While in Olympic National Park last summer, we struck up a conversation on a trail with a group from Philadelphia who was doing a year-long cross country bike trip. Talking about each of our favorite spots in the country so far, they mentioned that Big Bend National Park had really stuck out to them. Having just had someone else suggest this park to us also, we figured it had to be good. When they mentioned that their favorite thing about Big Bend was being rowed across the Rio Grande by Mexican tourism workers and having a few margaritas and tacos right across the border, we were really intrigued and this became one of the things we looked forward to most in the coming months. I mean, this wasn’t an experience you could easily find elsewhere! Plus, aside from our day trip to Victoria, British Columbia, I had never left the United States so this would be another country to check off for me. (Some are extensive world travelers; me, I take day trips out of the country!)
Upon arrival at Big Bend, we were unsure of what to expect when it came to crossing the border. We hadn’t gotten many details from our fellow Philadelphians so we weren’t even sure where to find this border crossing, how safe it was, or if we’d even be able to do it. We came to find though that the crossing into Boquillas, Mexico was a main tourist attraction in the park and that it was facilitated by the National Park Service who worked remotely with border patrol agents. Information was even in the park brochure about it! So it was on – passports in tow, we were going into Boquillas.
We had originally planned to go on Thanksgiving Day to do something unique and fun on a day when we were missing out on our traditional family festivities. However, the weather had other plans so we decided to go the day before. When we arrived at the border crossing – clearly marked from the main road – we parked and entered the NPS building to be greeted by park rangers who said things were not going so well that day. Our hearts sank as we feared we might miss out on this opportunity because we had left it till the last possible day for us since our then lagging batteries wouldn’t last much longer. The ranger went on to explain that their center relied totally on generator power and that it had been on the fritz that day. Since they relied on electronic kiosks where border patrol agents could see a scanned image of travelers’ passports and ask a few questions by video chat, they said if the power was out when we came back, we could be stuck on the Mexican side of the border until an agent could drive to be there in person – a minimum trip of four hours, and they were not likely to be happy about it. If the power remained on, however, which it currently was, we would be fine. Even though we were a little intimidated at the thought of possibly getting stuck in Mexico for the night, we took a leap of faith and joined the few dozen other visitors across the border.
We were schooled by the ranger in what we legally could and could not bring back with us across the border, what to expect when we get there, and what to consider a fair price for souvenirs or services (also that the people of Boquillas are happy to accept U.S. dollars). He even reassured us that it was a safe place as even though it is quite an economically depressed town, they rely heavily on the few dozen tourists who visit daily to sustain their local economy.
We then walked the short trail down to the Rio Grande crossing. The river is quite narrow and only knee deep here and some choose to wade across. The murkiness of the water and the novelty of taking a row boat across it, not to mention the benefit of supporting their local economy, led us to pay the $5 per person roundtrip fee for our seconds-long river voyage. The workers running the operation were gruff but friendly and varied in the amount of English they spoke.
We were then introduced to our tour guide, which the park ranger said to expect. The guides work for tips to show visitors around town for the day. Our guide’s English was not terribly strong but enough to communicate while we felt a little embarrassed at how rusty the Spanish we’d learned in school had gotten.
As town was 0.7 of a mile from the shore, we were offered the option of riding in a pickup truck or riding a burro for $5, or a horse for $8. I know it was the touristy thing to do, but I picked the burro because how often do you get the chance to ride a burro?! John chose to walk alongside while our tour guide made sure the burro kept on track.
Upon arrival, we were escorted to the small trailer used by the Mexican border patrol. The agent took down our information, checked and stamped our passports – a real accomplishment for me! – and we were on our way.
Boquillas is a very small town with a population of 150-200 people. Like Big Bend, it is quite an isolated area and the nearest place to buy food is a scant 150 miles away. However, they are still able to sustain two restaurants, right across from one another. Our tour guide recommended his favorite and we sat down on Boquillas Restaurant’s patio to enjoy some Carta Blanca and Tecate cervezas, authentic tacos, chips and salsa – some of the best we’ve ever had and reasonably priced, too.
Boquillas was pretty quiet save for the musician serenading the restaurant across the street, a few other American tourists, and kids playing in the street or selling trinkets to tourists. The owner of the restaurant, whose English was very good, came out to talk to us for a few minutes as we also were introduced to a few of our tour guide’s adorable children who came running and laughing at the sight of their dad.
After lunch, our tour guide showed us around town. He explained that the town previously had no electricity but that they had recently developed a solar power source. Some of the homes even had satellite dishes for televisions. He explained though that the town was still quite poor and that it could be hard to live in a place with little to no jobs, particularly since they were hit so hard by the ten years following 9/11 during which the border crossing had been closed. He said that everyone considered one another to be family though and that they worked hard together to make do with the local opportunities they had. Learning about their experiences really made us appreciative of all of the opportunities we have in the United States and respect their resilience.
He showed us his house, one of the town’s two churches (there was another across town), the school, and the town store, where they sold candy and other supplies that the kids loved. We walked up to some higher ground and took in the view on the Mexican side that is so prominent on the Big Bend landscape. Despite a language barrier, our guide did his best to answer all of our questions. Merchants in town (and some children) sold a plethora of handmade souvenirs – we bought a drink koozie and a beautiful little wire sculpture of a rooster while there.
Once we had pretty much seen the town, we let our guide know when we were ready to head back and switched roles as John rode our trusty steed back to the river.
We thanked our guide and gave him a tip for his services. The park ranger had told us that $5 was the normal amount but seeing as he had just spent a few hours with us, we were happy to give a little more. We were then on our way back across the river and were luckily able to recross the border with no trouble having had a truly unique and memorable experience that few get to have (even within the park, we heard so much buzz about Boquillas but few had remembered their passports to go)!
We concluded our day with some jackrabbits and javelinas dashing through our site and a quick walk at sunset down the nature trail across from our site. Gotta love national parks – where these views are just a leisurely stroll away!