Big Bend National Park and Boquillas del Carmen

Big Bend NP lives up to its name. There are three entrances and as we were coming northwest from Padre Island, we used the north entrance by turning southward at Marathon on Texas Rt.90. The eighty-nine-mile drive to the Village Campground in the park held many changes in vegetation and terrain. It was nothing short of beautiful.

It was also nothing short.

At Boquillas, the Rio Grand doesn't look so grand. On the opposite shore lies the conveyance we would take into the desert.

Gas up in Marathon, as isolation and wilderness are two of the park’s biggest selling points. Isolation aside, we voted for javalinas, flowering cactuses, roadrunners, and most of the reptiles we spotted, to be included in our selling points.

But best of all there was our all-time-bucket-list-everybody’s-got-to-do-it favorite: the Bochilla del Carmen Crossing into Mexico.

Our clandestine crossing powered by Roberto.

The crossing was like a scene out of a movie.

Picture sidling down a riverbank to a Mexican National waiting in a rowboat. He asks a furtive question. You reply, “Si, er, yes, er yeah.”

No passport is requested.  Language is no barrier. Everyone knows what happens next. Money exchanges hands. Slowly, silently, you board the boat and on stealthy oars ride the current on a quick quiet international crossing.

But I’ve left something out.

While about the same size in total area as the Mexican Customs in Boquillas, this port of entry is powerfully built, belying the strength of the U.S.A.

The adventure actually starts at the top of the riverbank. There stands the U.S. Customs Station at Boquillas Crossing. It is small, but manned with cameras, computers and everything you might expect. We are shown what we cannot bring back from Mexico and are released on our international excursion.  On the opposite side of the station is an agent with a live link online to another customs station elsewhere in a larger city. We would go through that section of the process when we returned. We would stand, answer basic questions about citizenship, show our passport (a MUST) and stand in front of a camera where we would speak on a handset with another agent located “Somewhere In The U.S.A.”

(But back to the story with Roberto our Boatman…)

The quick ride flushed the nano-flash of excitement as we entered a foreign country and about two minutes of drifting peacefully across the Rio Grande.

The money that exchanged hands? Oh, that was $5 each for the ride, round trip.

We landed in Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico to be greeted by a corral full of burros and their owners, one of whom, Vermean, became our guide for the visit. We each gave him five dollars for the burro into town.

We selected our steeds. Rhonda chose Pedro and I selected Galena. We gamely mounted the beasts and plodded along the half mile to town. Straddling my mighty beast, with my feet practically dragging the ground, Don Quixote had nothing on me.

Once again Customs played it's hand. The Mexican Customs and Border Patrol (yes, there is such a thing) is slightly larger than its US counterpart. While inside we are asked for Passports, to fill out a registration form and to swear we will behave.   (Well, yeah! what else? A Mexican Jail? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?)

The town of Boquillas del Carmen has been in existence since the 1880’s. It grew as the silver and lead mines in the nearby mountains prospered. The mines closed and life was hard for those who remained. In the 1930’s Big Bend National Park was opened with the idea of combining the wilderness of both the U.S. and Mexico.

The Rio Grande winds through mountainous terrain and separates the U.S. and Mexico. Far from established towns on either border, the idea of two countries sharing their wilderness fostered great hope for the people of Boquillas. The town grew to include many families who tended sheep and fostered tourism for their livelihood. Resources for the towns folk are still hours away by car over narrow mountain roads. Life improved for the town as tourism grew. Then came 9/11. The borders snapped shut.  Boquilla del Carmen withered once again.

Eight years ago, the border crossing re-opened and hope cautiously began to bloom. The small border town of now fifteen families re-started their tourism businesses. Americans again across over, ride the burros, enjoy restaurants, shop for souvenirs, tour the town, and meet a quiet humble people whose hope is in their hands.  This is not the Mexico of drug lords and gang killings. These are people looking to make a life in their ancestral home.

It is little known that several times throughout the recent past, the wildfires of south Texas brought on by drought are fought by the citizens of Boquillas del Carmen. They are enlisted by Texas for their ability and bravery and do the state a service. Their pay helps support the town and their families.

Our guide is paid about ten dollars an hour, roughly what we would pay a babysitter. We enjoyed a great meal of authentic tamales and burritos cooked in a kitchen about the size of the one in our Roadtrek. As advised since our youth, we didn’t drink the water, but had bottled beer and soda instead. We were serenaded by “El Hombre,” a minstrel-on–the-wane who crooned with the passion of his youth and the voice of experience and hardship.

After our “excursion abroad” we chatted with everyone about our experience. Among them, a park ranger filled us in on much of what I have reported here, as have other visitors to Boquillas.

It is amazing what can begin with an oar splash and a burro ride.

Our day flew by. After lunch, we shopped, toured the town and found a church and high school. Vermean alerted us to the passing time and we mounted our burros once again. The dusty half mile ride to the river ended too soon. We paid Vermean the agreed-to $10 USD per hour for his guide services, and rode the half mile along the dusty road to the river. The boat was just as swift as before, we crossed over without a single kidnapping or gunshot. Back in our own country, U.S. Customs was similarly safe, and we returned  to tell our tale.

Special Note: Big Bend Village Campground will be closed during the summer of 2017.  The Boquillas Port of Entry will remain open. Link

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  1. graciebaddog

    We did this in the mid 80’s. Back then there was no Customs at all. A park ranger told us about the trip. The NPS had graded a small parking lot where the trail to the river was. We parked as instructed, found the trail, and then found a very nice nice Mexican guy with what looked to be a Sears aluminum john boat. We piled in and off to Mexico we went. Our experience, burros and all, was exactly the same. Cannot recommend this side trip enough!

  2. Cencerrita

    Great article and well written. We were in Big Bend December 2015 and the highlight of an 80 day trip. Best to fill up as you leave the I10 as we found Marthon was just about as expensive as Big Bend – 60c a gallon more! Understand why so high at Big Bend, but not Marathon.
    The article mentioned The Village Campground will be closed which was only a car park with full hook ups everyone tight together – much better to go 1/2 mile further in top the Big Bend National park site with just electric hook up. There is a dump station. There is also free limited wi fi at the village campground shop for emails.