No matter how much of a world traveler you might be, you likely pale in comparison to Emilio Scotto. In 1985, with just $300 in his pocket, Scotto rode away from his home in Argentina aboard an enormous Honda Gold Wing equipped for all manner of long-distance riding, including extended off-road travel. He returned some 10 years later, having piloted that very motorcycle more than 480,000 miles through 280 different countries and territories. He had manhandled the 1100-pound behemoth through jungles and across deserts, from the top of the world to the bottom, facing challenges and life-threatening dangers that, in many cases, simply defy description. That feat earned him the distinction of being listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having completed “The Longest Journey Around the World on a Motorcycle.”
More recently, Scotto embarked on a much less challenging but no less interesting adventure in South America as he and seven companions followed the trail of those infamous outlaws of the early 20th century, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. His tale is intriguing but rather long, so we are presenting it here in four installments, with a new chapter appearing about once a week.
Ride now with Scotto as he ventures into the beauty and mystery of some of the least-traveled regions in all of South America.
PART I There were those who claimed they had made it to Argentina. Others said they’d fled back to New York. The truth is that Los Pistoleros (the gunfighters) came to an abrupt end in San Vicente, a tiny mining village lost somewhere deep in the Bolivian Andes. It’s a place that doesn’t seem to have changed at all in the last 100 years.
What we know from the famous movie is that on November 6, 1908, Butch Cassidy, played by Paul Newman, and the Sundance Kid, as portrayed by Robert Redford, were shot to pieces by thousands of bullets fired by half the Bolivian army. This is what we imagine, at least, because both were captured in that classic freeze-frame ending when they jumped from their hideout in search of immortality.
How did these two American cowboys end up 100 years ago in this remote spot that most people know less than nothing about? We were wondering about all this as we sat stupefied on our motorcycles looking at the milestone just outside San Vicente. In fractured English, it read: “HERE DEATH’S BUTCH KASSIDY AND SUNDANCE KID. Elevation: 4,500 meters (14,000 ft.)”
Actually, never mind why those two ended up in San Vicente; the question is, how did we come to be there?
The whole thing started a few months earlier when a man named Davis Bales suggested I should take part in a curious expedition into the heart of the South American continent. An American attorney who several years back suddenly felt uninspired, Davis simply shut the door of his San Francisco office and went to live in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. For a time, he studied the country like a lawyer studies a jury in court. Eventually, he founded Brazil Motorcycle Adventures, which now organizes motorbike rides all over the most exotic places in Brazil. But this time, Davis was thinking of something much more grand, and for some reason, he contacted me.
My response was immediate: Thanks, but no thanks. An organized journey with a group of people? Definitely not my style.
Undaunted, Davis sent me a copy of the project, and by the time I had finished reading it, I was hooked. It was an expedition in search of legends: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And our journey would take in three countries: Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia. From the sensuous beaches in Rio we would set off toward the majestic Iguazu falls, then on to the Jesuit Missions of Jeremy Irons, Robert de Niro and Liam Neeson (The Mission). We would climb far into the skies in the Tren de las Nubes (Train in the Clouds) and dig down into the very entrails of the earth in the Blue Cavern. We would attempt to cross the Uyuni salt lake, a veritable Dante’s inferno, and would later go deep into Pantanal, the Brazilian “everglades.” Five thousand miles in all.
It was a journey to capture anyone’s imagination. So I took my helmet and my wife, and off we flew to Rio de Janeiro.
Some philosophers warn us not to try to define beauty, but with Rio it is simply inevitable. Beauty is the National Tijuca Park and the 2100-foot Corcovado, the Hunchback Mountain. Then Christ the Redeemer, rising 90 feet above it, his arms wide open in an effort to embrace the entire city, or trying to call all the peoples of the world to contemplate His magnificent creation. Beauty is the cable car climbing the 1200 feet of the Pao de Azúcar (Sugar Loaf), and the wonderful Guanabara Bay, with its never-ending Niteroi Bridge.
Rio is considered the cidade maravilhosa, marvelous city. It is as though all the wonders of nature had gathered ’round her on purpose. The deep blue sea, the islands surrounding the coast and the white, sandy beaches, beaches that resound in our ears: Ipanema, Copacabana, Leblón, Flamengo, Botafogo.
Our group comprised four North Americans: a millionaire, an aeronautic engineer, a retired fireman and Bales, who often proudly reminded me he is half Argentine. There were two full Argentines, my wife and me; one Brazilian, who would serve as mechanic and driver; and one Swiss who would provide logistic support. We would travel in five motorcycles and a Land Rover.
We started off heading southwest on the motorway amidst breathtaking landscapes. The first day involved the group adjusting to the surroundings and to one another. Three hundred miles later, we were having dinner in Sao Paulo and already were friends.
On the second day, some of us had to have a yellow-fever shot at the International Airport, so we got a late start. But we were still able to cross Brazil in a couple of days, which was when we came upon the spectacular Iguazu falls. Two hundred and seventy five cascades make them the largest in the world, in the midst of plentiful forest and subtropical vegetation, in some places 90 feet high. The Iguazu River spills out more water per second than Victoria and Niagara Falls combined.
We toured the falls first by helicopter and the following morning by boat, and in the afternoon managed to cross our first frontier with no setbacks. We entered Argentina, world capital of tango, red meat, Pampas and Patagonia. Before nightfall, we came upon San Ignacio, the land of red earth. It’s a mystic territory, subtly etched by its Jesuit-Guarani evangelizing background, by the generosity of nature, obvious at every turn, and by a blend of multi-ethnic customs and traditions undoubtedly the result of the melting pot of races in South America.
The Jesuit ruins are historically fascinating. Four hundred years ago, men cultivated the land and women wove on their looms while the young ones went to school. There were 30 Jesuit missions in 1610, and each of them marketed and exported their products. But in 1767, the Jesuits were expelled by the Spaniards who, unable to come to terms with the Indians, had the missions burned down. Rejected like animals by the Spanish Inquisition, the Indians returned to their original forest life.
Traversing the north of Argentina across the Pampa de los Guanacos, we reached the Andes, and with the end of the asphalt came our first day on earth roads. For two in the group, this was the first time they had ever ridden a motorbike in these conditions that included steep, winding mountain roads and pelting rain. They could have asked for no worse initiation.
Zig-zagging in this Dante-esque landscape, we climbed to 10,500 feet when suddenly, a loud shrieking noise startled us. It was the Tren de las Nubes, its old engine wheezing its way up toward the sky. This railway, designed and built by an American from Philadelphia, is one of the highest in the world, clinging to steep mountainsides as it climbs upward to 13,000 feet above sea level.
Five-minute bursts of fine drizzle every half-hour meant our clothes were always soggy. Solitude enveloped us; there was no traffic except our motorbikes. We took pleasure in the abrupt terrain, all except our engineer, who discovered to his disgust that bike and dirt were not an equation he enjoyed. All he wanted was to get back to the asphalt some day.
More to come!