Inside Big Bend National Park is an international border crossing to a tiny village known as Boquillas, Mexico. That’s right I said inside the National Park! Isolated in the biosphere know as Maderas del Carmen, with mountains on one side and the Rio Grande River and US border on the other, this tiny town needs you to visit so they can survive. And for us, when we’re this close to Mexico we need to cross over for some spicy food and cold cervesas.
We consider ourselves pretty well traveled throughout Mexico; from the metropolitan Mexico City to the artistic San Miguel de Allende, to the small surfing community of Sayulita and even the tiny fishing village of Puerto Morelos. Throughout all of our Mexico travels we’ve never visited a town quite like Boquillas, or a border crossing so unique.
To get to the border we pass through a National Park building where they give us a quick heads up on what we can and cannot bring from Mexico into the US, and they warn us not to arrive later than 5:30pm as the border closes early. A short walk down to the river and we pay a man $5 (per person) for a round trip boat ride across the Rio Grande (you can swim across for free if you’d prefer). There we are offered a guide and we’re given three options to get to the town: Walk, ride a mule, or ride in a truck. Of course the mule and the truck cost money so we walked (and honestly walking is quicker and easier on your butt than riding a mule). A quick check-in with customs and we’re free to roam about.
Normally Nikki and I prefer to explore on our own, but I asked our guide if he’d show us around (BTW – he only spoke a little English, and luckily I speak a little Spanish, so we were able to communicate fairly well). We got the scoop on the town: visiting the brand new hospital, the $10 per night hotel (with free breakfast) should one decide to stay the night, the hot springs (even better than the hot springs on the US side), and of course the tiny Catholic church.
Then our guide showed us his home and introduced us to his mom who was waiting to use the phone. The house was extremely basic inside but he had the town’s only satellite phone: if you need to make a call this is your guy…or should I say the only guy! I noticed the little solar controller on the wall, and a small solar panel outside the house and asked if the phone was solar powered. This is where the story gets interesting:
In the late 1980’s the town had an agreement with Big Bend N.P. to run a set of power lines across the Rio Grande. The government of Mexico agreed to pay for the cost of the power lines and the materials for the telephone poles if the townspeople would donate their time to build it. Once it was all built and the switch was about to be flipped to give the people of Boquillas electricity the program was shut down. Apparently there is a peregrine falcon that only lives in the east rim of the Chisos Mountains, so the Sierra Club lobbied the National Park system to remove the power lines over the river in order to keep the falcons from getting electrocuted should they attempt to fly into the live lines. Here comes the good news:
After years living off some small solar panels, propane, and a few generators the town finally has worked out a new plan to give them clean power. The Mexican government is going to build a giant solar array and install a battery bank at no charge to the town. The electricity will run through the existing poles and lines that were erected nearly 30 years ago. The townspeople will pay a small fee to receive their electricity, but the money is not to pay back the government, it will be placed into a COOP account to pay for new (average lifespan of the batteries is estimated at 5-6 years) or additional batteries as needed.
There are 2 main restaurants in town, we ended up at the Falcon (it’s the one on the right as you’re coming into town). The Red Chile Enchiladas with Oaxaca cheese hit the spot and the ice cold beer (from an old propane fridge) was a nice escape from the desert heat. Of course no Mexican meal would be complete without some pickled jalapenos, salsa and totopos.
Grand total for 3 beers, two enchilada plates, tostadas, chips, salsa, and jalapenos: $19 + $4 tip. The best part of the meal was chatting with the owner, his English was nearly perfect and we talked all about the electricity issues, the Sierra Club, the Mexican government giving so much to this tiny tourist town, his sister that lives in Cancun and their most recent and most exciting news:
If you think the electricity issue of the 80’s was bad, this tiny town was almost removed from the map after 9/11. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks on the US this border crossing was closed. At the time there were nearly 300 people living in Boquillas, most in the tourism hospitality industry. As you can imagine the town was devastated, businesses collapsed and people were forced to leave as there was no longer any work, and no guarantee when the US would open the border back up. Jump forward to April 2013. The border crossing re-opens and people begin to move back to Boquillas (just over 200 people live here now). The Mexican government wants this little tourist village to succeed so they sent supplies to repair the homes and new paint to freshen up the remodeled town. The government built a brand new hospital, a new school and has plans to open up a new plaza in 2014 which is currently under construction.
A few helpful tips for an enjoyable border crossing into Boquillas Mexico:
- You need a passport.
- Cash is King. There is an ATM on the US and MX side, and don’t worry about exchanging money as the US dollar is what they prefer.
- On average only 35 people cross over each day, so don’t expect any major lines at the border.
- The border has limited hours (currently 9am – 6pm Wednesday-Sunday) so ask a park ranger for more info before you assume you can cross. You can also visit these sites for more info: http://www.nps.gov/bibe/planyourvisit/border_travel.htm and http://discoverboquillas.wordpress.com/
- A Mexican guide is not necessary but they will insist that you need one. We liked our guide as he was friendly and knowledgeable. As payment we tipped him $11 for the 2 hours he spent with us and we bought him a beer during our lunch stop.
- Most people cross the Rio Grande on the “ferry” (a small paddle boat) however some people decide to save their $5 and swim across. Crossing the water is a shallow knee or thigh-deep wade when the water is low, but swim with caution if the water is up; you might want to ask a ranger before attempting anything crazy.
- Lunch at the Falcon was great but the food is simple as the nearest grocery store is a 4 hour 4×4 drive away. The beer is cold, the tortillas are fresh and pickled jalapenos are tasty.
- Safety was not an issue! Everyone was friendly and when the few people approached us with trinkets for sale a simple “no gracias” sent them away without hassle (not the same can be said at many other Mexican tourist cities).
- Bring water with you, it is hot outside, and you don’t want to drink their tap water (unless of course you have an AllClear, like we do, to kill the unsafe bacteria). I’m sure they sell bottled water too if you forget.
- Tipping is always appreciated so make sure you have lots of small bills with you. From the moment you step foot on Mexican soil there’s a man greeting you with song…and yes he would like a tip if you can spare $1. Total we spent less than $50 on the entire experience, which for a few hours in Mexico is a little pricey, but we think Boquillas is such a unique destination it’s worth every penny.
- Purchase your knick-knacks in Boquillas; do not attempt to purchase these items on the US side as its considered contraband. Also do NOT purchase any minerals or rocks in Mexico; it is illegal to carry them back into the National Park. I’m pretty sure we were told no booze, drugs, guns, marijuana, etc. Check with the rangers before you cross into Mexico for a list of items that are ok to bring across the border.
- A fun random bit: Want to know what Boquillas was like in its hey-day? Have a listen to Robert Earl Keen’s Gringo Honeymoon; it’s commonly thought the song is about Robert Earl Keen and his date crossing the border…it’s a fun song if you like Texas Country, and it makes me think of how crazy this town used to be on busy days.
- Visit on a Holiday! When we told the restaurant owner we were going to the Kentucky Derby this year his eyes lit up “We have horse races here too!” Even though Boquillas is a tiny town of 200 they are the only town in the vicinity where you can get beer. So on holidays the nearby ranchers, farmers, off-duty military, and the other nearby townspeople come to Boquillas to celebrate. A favorite afternoon tradition is horse, mule, and donkey races amongst other festivities. Needless to say: we want to come back to see that!
- If you find yourself having way too much fun, and you miss the 5:30pm “last call” at the border crossing, never fear as there is a hotel that can accommodate you. Get checked in as early as possible to make sure there is someone to prepare your room, then head out for drink or find your way to the hot spring…and remember you’re having an experience that very few others in the world have done.
After crossing back into the USA you are greeted by park rangers that lead you to a computer screen. A quick scan of your passport and the phone rings, a crackling voice comes across “Are you bringing anything back from Mexico?” Nope, I answer. “Thank you, have a good day.” And just like that we’re back in the states thinking about how Boquillas might be a stone’s throw away, but it’s a completely different world. Definitely a unique National Park and Mexico experience!
Have you been to Boquillas, or some other tiny border town? Share your favorite hidden spot in the comments below, who knows maybe you’ll convince us to stop in.