Following the Trail of Butch Cassidy
and the Sundance Kid in Bolivia
By David Atkinson
Contest Winner 1st Q 2005
The story of Butch Cassidy and his sidekick, The Sundance Kid, is one of the great tales of the American Wild West.
The tale was adapted for
the 1969 film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, starring Paul Newman
and Robert Redford, which turned the tale of the Wild Bunch outlaws who
fled to South America with US$1,000 rewards on their heads into the
stuff of Hollywood legend.
Today, a scrappy unmarked grave in a remote Bolivian pueblo offers
little hint to the romantic notions of the bandit’s escapades.
the legend of Butch and Sundance is a highly confused one: most people
don’t even realize that the pair were even real people, while the rumor
mill has for years fueled conspiracy theories about their eventual
While officially the pair met their end in Bolivia , conflicting reports
suggest Butch was stabbed in the slums of Paris, whacked after a bank
raid in Uruguay and ate lead in a New Mexico brothel. Sundance
reportedly met his maker numerous times between 1920 and 1940 in
Venezuela, Chile and Argentina.
Life of Crime
So, here are the facts: Butch and Sundance fled to South America in
1901 to evade pursuit from the Pinkerton Detective Agency (later to
become the FBI), following a string of bank raids on the Union Pacific
railroad. They spent several years working as law-abiding cattle
ranchers in Patagonia before returning to a life of crime in Bolivia.
Letters written by Butch from the time suggest the pair were looking
for one last job before retiring and buying a cattle range near the
frontier town of Santa Cruz in tropical southeastern Bolivia.
The last ever job turned out to be a strike on the payroll of the
Aramayo mining company near the southern Bolivian town of Tupiza.
Afterwards the pair headed for San Vicente, turning up on the night of
November 6, 1908, seeking shelter. It was here that locals betrayed
their identity to the authorities, leading to the shoot out as
immortalized in the film.
With next year marking the 100th anniversary of Butch and Sundance’s
arrival in Bolivia and a fledgling backpacker trail already carving out
a route in their footsteps, interest in the legend of Butch and
Sundance is fuelling a new boom in Butch Cassidy tours.
“Bolivia's Tupiza region is as captivating today to backpackers as it
was to Butch and Sundance a century ago, while the story of Butch and
Sundance's misadventures in the Tupiza region is attracting increasing
numbers of tourists, history buffs, and trekkers,” says historian Ann
Meadows, co-author of Digging Up Butch and Sundance, the definitive
book about the Butch and Sundance story.
But the truth behind the legend is harder to find. Stories still
circulate that the bodies buried in the San Vicente cemetery are not
those of Butch and Sundance; a 1991 exhumation of the corpses failed to
provide conclusive evidence. There was only one thing for it: to set
out in the footsteps of Butch and Sundance to capture the spirit of the
Wild West at Bolivia ’s new tourism frontier.
Ticket to Ride
From the first-class compartment of the Expreso del Sur train from
Oruro to Tupiza, the flat-plains scenery is frosted in a caramel
coating of afternoon sun. While a waiter in a wonky black tie brings
coffee, the TV screen in the corner serves up 80’s time-warp videos:
Hall & Oates, The Eagles and -- in their first public outing since
American Psycho-- Huey Lewis and the News. Darkness falls across the
scrubland and I head for the restaurant car.
These days you’re more likely to encounter a couple of Danish
backpackers than a gang of freewheeling pistoleros with a penchant for
hard liquor, loose women and fast talk. Indeed, with its bright yellow
place settings and fluorescent lighting, the restaurant car doesn’t
feel like a place to encounter fugitives on the run. Still, keen to
emulate the movements of Butch and Sundance, I order a large
Argentinean steak, a beer and a shot of liquor.
Several hours later, as we roll into Uyuni, gateway to Bolivia’s
greatest natural wonder, the vast flatness of Salar de Uyuni, I’ve lost heavily at cards
to a man called Don Juan. I was secretly hoping he’d be wanted on four
continents for hustling, rustling or, at the very least, grand larceny.
He’s a travel agent.
The next day in the erstwhile mining settlement of Tupiza, I start to
feel the trail is getting warmer, however. The colonial town square,
overshadowed by the bleached-white façade of the cathedral, looks
unchanged since the days in 1908 that Butch and Sundance spent casing
the local bank. The bank is still standing today while a Wild
West-style cantina across the square serves up steaks behind saloon
doors on tables crafted from cactus.
Stick 'em Up!
It was while laying low in Tupiza that Butch learned of a payroll to be
transported by mule for workers of the Aramayo mine near Huaca Huañusca
(Dead Cow Hill), 50km northeast of Tupiza. Today, a gravel road leads
out of Tupiza past the rocky outcrop of La Poronga overlooking an
expanse of scrubland dotted with cacti. It’s a raw and unforgiving
|Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid
countryside with the occasional adobe house the only vital signs in the
A short ride from Tupiza is Salo, a rural community of 200 people
located 22km from Tupiza. Butch and Sundance pitched up here seeking a
bed in a local posada the night before the robbery. From Salo the road
climbs sharply to Huaca Huañusca, where we dismount to trek through the
valley where the actual assault took place just after 9.30am on
November 3, 1908 . From here the pair set off at a canter, reportedly
heading for “Uyuni and the north”.
“A horse only covers 30km a day, so I don’t see why they were headed
north,” says my guide Alejandro Quispe Alfaro, as we clamber over
rocks, cacti stretching to the horizon. “From here it’s a 15-day ride
to Chile over high-altitude and rough terrain with no food for the
horses and nowhere to stay. It’s a mystery, but I guess that’s half the
A Private Collection
Back at Tupiza’s Hotel Mitru that night, the first leg of the trail has
left me with more questions than answers. If Butch and Sundance were
planning to buy a ranch in Santa Cruz, why were they headed north to
Uyuni and Oruro ? And did they really go out in a blaze of bullets and
glory as the film suggests, or did they take their own lives rather
than face capture?
In search of clues, I head across town to the house where local lawyer
and Butch Cassidy expert Felix Charlar Miranda lives. Felix has devoted
his life to scouring the local library, the archives of the Aramayo
mining company and the attics of local people to collect Butch and
Sundance memorabilia. Today he has a small but intriguing private
collection in his garage, ranging from black and white photos to
"I don’t believe the story about them committing suicide,” he says,
producing a file of documents and letters dating from 1908. “They made
off with 15,300 Bolivianos (around US$1,900 at current exchange rates)
from the Aramayo mining company, but the bodies were reported to have
hardly any money on them. Plus Butch and Sundance used Colt 45s -- that
would blow someone’s head clean off. But when the bodies were exhumed
for identification, they were positively identified by their faces.”
“I believe a posse killed them, took the money and made it look like
suicide to avoid retribution,” he adds.
End of the Line
San Vicente is a jarring three to four-hour jeep ride along a rough
road heading 200north to the town of Uyuni , where some of the Union
Pacific trains Butch and Sundance robbed lay rusting in a eerie train
cemetery just outside of town. En route, the odd llama caravan and
occasional zinc mine are the only distraction to the wild, unyielding
A less hospitable place is hard to conceive of. At 4,500m above sea
level and swept by fierce winds, the 700-person strong settlement of
San Vicente feels like the end of road. San Pedro de Atacama, the
frontier with Chile , lies 350km south across rough terrain. The
village, home today to the Pan American Silver Mine, remains isolated
from civilization, lost and forgotten amid the Cordillera Occidental
mountain range. The only nod to the legacy of San Vicente’s most famous
stiffs is a weather-beaten sign at the entrance to town. It reads:“Here death’s Butch Kassidy (sic) and Sundance Kid”.
At sundown on November 6, 1908 , Butch and Sundance rode into town on a
couple of mules and asked for shelter. Cleto Bellot, the local
administrative officer, advised them there was no lodging, but locals
could put them up in an outhouse and sell them provisions. Fortified by
a last meal of beer and sardines, they tended to their animals and
bedded down for the night, unaware that Bellot had taken his leave to
make contact with a four-man posse from Uyuni, led by Captain Justo P.
Concha, that was on their trail.
The details of what happens next are sketchy but by daylight on
November 7th, it seems likely that Butch and Sundance lay dead. The
trail runs cold at San Vicente’s wind-swept cemetery. The outhouse
where they stayed is now a deserted adobe shack filled with llama dung.
And there’s no Jim Morrison-style tomb with homage-rendering graffiti.
In fact, there’s no tomb at all. In 1991 a team of forensic scientists
from the United States exhumed the grave where the fallen bandits were
supposed to have been buried. DNA tests eventually found the body was
that of Gustave Zimmer, a German engineer, who worked at local mines at
a similar time to Wild Butch’s robbing spree.
After William A Pinkerton heard of the San Vicente shoot out, he
dismissed “the whole story as a fake”. The Pinkerton Detective Agency,
fueled by alleged sightings across Latin America , never officially
called off its hunt for Butch and Sundance.
The question that now remains is how to preserve the legacy of Butch
and Sundance. What San Vicente desperately needs is international
funding from a NGO to develop a legitimate tourist infrastructure. Even
today, this isolated pueblo of 300 people has no clean running water,
one public telephone for the whole community and relies on deliveries
of fresh fruit and vegetables by truck from Tupiza four hours away.
"I’m sure the gringos are buried in Cementerio General San Vicente – we
just don’t where. I talked to old people who remember the legend well
and they’re sure,” says Eduardo Donairi Coria, a miner who now lives in
"We would welcome tourism to San Vicente as a means to improve the
standard of living in the pueblo, but first we need a proper museum,
signposts and a place for visitors to stay,” he adds, looking out
across a desolate landscape.
There’s no official registration of tourists in San Vicente, so it’s
impossible to gauge the scale of arrivals, but the rise of the Butch
trail offers a lifeline for people of the desperate pueblo where they
(probably) met their end
As we shake hands to say goodbye, Eduardo looks thoughtful. “The fact
there are no definite conclusions is probably what fascinates people,”
he says. “Tourists come here expecting to find the Holy Grail, but all
they find is a huge question mark."
Digging Up Butch and Sundance, third edition (Bison Books: Lincoln,
2003) by Daniel Buck & Anne Meadows is still in print and can be
ordered via amazon.com for about $15.
The authors also run a huge Butch and Sundance web resource at:
Tupiza Tours in Tupiza’s hotel Mitru (00 591 2 694 3003; tupizatours.com) run dedicated Butch and Sundance tours by jeep and horseback; prices start from $100 per person for a two-day trip,
including transport and picnic lunches, based on a group of two people.
They also screen the 1969 film most nights at 8pm , plus have a raft of
documentaries on DVD. Email for details: email@example.com.
Lloyd Air Boliviano (00 591 2 237 1020; labairlines.com.bo) has
daily flights from La Paz to Tarija, the nearest air hub to Tupiza.
America Tours (00 591 2 237 4204; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; america-ecotours.com) in La Paz arrange packages including
transport, accommodation and tours to follow the Butch Cassidy trail.
David Atkinson is a British travel writer currently based in Bolivia while authoring The Bradt Travel Guide: Bolivia.
Read more GoNOMAD stories about Bolivia