LA HIGUERA, Bolivia -- The people here pray to a man who once limped through their village in tattered clothes, a legendary guerrilla who fought his last battle on their dusty, unpaved streets, and who was executed in their schoolhouse.
The peasants say that if you whisper Ernesto "Che" Guevara's name to the sky or light a candle to his memory, you will find your lost goat or cow. "If you really have faith, he never fails," Juan Pablo Escobar says.
Guevara was killed in this isolated hamlet 37 years ago, after his two dozen fighters were surrounded by the Bolivian Army.
Now the peasants are hoping the memory of El Che can help rain a little money on their drought-stricken village. La Higuera is the last stop on The Che Trail, (La Ruta Che), a plan to cash in on Guevara's enduring fame by luring tourists to the landmarks of his quixotic final campaign.
"We have big hopes," said Roberto Aramayo Cruz, a leader of the Guarani Indian community in Lagunillas, near the farm where Guevara established his first base camp, 80 miles south of La Higuera. "We get a few tourists now, but when the route is well prepared, more will come."
When Guevara died at the age of 39 in October 1967, he became a revolutionary icon. The portrait of him with the beret and flowing hair went up on countless college dorm rooms.
In Bolivia, the Guevara legend has come full circle. After growing restless in a series of administrative jobs, Guevara left Cuba in 1965 and went underground in a bid to launch revolutions. After a failed stint in the Congo, he came to this South American country, where the government branded him a dangerous Marxist and vowed to crush his movement. This week, however, the government's minister of tourism will come to the region to mark the opening of the Che Trail.
"For a long time people here did not want to accept the idea that our town was identified with Che's name," said Carlos Sosa, director of the House of Culture museum in Vallegrande, the city in which Guevara was buried. "His name frightened some people. But now we see the benefits."
Hoping that the spread of Che enthusiasm will bring more than the current trickle of tourists to Vallegrande, Lagunillas, La Higuera, and other towns in the mountains of central Bolivia, the international humanitarian group CARE has helped coordinate a $600,000 program to improve tourist infrastructure and assist tourist-related businesses.
"Tourism is fundamental to the economic development of this area," said Jaqueline Pena y Lillo, project director for CARE in Bolivia. "These are towns where even a small amount of tourists will make a big difference in the quality of life."
A poster in the office of Pena y Lillo proclaims "La Ruta Che," three words that begin with the letters that spell his name: "Culture. History. Ecotourism."
Next year, in a bid to generate some buzz for The Che Trail, CARE will sponsor a Che Eco-Challenge, Pena y Lillo said. Participants will follow the trail through the jungle and scrub land that Guevara and his guerrillas traversed, fording rivers and scaling mountains.
The same rough terrain helped do in Guevara and his troops. One of his fighters drowned while crossing a river. The heat sapped the malnourished guerrillas' strength; they ended up eating their horses. And the humidity aggravated Guevara's asthma.
When Guevara was alive and marching through these mountains, the local peasants didn't lend him much support. In his famous "Bolivian Diary," Guevara laments not recruiting a single peasant to his rebel army.