This printed pink travel visa with an attached passport photo of a brooding Ernesto (Che) Guevara was issued on Sept. 9, 1953—after the trip made famous in The Motorcycle Diaries but before he became a Marxist leader. He was a 25-year-old Argentine doctor, restless and radicalized by his experiences on the road in Southern and Central America.
Che had visited Colombia once before. In 1952, a group of lepers that he and his friend, Alberto Granado, had treated in Peru gave them a raft, on which they floated into Colombia flat broke. They made their way to the politically unstable capital city, Bogotá, where they were arrested.
Colombia was in the midst of a 10-year civil war, called La Violencia, sparked—or rekindled—by the 1948 assassination of popular Liberal Party presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Ayala. The Conservative Laureano Gómez won the uncontested 1949 election and ruled until a military coup, led by Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, deposed him in June 1953. Following a short-lived peace, a brutal dictatorship arose.
As Che wrote to his mother at the time, “There is more repression of individual freedom here than in any country we’ve been to, the police patrol the streets carrying rifles and demand your papers every few minutes.” Che and Granado fled to Venezuela and from there back home to Argentina, where Che completed medical school.
His 1953 return to Colombia via Ecuador was unintentional. Colombia stood between him and his intended destination of Venezuela, and as biographer Daniel James points out, he “required visas to pass though it”—no simple undertaking in the volatile country.