Days 136 to 140: Into Bolivia! And the Curious Legacy of Butch Cassidy
The more obvious way or something else a bit stupid? This is a question that often plagues cycle tourists.
So after entering Bolivia I had a beautiful ride up to Tupiza where I stopped for a day to nose about some crazy rock formations just out of the town. Then to get from Tupiza to Uyuni by bicycle there are effectively two ways - the obvious way and the dickhead’s way. Having spent the better part of the previous 2 weeks cycling more obvious roads I decided it was time to be a dickhead and try something that left the poor woman who ran my guesthouse in Tupiza shaking her head. “It’s really not advisable. The change in altitude from 2900m to 4300m within 20km is very sudden, and the gravel that way is generally quite bad; but this year it got hammered in the rainy season which has just finished and now it’s a complete mess”. And with that she basically talked me into it.
To be honest, I did have some concerns about the rapid change in altitude. General health and safety advice once above 3000 metres is for gradual increments of only a few hundred metres per day with regard to where you sleep. Push it further and people can start to get unwell. Once I hit the initial 4300m summit, the road would fall back 500m to 3800m which, although pushing it a bit, would hopefully be okay. I figured I’d just do some deep breathing or something and everything would be fine.
The climb up was probably the toughest so far but the views were incredible and apart from the occasional 4x4 the road was all mine. Although gravel, it was in a pretty good state and still quite rideable. But as I neared the 4000m mark it all started to fall apart a little. The gradient hadn’t changed, but my metabolism simply stopped processing oxygen enough for me to keep riding. Headache set in and my lungs were starting to hurt as well. I’d been as high as 4700m on this trip but approached that more gradually, not suddenly like now. The only option was to get off and walk for a while to give me poor lungs a rest. “Why do you do this, dickhead?”, I asked myself as I officially dubbed it the dickhead’s way.
As it happened, I was soon passed by a lovely French couple driving an ex-Chile Ambulance that had been converted into a mini motor-home. “Need any help?”, they asked. And what do you know, just as my body was about to fall apart I got a ride in an ambulance up and over 4300m to where I could get down to 3800m to make camp for the night.
The next morning the head and lungs had caught up with the altitude and I felt loads better. The day promised to be a fair bit easier with more of a gradual undulating ascent to nearly 4600m and the village of San Vincente. Whilst that remained true, the reasonable gravel surface of the previous day fell apart into something far more atrocious. I remembered the warning about how this part of the mountains got hammered during the 4-month rainy season which only concluded a few weeks ago, and it bloody looked like it too! At times the road was barely wide enough for one vehicle to squeeze through as the rest of it had fallen down the hill, and elsewhere sizeable rocks had tumbled down and lay scattered all over the road. Sandy and mud patches also started to appear and as always they’re impossible to ride on.
I only just made up to San Vincente before sundown, and as it slowly went dark I felt the air around me start to freeze. San Vincente is so small and so remote that there isn’t a single hotel, hostel or anything else like that in town. Barely more than a large village, it had a very rundown appearance. Some locals suggested I could put my tent in the local sports field, but with temperatures set to plummet overnight I was still convinced I wanted to be inside something more solid. By chance, one of the main employers up there is a small mine, and two of the guys I got talking to were involved with the Miners’ Union. Before I knew it I was ushered into the social club rooms of the Bolivian Miners Union (San Vincente branch) complete with a pool table and impressive karaoke setup, and was told I could sleep inside there for the night. Thanks to Miguel and Roberto, 2 miners in dirty overalls but who were important enough in the local Union to have one of the sets of keys to the club rooms. Absolute legends.
Despite its remote location, San Vincente does have one curious historical claim to fame - for much of the 20th century, it was believed that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were buried here. But the facts now are a bit less clear. What we do know is that after a successful career of bank robberies and train heists, they fled the USA to Argentina for a while before drifting north to Bolivia in the first few years of the 20th century. Not long after, two Americans in Bolivia held up a courier that was delivering the payroll to a major silver mine. The Bolivian authorities promptly caught up with the bandits, who had stopped overnight near San Vincente, and they were killed in a major shootout with police that lasted throughout the night. The Bolivians had no way of identifying the culprits and their bodies were buried in an unmarked grave near the local cemetery. When locals died there was normally a headstone in the main cemetery, but when there was no one to stump up the cash bodies were just buried in nearby field but with no real marker as to where.
For years it was popularly assumed that they must have been Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but they were far from the only Americans of questionable integrity prowling the gold and silver mines of the Andes at the time. However, there were numerous theories and claims about them being spotted back in the USA in the decades that followed, particularly in and around Utah where Butch was originally from. There were even claims they travelled to France where plastic surgery was being pioneered in the first couple of decades of the 20th century.
In the early 1990s, one of the USA’s leading forensic anthropologists, Clyde Snow, travelled to San Vincente where an exhumation of parts of the unmarked field took place. Although he found DNA matching people of a Caucasian background, upon a more detailed analysis it did not match DNA taken from direct descendants of the duo’s immediate family members. But the waters were further muddied by the fact he never received permission to dig up the whole unmarked plot, just a few places and because the graves were unmarked no one now knows where the payroll thieves were buried. The eventual fate of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid remains a mystery to this day
The next day was a tough 120k on to Uyuni battling a ferocious headwind that started surprisingly early in the morning. I was running out of daylight to get to Uyuni without putting bike lights on for an hour or two and there was nowhere remotely appealing to try and camp amongst windswept sand dunes. For the remaining 20km into Uyuni I’d be on a busier national road anyway and didn’t really fancy cycling after dark on that with buses, big trucks, etc around.
But for the 3rd time in 3 days I made some new friends. Just as the sun was about to set, I got an encouraging toot from a passing car so I waved it down. It was a young Bolivian family of two parents and two little kids who lived in Uyuni. Their banged up old station wagon had a roof rack, and like people in a lot of developing countries, Bolivians are world experts when it come to tying stuff on a roof! So instead of cycling on a busier road in the dark, I sat on the back seat with a 3-year old called Jesus while I managed Spanish conversation with the mum and dad as best I could. They told me I’d been unlucky with the wind as even by their standards it had been pretty intense that day. They lived on the outskirts of Uyuni but street lighting was there to guide me all the way to the centre which made me feel a lot safer.
Uyuni is a popular backpacker/tourist town with plenty of bars and restaurants so I’ve been resting up here for days 141 & 142 after that whole experience, before setting off again tomorrow morning. Hopefully the legendary salts flats (or “Salars) of Bolivia have dried out enough from the rainy season for me to cycle across - guess I find out tomorrow!