for National Geographic News
Before he became the Marxist revolutionary icon known as "El Che," Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was an Argentine medical student tired of school and itching to see the world.
So on January 4, 1952, the 23-year-old Guevara and his friend Alberto Granada jumped on an old motorcycle and embarked on an eight-month journey across South America.
The trek is chronicled in the new movie The Motorcycle Diaries, which is now playing in theaters across the United States. Directed by Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles, the movie has received great critical acclaim.
The trip may have begun as a lark, filled with audacious pranks. But, as the film shows, the two men encounter increasing poverty and injustice on their trek across the continent. Historians and biographers now agree that the experience had a profound impact on Guevara, who would later become one of the most famous guerilla leaders ever.
"His political and social awakening has very much to do with this face-to-face contact with poverty, exploitation, illness, and suffering," said Carlos M. Vilas, a history professor at the Universidad Nacional de Lanús in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Guevera was born in 1928 and grew up in an upper-middle-class family in Buenos Aires, though his parents defied many of the social conventions of their class at the time.
"Although the household was not infused with radical political sentiment, a tone of defiant independence seemed to reign," said Marshall Beck, editor at the North American Congress on Latin America, a nonprofit organization based in New York.
Guevera did not distinguish himself in medical school. His grades were far from remarkable. He showed little interest in politics, staying away from the left-wing groups on campus.
He always wanted to travel. In 1949 he had embarked on a solo bicycle tour of Argentina. When Alberto Granada, a family friend who was working in a leprosy hospital in Argentina's Córdoba Province, asked Guevara if he wanted to travel with him by motorcycle to North America, the young Guevara immediately said yes, even if it meant postponing his medical exams.
On January 4, 1952, the pair left on La Poderosa II ("The Mighty One"), Granada's 1939 500cc Norton motorcycle. They almost crashed into a streetcar immediately after taking off from an endless farewell at the Granadas' home in Córdoba.
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