A few weeks ago Jim and I crossed the Rio Grande for a one-day Mexican holiday in Boquillas del Carmen.
After twelve long, lonely years of being closed off from tourists in Big Bend National Park, this rustic Mexican community is celebrating the return of adventurous park tourists willing to walk or boat across and explore this old world village.
Boquillas is a former mining town that quickly became a popular destination for U.S. and international park visitors when Big Bend National Park opened in the 1940s. Made famous in the song Gringo Honeymoon by Texas singer songwriter Robert Earl Keen, for many decades thousands of park tourists made passport-less jaunts by boat, foot and mule in order to eat, drink and party in a village untouched by time.
“Tied our donkeys to an ironwood tree
By the street where children played
We walked in the first place we could see
Servin’ cold beer in the shade
We were drinkin’ like the end was not in sight
And we drank all afternoon
We asked the world to wait so we could celebrate
A gringo honeymoon.”
Sadly, post 9/11 border security regulations quickly put a stop to Boquillas’ informal river crossings. The move nearly decimated the town’s population, but over a decade later in April 2013, remaining villagers, Big Bend locals and park authorities were elated when U.S. border officials re-opened the crossing – albeit with a $3.7 million checkpoint station and official passport rules regulating visitor requirements.
Today’s visitors will find that while much has changed on the other side, Boquillas continues to hold a special charm. Newcomers are still greeted on the river by Victor, the town’s unofficial director of tourism who belts out popular Mexican songs for tips and welcomes everyone with a giant smile.
Packs of burros stand ready for visitors too wilted to make the 20 minute trek to town on foot but pickup trucks also offer transportation.
Walking through Boquillas is like a visit to an early 20th century Mexican village. Unpaved streets lead to little more than the two restaurants and bar, a few dozen hand-built adobe houses, two plain churches and a school.
This off-grid community is pleasantly different from all other border crossings in that visitors aren’t assaulted with the usual traffic, grime and crowds found elsewhere in Mexican borderlands.
Since there are no grocery stores, liquor outlets or pharmacies, you won’t have the opportunity to do much shopping or get dental work done, but your American dollars can go to better use by purchasing handmade crafts made by locals of every age.
When you’re ready for a break, head to the famous Park Bar that greets thirsty travelers with icy cold beer.
You can satiate your appetite right across the street at the decades old Falcon Restaurante and souvenir shop that serves up $3 plates of mini tacos and burritos, or you can walk across the street to a new competing eatery.
Touring Boquillas only takes a couple hours and you can make the most of it with guided trips led by residents anxious to practice their English and show off their community. Guides greet you when you arrive on shore and work strictly for tips. Although your participation is optional, doing so adds a personal touch to your adventure, provides for your safety and positively impacts Boquillas’ economy.
Boquillas is accessed by traveling to the east side of Big Bend National Park, near the Rio Grande Village campground. The crossing station is Wednesday through Sunday between 9 am and 6 pm and official passports are required. You can cross over on foot or by paying $5 for a round-trip row boat ride, and transportation into town for non-walkers costs anywhere from $5 to $8. For more information visit the Big Bend National Park website.