Cross the Mexican Border
Credit: Witold Skrypczak / Getty Images

I emerged from the shade onto the sun-blasted shore of the Rio Grande. Across the narrow river, a dozen or so men in cowboy hats hunkered beneath a crude shelter surrounded by dusty pickup trucks and a young man cast off into the slow moving current, paddling his metal boat my way. Less than a minute later, I was standing on the other bank – the southern bank – in Mexican sand.

The Boquillas Crossing from Big Bend National Park, USA, to Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico is – on the far side anyway – little more than a man at a shaded foldout table. He takes the $5 boat tickets sold at the Rio Grand Village store back in America and offers visitors who stumble ashore in his country the choice of the pickups or a donkey. It's a short ride into town.

For decades, the 118 miles of river between Big Bend National Park and neighboring Mexico was a porous border without passport checks. A free flow of tourists went one way and crowds of workers and school kids went the other. That all changed after 9/11, as the federal government cracked down on unofficial back-and-forth. Anyone who wanted to cross into Mexico suddenly had to travel 100 miles west to the official border crossing in Presidio, Texas, then longer distances through remote areas on the Mexican side to reach the string of villages yards from the original river crossing. Park staff and scientists working the multiple nearby protected areas in both countries were spending a lot of extra time and money trying to coordinate their efforts.

Finally, in April, 2013, an official crossing (operated remotely from a Customs and Border Protection office in Marfa, Texas) opened and the young man with the metal boat was back in business.

Our pickup driver dropped us next to a temporary building occupying a paved, fenced lot. Inside, a Mexican immigration official handed us tourist visas to fill out, stamped our passports, and instructed us to return the visas when we left. Duly processed, I left the building and was promptly met by Lupe, my guide for the day. He wore jeans, a starched long-sleeved shirt, battered cowboy hat, and boots. His English, learned working with tourists, was excellent. Figuring there wasn’t much else in the way of employment in this tiny little town, I was happy to have his company for a few bucks.

I followed Lupe up the road into Boquillas, past small houses fronted with makeshift tables displaying hand-made souvenirs: cloth bags embroidered with donkeys and birds, wire animals, thread bracelets. We stopped to admire the handiwork of some young men making new adobe bricks and applying them to a crumbling old building. The opening of the crossing has meant a mini economic boom for the small town, which sorely needed it. The area's riches are mostly of the environmental variety. The imposing Maderas del Carmen mountain range rises behind the village like a vast fortress. It and two other protected areas on the Mexican side, Ocampo, and Cañon de Santa Elena, added to Big Bend National Park, the Wild and Scenic River section of the Rio Grande, and state lands on the US side, represent millions of acres of protected wilderness.

Brightly painted houses scattered down the side of a hill, a few of them with saddled horses waiting outside. Heading back down the other side of the street, we stopped in at Park Bar, a spacious room with a concrete floor, three pool tables across the back, and a few stools in front of a large wooden bar backed by shelves containing unlabeled bottles of sotol. Similar to tequila, it is made from the sotol plant rather than the agave plant. We had a couple of $2 shots, which turned out to be smoother than tequila, then played a 75-cent round of pool on one of the tables. In the next block, a weathered old man with an even more weathered guitar sang love songs in Spanish on the patio of a restaurant, which was called Jose Falcon’s.

From there, we wandered down to the river and the mouth of Boquillas Canyon, a narrow slot defined by walls rising hundreds of feet on either side. We looked down it, but didn't have the time to hike in. The day was getting on and I had a boat to catch.

The same boy ferried me back across the Rio Grande and I swiped my passport at kiosk next to the river bank, picking up the phone handset to inform the border patrol agent watching on camera from Marfa that I had nothing to declare. He was fine with it and I was home.

More information: Big Bend National Park entrance fee $20 per vehicle, good for all occupants for seven days. The Boquillas crossing is open Wednesday through Sunday 9 AM to 6 PM. Passports are required to return from Boquillas.