In 1908, two bandits were killed by the Bolivian army.
A mule had given them away.
The bandits had robbed a courier transporting a payroll for the Aramayo Franke y Cia Silver Mine, stealing about 15,000 Bolivian pesos (as the currency was back then) worth of loot. The bandits then tried to hide out in the nearby town of San Vicente, where they were promptly ratted out by the owner of their boarding house.
The robbers had stolen a mule branded with the mark of the Aramayo Mine. The owner of the boarding house saw this, became suspicious of his lodgers, and notified the local authorities. That is, the Bolivian army.
A shootout ensued.
All of this happened in the south of Bolivia, near a place called Tupiza.
They made a movie about it, with Paul Newman and Robert Redford. It was called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Nowadays, Tupiza is a quiet city located between huge scarps of red rock, along the Oruro -Villazon train route; Bolivia’s most famous railway line.
(Incidentally, the train that plies this line is a full-sized, horn-honking, multi-carriage affair, a far cry from the tiny duster that took me from Sucre to Potosi. Tupiza feels like a town right out of the Old West, so it’s reassuring they got the railroad right).
Aside from the whole business with Butch and Sundance, Tupiza most famous for being the back gate to Bolivia’s famous Salt Flats. The trip from Tupiza to the Flats is a four day expedition via jeep, which promises staggering and surreal views of Bolivia’s strangest natural sights.
That’s not really why I came here, though.
I just wanted to muck about on a horse for a bit.
Tupiza offers bargain-price horse trekking, through the rugged red countryside. It’s just like being in an old Eastwood movie, right down to the cacti.
Butch and Sundance fled to South America because the Old West wasn’t really the Old West anymore. Having more and more trouble keeping ahead of North America’s increasingly sophisticated lawmen, they fled south in the hope of recouping their glory days in more primitive climes.
In many ways, Bolivia still feels like that kind of frontier. The poorest part of the Americas, it’s a land full of ramshackle buildings and half-finished houses. It’s not hard to imagine two bandits out of Old West patrolling its countryside to this day, with handkerchief masks and six-shooters in hand.
Things didn’t end well for Butch and Sundance (unless you believe the rumours about them surviving their famous final shoot-out, and taking new names elsewhere; their bodies were never definitively identified, after all.) But here, on the ruddy edge of a ragged country, it’s easy to imagine their story playing out again--perhaps differently, this time.
After all, if there’s any place in the world where Butch and Sundance could still ride, it must surely be Bolivia.
Horse riding in Bolivia. Click to expand.
>Horse treks through the countryside surrounding Tupiza are available from any one of the town’s many tour operators. The prices vary from 250 bs to 390 bs for a five hour expedition. I paid 350 bs for a very pleasant seven hour ride via the Valle Hermosa tour agency.
>It’s easy to find affordable accommodation in Tupiza, but watch out--many cheaper hostels have travel agencies attached, and they may try to pressure you into taking a Salt Flat tour with them before you have a chance to look at the alternatives.
>Going on a tour of the Salt Flats via Tupiza is quite a bit more expensive than going direct from the Flats-adjacent town of Uyuni (expect to pay around 1300 bs instead of 600 bs), but Tupiza is a far more pleasant place to spend a bit of time, and you get an extra day on the road for your money. I've chosen an agency called Natural Adventure, which was recommended to me by other travellers.
I've also brought some extra socks. I hear it's very cold, out in the Flats...