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Bolivia – The Last Trail of Butch and Sundance

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Text by David A. Adams
Photography by David A. Adams

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Bolivia is one of only two landlocked countries in South America – and indeed, is so isolated that it has often been dubbed the ‘Tibet of the Americas’, thanks to its Andean Cordillera. Small wonder that it’s commonly regarded as the secret haunt of drug barons, revolutionaries like the late Che Guevara and ex-Nazi war criminals. Its harsh, mountainous terrain is perfect for anyone on the run from the authorities.

Bolivia was famously declared to be non-existent by Queen Victoria who, following a diplomatic incident, sent gun-boats to shell La Paz from the sea and, upon discovering that this was impossible, ordered the entire country to be expunged from British maps. It has set the tone for much of the twentieth Century – Bolivia somehow disappeared from public consciousness and so became the perfect hideout for those on the run.

At the dawn of the last Century, two such men came here seeking refuge. Two men who have since gone down in history as lovable rogues, thanks to a Hollywood movie starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman. Two men who, in reality, were so feared and reviled for their many bank and train robberies, they were legends in their own time – and by the time they reached Bolivia, they had nothing left to lose.

These two gringos banditos were Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Alonzo Longbow, better known as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I came to this country to follow their last trail high into the Andes.

My journey starts in Coroico, a small village at the foot of the Andes, hitching a ride into the mountains. The winding road between Coroico and La Paz, the country’s capital, is called the Yungas Road and is classified by the Inter-American Development Bank as the “most dangerous road in the world” – not the best of odds with which to start a long journey to the ends of the earth.

But an old Dodge truck ambles past and the driver kindly offers to take me to La Paz. I hop on board, and we’re off.

The countryside, as we snake through it, backbones shuddering and nerves jangling, is awesome. We’re at an altitude of about 6000 ft and climbing, and the Dodge has seen better days – the starter is a jumble of wires hanging out of the dashboard. I look the other way, pretending I didn’t just see my life flash past… But in this terrain – merciless and inhospitable – it is easy to see why bandits over the ages chose Bolivia as their bolthole.

All along the length of this road there are shrines and crosses marking the deaths of unfortunate travellers. On average one vehicle goes over the edge every fortnight, the most notable in 1983 when more than 100 people on board a grossly overloaded camion were killed. Retrieving the bodies of victims is nigh-on impossible, sometimes with members of rescue teams succumbing to the same fate as those whom they’ve come to bury.

After six hours of driving past sickening drops and soaring peaks, we reach the Yungas Pass at an altitude of 16,000 feet – the doorway to one of the most remote deserts on earth. Soon we’ll be on the Altiplano, a plateau high up in the Andes covered by a series of lakes including Titicaca, and then on to La Paz, which, at an altitude of four kilometres, is the highest capital in the world.

La Paz dates from the 16th Century and you can still see signs of its colonial Spanish splendour. It was first founded by the Spanish in 1548, and is a bizarre, surprising place. Originally the centre for alluvial gold prospecting, the city was built on wealth. But when the gold was gone, the city stayed, its population growing steadily bigger – and poorer: today more than a million Bolivians live here, the majority in shanty towns high above the wealthy suburbs.

Which may partly explain why La Paz, and particularly the Presidential palace, has seen more coups d’etats than any other city in the world. An astonishing 190 revolutions were launched here.

Its many bustling markets include a witchcraft market where you can buy everything you need for curses, charms and spells, and a bit further on is a literal black market: if you’re looking for cheap antiques, satellite dishes, computers or weapons, the Mercado Negro is the place to be. Any outlaw worth his salt would feel right at home here.

But I’m here because Butch and Sundance often spent their hold-up ‘earnings’ here, especially at a favourite haunt of theirs: the Paris Hotel. Butch and Sundance weren’t just ordinary outlaws; they were celebrities back home in the US where their exploits often appeared in the big city newspapers. The price on their heads reached $20,000 – a fortune, and a direct reflection of their infamy.

Most famous for holding up banks, coaches and trains, the papers called them “The Train Robbers Syndicate”, “The Hole in the Wall Gang” and “The Wild Bunch.” Over ten years they allegedly got away with a total of $2.5 million in today’s currency. When Sundance posed with his girlfriend Etta for a portrait in New York, the same picture ended up in the papers and every wanted poster across the US – Butch and Sundance had to run, and they came here to hide and to spend their ill-gotten gains.

When I step into the Paris Hotel, I almost expect to hear saloon music, the clinking of glasses filled with gulpin’ whisky and the raucous laughter of frilly-bloomered girls. One look around however, and it’s clear the Paris Hotel is a bit more up-market than your average Spaghetti Western bar. Butch and Sundance loved expensive restaurants and here they could spend their cash on fine wine and women.

I’m here to meet the man who will help me track the bandits’ trail: Moshee, a serving Bolivian cavalry officer – the same guys who eventually ran Butch and Sundance to ground, so who better to help me retrace their last days.

The next day we ride out onto the Altiplano on horseback, and I have to admit I feel very much like a proper gringo bandito. Instead of a ten gallon hat, I’m wearing an Australian Akubra, but who’s quibbling. I’m also about to find out that train robbery is nowhere near as easy as it looks in the movies.

Our route first takes us south towards the mining town of Oruro, where the two Americans based themselves for raids on the mining camps and railways. In its boom days rich silver mines and Butch surrounded Oruro and Sundance worked here – believe it or not – as payroll guards. Easy takings, you might think, but as they told their American boss, they never robbed the people they worked for. The local banks and trains, on the other hand, were fair game. Whenever the two took a short vacation, the number of robberies sky-rocketed…

From the high terrain above Oruro, they would have had a great overview of the plains below – they could see anyone coming, and watch the trains chuff across the Altiplano. To recapture the whole train-robbing experience, I decide to attempt a hold-up and see what it’s like for myself. It’s harder than it looks – kids, don’t try this at home…

I gallop furiously out onto the plains, trying looking the part, to catch up with the old steam train before it pulls into Oruro. So far so good. Now for the difficult bit – jumping from a moving horse onto a moving train… But after several tries, during which I lose my hat, almost lose my horse and would probably have managed to shoot myself if I’d had a gun, I have to give up. God only knows how Butch and Sundance did it, and, if I could have found my hat just then, I would have taken it off to them.

Which leaves Plan B: sit under a bridge, wait for the train to come to you and hop up on to the roof. Why didn’t I think of that before… Mind you, now I’m perched on the slippery roof of a steam train, much like a James Bond villain, while the payroll is up at the front of the train. After some crawling on all fours I finally reach the driver’s cabin and, elated that I’ve got this far (and still alive), ask him politely if he could stop the train.

And it’s then that I realise the fatal flaw in the plan: getting off the train, cash in hand, without getting caught by the cavalry who are already appearing on the horizon in the shape of Moshee. Butch Cassidy was better at this sort of thing – normally he made sure there was at least a week’s distance between him and whoever was chasing him. I head back to Oruro, grimy and dusty, but grinning like a little boy.

The old post office of Oruro was Butch and Sundance’s last mailing address and from the letters intercepted here we can tell a great deal about the two bandits’ characters. One letter from Butch – more garrulous than his partner who was reputed to be taciturn and bad-tempered – to his brother Dan, who had also just robbed a pay roll, is quite revealing:

“My dear brother, you must forgive me for not writing before, I was very sorry to hear you’re in hiding again. You know I’m not one to point the finger, only be careful. I always feel homesick when I think how long it is since I saw mother. When you get this you must tell me the news and the prospects of a safe reunion.”

The reunion never came. Shortly after writing that letter, Butch disappeared forever.

In a small town like Oruro – or even a city like La Paz – two gringos or white men would eventually become conspicuous. Especially if they spent as much money as Butch and Sundance did. After living it up in Oruro, they were forced to flee southwards. Moshee and I follow the trail – a century late, but moving fast.

We’re heading for the mining town of Potosi, which, with an altitude of 15,000 feet, is the highest town on earth. It’s also been described as “hell on earth”. True to its name, this is where the devil lives.

The Spanish first mined silver here in 1545, making Potosi the richest town in South America. In fact, the Spaniards used to boast that enough silver was mined to construct a silver bridge across the Atlantic all the way to Spain and another from the bones of the eight million who died digging it out.

Because for the miners it was purgatory – deep underground, they lived and worked like slaves and conditions haven’t improved much with time. The narrow mud-filled shafts leading underground are stifling, with temperatures reaching 45 degrees Centigrade; the air is thick with noxious chemicals and gas; miners still regularly die of pneumonia and silicosis after a mining career of just 10 years, working for 10 hours a day.

Butch and Sundance came here in 1908, hoping to make a big score – but by that time there was a slump in the silver market and besides, they always swore they would not steal from the poor. And how poor this area is: local women still protest violently over the terrible treatment of their men and children in the mines. Children start work here at a very young age. When western kids their age are running around a playground, their Bolivian contemporaries are labouring in a silver mine, their life expectancy cut short.

I meet two such kids: Ernan, who is 10, and his big brother Paolo, who is 15. They work six days a week, each day being a twelve-hour shift, their wages totalling a measly $40 a week. And from that money they also have to buy their own explosives used in the mines – the old-fashioned kind: sticks of dynamite, a fuse and a big bang.

Butch and Sundance would have known their way around a stick of dynamite too, and Ernan and Paolo show me exactly how it’s done. The fuse burns at a rate of a metre a minute, so we have to run when Paolo lights it. They do this three times a day and are so blasé about dynamite now, it’s just fireworks to them.

They tell me about the mine itself and that the devil lives there. I’m not sure if they’re speaking metaphorically or literally, so I go with them to find out for myself. At the mouth of the mine, we experience a bizarre and bloody ritual: a llama is slaughtered to appease Lucifer who lives underground, and Pachamamma, the Earth Goddess. The sacrifice is a kind of supernatural insurance policy, and the llama’s foetus is taken underground for offering.

Once down the mine, I can completely understand the boys’ need for such a ritual: around me is evidence of rock falls, gas explosions and noxious chemicals. I also see stalactites of tin oxide, which means the smell down here is arsenic gas. Small wonder that most boys who work down here don’t live to be older than 30, their short lives snuffed out by pneumonia or lung cancer. And over its entire history, the Potosi mine has claimed the lives of an astonishing eight million people – even if you couldn’t built a bridge across the Atlantic with silver, you certainly could with the bones of those who have died here.

And then we find the devil himself. Eduardo, our guide for the day, explains the legend of Lucifer as we approach what looks like a mummified scarecrow sitting with its back to the wall, surrounded by offerings including cigarettes, alcohol and many coca leaves: “We are here in front of Uncle George. He is the owner of the mining. We give him coca leaf because if Uncle George feels jealous, he will start interfering with miners.” The miners here chew the coca leaves to help them keep going in these conditions.

“Uncle George is more happy when we drink to him, alcohol!” says Eduardo. The alcohol is 96% pure and the miners drink it, put it on their hands and their genitals in honour of Pachamamma. So the devil smokes, drinks and is a cocaine fiend – I look around for any Blues CDs but no…

Instead, the llama foetus is offered to Uncle George, in exchange for leaving the miners alone. Eduardo: “He like to eat llama foetus and also sometimes human foetus.” I look surprised, and he goes on: “The miners do that in secret; we have been doing that since the Inca period.”

I’m relieved to head back up and out of the mine. But Paolo and Ernan will have to go back down tomorrow and every day after that. I feel powerless as I say goodbye.

The next day Moshee and I head south again from Potosi across the vast Uyuni salt lakes towards the frontier town of Tupiza. There are no horses within a hundred miles, so Moshee and I hire llamas to carry our gear. After a couple of miles on the road with these animals, I can see why Butch and Sundance always made sure they were well saddled on a horse – llamas are a nightmare: stubborn, unpredictable and only willing to carry a small load. The drama queens of the beasts of burden.

For most of the time that our gringos banditos were on the run in South America – whether in Argentina or Bolivia – they were dogged tirelessly by the Pinkertons Agency. This was an old-time private detective agency, which would later serve as the model for today’s FBI. But in this landscape, even the Pinkertons would have been hard put to find Butch and Sundance. That is until Sundance, who I’m starting to realise was perhaps not the brightest of lads, started boasting to a couple of gringos that he was the most wanted man in the USA; of course, within a few weeks, the news got back to the Pinkertons. Butch and Sundance were on the run again.

The problem with Uyuni, like most other places in Bolivia, was that two white men were pretty conspicuous here. However, there is one place they could have hidden: La Isla de Pescadores – Fishermen’s Island. The 12,000 km² of Salar de Uyuni make up a vast, dry salt pan whose white brilliance crunches underfoot like virgin snow. Deceptively so: underneath the salt is treacherous volcanic mud into which any stray man or beast will sink without a trace.

The Island, though, has been here for 14,000 years and I’m amazed to discover a relic from a very distant past: sea coral. We’re in a land-locked country at an altitude of 4000 ft and we find coral. It must date from a time when the Andes were still mere hills; when the great tectonic plates were still to collide and thrust this mountain range into the sky. We decide to set up camp here, perhaps like Butch and Sundance did a hundred years ago.

As Moshee and I settle by the crackling fire I ask him what the two bandits mean to Bolivians. “Here they became famous because they were bank robbers who did what they pleased and finally, well, we captured them and finished them off. People here know them to be two outlaws that came to Bolivia to rob; two men who came here to carry out hold-ups.” Not exactly in line with the glamorous image we in the West have of two lovable rogues who died heroically in an ambush…

We make our way further south, now approaching the end of the trail. We’re on horseback again, and near to Tupiza. They rode into this town in 1908 under the aliases of Santiago Maxwell and Enrique Brown. Butch had had enough: he wanted to go straight and set up a ranch in Santa Cruz, but for that they would need to rob one last bank, here in Tupiza. Ironically, the town would represent not their last bank robbery, but their last stand.

Time for the final showdown, and as we ride into Tupiza I can almost hear the mournful tune from Once Upon a Time in the West.

For weeks, Butch and Sundance waited for the right moment to rob the bank – but it never came. By that time, the Bolivian cavalry had set up headquarters nearby. The two bandits had to re-think their strategy because a normal bank robbery would be foiled.

Happily, Butch discovered that the payroll of the town’s richest man, Avelina Aramayo, would soon leave town and that it was worth over half a million Dollars. And a clerk, his son and a servant – no soldiers, no guards, would carry it all. Perfect.

Early on the morning of 3rd November 1908, Carlos Pero and his son Mariano headed out of town with the payroll. At around 9.30 AM two well-dressed and heavily armed men blocked their paths: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But that’s when things went wrong: Carlos was carrying a much smaller payroll than Butch expected – less than $9,000 – making this robbery so close to the cavalry very risky without much pay-off. Within a day every soldier, policeman and miner in South-west Bolivia was on their trail.

And, due to the newly introduced telegraph system, Butch and Sundance’s mugshots were flashed to towns across Bolivia. So when they rode in San Vincente on 6th November, they were instantly recognised. Worse: a small cavalry detachment was already waiting for them.

The troops made their move. A man, thought to be Butch Cassidy, appeared in the doorway of a hut in which he and his partner had taken refuge and fired, killing one of the troopers. So started a violent gunfight, which went on for several hours.

At dawn the next day, the troops sidled up to the hut and found inside two corpses – Sundance had a small calibre bullet wound to the temple and several other gunshot wounds; Butch had arm wounds and a small calibre bullet wound to the temple. It looked as though Butch had put Sundance out of his misery and then shot himself – or had he?

The next day, their bodies were buried in the churchyard although two weeks later their bodies were exhumed for identification. But even though Carlos Pero recognised the clothing of one of the dead men, an official identification never followed. In fact, there have since been several expeditions to the graveyard in search of the remains, but the bones have never been found. So Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid simply disappeared; to this day, a death certificate has never been issued.

As I walk through the graveyard of San Vincente – now a cold, deserted ghost town – I’m struck by how odd a place this is for two American bandits to end up; cold, bleak and decidedly unromantic. Bolivia proved as fatal a hideout for them as it would, decades later, for Che Guevara; although coming here you would think that anyone who didn’t want to be found would be hidden forever in the Bolivian Andes.

As the years passed, a legend grew out of the empty graves – that they’d faked their deaths and escaped; that they had been sighted in the US and Paris; even that Butch worked as an extra on Hollywood westerns.

So ends the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – as does my journey. Perhaps the mystery of what really happened will never be solved, but I am sort of glad at the lack of finality. For some reason, a definitive, uncontested end would not do justice to the grandeur, the romance, of this legend – or of Bolivia itself.