La Leona Rest Area and Countryside Hotel is 110 kilometers from El Calafate, on famous Patagonia Route 40, about half way between El Calafate and El Chaltén. It’s an isolated place in an isolated region — the Patagonian steppe. La Leona consists of a small collection of buildings sandwiched between the La Leona River and Route 40, and is close to Lake Viedma. The main building was constructed in 1894 by the Jensens, a family of Danish immigrants.
It was at this spot that Francisco P. Moreno (Argentinian scientist, explorer and namesake of the famous glacier) had previously been attacked and wounded by a female cougar (known locally as a “lioness”). Because of this incident the river that flows beside the property is known as “la leona” (a.k.a. “the lioness” in Spanish).
As life on the Patagonian Steppe is hard, few people live here. The weather is often cold, the landscape rough, and unrelenting winds are commonplace. But there those who specifically seek the solitude of such places — some because they enjoy isolation, some because they seek privacy. For two of America’s most wanted felons, Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, the steppe likely seemed an ideal place to hide away. Their story has been immortalized in the 1969 film starring the overly handsome duo of Robert Redford and Paul Newman.
Robert Leroy Parker (a.k.a. Butch Cassidy) was a serial train robber who fled the USA with his partner in crime, Harry Alonzo Longabaugh (a.k.a. the Sundance Kid). They were accompanied by Sundance’s girlfriend, Ethel Place. The trio fled first to Argentina and then to Bolivia—not easy traveling in this rugged land. Before arriving in La Leona the trio had spent several years living in a four-room log cabin on a 15,000-acre ranch they’d purchased on Rio Blanco near Cholila, Argentina. They tried to settle down but it was not to be — they slid back into a life of crime.
Butch and Sundance robbed Banco de Tarapacá y Argentino in Río Gallegos, just 350 km (217 mi) from La Leona. The pair vanished north across the Patagonian steppe into one of the most rugged landscapes in the world. It was while fleeing that they ended up in La Leona, whether by accident of design we’ll never know. Despite it’s simplicity, La Leona likely seemed as good as a five star hotel after weeks of camping out.
La Leona’s Danish owners took Butch and Sundance in as guests (under false names) and they enjoyed the Jensens’ hospitality for almost a month before departing. It wasn’t until weeks after they’d left that the police arrived with wanted posters in hand; the owners finally recognized the real identity of their visitors. By then the trio had disappeared into Chile and their trail was cold.
There is a small museum at the site which recounts some of this bandito history. La Leona has been refurbished to deal with the increased flow of travelers recently, but the place retains its historic charm. Basically it’s a small wayside cafe and restaurant, gift shop and small hotel. Most people use it as a pitstop and place to stretch their legs when traveling between the two most important towns in Argentinian Patagonia, El Calafate and El Chaltén. I really enjoyed the views of the La Leona River.
In any event, I was fascinated to be having coffee in the same cafe Butch Cassidy had enjoyed more than a century before my arrival. You never know whose path you might cross while traveling — one of the things that makes being on the road so very special.