Los Pistoleros – San Vicente, Bolivia

Los Pistoleros
San Vicente, Bolivia

It was a two- or three-line entry in the Lonely Planet guidebook, the little-known town of San Vicente. Never heard of it. Some say they made it into Argentina, others that they got back to the States. But I know it was here, Hollywood told me so.

On the 6th of November 1908 Paul Newman and Robert Redford were cut to pieces by the Bolivian Army in that classic freeze-frame ending when they portrayed the wild west outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Their grave is in the cemetery. It was about as far south in Bolivia as you could go and way off the backpackers circuit. Undaunted I arranged to meet my spineless companions, who had refused to join me, in a month’s time and regale them with the story.

Donning a cowboy hat I took the train as far as Tupiza, the nearest city. Another 50 miles (80 km) and it crosses the border with Argentina. According to legend this was the location of their last dastardly deed. It was here that Butch and Sundance robbed the $80,000 payroll of the Aramoyo Mining Company that was to be their demise. The family business they stole from still have a hacienda and descendents here. Walking to the only hostel in town I first heard the phrase:

¿Tu buscas los pistoleros?” – a gringo in town, he must be looking for the gunfighters. These people knew. I was getting close. Having no joy extracting information about transport to San Vicente from the hotelier, I went straight to the police station. If in trouble, ask a copper.

They told me there were no buses, but at the weekly market here in Tupiza a white pick-up comes from San Vicente, loads up with goods and returns. I could catch a lift with them. The market was in two days time, and with the number plate scribbled on a scrap of paper, I was set. Left my ruc sac at the hotel, a day pack would do, travel light.

“I’ll be back tomorrow,” I foolishly informed them. I wonder if they knew?

Finding the lift was no problem. The registration fit, it was an white P100 Toyota pick-up.

“San Vicente?” I enquired. From his hand gestures I deduced I was to take up a position in the rear. The cab passenger seat is for high rollers and girlfriends. I was neither. There were a few sacks already stowed, and I formed them into some sort of a seat. Feeling pleased with myself, I relaxed and soaked up the afternoon sun, looking forward to a pleasant journey – piece of piss!

It was about this time that things started to go wrong.

Well, not wrong as such. But in that general direction. The pick-up was loaded with more and more goods. Sacks of rice, vegetables and god knows what. Other passengers joined me and arose my suspicions further. They were all dressed in very warm clothing; some even had blankets. It was t-shirt weather here. I pushed it to the back of my mind as we set off. There were a few hours of daylight left. That’s the thing with travel in South America: the Andes, a back bone running north to south, mean that any journey usually involves a hill. And as you ascend, the temperature descends. In my excitement at locating Butch and Sundance I had foolishly neglected this point. It was getting colder, and I had no idea how long this journey would take or what altitude San Vicente was at.

There were perhaps six of us perched in the wind on the sacks in the back. My fellow passengers donned their blankets and other warm garments. I was already wearing my entire wardrobe. I sank lower into the sacks to seek some sort of protection. The pick-up was winding up the dirt track at no more than 20 miles an hour. We broke down twice. Fifteen to twenty minutes each time. I screwed up my face, willing and praying the engine to fire, hoping the battery would hold out. Passengers disembarked at various points. Each time I asked: “San Vicente?”

Must have been around midnight when San Vicente came into view, after six hours on the pick-up. I didn’t know we were there until we stopped in the main street. Was this the murder scene? It was surreal, about 20 people were waiting for us. The white Toyota was their lifeline. It brought goods from the market, parcels and letters from the post office and gringos looking for gunfighters.

I was too cold and tired to express myself. But I guess they knew anyway. I followed a miner to his lodgings and was shown to a room with two beds.

Mucho gracias, buenos noches” was all I could muster. I put all the blankets on one bed, put my sleeping bag underneath and got in, still wearing all my clothes.

I was alone when I woke the following morning. The building was a two- or three-roomed prefab house. Outside, the place was incredibly barren. No vegetation to speak of, with clear blue skies. Cold, if you weren’t in direct sunlight. It was the end of the world. If I had robbed a payroll, and wanted somewhere to hide, I would have picked here. Wondering back to where the pick-up truck had dropped us I spotted someone from last night.

¿Buscas los pistoleros?

Sí, sí señor.

San Vicente is a mining town at somewhere around 5500 metres (18,208 ft), population no more than 50. Five hundred yards from the main street is the cemetery. Squeezed in-between other head stones, one was pointed out to me:

¡Los pistoleros!” I took his word for it, there wasn’t even a name! Butch and Sundance, if you believe this version of the story, got shot somewhere down in that ramshackle of dusty buildings, and they now lay just under my feet. I had made it, completed my given task – what a story I had to tell.

Consulting my watch, it still wasn’t even 9am.

“When does the bus leave San Vicente?” I asked, but I already knew the answer.

“There are no buses in San Vicente. You just have to wait.”

A ribbon of a road runs through town, with a checkpoint in the middle. Any vehicle passing must stop there. I was quite a novelty in town, and was invited for breakfast, lunch and dinner with different families, asked questions, told stories. Came across the doctor who runs San Vicente’s hospital. He was young, maybe 25, no more. What a posting, qualified in the big smoke that is La Paz and they send him to San Vicente. We had English tea and biscuits out the front of his hospital. From here we could survey the road both ways and see any vehicle approaching.

He had time on his hands: no one was ill in San Vicente; the hospital was empty. He chewed coca leaves as we would drink coffee, as a stimulant to stay awake and study his medical journals. His other pastime was basketball, quite popular in Bolivia. San Vicente was no exception. I ran up and down for about five minutes trying to tackle the ball from him before the rarified air burned my lungs.

The blue tipper truck turned up some time in the afternoon on the third day. It was going the wrong way, but it was going. I bade my farewells. There were two of us in the back, holding on white-knuckled, as it descended. We passed groups of wild llamas and played spot-the-tree. San Cristobal was another mining town, but with a big difference: it had a railway station.

Well not a station as such. But it had a railway track. Which was linked to Tupiza, where my ruc sac was. Of course there were no passenger trains, but there were trains. The trick was to present yourself to the guard, negotiate a fare, then sneak into the guards’ wagon. Where you had to lie on the floor, out of view of the windows until the train was out of the station. There were four of us in the wagon, and we had to do this act at each station we passed.

Finally I made it back to Tupiza. I wanted out as soon as I could, wanted to get my ruc sac and leave. I enquired about trains back to civilization. The next passenger train wasn’t for two days.

But there were trains.
At 7a.m. the next morning, I found myself on the floor of the guards’ wagon with the same companions from the previous train.

¡Buenos dias!” I was an expert.

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