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The South American Trails of Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara: A 2020 Self-guided Bus Trip

November 14, 2019

 

Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid and Che Guevara have in common a life on the run in South America. Follow their trail by bus.

 

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; and Ernesto “Che” Guevara were legendary rebels of the 20th century.

But wait! How could they have anything in common?

At first glance, it may not seem that these US bandits (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) have anything to do with the Argentine-Cuban revolutionary (Che Guevara). But, on several levels, they do.

We probably first conjure up Hollywood.

There’s the classic 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Or the more recent 2004 coming-of-age hit film Motorcycle Diaries based on Guevara’s personal diary of his South America motorcycle trip with his friend Alberto Granado. These men have inspired many other movies and documentaries, as well as scores of books and articles.

But more importantly, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Che Guevara also share this:

They began or spent part of their life in Argentina, and they all faced their final battle in Bolivia!

Their epic adventures provide many attractions for those of us journeying through South America. Some can be reached on your own, and many tour companies in the local towns offer guided trips to the sites.

This article includes a free companion map to guide you on their trail from beginning to end. So, hop aboard to learn what there is to visit and how to get there!

PART ONE: BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID

Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid

Robert LeRoy Parker (a.k.a. Butch Cassidy) and Harry Alonzo Longabaugh (alias the Sundance Kid) were the notorious robbers of banks and trains in the “Wild West” era of the United States, the latter decades of the 19th century. They earned great fame as the Pinkerton Detective Agency (precursor to the US F.B.I.) pursued them from one corner of the Americas to the other.

In the 1969 movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Butch Cassidy says to the Sundance Kid,

“Kid, the next time I say, ‘Let’s go someplace like Bolivia,’ let's go someplace like Bolivia.”

And that is precisely what these US outlaws did.

Cassidy, the Kid, and Etta Place in Argentina

After a series of robberies and encounters with lawmen in Wyoming and Montana, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fled to New York to make an international getaway. Along with their cohort (and the Kid’s girlfriend) Etta Place, they sailed on the Herminius to Buenos Aires, Argentina on the 20th of February, 1901.

Start your bus trip at position #1 on the map, in Buenos Aires, Argentina and immerse yourself in sightseeing of locations that were present at the beginning of the 20th century when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid arrived. We would suggest Plaza de Mayo (the central square for political and social gatherings), Manzana de las Luces (the "block of lights" was active as early as the 17th century and sits on top of a labyrinth of underground tunnels. Might this have caught the imagination of the North American outlaws?), and of course the Cemeterio de la Recoleta (Buenos Aires' historic cemetery).

Buenos Aires is where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid began their South American journey.

When you are ready to continue on the trail, reserve your bus tickets here to stop #2, Rio Gallegos.

Once in Argentina, Cassidy, the Kid, and Place began new lives.

Legends abound about the exploits of the famous outlaws’ exploits in Argentina. Some historians trying to reconstruct their movements in South America say Cassidy and the Kid formed a gang that was commissioned to commit robberies throughout the Argentine Patagonia: in Comodoro Rivadavia, Telsen, Villa Mercedes (San Luis Province) and other locales.

The famous duo has long been credited with attempting to hold up the Banco de Tarapacá y Argentino in Río Gallegos on Valentine’s Day, 1905.

The branch of the Banco de Tarapacna in Rio Gallegos was widely credited to be robbed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Rio Gallegos is #2 on the guided map, which is at minimum shortly less than 2 full days on the bus. However, I encourage you to just get off the bus along the way about halfway in Comodoro Rivadavia, another major city on the Patagonia coast of Argentina and reputed with a history of some outlaw activity related to the Butch Cassidy and the Kid’s gang.

When you are ready to continue on the trail, reserve your bus tickets here from Rio Gallegos to El Bolsón, which is stop #3 on the map and the closest place for lodging from where you can get local buses to the Argentina homestead of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Cholila.

Setting tall tales aside, what is historically agreed upon is that Cassidy, the Kid, and Place settled down together in Patagonia near Cholila, between El Bolsón and Esquel, Argentina. There Cassidy, by then known under the alias "James Ryan", bought a four-room cabin on a 15,000-acre spread of land. The cabin, built like a classic American log cabin, still exists and you can visit it!

In Cholila, Argentina, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid bought a ranch in hopes of settling down.

El Bolson itself is rated as one of the best small towns in all of South America and a popular place for camping in Argentina, as well as being famous for its production of beer and honey!

To get to Cholila from El Bolson, just go to the local bus terminal and there you will find small bus companies that make the route to Cholila. When you board the bus, just let the driver know you want to only go as far as “El Rancho de Butch Cassidy”, which is about 8 km before the entrance to Cholila. Don’t worry, this is a popular tourist site, so there will be other buses passing on the other side of the highway going back to El Bolson when you are ready, just flag them down.

The Pinkerton Detective Agency apparently knew where Cassidy, the Kid, and Etta were, but the harsh Patagonian winter prevented them from ambushing the gang. Being tipped off by a local farmer, the trio sold the land in 1905, taking a steamer from Bariloche to Chile. From there, they supposedly returned to Argentina to hold up the bank in Villa Mercedes and disappeared over the border to Chile again.

When you are ready to continue on the trail, reserve your bus tickets here from El Bolson to San Martin de Los Andes, for a visit to Che Guevara’s shed where he stayed on his famous motorcycle journey in 1952. This is stop #4 on the map and is discussed in more detail in Che's section of the article further below.

After visiting Che’s shed in San Martin de Los Andes, reserve your bus tickets here from San Martin de Los Andes to Villa Mercedes (stop #5 on the map) to get back on the trail of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. When you arrive in Villa Mercedes, go the corner of Avenida Belgrano and Avenida Riobamba, and there on the northwest corner you will see a humble “Muebles Platinum” furniture store that marks the location of the Banco de la Nacion Argentina that the gang robbed on December 19th, 1905.

This humble furniture store in Villa Mercedes was the site of the last bank robbed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid while they were in Argentina.

Etta Place tired of life on the run, so the Kid accompanied her back to the United States. He then returned to South America and rejoined his cohort in more exploits. Researchers say they truly wanted to settle down to “normal” life, but I guess you could say old habits die hard. Or, perhaps in their case, old reputations die hard. Every bank or train robbery of the time was blamed on them, whether they did it or not.

While we continue the story of the trail of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the route map is going to divert you first into the early life of Che Guevara to be most efficient with your time and travel. So, when you are ready to continue on the trail to stop #6 on the map, reserve your bus tickets here from Villa Mercedes to Cordoba, Argentina, from where you can take an easy day trip to the bedroom city of Alta Gracia.

Bolivia: The Final Adventures of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

In 1906, Cassidy and the Kid moved on to Bolivia. Under pseudonyms, they worked for the Concordia Tin Mine, in the Cordillera Santa Vera Cruz, some 100 kilometers due north of Oruro. Among their duties was the task of guarding the company payroll. The following year they went to prospect buying a ranch near Santa Cruz de la Sierra, in eastern Bolivia.

Bolivia has long been the attraction of the world for its mineral wealth, especially around Oruro, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came to work after fleeing Argentina.

Oruro is a town rich in mining history, along with the neighboring Potosi and Cochabamba, all cities in the central Bolivian sierra. Oruro is also a departure point for the famous "glass desert" town of Uyuni and buses going across the border into Chile’s Atacama desert to the towns of Calama and San Pedro de Atacama. On the route map, Oruro is stop #10 and you will be coming to Oruro from the last of the Che sites in Samaipata, Bolivia.

Apparently, the outlaws needed money to make their respectable life comes true. And it was in Oruro that we can pick up their trail again.

Reserve your tickets here to take the train from Oruro to Tupiza and you’ll clack and clatter through the Huaca Huañusca mountain pass north of Tupiza. Imagine the train you're on is the same one the Cassidy/Kid duo was on back on the 3rd of November, 1908, because it was in these same mountains that they robbed a mining payroll train on that date.  When their loot was in the bag, they turned north towards Uyuni.

Three nights after their train robbery, on the night of the 6th of November, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid lodged in San Vicente in the boarding home of a local miner. The miner/innkeeper found an emblem on their mule that made their story suspicious as to where they came from, and he proceeded to tell the village mayor. The mayor then recruited a four-man military patrol and surrounded the elusive outlaws, and a gun battle ensued.

Reportedly, the famous duo died there in San Vicente, and they were buried in an unmarked grave. Investigations to find their bodies (including a 1991 effort by forensic anthropologists) have proven unfruitful, further fueling rumors that, in reality, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had once again escaped death.

But, you should see it for yourself to see which end of the story feels best in your bones! Once you are in Tupiza, there are two ways to make the 2-hour trip into the mountains to the dusty and rustic mining town of San Vicente, which is where you will find the grave and attached museum where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance made their last stand. One way is to go to the Tupiza bus terminal and just ask for the next bus to San Vicente. You may have to wait a while, or even a day or two, as the route is mostly made by miners. The other option is to go to the local office of Tupiza Tours at Av Regimiento Chichas Nº 187, and have them arrange a private tour for you.

San Vicente is the final stop #11 of the guided map, and you will find the town so small you will need no directions to find the museum and graveyard right in the middle of everything (it doesn’t even have an address).

San Vicente, Bolivia is where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were reportedly killed in a gun battle.

Scores of articles and books have been written about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s movements, not only in Argentina and Bolivia, but also in Chile, and the continuing rumors that they again escaped death in Bolivia.

The website Digging Up Butch and Sundance has a great list written by US and South American historians.

San Vicente’s wind-swept and forgotten feeling will be a fitting somber way to end the entire trail, so while we go on in this article to tell you about Che’s journey, all of the stops on his tour will come before you make it to San Vicente.

From here, if you are ready to go home or onto another trip, return first to Tupiza. In Tupiza, you can get back on board the train to go north to Uyuni, or to end of the line in Oruro from where you can get buses to La Paz or to Calama, Chile and beyond. If on the other hand, you want to return to Argentina, it is not far away; simply reserve your tickets here for either the bus or train from Tupiza to the border town of Villazon, from where you simply walk across the border into the town of La Quica, from where you can reserve bus tickets to Salta, Argentina.

PART TWO: ERNESTO CHE GUEVARA

Ernesto Che Guevara

Our next rebel, Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna, the famous Argentine-Cuban revolutionary, has deep roots in Argentina where he was physically born, and in Bolivia where he died. He has left travelers with scores of places to visit. In both countries there exists a “Ruta del Che” that we can follow.

Che in Argentina

In the late 1920s, Che’s parents, Ernesto Guevara Lynch and Celia de la Serna, moved to the wilds of Argentina’s Misiones Province to start a yerba mate plantation. But like many women of the time who could afford to do so, Celia took the boat down the Paraná River to “civilization” to give birth to her firstborn. By the time the boat arrived in Rosario, she was in full labor. Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was born on the 14th of June, 1928.

Rosario, Argentina is the official birthplace of Che Guevara.

Rosario, Argentina is where “Che” was born, and the city fervently embraces him as its native son. Strolling around the city, you can visit a number of sites dedicated to him: the casa natal, where his parents lived several months after his birth (Urquiza and Entre Ríos), a mural of him in the Plaza de la Cooperación (Tucumán and Mitre), and the Plaza y Monumento al Che Guevara (Buenos Aires and Bulevar 27 de Febrero) which has an imposing statue of the revolutionary. There is also the Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos Ernesto Che Guevara (CELChe) (Belgrano Gral. Manuel 950).

Eventually, Che’s family returned to their plantation in Caraguatay, near Montecarlo where they had started their yerba mate plantation. The homestead is now the Museo del Che en Caraguatay Misiones.

When you are ready, reserve your tickets here from Rosario to Montecarlo which is stop #8 on your route map, but tell the driver you want to get off a little early at Caraguatay.

You can make this a stop on your journey to the famed Iguazú Falls. When you get off the bus, there will only be a few stores around the highway intersection. Walk into one of them and ask the storekeeper to call you a local taxi to drive you the remaining kilometer or so into the village of Caraguatay where you will find the humble museum. The museum keeper will show you a trail that leads from the back of the museum into the brush a way that leads to the long-abandoned plantation site. When you are done, do the reverse and have the museum keeper call you a taxi to take you back to the bus stop on the highway, and just wait for the next bus to come along to hop on board to Montecarlo. Need a bus ticket to Puerto Iguazu from Montecarlo to see the falls? No problem, click here.

Caraguatay is the original settlement of the Guevara family where they endeavored to cultivate yerba mate.

Because of the child’s asthma, the Guevara-de la Serna family had to move to the dryer climate of Alta Gracia, near Córdoba. One of the homes where they lived is now the Museo del Che Guevara (Avellaneda 501). Altagracia is also where you will find the Museo Nacional Estancia Jesuítica (Avenida Padre Viera 41), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and several art museums.

Museo del Che Guevara in Altagracia, Argentina was the primary residence of Che's youth.

Alta Gracia was stop #6 on your route map that you came to from Villa Mercedes, but your bus will deliver you to nearby Cordoba, Argentina’s second-largest city where you will no doubt want to spend some time seeing the many other sights this great city has to offer.

Alta Gracia is 41 km from downtown Cordoba, and it will be best to ask your hostel or hotel reception from where you can catch a local intercity bus, or hire a taxi to take you there.

When you have completed your visit to Alta Gracia and Cordoba, your next stop on the route map will be #7, Rosario, where Che was born and whose history of the family there is described above. Click here to reserve your bus tickets from Cordoba to Rosario.

The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) portrays the great 1952 travel adventure of Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado (who, ironically, is played by a distant cousin of Guevara) as they explore South America on their Norton motorcycle, La Poderosa. This highly acclaimed movie is based on Che Guevara’s diaries of his South American sojourn. It’s a tale many travelers recognize: leaving for the open road to see what is there, and discovering how journeying transforms one within.

The galpón (shed) where they spent the night in San Martín de los Andes is now the Museo La Pastera (Rudecindo Roca y Sarmiento), which was Stop #4 on the guided map that you stop at after visiting Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid's homestead in Cholila.

The shed in San Martin de los Andes, Argentina where Che stayed on his iconic motorcycle trip around South America.

Che in Bolivia

At this point in the story, you are probably sitting in Montecarlo or Puerto Iguazu Argentina enjoying the world-famous waterfalls, and wondering where did Che go after his youth in Alta Gracia and his renowned motorcycle trip.

Well, in this article we bypass his incredibly packed revolutionary rise in Cuba that brought him to the international stage and becoming a political and social icon. Instead, we focus on his return to South America, where you can now reconnect to his trail in Bolivia. Reserve your tickets here to go from Puerto Iguazu to Asuncion, Paraguay, and then in the bus station there get a separate ticket from Asuncion, Paraguay to Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

Several decades later, Ernesto “Che” Guevara would return to South America for the last time to lead the Ejército Liberación Nacional (ELN) revolutionary movement based in Bolivia. Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, this is where Guevara would meet his fate, and like the famous US outlaws, he was being pursued not by the Pinkertons, but by the US’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

In 2004, communities in Eastern Bolivia established the 800-kilometer Ruta del Che to foment tourism. Many of the participating settlements have a museum that incorporates information from the guerrilla fighters’ diaries, military documents, local newspapers, and oral histories. They also offer guided tours and lodging. This general area is where you want to head to from Santa Cruz.

To begin, book your bus tickets here to go from Santa Cruz to Samaipata, Bolivia, which is stop #9 on the route map.

The most often visited towns are southwest of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. In Samaipata (123 kilometers west of Santa Cruz), a group of guerrilleros made a raid for food and medicine because Guevara was having severe asthma attacks. Also of interest in Samaipata is Amboró National Park, a cloud forest with waterfalls and diverse birdlife; and the ancient ruins of a ceremonial site called El Fuerte.

Samaipata is the best base in eastern Bolivia to explore the Ruta del Che

You will want to make Samaipata your base camp for the next and final stops on the Che journey, as the area is rugged without reservable bus transportation, but you will easily find many guides in Samaipata who are prepared to guide you to the important sites of (preferably in this order) La Higuera and Vallegrande.

La Higuera is a small hamlet deep in the dry hills 180 kilometers southwest of Samaipata. You will pass the last stop on the way, so that you can see Vallegrande on the way back to Samaipata, and because it’s important to do them in this order.

La Higuera, Bolivia is the actual village where Che was executed.

It is in La Higuera Che Guevara was assassinated. Locals can guide you to Quebrada del Churo, the spot where Guevara had his last battle and was captured on the 8th of October, 1967. He was then taken to the schoolhouse and killed the next day. The schoolhouse is now a museum. The single road through town is truncated by a statue of Guevara.

Every year on the anniversary of Guevara’s capture and assassination, both Vallegrande and La Higuera have events.

The next stop is then Vallegrande (61 kilometers north of La Higuera on your way back to Samaipata). The village church on the main plaza celebrates masses to “San Che Guevara” who is especially popular for his championing of one’s studies. Also on the plaza is the Museo Municipal Ruta del Che Guevara. Behind the public hospital is the laundry shed where Guevara’s body was exhibited to the international press. It is now covered with thousands of messages by pilgrims who come here.

Vallegrande, Bolivia is where Che's body was flown to by helicopter and displayed to the world press on this very laundry sink.

30 years after his death, Guevara’s remains were unearthed from a common grave near the pista (airstrip) just outside of Vallegrande. There is now a mausoleum at this site. Behind the local Rotary Club is where the common grave of Joaquín, Tania and other ELN members were found. You do not need a guide to get to any of these sites. They are easy to find on your own.

Other villages on Bolivia’s Ruta del Che are Lagunillas, which has a museum; nearby Finca Ñancahuazú, the guerrilla’s basecamp; Camiri which also has a museum; and Alto Seco, El Duraznal, Vado del Yeso, and Pucará. There are still people alive in these villages who remember the events of Che Guevera’s revolutionary struggle. Be sure to sit and talk with them about it. They have some incredible – and moving – stories to share. In short, when you base yourself in Samaipata, you can consider going to all of these places or only some of them with a guide you can find in town, and then make your way back to Samaipata.

When you are ready to continue on the trail, reserve your bus tickets here from Samaipata to Oruro, Bolivia. The route starts in Santa Cruz but will have your seat reserved for you to board in Samaipata.

Oruro will be as close as you can get to the last section of the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid section, where they changed identities again to work in the now-defunct tin mine.  Oruro is also where you’ll board the train to follow their last and fateful ride. Oruro is stop #10 on the route map and is described at the end of the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid section of this article.

There are other places in South America that claim a piece of Che’s legacy. Visit the Chuquicamata copper mine in northern Chile, Pucallpa (Peru) from where he and Granado sailed upriver to the leper colony, and the Santa Ana neighborhood of Guayaquil (Ecuador). Perhaps you’ll be lucky to meet someone who can tell you about his ventures there!

Related Articles on Argentina and Bolivia

Go Wild in Argentina (a Guide to Seeing Wildlife in the Parks and Reserves of Argentina)

The 13 Best Small Towns in South America (you'll be happy to see that some that you visit in this article are also on the list!)

7 Places to go Camping in Argentina

Lorraine Caputo is a travel writer, poet, and translator. She has authored 10 guidebooks for South America. Her literary works appear in over 1050 journals in Canada, the US, Latin America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa; 18 anthologies and 12 chapbooks – including the collections of travel poetry, Caribbean Nights (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014) and Notes from the Patagonia (dancing girl press, 2017). For several decades, she has been traveling through Latin America, listening to the voices of the pueblos and Earth. Follow her travels on Facebook. 

 

 

 

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