Tupiza: Bolivia’s Wild West
Butch and Sundance’s final resting place
Thanks to the 1969 film starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid have become household names across much of Europe and North America. The film, a box office hit when it was released, raised the profile of these outlaws to equal those of bandits such as Bonnie and Clyde and Jesse James. Although Bolivia comes up again and again in the film, and the majority of the second half is set in the country, few people seem to be aware that the last years of the infamous duo’s careers were spent in South America. Tourists passing through Southern Bolivia can pick up the trail, which includes the scene of duo’s last robbery and the town of San Vicente where they are thought to have died, starting from Tupiza.
The pair travelled to Tupiza in August 1908, looking to do one last heist in order to fund their lives as respectable ranchers. This is the point in the story where tourists can pick up the trail. Butch wrote in a letter to his family that he had found “just the place [he had] been looking for twenty years,” and stated his determination to settle down on the affordable and fertile Bolivian land. The intention when arriving in Tupiza, home of the Aramayo and Francke mining companies, was to rob the local bank, possibly to fund their intended retirement. Having befriended and set up camp with British engineer A.G. Francis, they made frequent scouting missions into Tupiza to case the bank
The plan to hit the bank was eventually cancelled, due to the arrival of a regiment of Bolivian cavalry in the same street. After this blow, Butch and Sundance turned their attention to mining payrolls, targeting particularly the Aramayo Company. And so it transpired, early one November morning, that a payroll bound for the Quechisla mine three days North of Tupiza, carried by several mules and a peon, under the watchful eye of Carlos Pero and his son, started its journey. As they left the town they didn’t know that they were being followed by our two heroes, in turn unaware that this would be their final heist.
Dead Cow Hill
Having followed the party for the first day, the morning of the second found the outlaws out in front, checking the progress of their targets through binoculars as they mounted Huaca Huañusca (Dead Cow Hill). As they rounded the foot of the hill, Pero and his son found their way blocked by two men in matching dark red corduroy suits, their faces covered by bandanas and their hats pulled down so that only their eyes were visible. These bandits politely relieved Pero, at gunpoint, of 90,000 pesos and the mule that was carrying it.
Whilst Pero’s party spread the alarm, Butch and Sundance went back to Francis’ ranch to lie low. Meanwhile, the use of telephone meant that Pero was able to mobilise help quickly, and as such military patrols, and angry miners set out to look for the “banditos yanquis” who had stolen their pay checks; border crossings were closed and the entrances to many towns were guarded. On hearing that a posse was riding their way, Butch, Sundance, and a reluctant Francis fled north, probably heading for Oruro, where they would have been inconspicuous amongst the many foreigners.
A relieved Francis was at last allowed to go home, once he had pointed the outlaws in the right direction for San Vicente, a mining village on the road to Uyuni. It is here that they were betrayed by the Chief Administrative Officer of the town, who had been on the look out for two men matching their descriptions, and alerted a 4-man military posse from Uyuni to their presence.
It was the middle of the night when Cleto Bellot went to inform the soldiers of whom he had just set up in one of his rooms, nevertheless three soldiers immediately loaded their rifles and silently approached the house.
Two American Boys
It is here that the eventful lives of these two outlaws were to come to an end. So how did these two American boys from Utah and Pennsylvania, whose real names were Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, end up here? Parker, brought up a Mormon in Utah, drew inspiration for his moniker from a young cowboy he admired called Mike Cassidy and from his brief tenure as a butcher. Longabaugh, a Baptist from Pennsylvania who moved west at the age of 15, took his name from the 18 months he spent in prison for the theft of a horse in Sundance, Wyoming.
The leaders of a gang known by names such as The Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, The Robbers Roost Gang, the Train Robbers’ Syndicate and the Wild Bunch, Butch and Sundance were forced to flee America in 1901 after their numerous robberies of banks, trains and mine payrolls in the Rocky Mountain West attracted the attention of the newly-founded Pinkerton National Detective Agency, a forerunner to the CIA. Up until that point the gang had proved particularly elusive, partly due to their mountain fortress in Wyoming, to which they retreated after every job, the location of which remains a mystery to historians. As in the film the Pinkertons sent their best men to capture the gang, including legendary lawman Joe Lefors.
The posse sent by the Pinkertons struck after the gang held up the Great Northern Express in Montana, closing off their escape route and forcing them to flee into unfamiliar territory. At Fort Worth many of the gang were killed fighting, and others surrendered. Butch, Sundance and Ethel Place, Sundance’s companion, managed to escape across the border, from where they headed south. With a $1, 000 reward on their heads Butch, Sundance, and Ethel left the Wild West for South America. Unlike in the film, where they go straight to Bolivia, the threesome travelled first to Argentina.
Ironically most of the time the outlaws spent in South America, in Argentina, Chile, and finally Bolivia, was characterised by attempts to live law-abiding lives. In Argentina they lived peacefully on a ranch trading and socialising with other immigrants, even entertaining the Territorial Governor when he passed through their valley. Where the pair failed at living a peaceful life, they were rather more successful at bank heists and robberies, and were eventually forced to flee across the border into Chile when one of their robberies brought closer attention from the still-pursuing Pinkertons and the Argentinean authorities.
Hardly anything is known about Butch and Sundance’s time in Chile, except that it was probably characterised by a return to their old “Wild Bunch” ways. After paying a couple of flying return visits to Argentina, strictly on business, the pair found themselves in the Bolivian Andes. It must have tickled them to find that their duties at The Concordia Tin Mine would include guarding pay rolls. As it turned out, this was the last attempt at a law-abiding life. According to the records they were model employees, and their manager Percy Seibert, who knew full well that they were outlaws, often entertained them at his house. However after they were forced to quit their jobs, a drunken Sundance having boasted publicly about their criminal exploits, they were blamed for the majority of robberies which had taken place in the area during their tenure.
This brings us back to Southern Bolivia, via Tupiza and the Huaca Huañusca robbery, to San Vicente where three soldiers are approaching the house where Butch and Sundance are staying. The final scene of the film has become part of Hollywood history; the two heroes reloading their six-shooters and dashing headlong out into a plaza surrounded by Bolivian soldiers. The reality is that Butch and Sundance did not perish in a “blaze of glory”; the real nature of their death, although not as heroic, fits perfectly into the nature of the story and the nature of the relationship between the two men. After Butch had shot the first soldier who approached his room, the others retreated and a furious gunfight ensued, only finishing with the silence that followed three screams of desperation emanating from the outlaws room. When the dust had settled the soldiers approached the room, finding the bodies of Butch and Sundance; Butch had put his friend out of his misery before turning the gun on himself.
All tourists wishing to do any part of the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid trail will, at some point, have to pass through Tupiza. In this town, where all the hotels and hostels show the film every evening on request, one can book made to measure tours from innumerable travel agencies, all offering very similar packages.
Historically Tupiza was economically dependent on mining operations in the surrounding area, and was home to Aramayo, one of the wealthiest mining barons in all of Bolivia. More recently, the wealth which attracted Butch and Sundance to Tupiza in the first place has started to decline with the falling metal prices. Exhausted mineral deposits, and metal prices which are too low to make mining worthwhile, mean that Tupiza must look in other directions to support its economy.
With over 50% of the population being under the age of 20, Tupiza has the feel of an over the top University town; the central Plaza is full of young people, and seeing someone over the age of 40 is rare. The real attraction of the area is the surrounding landscape, and it is unlikely that any tourists would wish to spend a significant amount of time in the town itself. Options for eating are limited if you don’t fancy fried chicken, although the pizzeria Tu Pizza is worth looking into, if only to congratulate them on the pun, and California is a safe, if fridge-like, place to fill up on hearty American-style food.
Getting into the deserts and badlands surrounding the town could not be simpler; the only question is where to go and how to get there. It is possible to do tours from Tupiza and not even touch on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; doing tours on bike, jeep or horseback to other areas can be just as much fun, and in many cases are even more scenic. However if it is the thought of following the famous outlaws which really gets your blood pumping, the choice of destinations is between San Vicente and Huaca Huañusca.
By far the more popular of the two options is the tour to Huaca Huañusca. A four-day roundtrip on horseback, and an easy daytrip in jeep, this route takes you to the site of the pair’s last robbery. On this scenic tour, best enjoyed on horse or on bicycle, a guide will lead you through cactus studded hills and tiny pueblitos, past fascinating rock formations, and along dusty highways to the scene of the crime.
Although the scenery may have been what you originally came to see, the horse riding aspect of the trip may well turn out to be the one which really lives long in the memory. There are moments when you kick your horse into a gallop just so, or holler with just the right intonation, and you know that were it a hundred years earlier, and were you not wearing trainers and a sweatshirt, you would have looked just like Butch or Sundance. This is the real joy of the tour, and the reason that those with an active imagination will enjoy these expeditions much more than those who can only enjoy what they see before them; the ability to imagine Butch and Sundance rounding the next corner makes this special, enjoying the simple fact that this is the route the outlaws took, this is the scenery they saw.
On the horse tour nights are spent in the hamlet of Salo, in the hotel where Butch and Sundance are said to have stayed on their way through. One senses this might be wishful thinking, and even if they really did stay here the hotel has changed a lot since then. What probably hasn’t changed is the one street nature of the settlement, there is no electricity, only one place which could loosely be termed a restaurant, and nothing goes on after dark. At the same time a night or two spent here can only add to the adventure, leaves you perfectly placed for the robbery site, and although bitingly cold during the night offers an incredible star-studded night sky.
The robbery site itself is an easy half hour drive from Salo. Located on “Dead Cow Hill”, so named either for its resemblance to the said animal or for the number of cows that fall off it every grazing season, the exact point is a straightforward downhill walk about 30 minutes from the main road. As the guide does not lead the way and only describes what you are looking for in fairly vague terms there can be some confusion as to which two rocks you are looking for on a hillside covered in them. The best guideline is that when you do come to the right place, it makes perfect sense. Picturesque and quiet, Butch and Sundance picked a perfect place for the hold-up, allowing themselves an untroubled escape, and ensuring Pero and his son a difficult walk for help. A short walk back to the jeep or the horses, and you’ll be starting the journey back to Tupiza.
A rather different kettle of fish to Huaca Huañusca, San Vicente is too far to ride to on horseback, and is only reachable by jeep. After a tough 5 hour journey on roads of varying quality, through scenery which ranges from the epic, providing an appropriate and stimulating setting for the nature of the bandit’s adventures, to the desolate, which after 3 hours can become frankly quite boring.
It is hard to imagine a place more miserable in which to die than San Vicente. Constantly plagued by a breeze which chills to the bone, this tiny mining town with little more than 500 inhabitants is an almost textbook definition of grim. In contrast to Huaca Huañusca, where Butch and Sundance are to be congratulated for their choice of location, San Vicente is not quite so picturesque. What stands today is mainly San Vicente Nuevo, although parts of San Vicente Viejo still stand. As such only a small part of the town is the same as it would have been when the two outlaws died, although as this still standing part includes the main plaza, the famous sign proclaiming “Here Death’s Butch Kasidy and Sundance the Kid [sic]”, and the house in which they died, this won’t affect the visit that much. Also part of the visit is the cemetery, which many agencies claim to be the final resting place of the two men. The truth is that no one really knows where they are buried, and the grave they were thought to inhabit actually belonged to a German prospector.
This tour is certainly one for serious fans of the film. Anyone with just a passing interest in the film will probably fail to see the fun in enduring an 8-10 hour round trip to in order to spend a maximum of 20 minutes in the town. All the same, those with a real interest and an imagination which can make a lot out of a little will enjoy this, more in terms of the concept of what you are seeing rather than what is actually in front of your eyes.
Whether a fan of the film or not, indeed whether you have even seen the film or not, Tupiza and the surrounding area is sure to offer something to interest any tourist. Those who love the drama of the Wild West and the outlaw culture will thrive in this landscape, and those with any kind of imagination will constantly find things to stimulate it.
Direct buses to Tupiza leave from
La Paz, Potosí and Uyun