Visiting Big Bend National Park is a surefire way to recognize that life is about getting someplace as much as it is about being there. The towering mountains, wide, flat deserts and dark night skies are amazing to behold. But the hours-long drives through empty country, the preparation for isolation, and the long trudging hikes make Big Bend just as much about the journey as the destination.
Interestingly, Big Bend makes the same argument with its experience of visiting Mexico.
Boquillas del Carmen is a small village just on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. In Mexico, one would have to drive over 150 miles to reach another city. As a result, Boquillas exists largely as a point of tourism for Americans visiting Big Bend. For years, Boquillas did fine for itself, but the US shut down the border crossing after the attacks on September 11, 2001. The United States only reopened the border crossing in 2013. Now, Boquillas is a destitute village where only a fraction of its former residents remain.
For Shannon and me, visiting Boquillas was a novel experience. After talking with a border patrol agent and having our passports checked in a gleaming white, brand new office, we walked out the back door and down to the Rio Grande. As we approached the banks of the river, the ground got muddy. A man standing on the opposite side of the river saw us coming and began to serenade us “Canta Y No Llores.”
The water was still and shallow, so we could have waded across. Instead, we elected to ride across in a canoe operated by a Mexican boatman. It was about a 3 minute ferry, and it cost $5 for each of us, with a free return trip. On the opposite side, we were asked if we wanted to ride horses or donkeys into town, or to walk. It was just half a mile, but since the journey was the experience, we opted for the donkeys for $5 each.
We were assigned a guide to accompany us around Boquillas. He walked the half mile into town, leading our donkeys. At the edge of town, we tied our donkeys to a tree and walked in. Our guide led us to a trailer surrounded by a fence with barbed wire at the top. This was the Mexican border station.
After filling out our customs forms, we got to tour the town. There are two restaurants, a bar, a school and two churches. A four-room hotel was under renovation at the far end of the village. There is a hospital and a solar farm. None of these buildings were more than one room, save the hotel. All of them were in disrepair, with the facades crumbling onto the street outside. Having never lived in a war zone, I guessed this is what one would look like.
While the indigence of the community was obvious, Boquillas deserves credit for not begging for money. Every child ran up to us on the street, trying to sell us handmade trinkets, but it wasn’t outright begging. When we rebuffed a sales pitch, the children accepted it and turned around to run back to their homes. Every service demands a tip, including the guide.
We ate at one of the two restaurants, and the food was fantastic. It was simple, but authentic Mexican and we had our fill. We bought a tote bag with a donkey on it as a souvenir. Everyone dealt in US dollars in Boquillas, not in pesos.
We spent just a couple of hours walking around with our guide, then rode our donkeys back to the Rio Grande and took the canoe ride home to the US.
If you are looking for a taste of Mexico, I would not recommend Boquillas. But as another experience to tack on to your Big Bend trip, I would say try it once. Know that every dollar you spend is going to people who truly need it.