Few have had the courage to take up residence on the Patagonian Steppes. The unpredictable weather, rough and tumble landscape, unrelenting winds, and limited access to food have kept most away. But there have always been those who seek out places others deem inhospitable; a place where anonymity is guaranteed. And for two of America’s most wanted––Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid––the Steppes may as well have been paradise.
A world apart
Driving south along Argentina’s RN40 (the longest stretch of blacktop in the country) towards El Chaltén from El Calafate, the slow roll of the Andean foothills proved captivating. Against the sheer scale of Patagonia, neither time nor distance passed in any familiar way. I was entranced. This is what it feels like to fall over the edge of the earth, I thought, as we inched closer to the heart of the Andes. The squeal of the coach’s brakes broke the spell as the driver announced we’d take a break. We’d covered 110km (68 mi) in what could’ve been a lifetime or the blink of an eye.
“Where are we?” I asked. The driver cocked his head and with a slight grin said: “Welcome to La Leona.” While places like El Calafate and El Chaltén are spectacular destinations in their own right, they’re a world apart from the solitude of the steppe. And this was how I found myself at a small estancia with an incredible story.
Legendary La Leona
Today, La Leona is a guesthouse, café, small museum, and the perfect point to stretch your legs on a long drive through southern Patagonia. Originally built by a family of Danish immigrants in 1894, the estancia is situated at the convergence of the Argentinian pampas, the La Leona River, and the formidable Andes. The river has its origin to the south of Lake Viedma and winds for about 50 km (30 mi) through the Andes before flowing into Lake Argentino.
La Leona has quite famously served as the base for many summit expeditions to Mt Fitz Roy and Mt Torre. The renowned Franco-Argentinian expedition (the first team to summit Mt Fitz Roy in 1952) took up here––and it was used again by Casimiro Ferrari (during his controversial ascent of Mt Torre in 1974) when he set up camp only kilometres away. La Leona has welcomed many prominent figures over the course of the last century; however, none are quite as infamous as legendary American outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
‘Going straight’ in the middle of nowhere
Robert Leroy Parker, better known as Butch Cassidy, was a notorious American train robber who fled the US with his accomplice, Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, known as the Sundance Kid, and Longabaugh's girlfriend, Etta Place. The trio fled first to Argentina and then to Bolivia—quite the accomplishment for three fugitives on the run in the late 19th century. La Leona, however, was not the first stop for them in Argentina. The trio had settled in a four-room log cabin on a 15,000-acre ranch they’d purchased on Rio Blanco near Cholila, Argentina a few years earlier. Although they’d wanted to settle down as respectable ranchers, it wasn’t long before Cassidy and Longabaugh were tempted back into crime.
Stuck in the middle with you
Legend has it that Cassidy and Longabaugh held up the nearby Banco de Tarapacá y Argentino in Río Gallegos, just 350km (217 mi) from La Leona. Escaping with a sum that would be worth at least US $100,000 today, the pair vanished north across the Patagonian steppe and into one of the most amazingly inhospitable landscapes in the world. To think that they did so on horseback, carrying all they needed to survive, helps to explain why, when they happened upon La Leona estancia, they weren’t quick to leave.
The estancia’s Danish owners took them in (under false names) and they were treated as distinguished guests for an entire month. It wasn’t until weeks later, when the police arrived with wanted posters in hand, that the owners finally recognized their visitors. By then the trio had fled north to San Carlos de Bariloche, from which they disappeared into Chile. There, the trail went cold.
The legend lives on
Today, the legend of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s time in Patagonia persists––and can be relived in old photographs and documents on display at the small museum at La Leona. It’s a great place to sit back, have a coffee or rock up to the bar and try your hand at some of the games that entertained the area’s shepherds and cattle herders. What’s true of La Leona is true of Patagonia as well––there’s legends to be found in the most unlikely of places.
G Adventures runs a number of departures in Patagonia encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.