacularly.

Jesus Maria, along with Cordoba’s other estancias, commissioned finely crafted furniture, ironwork and silverware, and its wines made such profits that they bankrolled a university in the city of Cordoba.

Yet the Jesuits’ commercial success — and their opposition to the forced labor of indians — roused the ire of secular Spanish merchants, who feared they would be driven out of business. By 1767, the merchants had conspired with Spain’s King Carlos III to throw the Jesuits out of Argentina.

The merchants’ ill-earned monopoly was short-lived, however: Four decades later, Napoleon’s Spanish campaign weakened Madrid’s hold on its colonies, allowing Argentine nationalists to kick out all remaining Spaniards and declare independence.

The history of colonial Argentina is compelling — and grippingly explained at Jesus Maria’s small museum — but I was eager to get into the Sierras. Less dramatic than the icy pinnacles of the Andes, the Sierras de Cordoba strike the driver as an almost endless zigzag rising gradually over successive grassy knolls. Their attraction lies in their myriad rivers and streams, their balmy climate and the abundance of birds and wild animals that roam their passes.

Edging off Route 9, we found a gravel track that wove upward through serpentine bends and, within the hour, had reached Santa Catalina, perhaps the richest and most elaborate Jesuit mission in the region.

Its 18th-century estancia and church, boasting icons, murals and an elaborate altarpiece, are privately owned, but Marcelo — armed with the irreverent humor and deft personal touch of a Cordoban — charmed the owners, and we were free to explore.

Leaving Santa Catalina, we followed an unfenced track that ran upward through montane scrub and low bushes of thorn. Breasting the lip of a small rise, we startled a herd of guanaco, a wild and woolly relative of the llama.

At times, guanaco will face down an attacker by spitting in its face, but on this occasion, the animals scattered in alarm. When I turned off the engine, only the rustle of the breeze in a lone cypress disturbed the quiet.

Just beyond, we slowed for a band of gauchos, hair unkempt, faces burned by the sun, as they trotted on horseback at the end of a day’s work. The gauchos, originally the offspring of Spanish colonists and local Indians, are renowned as skilled cowhands. To many Argentines, however, they have become icons, central to the nation’s identity. Their simple rural lifestyle, old-fashioned honesty and rough, often violent justice give them a lead role in an idealized settlers’ dream.

Nineteenth-century travelers treated gauchos with care. Francis Bond Head, an English mining engineer whose boisterousness while traveling in Argentina in the 1820s won him the sobriquet “Galloping Head,” wrote, “In crossing the pampa, it is absolutely necessary to be armed, as there are many robbers. I always carried two brace of detonating pistols in a belt, and a short detonating double-barreled gun in my hand. I made it a rule never to be an instant without my arms, and to cock both barrels of my gun whenever I met any gauchos.”

Head clearly had a nose for trouble — and an eye for publicity — for just a decade later, the naturalist Charles Darwin saw a different side to the gauchos’ character, reporting that the gaucho “is invariably most obliging, polite and hospitable. I did not meet with even one instance of rudeness or inhospitality.”

Indeed, today’s gauchos are not averse to sharing their food or handing a cup of mate, an Argentine green tea, to a curious traveler.

With the evening light fading, we sped down well-paved Route 38 to Villa Carlos Paz, once a quiet mountain village and now a glittering resort with 12,000 hotel beds and a selection of swanky nightclubs and casinos to match.

Marcelo balked at the glitz and suggested instead a friend’s nearby farmhouse, isolated and quaint, where we feasted at an asado, one of the country’s famed barbecues, and bedded down for the night.

The following day, warming sun greeted a sedate morning drive to Alta Gracia, the prosperous town where Mr. Guevara spent much of his youth. His house survives, and a photographic display hangs in what is Argentina’s only real museum dedicated to his life.

Mr. Guevara was fond of tramping in the land around Alta Gracia, exhibiting an avid interest in the bounteous nature in the hills surrounding town. Eager to follow in his footsteps, Marcelo and I hiked through the lush forests around Alta Gracia, ending up at the crashing waters of Rio Anizacate.

These woods, the guidebooks say, boast an amazing assortment of bird life. I searched in vain for the buff-fronted foliage gleaner and the sulfur-bearded spinetail but spotted a raptor instead and looked for the distinctive wingtip “fingers” and the dazzling white collar of the Andean condor. The distance was too great to be sure; it could have been a buzzard eagle or a crested caracara, a wily and ungainly scavenger that has learned to follow vehicles, looking for roadkill.

Later, I checked an Argentine wildlife book and found an instructive nugget on the caracara’s preferred food: “Eats anything.”

Twenty-five miles south, past the Embalse Los Molinos, a man-made lake popular with windsurfers, is General Belgrano.

The town, founded by survivors of the German battleship Graf Spee, which was sunk near Montevideo during World War II, flaunts a Teutonic air that attracts flocks of summering Argentine tourists.

Most come to sample the homemade pastries and marvel at the pseudo-Bavarian chalets; every year, they knock back the steins at the town’s rowdy Oktoberfest.

General Belgrano guards the junction to La Cumbresita, perhaps the most charming of all Cordoba’s mountain villages. A rough track winds 25 miles through truly wild backcountry. Pumas roam these passes along with armadillos, otters and rheas, the Argentine cousin of the ostrich. Veer from the road, and a deadly coral snake could punish a careless footstep.

La Cumbresita nestles high in the Sierra Grande among dense woods of cedar, pine and cypress. It, too, has many German residents, who have made it one the best-run but most authoritarian settlements in the country. Ten years ago, the local council declared La Cumbresita a pedestrian village, obliging drivers to abandon their vehicles and proceed on foot.

Don’t let that put you off: La Cumbresita is scintillating. With Marcelo leading the way, we hiked to a granite outcrop overlooking the village, past chestnut horses steaming in the sun, and gazed out on an alpine idyll. We awoke the next morning to the gurgling of mountain streams and the cooing and cawing of a waking forest. It was an awesome day for the return drive to Cordoba.

Home in Alta Gracia now Guevara museum

Who is the most famous Argentine in the world? Evita Peron? Diego Maradona? How about Ernesto “Che” Guevara?

If it weren’t for “The Motorcycle Diaries,” Walter Salles’ widely acclaimed feature film released last year, few people would know that the dashingly moody militant so closely associated with Fidel Castro’s 1959 Cuban revolution in fact hailed from Argentina.

Born in 1928 to a wealthy family in Rosario, a riverside port city about 185 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, the young Che developed asthma at age 2. Advised to move to a drier climate to alleviate his symptoms, the family chose the peaceful village of Alta Gracia in the Sierras de Cordoba, a gently rolling mountain chain in central Argentina, midway between the Atlantic and the Andes.

Mr. Guevara spent a pleasant but unremarkable youth in Cordoba, excelling in literature and sports at the Colegio Nacional Dean Funes, before leaving for Buenos Aires in 1948 to study medicine.

He set off on his now-famous motorcycle trip in 1951, a journey that unlocked his social conscience, eventually propelling him toward militancy and revolution.

When Fidel Castro ousted Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Mr. Guevara was at his side, at first assisting the revolutionaries as a doctor, but soon rising to become second only to Mr. Castro in the new Cuban government.

Mr. Guevara traveled widely as an informal ambassador for Cuba throughout the early 1960s, but by 1965, his views had diverged from Mr. Castro’s, and he was removed from office.

Mr. Guevara’s subsequent attempts to inspire peasants and workers to revolution throughout Latin America ended in failure when Bolivian troops captured the revolutionary Argentine and, on Oct. 9, 1967, executed him.

Today, Mr. Guevara’s image is plastered all over Cuba. Argentines, in contrast, have largely tried to put some distance between their country and its revolutionary son. The generals who ruled with murderous efficiency during the late 1970s and early ‘80s despised Mr. Guevara’s politics and refused to countenance a museum dedicated to him.

Even the restoration of democracy in 1983 failed to pave the way for more than scant homage to Argentina’s famous son.

Buenos Aires has one site dedicated to Mr. Guevara, the Primer Museo Historico Dr. Ernesto Che Guevara (Calle Rojas 129, Buenos Aires; phone 54-11-4903-3285; 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; free entry). It is little more than a flea market selling trinkets, key fobs, posters and assorted Che memorabilia.

In the early 1990s, city officials in Rosario tried to buy the apartment where Mr. Guevara was born (Calle Entre Rios 480, Rosario) to open a small museum. They called off the attempt after protesters threatened to bomb the building. Today, the city is facing a more mundane obstacle: The apartment’s owner simply doesn’t want to sell.

Only Cordoba, the province in which Mr. Guevara spent his youth, boasts a real memorial to him. In 2001, provincial authorities bought Villa Beatriz, the Guevaras’ family home in Alta Gracia and opened a small museum on the site(Calle Avellaneda 501, Alta Gracia; phone 54-3547- 428579; 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday; admission $1).

Colin Barraclough is author of the Moon Guide to Buenos Aires.

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