Thursday, 31 March 2011

Tupiza, Bolivia - Back on the trail of Butch and Sundance

Those of you that pay any attention whatsoever to this blog will recall that back in December in Argentina I cycled south from Bariloche in the footsteps of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Cholila, to see Butch Cassidy´s cabin that still stands there and the ranch that the pair bought in 1905. You can read that blog again by clicking here. Back then, I wondered if I would pick up their trail again in Bolivia. Well, here I am in Tupiza, heart of Butch and Sundance country.

I thought that cycling on the Altiplano would be flat but I was wrong - the ride to Tupiza from the Argentine border was a roller-coaster over high mountains and through tight rocky passes that opened out onto broad, fertile valleys. I imagined Butch and Sundance riding their horses through here - it wasn´t difficult to picture the scene as not much has changed in the intervening years. The villages I cycled through were comprised of simple adobe houses overlooked by whitewashed churches and surrounded by small plots, tilled, planted and harvested in traditional ways. The people here have little material wealth but they could afford the time to slow their vehicle on the road beside me to welcome me to Bolivia and wish me a good trip, or to pause from their work to shout or wave a greeting as I cycled by, or to flag me down when I was hot and weary to give me a bunch of juicy grapes.

Tupiza is an attractive wee town, set in a natural amphitheatre on the banks of the Rio Tupiza and surrounded by mountains of red rock. When I pulled into town I was pretty exhausted but there was no chance to catch up on sleep next morning - each day at 5am the cathedral bells ring, a loud tannoy announcement welcomes the "brothers and sisters" to a new day and the little performance is rounded off with a rendition of Ave Maria! Tupiza is a vibrant and colourful place, especially at the central market where I like going shopping for groceries. Indian women in their colourful skirts and odd little bowler hats sell everything from fruit to fancy goods.

A hundred years ago, Tupiza was an important mining centre and perhaps that´s what attracted Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. After they fled their ranch at Cholila, they worked their way north through Chile and took jobs at a Concordia tin mine where, ironically, Butch worked as payroll guard. They eventually ended up in Tupiza where the Aramayo Mining Company attracted their attention.

On a hot afternoon, when a gentle breeze rustled the autumn-tinted leaves of the poplars, I walked across the bridge over the sluggish waters of the Rio Tupiza to Aramayo House. Today the abandonned building is locked away behind a tall concrete wall but in the days of our two outlaws it was the wealthy home of the Aramayo family. It was from here on 3rd November 1908 that an Aramayo Mining Company manager set out with a payroll consignment. The next day, at Dead Cow Hill 30 miles north of Tupiza, he was held up by Butch and Sundance in what was to be their last ever robbery. News of the robbery travelled fast and the powerful Aramayo Company despatched soldiers and trackers. Butch and Sundance spent two days and nights zigzagging across the Altiplano to evade them. They eventually came to San Vicente, a tiny mining village, where they took a room for the night. But they were out of luck - a four-man posse of the Bolivian Army, also staying at San Vicente, was alerted to the presence of the Americans. A gunbattle ensued and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were shot and killed on 6th November 1908. They were buried the same day in the local cemetery.

I took a trip out to San Vicente. It lies 75 miles west of Tupiza at almost 15,000 feet along a rough track that crosses remote, rugged terrain and high mountain passes. The only way to get there was by jeep and fortunately a Canadain chap, who also wanted to make the trip, turned up in Tupiza and we shared the cost. It was an incredible journey, at times a little scary when the track was a narrow ledge gouged out of the mountainside. It passed above one of Bolivia´s most famous sights - Al Sillar, a spectacular formation of rocks moulded by the weathering effects of wind and rain - before climbing high onto the Altiplano where the view stretched to distant snow-capped volcanoes and across green plains grazed by huge herds of llamas. It took three hours to cross this spectacular landscape to San Vicente.

In the days of Butch and Sundance, San Vicente was a grim mining community on a barren windswept plateau. Today, San Vicente is a grim mining community on a barren windswept plateau. The mine is now privately-owned by American and Canadian companies and is surrounded by tight security - just to get into the village I had to handover my passport! The site of the gunbattle no longer exists but the small museum was unlocked for us and inside were guns retrieved from the shoot-out and other fascinating bits and pieces from the time. But what I really wanted to see was on the hillside above the village - the tiny walled cemetery where the two outlaws are buried. I walked up the hill, catching my breath a little in the thin air, opened the iron gates and picked my way through a tight jumble of graves adorned with plastic flowers, fluttering in the breeze. In the middle, looking out over the mountains, was the last resting place of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I felt a little emotional standing by the grave. I think that partly it was the culmination of my long journey here from Cholila and partly a similar experience to that at the cabin at Cholila - here was another very special piece of history in this remote little cemetery with the beauty and the power of the mountains all around. I lingered a while, took some photos, then wandered back down the hill, closing the gates behind me.

When Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid first arrived in Bolivia, they were quoted as saying it was a perfect country for them to settle down in. Little did they know that they would spend eternity here in that windswept cemetery that looks out over the mountains.

Photos on my Flickr page.

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