“Butch Cassidy and his friends must have lived in luxury compared with the locals,” says Sonia Perry, surveying the disintegrating shacks that lay before us under the blazing Patagonian sun. “Their quarters were built much more solidly and they had more rooms than the locals would have had.”
We hitch the horses to a fence post and duck under the wire to tramp on foot the last hundred 100 yards (91 m) down a rutted track to the little cluster of wooden buildings that were slowly returning to dust in the shade of a willow grove. The only other visitors under the blazing sun are a couple of emaciated stray horses grazing in the overgrown dooryard.
This was the home that Robert LeRoy Parker alias Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid (born Harry Longabaugh) and his girlfriend Etta Place created for themselves in 1901, when the United States became too hot for them.
After having robbed countless banks and trains in South Dakota, New Mexico and Nevada and snatching an estimated US$ 70,000 alone for the holdup of a Rio Grande train near Folsom (New Mexico), Cassidy’s Wild Bunch had an armada of law officers hunting them wherever they went.
So the group disbanded and Butch went to England first, then to Argentina where he bought this small ranch together with his friends. The inhabitants of Cholila, a remote frontier town in southern Argentina, knew nothing of their new neighbors’ colorful past until first the rumors, and then the U.S. lawmen began to arrive.
Sonia, my local guide, has her own interest in the story: “My great grandfather, George Commodore Perry, was a Texas lawman who came out to Argentina to track down the outlaws,” she explains. “But he became friends with Butch, and he liked Cholila, so he went back for his wife and children and brought them out to settle here.” George C. Perry became a respected citizen of the little community, and his many descendents, now scattered throughout the Chubut province, keep his story alive.
Cholila is a small and sparsely populated township lying some 100 miles (160 km) south of San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina’s premier ski resort, on a wide, dry, wind-swept plain flanked by sudden mountains rearing up over 6,000 feet (1,800 m). Sprawling around the junction of RP (Provincial Route) 71 and RP 15, Cholila is reachable by car or by bus from El Bolson to the north (one hour), or from Esquel to the south (two hours on the main road, four through the spectacular Parque Nacional de los Alerces).
Unable to reserve a room in the town’s only hotel, Hosteria El Trebol, I had called ahead to book a cabin at Camping Carlos Pelegrini and arranged for proprietor Ricardo Gabele to pick me up from the service station where the bus deposited me.
Ricardo, whose German parents immigrated to Argentina 50 years ago, runs a modest camping area with the assistance of his wife and 84-year-old mother.
A large fireplace graces the rustic dining room, which is in frequent evening use for lively local meetings and celebrations. The food is plain and excellent. I’m thrilled to taste delicious cordero — lamb grilled on the open fire — for dinner, at a cost of only about ten 10 pesos (US$ 3.4).
My private cabin is basic but comfortable, and, at 16 pesos (US$ 5.4) a night, very affordable. Camping Carlos Pelegrini borders the small and murky Lago Mosquito, where black-necked swans, sacred to the indigenous Mapuche tribes, paddle around the dock in the glorious afternoon sun. The mosquitoes are remarkable by their absence.
South of Cholila, along the fertile western edge of Argentine Patagonia, lies the spectacular Parque Nacional de los Alerces, laced with a network of profoundly deep or glacially turquoise lakes and home to lavish vegetation, including its eponymous ancient and slow growing evergreens. The oldest accessible tree is 2,600 years old.
Beyond the park is Esquel, a lively town where it’s possible still to ride the train immortalized by North American author Paul Theroux as the Old Patagonian Express, known locally as La Trochita. It is no longer serving as a regular form of local transport, but is relegated to the role of tourist attraction. The town of Trevelin, established by Welsh colonists in the 1920s, 15 miles (24 km) south of Esquel, is worth a visit to soak up the incongruous Welsh/Spanish atmosphere, enjoy an over-indulgent afternoon tea featuring seven varieties of cake. You can even visit the grave of a faithful horse who saved his owner from hostile Indians by leaping down a 40-foot (12 m) cliff.
Argentina is the most European of the South American countries, a melting pot of cultures stretching 2,800 miles (4500 km) from the Tropic of Capricorn to Cape Horn. The 2002 devaluation of the Argentinean peso has made this vast and varied country a great bargain for the traveler who enjoys adventure in a civilized land.
Here, in this land of great natural beauty, endless tales of immigration and exile, sophisticated cities and vast empty pampas, the remote frontier towns of Cholila, Esquel and Trevelin offer unique and captivating tales to those who will listen.
PS: As for the story of Butch and his friends, after a few short years of trying to make it as honest ranchers, they returned to making fast cash and took up robbing banks again in South America. They were finally trapped by troops in San Vicente, Bolivia. What happened next is still not known. Some believe the soldiers killed Butch Cassidy. Others claim that he faked his death, sailed to Europe, got a facelift and moved back to the U.S. where he assumed a new life under an alias name and identity.
If You Go
Argentina National Tourist Office