Tuesday, 21 December 2010

El Bolson, Argentina - In the footsteps of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

When I cycled out of Buenos Aires what seems like a lifetime ago, the plan was to hit the Andes at Bariloche and turn right for the long haul north. But "the bicycle diaries" in a fit of spontaneity has turned left! I´ve cycled south from Bariloche for three tough days of riding to Cholila, an unassuming little town hidden in the mountains, 20 miles along a dirt road. You´ve probably never heard of Cholila but, unless you just arrived on the last lightbeam from the Planet Zorg, you´ll have heard of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the American outlaws. And it´s in their footsteps that I cycled south.

The excitement started long before Cholila as I left Bariloche on Argentina´s most famous road - the Ruta 40. Imagine a road that begins at the southern tip of a continent and meanders north for over 3100 miles, keeping close company with the mighty Andes and passing through some of Argentina´s most spectacular landscapes before delivering the long-distance traveller to her northern border with Bolivia. This is Ruta 40 and over the years it has acquired legendary status. Recognising its tourism potential, the Argentines have been a little bit naughty and "moved" bits of the original Ruta 40 that were unsurfaced and passed through unappealing terrain onto the surfaced road further west that hugs the mountains more closely and conveniently services the tourist hotspots. However, nothing can detract from its unique character and stunning scenery.

One advantage for me of riding on Ruta 40 is that there are more visitor services - in my case, I´m talking campsites and service stations, as opposed to opulent hotels and fine dining! Another advantage is that I´m meeting the occasional long distance cycle tourer like myself. It´s brilliant to pull off the road for a few minutes and exchange stories or information about the route ahead. South of Bariloche I cycled on Ruta 40 passed beautiful lakes, through vast forests and below snow-streaked peaks to the town of El Bolson. On the way I met a German cycle tourer going in the opposite direction - I was able to give him my Bariloche map and he gave me his El Bolson map!

El Bolson is an attractive, mellow little town of wide streets and single-storey buildings and wherever you look, your eyes are drawn up to the mountains. It has a touch of the wild west about it and perhaps that´s what attracted America´s most famous outlaws! In 1901 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid along with Etta (or Ethel) Place, Sundance´s girlfriend, arrived by boat in Buenos Aires and travelled to El Bolson. On the run from their crimes in the States, they had assumed false identities. They continued south to Cholila and bought a ranch. It was a few miles out of town but still handy for the weekly shop! From 1901 to 1905 they ran this ranch, apparently very successfully, in what appears to have been an attempt to make an honest living. They even acquired local respectability. I´d read that Butch Cassidy´s cabin was still standing and could be visited. With this mission in mind, I continued cycling south on Ruta 40 from El Bolson towards Cholila.

I don´t know what the journey was like for Butch and Sundance but it was hell for me! Much of Argentina´s road network, even today, remains unsurfaced and many significant towns like Cholila can only be accessed by gravel roads. So I had to cycle for nearly 20 miles along an appalling road with a surface like corrugated iron and a top layer of loose gravel and grit that swallowed my wheels. Every now and again a vehicle would pass and I´d be enveloped in its cloud of choking dust, my view ahead obliterated. But it was a spectacular route that crossed big, wide Rocky Mountain scenery. Cycling along here I was just thinking to myself "gosh, aren´t I the adventurous and intrepid traveller, riding my bicycle along a dirt road into remote South American landscapes" when a vehicle passed pulling a caravan and shattered the illusion! The road eventually descended into the beautiful, green valley of the Rio Blanco where the two outlaws ran their ranch. As I rode through the valley, two gauchos on white horses were driving cattle ahead of me - this is still ranching territory and probably some aspects have not changed much in a hundred years. It had been a tough ride and I was mighty relieved to pull into the cluster of buildings that calls itself Cholila and to find a campsite. It was a pretty spot on a farm, just out of town. The owner recommended pitching my tent on the lake shore but I remembered from my map that the lake was called "Lago Mosquito" and plumped instead for a spot in the old orchard!

Next day, armed with some vague information, I set out on foot from Cholila to find Butch´s cabin. I´d not gone far before I was offered a lift, as is often the way in rural Argentina. I was dropped off and pointed in the direction of a rough, hand-painted sign at the start of a grassy track that said simply "Butch Cassidy". The track meandered by the Rio Blanco whose wooded banks were flush with pink and purple lupins, and below the beautifully sculptured mountains of grey rock and scree, still holding patches of spring snow. After a bend in the track a little wooden cabin appeared in a copse of trees - Butch Cassidy´s house! If the cabin had been in Europe, there no doubt would have been the circus of a car park, coaches and a visitor centre. But there was nothing and you could hear the wind rustling the trees, the gentle gurgle of the river nearby and the whinnying of horses in the field. And the cabin sat quietly, looking out over the mountains, much as it had always done. What a fabulous little piece of history! And how wonderful it was to push open the cabin door and sit inside, imagining the scene over a hundred years ago - Butch and Sundance riding along the track or chewing the fat on a warm evening as the sun sank behind the mountains.

They may have had a lot to chew over because the Pinkerton Agency were eventually on their trail and landed in Buenos Aires. Butch and Sundance somehow got wind of this and quickly sold the ranch in 1905. They fled north through Bariloche, probably picking up some artisan chocolate on the way, and crossed into Chile. The details of their lives in the intervening years are vague but on 4 November 1908 they undertook a payroll robbery near Salo in Bolivia. Two days later they were shot at San Vicente by a Bolivian military patrol.

Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I´m now heading north, back through Bariloche and across the Andes into Chile. I may even catch up with them again in Bolivia!

There are more photos in the Argentina folder on my Flickr site.

Click on map to enlarge.


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