Border Crossings: from Big Bend to Boquillas, Mexico

The border between Boquillas, Mexico, and Big Bend National Park reopened in April 2013. We hadn’t heard of Boquillas until we visited the park, which was several months after the border had reopened. Boquillas del Carmen is a small city of over 200 hundred people. The town began as a mining village in the 1800s when the Sierra del Carmen were actively mined for silver and iron. You can see evidence of the mining operations on the Marufo Vega trail, and the mining was in its heyday during the early 1900s. Then, the town’s numbers began to dwindle until the establishment of Big Bend National park in the 1944. Much of the town’s economy is dependent on tourism from border crossings.

Before leaving for Big Bend, we made a serious business of verifying that we packed the passports. We didn’t want a repeat of our incident near Canada when we realized that my husband had packed both my passport and in lieu of his passport… my expired one. So, we picked up each passport individually, flashed the identification page with goofy yet earnest solemnity, witnessed each other place it a Ziploc bag, and then our packed gear. We were Mexico bound!

We planned to cross into Mexico near the end of our weeklong camping and backpacking trip. We spent our last night in the backcountry on the Marufo Vega trail. Believe me, after seven days in the backcountry, we needed to spend a little time making ourselves presentable before we felt comfortable playing the tourist. As we hiked out early from the Marufo Vega trail, a roaring northern wind picked up, and it was a brutally cold experience attempting to wash my hair in the predawn light of a cold December morning. The gusts of wind were surely above 30 miles per hour. I hope never to repeat that particular part of our day in Mexico! After we had changed and straightened up, we headed to the crossing.

The Port of Entry is between the Boquillas Canyon trail and the Rio Grande Village. Until 2002, the border was an open one where tourists from America (or elsewhere) could cross the Rio and spend time in Boquillas and where likewise artisans could cross the Rio to sell their wares in the park. Although these crossings may not have been technically legal, the history of the area led more to open interdependence than to border enforcement. Of course, the 9/11 attacks changed that, and the border was closed. With the closing of the border, the residents of Boquillas lost much of their livelihoods.

The complete shutdown of the border led many residents to leave Boquillas for other opportunities to make a living and for other residents to illegally cross the border and leave their wares at essentially an unmanned artisanal station. Although the border is open now, the ease of crossing is not what it used to be, so many residents have continued to sell wares in this way. We saw two such set-ups with the wire animal sculptures, walking sticks, and a container for leaving money at the Hot Springs and the Boquillas Canyon Overlook. We even saw the boats on the other side of the river that the people of Boquillas likely used to cross to leave those wares. Purchasing these items on the American side of the border is illegal, and likewise being caught illegally crossing to set up these stations would be an expensive fine and deportation to a city a hundred miles away. I feel that it’s better for everyone to spend money in Boquillas and get to meet the artisans instead.

After crossing through the Port of Entry, we walked a short distance to the Rio Grande where we paid $5 each to be rowed across the river. When the river is shallow, some people choose to walk across the river, but I can’t imagine it to be a pleasant or safe experience. We received our return tickets and a hearty welcome to Boquillas. The rower asked whether we wanted to take a burro, a horse, or a pick-up truck into town (between five and eight dollars), but we preferred to walk the mile into town instead. We agreed to have a guide accompanying us to point out some of the sites in the village.

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Our guide’s name was Martín, and as we walked to Boquillas, we attempted to introduce ourselves. He said that his English was only so-so, and I told him I had studied Spanish for two years in college… 10 plus years ago. Worse, because I’ve studied Latin so intensively, most of my Spanish comes out this terrible combination of Latin or Spanish. I’ve dubbed this hodgepodge lingual approach “Spatin.” We more or less conversed in Spanish with the occasional accidental Latin words thrown in for good measure; he was obviously more comfortable with me speaking my Spanish than his English. I know that some of the guides spoke significantly better English, but I was more than happy to practice my Spanish!

The winds that had picked up that morning while we had attempted to make ourselves reasonably presentable were equally fierce in Boquillas. The town is situated such that some of the winds come down from the mountains and up through the canyon, leading to stronger gusts than may be experienced in other parts of Big Bend. The day we visited was particularly unusual; some gusts were so strong that we couldn’t walk straight! The sand and dust was everywhere, and we sometimes had to shield our eyes. This made our stop in Boquillas particularly atypical because none of the artisans had stands set up to sell their wares. A few of the stands remained set up, but they were empty. I imagine on nicer days that the streets have many such stands set up in front of people’s houses. When we stopped by the custom’s house and had our passports stamped, Martín and the agent discussed the weather outside, and the agent described it as feo, ugly. And yes, it was quite ugly.

The town, however, was charming. We loved the brightly colored stucco houses. I loved the elementary school with its playset. I could see the lesson on the board through the window; the kiddos were learning their colors. My husband was rather taken with the drinking bear on the side of the bar. (We must have different priorities!) Throughout the town, you could see places where the residents kept their livestock in corrals. The town has two restaurants, one overlooking the river, which must be a pleasant place to sit and have a few beers on nicer days.

I told Martín that we had wanted to purchase some art when I saw another empty booth, its normal occupants likely taking shelter inside. He took us to his house where we met his wife and daughter. His wife was making empanadas, and she offered us some. Umm, yes please! I must have begun devouring my empanada a touch too greedily because Martín asked if I’d like another, and I tried to demure… but I wasn’t very good at it because soon I was double fisting homemade empanadas. (Please remember, I had been walking in the desert for the last week). Then, before I knew it, his wife had assembled a little baggie of empanadas for us to take with us. To say I was both giddy and embarrassed would be a dizzying understatement.

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The house now known to me as the house of the delicious empanadas.

Martín’s daughter brought out her wares and began displaying them on the table. She had embroidered handbags, kerchiefs, beer cozies, and other similar things. I imagine she also normally has a table set up in town on nicer days. We were interested in the wire woven sculptures, and she laid out an assortment of them. One of the first she put on the table was of a large peacock, and we were both immediately taken with him. Although she set out many other nice figurines, the peacock was the winner from the get go. We paid $10 for him and left to see the rest of the town.

Our guide then took us to see some of the other sites around town, including the array of solar panels that provide all the electricity to the town; Boquillas is all solar (and propane). Before the solar panels were installed within the last few years, Boquillas was too remote to be hooked up to the electrical grid. As we walked by other sites, we chatted about the local school, which has about 30 kiddos in elementary school. While we walked around town, many children came running out of houses to offer us different wares for sale, usually a woven kind of bracelet with the name of the town. They were all adorably charming, but we’d already purchased our souvenir and told them so.

We were on our way to visit the town’s Catholic church (they also have a Baptist one) when a toddler dressed in all pink came half running, half stumbling out of the house and holding her arm up against the gusty winds; she looked awfully perplexed about how strong the winds were. She was too precious and tugged on a few too many heart strings. One Boquillas bracelet sold just like that. The three dollars was well spent, and it made my mother-in-law happy to receive a trinket from Mexico.

On our way to eat lunch, Martín asked whether we had kiddos. I explained that we didn’t yet but that we did want children. He scolded us for not having children yet and said that we needed to have some. I didn’t know how to explain being foster parents in Spanish, so I just told him that I wanted two kiddos and that I’d love to have girls. He’d recently become a grandfather and was clearly very proud about it.

We stopped by the restaurant for an early lunch; we ate at the restaurant across the street from the one overlooking the Rio because it’s where Martín took us. I think both restaurants are operated by relatives of the same family. I ordered cheese enchiladas, and my husband ordered tamales. We wolfed them down, and they were delicious. We debated sharing a second plate of enchiladas until I confessed that I could eat a whole extra plate of them by myself. So, I moseyed on up to the proprietor and tried to explain in Spanish how we’d been walking in the desert for days and days and were REALLY hungry and could we please have two more plates of delicious enchiladas? Victory. Several more minutes later, we were both wolfing down a second plate of authentic, homecooked Mexican food. When we settled our bill, the food was quite reasonably priced, though we both suspected that locals weren’t paying what we paid for our lunches.

After lunch, we parted ways with Martín. It took a little explaining, but I think I adequately conveyed that we wanted to wander around by ourselves through the town. When we paid him, we were likely far more generous than necessary, but we enjoyed his company and hospitality. It’s not every day you’re welcomed into someone’s home and given a baggie of homemade empanadas. We could afford to be generous.

We meandered back through town another time, poked around in the little shop that sold everything from shoes to tortilla presses, and stared longingly through the window of the closed tourist center that talked about native plants and local culture. We started walking back toward Rio Grande with the intention of taking the spur to the Hot Springs. However, we changed our mind when we realized that our journey back would be entirely facing the gusting winds and stinging sands. We knew we’d be back again, so we had no need endure the blowing sands. We were quite sandy enough already. In fact, when we arrived at our hotel that night, the water was a rusty color from all the sand I washed out of my hair!

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The dunes outside of Boquillas; it was windy!
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More dunes outside of Boquillas; the haze is from all the blowing sand and dust.

On our next trip to Boquillas, we may again eat two plates of food each, especially if we cross the border near the end of our vacation. Hopefully, the weather won’t be quite so ugly so we can hike out to the hot springs and visit the dunes. Either way, we’ll be back—even if the winds are particularly feo. We’ve all but decided that each visit to Big Bend should end with a trip to Boquillas to eat some darn good food after a week of dehydrated meals.

Notes:

  • You must have a passport.
  • The Port of Entry is open from Wednesday through Sunday. So, don’t try to imitate us too closely and go on a Tuesday. You’ll be thwarted on your first attempt. The hours are from 8:00-5:00 during the winter and 9:00 to 6:00 in the summer.
  • It’s safer to drink bottled water or bottled beer; we risked a margarita, and it was very strong and very delicious. Still, the ice could have potentially made us sick. At the time we visited the park this year, the Rio Grande Village had to post advisories saying that their water didn’t meet safe drinking thresholds and could lead to, well, repeated visits to the bathroom, so this wasn’t a Mexico-only thing.
  • Bring cash; dollar bills are fine.
  • Bring a generous heart: The people in Boquillas had their livelihoods curtailed for a decade, and tourism is important to their community. Yes, they are going to try to sell you things, and you’ll be asked repeatedly by different children or artisans. No one was pushy with us when we said no, but we were also carting around a rather majestic looking wire peacock with us.
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