The Motorcycle Diaries:
Getting to the Other Side of the River

by Miguel Alfonso Cañero

Revolutionary Worker #1263, December 26, 2004, posted at

I was recently sharing stories with a friend of mine after having watched the film The Motorcycle Diaries. She told me about her travel to Michoacán, Mexico. There’s a place, high up in the mountains, which every winter attracts thousands of butterflies that migrate all the way down from Canada. They’re the most beautiful things to watch, as they hang off the branches of the trees and majestically display their vibrant colors. It’s one of those things that leave you in awe of nature. But the trek there is difficult. You have to climb up a steep pathway and the more you climb the harder it is to breathe, so you have to stop every now and then and rest. Along the way she met a woman from the town nearby who had never seen the butterflies before. Not because she didn’t want to but because she couldn’t. The residents of the town are poor and many of the men go to the city for at least half of the year to find work. This woman had grown up hearing about the butterflies but the desperate conditions have not allowed her for much leisure time to explore and wonder and think.

But just like caterpillars turn into butterflies, everything in nature, including society and the consciousness of people also changes and transforms. And this theme of "change and transformation" plays a prominent role in the latest film by Brazilian director Walter Salles, The Motorcycle Diaries.

I was very interested to see this film which is based on the student years of Ernesto Che Guevara who later became a leader of the Cuban revolution—since I have very different views from Che on revolutionary ideology and strategy. But what stood out to me most about this film—which is something that really good art can do—is that it provokes us to think about radically changing the world at a time when the political climate in North America is as hostile to such radical notions as the cold weather is to the butterflies.


Bursting with life, a 29-year-old Alberto Granado, a biochemist, sits in a restaurant in Argentina and unveils a map of South America. He’s been dreaming of a cross continent trip for years and wants to do it before turning 30. You feel the excitement as he outlines the route to his friend and traveling partner, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, a 23-year-old medical student who decides to put school on hold to embark on this incredible road trip across mountains, lakes, rivers, snow, deserts and other amazing landscapes.

"De Buenos Aires hasta la Patagonia y después a Chile. Luego al norte hasta los 6 mil metros por la columna vertebral de los Andes hasta Machu Picchu. De ahí, al leprosario de San Pablo en la zona peruana. Destino final, Venezuela..."1


After saying goodbye to his family—and promising his mother to write "las cartas más lindas que has leído"2 —Ernesto hops on the back of his friend’s leaky 1939 Norton 500 motorcycle.

Alberto, a bit embarrassed that his bike—with such a grand name as "La Poderosa" (The Mighty One)—does not start in his first attempt, tries a second time and succeeds. With a bit of smoke and combustible noise, the riders take off full speed down the block, swirling and nearly crashing into a huge passenger bus—as Ernesto’s family looks on.

The two friends set out to experience a continent they had known only through books. Eager to explore new things and meet new people, and with an open road—and an unknown world—in front of them, there is a sense of dreams and possibilities ahead. As they ride away on their motorcycle, they capture the spirit of the youth who search out a different future.

"Buenos Aires quedó atrás...Ante nosotros se extiende toda América Latina. De ahora en adelante solo confiaremos en La Poderosa..."3


Inspired by the diaries of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna—who years later became known as "Che" Guevara—and Alberto Granado, The Motorcycle Diaries is the story of two friends brought together by their youthful restlessness, their desire and willingness to dream and their insatiable love for the road.

In an interview on the Tavis Smiley Show , Walter Salles said the story was "about youth, about the necessity of changing the world and believing that you can do’s about idealism above anything else, and I think we live in an age where we tend to forget that idealism is necessary...the humanity, the appetite for life that was ingrained in this, in a very unfiltered, raw manner was tremendously attractive..."

This appetite for life remains a constant theme throughout the film.

They fly off the road and into a muddy ditch. They crash into a herd of cows and scrape their knees. They lose their tent to the blowing wind and have to spend the night in someone else’s barn. Alberto’s quick wits and schemes to get food and shelter get deflated by Ernesto’s straightforward honesty. But every now and then Ernesto goes a little out of character—it is his idea to pose as "leprosy experts" to a local newspaper in Chile and use the article to win favors around town, like getting their motorcycle fixed free of charge.

While they have much in common, the two friends are very different. They bicker with each other over Ernesto’s stubbornness not to spend $15 given to him by his girlfriend Chichina (played by Mia Maestro)—who wants Ernesto to buy her an American bathing suit if they make it as far as Miami.

The womanizing Alberto dances from one romantic encounter to another all the way to Venezuela; while the only flirtation of the serious Ernesto—who is loyal to his Argentine girlfriend Chichina—ends in disaster; and the two have to run for their life after Ernesto attempts to dance the "Chipi Chipi" with the wife of the town mechanic.

As they take a bite of the world they’re impacted by the people they meet and the stories they share.

In Chile, after too many accidents, they are forced to abandon "La Poderosa." So, they continue onward by walking and hitching rides.

They cross paths with farmers and indigenous communities and learn about the conditions and plight of the peasants and workers. The more they press ahead and the deeper they go, the more poverty, hunger, disease and injustice they encounter. This is a reality different than the one back home, and its impact slowly surfaces.

After crossing the desert they head for the mines in Chuquicamata. On their way they meet a couple headed in the same direction and spend the night by the side of the road. Illuminated by a campfire, they share mate (a tea-like beverage) and stories. The man tells them about losing his land and being chased out of town by the police because they are communists. And now they are on their way to the mines looking for work.

The woman then turns to them and asks: "why do you travel?" They look at each other and Ernesto answers: "Viajamos por viajar."4 This had a profound impression on him. He describes the haunting images running through his mind: "...esos ojos tenían una expresión oscura y trágica. Nos contaron de unos compañeros que habían desaparecido en circunstancias misteriosas y que al parecer terminaron en una parte profunda del mar. Esa fue una de las noches más frías de mi vida. Pero conocerlos me hizo sentir más cerca de la especie humana, extraña, tan extraña para mí."5

At the entrance to the mining camp—in what looks like a scene from many day labor corners around the world—a foreman for the U.S.-owned mining company goes around pointing and picking who would work that day. The man from the previous night gets picked for work but his wife does not. She slowly walks away and we’re left to wonder how long they will remain separated. Ernesto, enraged at the fact that many of the workers were not being given water to drink, hurls a rock at the truck as it moves and drives away.

As they left behind the mines, Ernesto describes how he feels: "Al salir de las minas empezábamos a sentir que la realidad empezaba a cambiar, ¿o éramos nosotros?" "...encontrábamos mas indígenas que ni siquiera tenían un techo en donde fueron sus propias tierras..."6


Walter Salles had read both diaries long before Robert Redford (the executive producer of the film) told him about the project. Salles, whose last film was Central Station, is part of a movement [ cinema novo ] in Brazil that echoes what the Italian neo-realist cinematic movement did back in the 1940s—for example, the use of on-location shooting, the use of non-professional and professional actors, incorporating improvised material.

Once filming began Salles wanted to keep faithful to the books but also to the spirit of the journey. He knew what a jolt the encounters on the road had been for both of them and he aimed to retain that spirit alive in the film. The actors, Gael Garcia Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna, were encouraged to mingle with the people they met while filming—just like their characters did 50 years ago. And the result is a series of actual (non-scripted) scenes where the actors interact with the masses and their present-day life conditions—a reality not much different than when the original trip was taken.

We listen to an indigenous farmer talk about barely being able to live off the land to provide for his family and the constant harassment by the landlords. We see an indigenous woman, who doesn’t speak Spanish but only Quechua, who talks about growing up without a formal education and being tied down to working the land to survive. And we also see lighter moments. The comic scene, in Cuzco, Peru, with the little boy who guides them through town—and who explains to them that the way to differentiate between two walls built next to each other was to point out that one was built by the "Incas" and the other one was built by the "In-capables" i.e. the Spaniards—that scene was also not rehearsed or scripted.

Walter Salles told The Guardian that the little boy "came to us and asked if we wanted to know a little bit more about the city and offered himself as a guide. So we said, ‘Yes, but can we bring the Super16 camera along?’ And he said, ‘Bring whatever you want.’ And there it was. That scene, everything is Take 1. Nothing was repeated." He also said, speaking of Gael and Rodrigo’s tremendous performance, "And the two of them were so immersed in their characters that they were able to improvise freely within the framework of the screenplay."

The strong script by Jose Rivera allowed the flexibility to incorporate many of these scenes caught on the fly. Walter Salles told regarding the script, "It’s a little bit like Jazz. If you have a strong chord, then you can bifurcate and explore other paths because when you want to go back to the melody it’s so strongly there that you can find it again and you don’t get lost."


When they arrive at the top of Machu Picchu, you almost need a moment to take it all in. It’s breathtaking. Ernesto reflects on the Incan civilization: "Los incas tenían un alto conocimiento en astronomía, medicina, matemáticas entre otras cosas. Pero los invasores tenían la pólvora." Later, the always-up-to-something Alberto shares his thoughts on change through the ballot box, to which Ernesto replies: "¿una revolución sin tiro? Estás loco."7

In Lima, Peru they meet a doctor who Alberto had contacted before the trip. He gives them food, money, and shelter and introduces them to some literature, including the writings of Mariátegui—a Peruvian communist theoretician. There’s a scene where we see Ernesto reading Mariátegui’s book as we listen to the doctor’s voice over recite a passage: "el problema del indio es el problema de la tierra. . ."8

What follows is a lyrical palette of black-and-white photos of the faces of the people they have crossed paths with—we see the faces of the miners, farmers, peasants and indigenous people. It makes you feel as if you are experiencing the trip through Ernesto’s eyes—revealing to the spectator the images now burned into his consciousness. In telling the story through these powerful black-and-white images, Walter Salles, and the cinematographer Eric Gautier, are paying homage to Martin Chambi, "a Peruvian photographer, who in 1920, took the camera out of his studio and began to photograph the real people in the streets."


We see the power of film as a visual medium, different from theater or a book, when Ernesto is on a steamboat on their way to the San Pablo leper colony in Peru. The steamboat is towing along a smaller segregated boat carrying the more impoverished sections of the people. He stares out into the smaller boat and feels the emotions stirring inside. No words are used in this scene—just striking images and penetrating music. The entire score was composed by Gustavo Santaollala, one of the leading figures in Latin American alternative rock, and here the music captivates and captures the contradictions. You see the black-and-white pictures of the faces of the people sleeping in hammocks on the smaller boat combined with the distorted sounds of an electric guitar and the intensity of the drum. It cuts through any hint at "calm and stability" like a sharp knife, and with its pulsating high-pitch lead guitar, you sense some transformation is happening amidst inner turmoil.

At the San Pablo leper colony, where they spend three weeks helping treat patients, they learn that the doctors and nurses all stay on one side of the river bank and the leper patients on the other. Right away Ernesto and Alberto break the rules and get in trouble—they shake hands with the patients without wearing gloves. This doesn’t go well with the head catholic nun, who supervises the patients and makes the rules. But the two friends quickly bond with the patients—they play soccer together and have a spirited drum session with them.

While sitting in his room, with a view of the expansive river that flows outside his window, Ernesto makes an observation that gets at the heart of the film. He says, "...el río aleja a los enfermos de los sanos."9 Quietly he walks to the window and looks outside and you see the breadth and the immensity. The metaphor of the river hits you.

It made me think of the railroad tracks or the freeway overpass in the cities that segregate communities of people from each other. And it made me think of the great gap that exists between people who work with their minds and people who work with their hands. In today’s world they represent a society still marked by deep divisions and inequality.

And there is an urgent question posing itself before Ernesto: on which side of the river is he going to spend all his life? Which side of the tracks?

Ernesto is challenged by all that he has seen. Throughout, he not only saw the poverty and the sickness but the humanity in the people he met along the way. He saw that the people are full of life, they have stories to tell, and they have knowledge and are resilient. He makes the decision to stand with them.

On his 24th birthday after he takes another stab at dancing—this time attempting to dance "tango" to Perez Prado’s "Qué rico el mambo"—and after giving his first political speech, he then walks outside in what is the most powerful scene in the film.

It’s almost like a re-birth. And it’s very moving. He decides he wants to spend the remainder of his birthday with the people on the other side. But the boat that normally crosses the river is not there and it will not arrive until the morning. So, he plunges himself into the water. He starts to swim across the river, the great divider, and with each stroke he gasps for air. The people on both sides of the river bank cheer him on.


Arriving in Venezuela, the friends part ways. Ernesto confesses that he doesn’t know what he’s going to do—"There’s so much injustice."

As the film stops, Ernesto is trying to figure things out and make sense of the eye-opening and awakening experience—having been impacted, in a positive way, by his direct experience with the people.

It made me think of the doctor they stayed with in Lima, Peru. He not only introduces them to theory but also sends them off to the masses. He tells them: "Les miró los ojos...y veo en ustedes un gran idealismo, pero también muchas dudas, por eso me alegra que vayan a San Pablo. Me parece que ahí van a encontrar algo muy importante, importante para ustedes..."10

He is right. The interaction with the patients at the leper colony changes them. And the rebellion of the two students against the authority of the nuns emboldens the patients and the staff and becomes a symbol in the film for the necessity and possibility of a profound social revolution—where the oppressive contradictions between those who work with their heads and those who work with their hands are eliminated.

I was struck by the irony here—between art and reality—since later in life, when Ernesto became "Che," the theory he developed was not the kind of revolutionary theory that could really put power in the hands of the masses and lead to a radical rupture with all the traditional property relations and ideas.

His military foco strategy flowed out of a certain view of people that was the opposite of what’s uplifting about the film. And this foco strategy was a reflection of Che’s vision of society—a society where, as Bob Avakian puts it in his talk Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism ,11 "the basic economic structure will change, some of the social relations will change, and some of the forms of political rule will change, and some of the forms of culture and ideology will change, but fundamentally the masses of people will not be increasingly and in one leap after another, drawn into the process of really transforming society." And as Avakian goes on to say, what we need to envision and struggle to bring into being is "a society that not only meets the needs of the masses of people, but really is characterized increasingly by the conscious expression and initiative of the masses of people."

I thought about the film’s tag line: "Let the world change you...and you can change the world." And it made me a little sad to think that the icon that Che has become is so different from the youth in the film searching for truth.

We live in a time when changing the world is urgently on the agenda. And the radical youth do need to let the world change us— but to radically change the world—to get to the "other side of the river"—part of the world that we really really need is revolutionary communist theory that can actually take us to the "other side."

And just like caterpillars that transform into butterflies, we, all of humanity, can also get to a beautiful world, "a world that the great majority of humanity would actually want to live in," but to get there we really have to dare to fly.


1. "From Buenos Aires to Patagonia and on to Chile. Then north along the backbone of the Andes, elevation 18,000 feet, to Machu Picchu. From there to the leper colony at San Pablo in Peru. Last stop, Venezuela."

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2. "...the most beautiful letters you have ever read."

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3. "Leaving Buenos Aires behind... before us lay all of Latin America. From now on we put all our hopes on The Mighty One."

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4. "We travel for the sake of traveling."

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5. "There was a dark and tragic expression in their eyes. They told us about friends who had disappeared in suspicious circumstances and apparently are somewhere at the bottom of the ocean. This was one of the coldest nights of my life, but meeting them brought me closer to the human species, so very, very foreign to me."

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6. "Leaving the mines we began to sense that reality itself was changing, or was it us? We came upon more Indians who didn’t even have a roof over their heads on what used to be their land..."

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7. "Among other things, the Incas had an advanced understanding of astronomy, medicine and mathematics, but the invaders had gunpowder." "A revolution without firing a shot? You’re crazy."

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8. "the Indian question is the same as the land question..."

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9. "the river separates the sick from the healthy"

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10. "When I look into your eyes... I see a lot of idealism, but also many questions. That’s why I’m happy that you’re going to San Pablo. I think that there you’ll find something very important, something very important for you..."

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11. Bob Avakian, " Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism." The full text of this talk is available online at, and selections from this talk have been published in the Revolutionary Worker, #1250-52, 1254-55, 1257-58 and 1260.

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