On the Trail of Butch Cassidy, in Bolivia

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Noah Friedman-Rudovsky

Butch Cassidy's grave appears in San Vincente, Bolivia.

The red canyons and parched planes surrounding the new Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid Memorial Museum might make you think you're in the Old West. But the electrical wiring and a searing altitude headache tell you this is not California circa 1900, but high-up the mountains in present day Bolivia. Here in the tiny town of San Vicente (population 800), the world's most famous outlaws are supposed to have been gunned down 101 years ago, days after robbing the payroll of a Bolivian mine. Offing the bandits would seem to have been sufficient revenge but area residents still think the dead gringos have to pay. How? As tourist bait.

"We want people to visit and see the history this town holds," says the museum's part-time curator Carlos Ventura, 25, who works three days a week as a public transport operator. The museum was opened in early November by Pan American Silver, the Canadian mining company that now operates the town's main source of income. With plans for guided tours and more, residents hope to bring much needed income into southern Bolivia, the country's poorest region. The small one-room adobe building is adorned with antique guns, enlarged newspaper clippings and black and white photos — a mix of historical images and publicity shots from the 1969 Paul Newman and Robert Redford classic, though Ventura has a hard time distinguishing between the two groups.

Pan American Silver representative Anival Arnes, who's taken a lead in the tourism drive, admits: "This is a project in germination." There's little publicity so far around Bolivia and visitors have to make their own way to remote San Vicente — a bumpy two hour ride from nearby Uyuni and Tupiza — unless they hook up with Tupiza Tours, which which leads tourists along the "death trail" of Butch and Sundance. Pan America security guards are wary of letting unannounced vehicles into town and locating someone to unlock the museum isn't always easy.

Bolivia might be famous for its majestic salt flats and Andean peaks, but it also has a firm hold on "death trail" tourism. Thousands come annually to retrace leftist revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara's final footsteps in south central Bolivia. Butch and Sundance tours have been around a while too. "Since 1992, we've provided tourists with the unique opportunity to follow the outlaws' last days," says Fabiola Mitru, founder of Tupiza Tours. For under $150, you get a private one-to-two day guided tour in a jeep of the era's historic mining mansions, the site of the hold-up and San Vicente, plus meals and lodging.

"It was fascinating," says Seattle native Al Erlandsen, who spent a day with Mitru's outfit earlier this month. Like most travelers to the area, he knew about the outlaws' escapades in Bolivia because of the based-on-a-true-story Hollywood movie. But, he says, it was the element of mystery that made him want to do the tour: "I was intrigued by the conflicting reports of the bandits' deaths."

The tale is a winding one. Butch and Sundance, born LeRoy Parker and Harry Longabaugh in 1866 and 1867 respectively, together with their Wild Bunch Gang found infamy via lucrative yet humane bank and train robberies at the end of the 19th century in the US. In 1901, with the Pinkerton Detective Agency on their trail, the outlaws headed to South America, lured by the region's silver wealth. (The movie places them directly in Bolivia but they actually spent five years in Argentina and Chile). On November 4, 1908 they hit up a Bolivian mining company payroll delivery, expecting half a million dollars but finding only a few thousand. Two days later they arrived in San Vicente but were recognized by locals and trapped in a house without sufficient ammunition.

"One of the gringos killed his partner and then turned the gun on himself," says an almost toothless 73-year-old Friolan Rizo, refuting the movie's final frame: a courageous dash towards a rain of Bolivian army bullets. "My father was there that day; The gringos had to be carried out dead from their hiding place," he says. No one else has roots a century deep in this transient mining town, so Rizo has become the local legend-keeper. His testimony led to a 1991 exhumation in the spot Rizo said his father helped bury Sundance. The remains ended up being those of German man named Gustav Zimmer. Despite that identification, Zimmer's bones are on display in the Butch and Sundance museum. It later became clear that Rizo's tale probably came from information he gleaned off a Butch and Sundance historian who traveled through San Vicente in the 1970's.

Others swear that the two survived the ambush. "If you believe all the stories out there, they lived for decades, in dozens of countries," says Dan Buck, who along with his wife Anne Meadows, author of Digging Up Butch and Sundance, are considered the foremost experts on the outlaws' time in South America and coordinated the San Vicente exhumation. "We aren't going to ever find out what really happened to them," he says, though he thinks that they probably died here.

San Vicente has no doubts about its place in history. "Welcome to San Vicente: Here lie the remains of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," reads the billboard at the entrance to the town. The cemetery, on a rise overlooking the jumble of tin roofs, now has a cordoned-off area to mark Butch's supposed grave. Residents held a centennial celebration last year and San Vicente's population doubled with tourists who came to watch Bolivians reenact the shootout — the DVD of which is now available, along with Butch and Sundance hats, t-shirts and key chains in the San Vicente town store.

Locals are beginning to resent Pan American's leading role in the tourism venture. "There's always conflict over who 'owns' outlaw legacy," says Buck, who adds, however, his approval of locals' new-found interest. When he first arrived in San Vicente, in the 1980s, no one seemed to care about Butch and Sundance, he says, and so "this is a great opportunity for the locals to make some money." Sixto Juarez, a 30-something miner who and wandered into the museum the morning I arrived, agreed: "At some point the mine will close. But this town's legacy will last forever."