South of the Rio Grande

Sometimes we go on little adventures.

My favorite adventure recently was at the tail end of a six-week cross-continental trek, way at the bottom of the country.  We landed at a hotel in Fort Stockton, Texas the night before with three sick kids.  The bottom three children were all vomiting, and while that was sad and awful for them, I selfishly worried that our biggest, most exciting adventure was not going to happen the next day if they didn't get better.  In a hurry.  We fixed chicken and rice in the hotel room, did some much-needed laundry, called it an early night, and prayed for speedy recoveries.

The next morning we loaded up the van for our trek south to Big Bend National Park and, what I anxiously anticipated, Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico.

After a quick stop at the Visitor's Center in the park for a stamp in our kids' national park passport book, we wasted no time getting to the border crossing.  I loaded up our bookbags with water bottles, sunglasses, diapers, wipes, and a few spare clothes (because, you know, all of the vomiting the day prior).  When we checked inside at the building, the ranger gave us a quick rundown of what we could expect when we go down to the river to cross, what's in the town, and what the weather was like (15 degrees hotter across the river for some unknown reason).  Given that the day was sunny and hot, the ranger looked at our less than tan skin and recommended hats for everyone in the party.  (We're embarrassingly pale.)

We planned to spend enough time in Boquillas to eat lunch, look around, and grab a souvenir or two.  We walked the path down to the river.  As we cleared the vegetation on the U.S. side of the river, we saw a man in a flat-bottomed boat shove off from the Mexico side to meet us.

We were a little concerned because no one in our 8-person party speaks a word of Spanish, but that didn't matter.  The Boquillas residents were well-versed in English, and we were easily able to communicate.  For a fee, we opted to hop in the boat rather than wade across the deep river (which is a viable option for some).  The boat operator insisted that we all get in together and he quickly and ably rowed us across.  (Kudos, that was no small load.)  On the other side, we had the option of riding a burro, riding a horse, riding a pickup truck, or walking.  The first 3 incur a fee.  It's free to walk.  Given the fact that it was hot as Hades (even for these GA folks) and we felt like we were there on borrowed time, we opted for the pickup.  Once again, the driver insisted that we could all ride together, inside the truck, so we packed in - 4 (including the driver) in the front, 5 in the back.  I read somewhere that the National Park on the Mexican side of the river requires that a guide stay with all visitors, so even if you decline their services, they kind of shadow you while you are in the town.  Our guide, Esteban, rode in the back of the truck.  As we bumped along the dried-up creekbed in the pickup, I noted the "social roads" that the park ranger had warned about, places off the beaten path where locals tried selling their wares without permission.  When we reached the town, Esteban escorted us into the Mexican customs office where we told them our intentions and received a temporary visa for the day.  Note: This was the only air conditioned location in Boquillas.

Esteban lobbied hard for us to go to Boquillas Restaurant at the end of the road, but we opted for the closer (more famous) Falcon's Restaurant.  Jose Falcon opened the restaurant in 1973 at the height of tourism in Boquillas.  It used to be no big deal for anyone to cross the river back and forth between Mexico and the U.S.  The events of September 11th changed everything.  When the border was closed, the town of Boquillas was cut off.  The nearest Mexican town is hours away via terrible roads.  The U.S. crossing was their lifeblood. 
The events of September 11, 2001, destroyed Boquillas del Carmen's traditional way of life. In May 2002, the border crossing from Big Bend National Park to Boquillas was closed indefinitely. As of October 2006, only 19 families of around 90 to 100 residents remained in Boquillas. Most of the town's residents had been forced to move away by the closure of the tourist crossing and destruction of the town's traditional economy.
On January 7, 2011, the US National Park Service announced plans to reopen the crossing using a ferry and a passport control center planned to open in the spring of 2012.  After multiple delays, the new Boquillas Port of Entry was finally officially opened on 10 April 2013. -from Wikipedia
Today, the daughter of Jose Falcon operates her father's restaurant in his memory (he died in 2000). We enjoyed chips with salsa, pickled jalapenos, and cheese dip.  The kids enjoyed their typical chicken & cheese quesadillas, I order beef tacos, and Sam got green chili chicken enchiladas.  The highlight for everyone on the hot day was the refreshing Mexican Coca-Cola (and Fanta) with real sugar.  The meal was fantastic, and the people won us over with their sincere gratitude for our patronage. 

(Random funny of the day:  Leah smuggled the yellow toy from our doctor kit into Mexico.  For some unknown reason.)

After lunch we walked down the staircase to get a better look at the river (okay, lies, we were hunting a geocache which is not easy to do with Esteban looking over your shoulder, but we did get it!). 

There is a gorgeous gazebo overlooking the river with a view of the mountains.  We were sweating too much to really enjoy it.  According to Esteban, the weather was not unusual for the end of September, which made me feel even more love for the ever-hot residents of Boquillas.

Full family shot courtesy of, you guessed it, Esteban.  (He was precious.)

We did a little shopping in the curio shop, where each child picked up a token to remember Mexico by and then we went on our sweaty but merry way. After we turned our visa back in at the customs office, we tipped our guide who had radioed back to the pickup truck who was waiting to take us back to the "international ferry."  He politely offered us some steeply discounted, homemade trinkets, and how could we refuse?  We left with a bracelet for each kid and a super-cool wire scorpion.  As we handed the money over, I almost wanted to cry.  He was so unbelievably grateful.  As we loaded into the truck, he shouted, "Goodbye, nice family!  Please come back and see us!"

I just kept praying that Hannah, who was strapped into the Ergo on me, would not throw up in the sweet driver's truck.

When we reached U.S. soil, we had to check back in at the border crossing.  This time, we presented our passports via a scanner to a remote border patrol officer in El Paso to whom we communicated via phonecall.  I'm sure I looked like a noob, but we were allowed to re-enter without any hiccups.  Our day in Mexico was complete.

It was awesome.  Worth every effort.  And every penny.  The residents of Boquillas were sincerely grateful for our visit and showed the greatest hospitality.  I want to go back and buy up all of their trinkets.  And give them hugs.  Maybe when it's not 100 degrees.

And that...just barely scratched the surface of the treasures at Big Bend.


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