So we’ve been in Big Bend National Park, doing some phenomenal hiking and exploring for the past 4 days. Today, we actually secured our campsite IN the park (difficult to do this time of year, so reserve early if you’re thinking about visiting in the winter) and decided to adventure in a different way. We went to Mexico!
Big Bend National Park sits on 118 miles of the Rio Grande River. This river provides an important habitat to many birds and animals that make the park their home. The Rio Grande also forms a natural border between the United States and Mexico. A unique partnership between the park and border patrol supports one dedicated border crossing in Big Bend National Park, into Mexico and back into the United States. This crossing, in the Boquillas Canyon area, is interesting in many ways.
First of all, one must cross the river. There is no bridge, so if the river is low enough, a person can wade across. The alternative is to pay $5/person for a roundtrip rowboat ride across the Rio Grande. When we crossed, there was enough water that we didn’t know the depth or currents and opted for the seemingly safer rowboat ride. Once you cross, the town is about ¾ mile walk, or a $5 donkey ride into town. Today, the Mexican immigration office was closed. It wasn’t clear to us if this was always the case, or just a temporary closure.
The town of Boquillas del Carmen (affectionately known simply as Boquillas) has about 250 – 300 inhabitants. There is only solar-generated electricity in town, and the nearest big town is 400 miles away via slow-going roads. This means that buying supplies must be quite an endeavor. There is a school (one of the guides mentioned there are 4 teachers), a church, 2 restaurants, a small grocery, a church, and what looked to be a local watering hole. I read that the Mexican government also built the town a hospital, though I didn’t see one on the short walk through town we took. We’ve also read that there is a small hotel in town, for those who might need it (read below).
The border is only open certain days of the week and during marked times. This time of year, it is open Wednesday – Sunday and you must be back on American soil, checked in through customs by 5 pm. This is where knowing where the hotel is may come in handy! 😊 The N.P.S. ranger goes over the rules very clearly before you leave the U.S., so there should be no surprises. Upon re-entry, you are directed to an automated machine with your passport. You scan it, wait for a border agent in El Paso to ring you on the phone, look into the camera and briefly chat about if you’re bringing anything back, etc. As this isn’t a typical crossing, there is no bringing back alcohol, tobacco, etc. The National Park Service then doesn’t need to worry about how to tax these items and it makes life a lot easier for the tourist who only brings back souvenirs. Our agent in El Paso must’ve been fairly easy-going. His question for Ella was “Did you ride a donkey?” And yes…both kids rode donkeys into town, and horses on the way back to the rowboat. They were good looking horses too!
One last little nugget we learned was that after 9/11, this border crossing was shut down for many years. It did not open again until 2013. For a tiny town that relies so heavily on tourism, it devastated the community. The restaurants, porters, and townspeople who sell their wares to tourists really do rely on this money to sustain them. Knowing this, we tipped well, bought a few souvenirs from different locations, and ate a tasty meal while there. American money is preferred, which was good since we weren’t sure where we could have exchanged money! On an 80 degree day, food and cervesas on the patio, with a view of the Rio Grande, was the perfect way to spend a couple of hours.
Oh…did I mention that the little children, scampering after you in town are just too adorable? I honestly wanted to pick them all up and love on them. The teacher in me also wanted to see their school, communicate with the teachers there, and know if they had all the books and supplies they needed to learn at school.
While we were sitting in the restaurant, Liam and Ella were digesting their surroundings. At one point, Liam leaned over and asked, “Why are there only Americans here?” This was a great teachable moment. We quietly chatted about restaurants being a luxury for some of the local people. Later, back on American soil, the whole family hypothesized about income potential for people in Boquillas and hopefully shed some light on how fortunate we all are to have reliable income, electricity, and other amenities. While we definitely didn’t do a long hike or learn anything from a museum or National Park Visitor Center today, we all did a lot of natural learning. Liam already wants to go back to Mexico, maybe as part of a camping caravan. Not sure if that’s in the cards or not, but if it is, one thing is certainly going to happen…we all 4 need to brush up on our conversational Spanish. Adios Mexico…our hearts are a little fuller after our adventure today!