Bolivia
June 09, 2019

By: Nick Dall

What do Che, Butch, and Sundance have in common?

Secondary Categories: Dig Deeper

The short answer is simple: they all died in one-horse Bolivian outposts. The long answer warrants further investigation…

Most experts agree that on 6 or 7 November 1908, Leroy Parker and Harry Longabaugh – better known as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – were shot dead in the bleak Bolivian mining town of San Vicente Canton (altitude 14,771 ft, population 104). The exact circumstances of their death, not to mention the location of their bodies, is still up for debate. (While many locals will tell you that the highwaymen took their own lives, prevailing academic wisdom suggests that their suicide was staged by a local gang who killed them and made off with their loot.) But no one who’s done any significant research believes the rumors that the two survived the San Vicente shootout and went on to leave colorful lives in places as diverse as Venezuela, Paris, and New Mexico.

Butch, Sundance and three other members of the Wild Bunch pose for a photo in Fort Worth Texas.

There is total agreement that, almost 60 years later and 550 miles to the north-east, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was shot dead in the subtropical hamlet of La Higuera (altitude 6,397 ft, population 119). While initial reports suggested that Guevara lost his life in combat, he was in fact executed by the Bolivian military (against the wishes of the CIA who wanted him captured alive) a day after surrendering to them. His last words have gone down in history: “I know you’ve come to kill me,” he said to his executioner. “Shoot, you are only going to kill a man.”

But what were they doing in Bolivia?

After becoming the most wanted men in America between 1899 and 1901, Butch, Sundance and Etta Place (Sundance’s lady friend) set sail for South America. Whereas the 1967 Hollywood classic had them heading straight to Bolivia, the trio actually spent four years ranching Argentina before making their way to Bolivia. While in Argentina, they bought land in the picturesque Cholila Valley in Patagonia, and made an honest living farming livestock. In fact, they may have died old and boring if they hadn’t heard the police were on their tails again.

Butch and Sundance’s cabin near Cholila in Argentine Patagonia. (Photo: Rowanda)

In late 1905 they moved between Northern Chile and Northern Argentina a few times, robbing a bank in Argentina on December 19 and narrowly avoiding capture before slipping back across the Andes into Chile. In April 1906 Etta sailed back to San Francisco (and was never heard from again) while Butch and Sundance separately made their way to a tin mine in Bolivia where they worked for a couple of years. They dreamt of buying themselves a ranch in the fertile Eastern lowlands of the country but, not having the patience to save for a deposit, they hit up the payroll delivery of the Aramayo, Francke & Co. mine and made off with a few thousand dollars in today’s money (they had been hoping for half a million). Within days they were both dead.

Che, who was born in 1928, enjoyed a similarly roundabout ride to the landlocked Andean nation. After a comfortable upbringing in Rosario, Argentina, young, idealistic Ernesto studied medicine in the hopes of helping others. Extended road trips/humanitarian sorties into rural Argentina, and other Latin American countries – one of which was immortalized in the book (and film) The Motorcycle Diaries – opened his eyes to the plight of the continent’s poorest people.

Che Guevara in Bolivia shortly before his death.

While living in Guatemala in 1953/4, he watched in horror as US-backed forces overthrew the democratically-elected, socialist president Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán who had been redistributing land to the poor. This was the moment Che gave up on capitalism once and for all, and opted instead for its radical communist opposite. Between 1956 and 1958 he fought alongside Fidel Castro in the Cuban revolution. When the communists finally came to power in 1959, Che occupied a string of important posts in government before resigning abruptly in 1965 and embarking on a career as a full-time revolutionary. After trying to foment revolutions in Congo and Zaire, he returned to Latin America, passing through Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, and finally Bolivia where he joined a revolutionary group in November 1966. Eleven months later he was shot dead – although his legend still lives on.

See it for yourself

Only true aficionados of Butch and Sundance should make the pilgrimage to San Vicente – a fairly easy add-on to any of our Uyuni tours. Not only is the village cold, windswept and devoid of first-world comforts, but the small, newly-built museum is low on corroborated fact and big on screengrabs from the Hollywood film. The tomb which is advertised as Cassidy’s has been proven – by DNA testing no less – to belong to a German engineer who lived in the town at around the same time. Experts do think the duo are buried somewhere in the cemetery though.

San Vicente Canton isn’t much to write home about. (Photo: Mach Marco)

You might do better visiting their Patagonian ranch, near the town of Bariloche in Argentina’s spectacular Lake District. The cabin they lived in has been partially restored and although you won’t need more than an hour to do it justice, there’s plenty of other stuff to do in the area. As Bruce Chatwin put it in the seminal classic In Patagonia, “[Butch Cassidy] must have felt at home here, the country round Cholila is identical to parts of his home state, Utah – a country of clean air and open spaces; of black mesas and blue mountains; a country of bones picked clean by hawks, stripped by the wind, stripping men to the raw.”

Che, however, chose a far more appealing part of the world in which to meet his maker. The 17 homes which make up La Higuera (‘the fig tree’ in English) are adorned with Che’s visage, and the schoolhouse where he was executed has been turned into a museum. A couple of miles out of town, the picturesque ravine where he was captured also warrants a visit, as does the hospital morgue, 40 miles to the north, where his body was famously photographed atop a bathtub which now holds center stage. There are two comfortable accommodation options in La Higuera itself, while the larger town of Samaipata is a bona fide tourist attraction in its own right. With a plethora of boutique lodgings, an important pre-Inca ruin on a cliff overlooking town, and enigmatic giant ferns in the nearby cloud forests, it’s the perfect spot to chill out after a week or two spent exploring everything else Bolivia has to offer.

‘Your example lights a new dawn’. The main plaza in La Higuera. (Photo: Baris Karadeniz)

Further reading

This Time article is a good starting point for the Butch and Sundance story, while folks wanting a longer read should look no further than Digging up Butch and Sundance, the definitive book on the topic. If you’re unable to get your hands on a copy, the authors’ website has links to dozens of articles on the outlaws, including this excellent precis. Get the lowdown on Butch and Sundance’s Patagonian ranch here.

This Washington Post article describes Che’s final hours in some detail. Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life is his most acclaimed biography (all 700 pages of it) while The Motorcycle Diaries offers great insights into the philosophical transformation of the young doctor-cum-revolutionary. The movie of the same name is not bad either, and it features some spectacular South American landscapes too. For detailed descriptions of Che’s ‘Death Trail’, you can do a lot worse than this The Guardian article. This one’s pretty good too.

Tired of just reading about history? Check out our sample Bolivia and Patagonia tours and remember that every single SA Expeditions tour is fully customizable by our well-versed Destination Experts. ¡Viva la revolución!

Credit to Augusto Starita for the title image of this blog which shows another aspect of the plaza in La Higuera.

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