Sunday, March 16, 2014

Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico

Don't go anywhere near the border!  Don't cross into Mexico!  Have you see the news about murders and kidnappings by the cartels?  These were the words of advice from family and friends about my comment that I might cross the border while visiting Big Bend National Park.  So, what did I do?  I crossed over anyway.

Boquillas del Carmen
Near the southern tip of the National Park and right across the Rio Grande is the little village of Boquillas Del Carmen.  Its the only place within Big Bend where you can legally cross the border into Mexico.  And its the only sign of civilization within 40 miles of the park.  The village is one of three that are across the border from the National Park.  These villages are remote and the nearest towns to them on the Mexican side are over 100 miles away via dirt roads.

Boquillas was established in the early 1800's and was a mining town.  Mining was done in the Sierra Del Carmen mountains and the ore was ferried across the river and hauled up to Marathon to be put on the train.  At it peak in the early 1900's it had a population of over 2,000.  Today it is home to 240.  Its sole existence is based on tourists who cross the border at Big Bend to see a little bit of rural Mexican culture.

US Port of Entry
Prior to 9/11 the border was wide open and people could cross at will with no entry checks.  After 9/11 the border was closed and the small village dwindled down to 40 people.  But in April of 2013, the US built and opened a small self service port of entry on the river bank and opened the border.

It was a God send for the residents of Boquillas.  The population came back, the Mexican government built a school, a church, and a medical facility for the residents, and things came back to life.

When we got into the park I asked the park rangers about the crossing and safety.  They all said it was safe with no reported incidents since the border re-opened.  As one park ranger put it, "Its their economy. If there were problems people wouldn't go over.  You'll enjoy it."

Drivers, horses, burros on the Mexican side
So on our second day in the park, we parked at the border check point and made our way over.  Here's how it works.  You go into the small Port of Entry building and the Park Service Rangers explain the whole process - what you can bring back, what to expect on the other side, what the Mexicans typically charge for their services, and what happens when you get back.  You need to have a valid passport to go over and to get back.  A drivers license or birth certificate isn't good enough.

Its all low tech from there.  You then leave the back of the building and walk down a short path to the river.  At the rivers edge you hail a row boat from the other side and Mexican resident gladly rows over to get you.  Its $5 per person for a round trip boat ticket.  You can wade across if you like.  Our boatman, Carmelo was super friendly and spoke English.

Once over, you walk up the river bank and are greeted by "The Man".  He's a good natured fellow and seemed to be the boss of the boatmen, drivers, and guides that will take you into town.  You can ride a horse or burro ($8), or have a fellow drive you in a beat up pick-up truck ($5) the 1/3 mile into town. I opted for the pick-up because I didn't want my epitaph to read "Here lies Jim, killed from a burro fall while in Mexico". "The Man" also assigned us a guide, 12 year old Jesse (real name Jesus). He said "Jesse will guide you and you give him something when you return".  You can refuse all these services and walk into town, but the town survives on tourist like me spending a few bucks.  It like the price of admission.  I gladly accept Jesse's service.  He doesn't speak English but he seems to know what to do and smiles a lot.

The road to town is an unimproved path wide enough for a truck and crosses several dry arroyos before coming up a small hill to town.  After talking to the driver and asking the him a couple of questions, he says "No habla Englais".  Ok, forget what I just said.  Jesse guides us to the Mexican Border Check in, which is one the first buildings (its really a just a trailer surrounded by bard ed wire).  The Border agent was a young guy with no personality.  We handed him our passports and he asked us to sit down.  He filled in an official looking form about each of us, scanned and stamped our passports, and told us to return the form to him before we left.  Simple easy.  I asked about public bathrooms (colitis habit) and he said one of the restaurants should have one.

Main Street Boquillas
From there Jesse slowly guides us up the dirt street that is the main drag thru Boquillas. This village is small, dusty, and third world.  There is no electricity and the buildings are all concrete block or adobe.  Several look like they are abandoned.  Many of the residents sell crafts from their door fronts and Jesse guides us slowly past each one. Everyone is friendly greeting us with "Hola!"  Few speak English.

Sampling some crafts
 We walk about a 1/3 of a mile in the town and turn around seeing most of it.  We return to one of the better looking restaurants to have a drink.  We are welcomed Ventura the owner.  We just order sodas and sit under the front canopy with another couple from Quebec.  Ventura tells us about the town and what's happening. He's say that during the spring about 100 people per day come over and visited the town.  The government is putting in a solar array so they can have electricity.  He's a super friendly guy and very optimistic about the prospects for the town.  We also listened to Victor sing us Spanish songs.  He's a really really bad singer, can hardly play the guitar, but he's part of the charm that is the town.

At Ventura's Cafe with Jesse

After about an hour, I've seen enough and start to head back.  Jesse guides us to our driver who is waiting right where he let us off.  I tip the driver $10 (mucho gracias!), Jesse gets $5 and gives us a big smile.  Carmelo is waiting on the river to take us back and he gets a $3 tip (Gracias Senor!).

We make it back to the US side without incident and walk up to the Port of Entry building.  It gets a little formal.  The border agents ask us to wait at a sign and stand in line (there's no other people there).  Then they tell me to proceed to the kiosk, where to stand, to scan my passport and wait for a call from El Paso.  The kiosk has a camera, phone, and a scanner for my passport.  The phone rings and the agent in El Paso asks if I bought anything back from Mexico.  I say no then she hangs up. No welcome back or thanks.  The kiosk gave me a message that I can proceed.  That's it.  I'm back in the USA!

And that's the way it was, my visit to Mexico.  Overall, it was a fun adventure.  I got to experience some rural Mexican culture and meet some nice new people.  And I didn't get kidnapped by the cartel, mugged, or shaked down by Federales!  Total cost:  $20 transportation (boat and pickup), drinks ($6), tips ($18).  That's $44 for my visit to Mexico, to help out some fine people who are much in need.  It was well worth it.


  1. I'm glad this is open now. I visited Big Bend a couple of times and will go back again. Was always sorry that we couldn't go across and see Boquillas. We did buy some of the souvenirs they left on the US side. Still have my copper scorpion riding in the Roadtrek. Victor used to sing from the river side. They were nice folks that we talked to at the river edge.

    1. It was a nice experience for us and I too will return. Saw lots of locals on the trails. They seem to cross the river at will. Talked to a few. Thanks for reading.

  2. I'm going at the end of June. Same as the narrator friends and family is discouraging me. But of course my stubborn nature says go. Glad I read this. Email me at if you can suggest anything before going there. I went to Big Bend last year and saw the town but of course no passport at the time