Boquillas, Coahuila, MX
Photo ©Texas Pics
One of the most interesting facts about the Big Bend is its proximity to Mexico. Our neighbor to the south has had a very large influence on the history of this region and that of much of the American Southwest in ways that most are unaware, especially as time moves forward. The storied cowboys of the Old West are rooted in the much longer storied vaqueros of Old Mexico, hell, even the word “buckaroo” comes from early American settlers to Texas who worked alongside them trying to say the word vaquero. And the rest is history.
Most of the time you’ll spend out here will be within a few miles of the Rio Grande, the river that serves as the nearly 2,000 mile border of Texas and Mexico. Though you’ve probably heard things about it on the news or elsewhere, there is a good chance that you know very little about this so-called borderland. But you are here now, or you are hopefully at least heading here, so now is your chance to hook yourself up with some knowledge. The odds are amazing that this town is so much safer than the town you live in, no matter where that might be, so cast your worries aside and have a great day.
A trip to Boquillas, for us, is a must. We’re frequent visitors and have many friends in this small, isolated community that lies just across the Rio. In many ways, it’s not at all the Mexico that people expect; however, it’s not much different from lots of Old Mexico if you’ve spent any time in parts of the country that aren’t well-known tourist destinations. Your passport is required for entry and re-entry, and all the usual protocol of visiting a foreign country should be observed. Basically, don’t be a jackass. If you have to ask yourself if you are being a jackass, you probably ARE, and it’s really not that hard to NOT be one.
The nearest town of good size in the state of Coahuila is Muzquiz, more than a four-hour drive south, much of it on very rough dirt roads. Being so far away from civilization, the largest portion of the residents’ income is from the money that tourists to BBNP spend when they visit, so we always make plans to eat lunch, have a few cervezas and some tequila, and do a bit of shopping for some of the local handmade goods.
Getting to the Crossing
A little more than a 30-minute drive south on the main road (TX 118) from Big Bend National Park’s Panther Junction will lead you to the Rio Grande. As you close in, you’ll see the Sierra del Carmen of northern Coahuila, MX, looming in the distance. They’re taller than the Chisos Mountains of BBNP and are a spectacular view from the desert floor you’re driving through. Just past the rock tunnel, which you can’t miss, look for the signs on the left side of the road for Boquillas Crossing and Boquillas Canyon. Take this turn and drive slowly up and down the twisting road about a mile and keep an eye out for the marked entrance to Boquillas Crossing on your right, a dirt road that will take you down to the US Border Patrol Checkpoint.
This is the only legal entrance to the town of Boquillas, and is open 9AM–6PM Wednesday through Sunday from November through May, and May through September the crossing is open only Fri/Sat/Sun. Park in the lot, grab your camera, water bottle and backpack and head down to the building. Once you’re inside, you’ll be greeted by a US Park Ranger who will give you the lowdown on what to expect, what you can and can’t bring back, and any daily updates on the river or events in town. Pass through the next set of doors and you are on the path down to the river. This is where the adventure begins.
Crossing the Rio Grande
A short hike down the path through the shade of cottonwood trees and the whisper of river cane will bring you to the bank of the Rio Grande. You’ll notice across the river a group of men, a group of burros and horses, a group of kids, and likely a group of dogs, and they are all very happy you are coming to visit. Once they’ve seen you, and you won’t be hard to see, they’ll send a rowboat across to give you “Your Ride To The Other Side” as their shirts say. The rowboats are big enough for up to six humans plus the boatman. Depending on how the river is flowing, wading across is an option and is great way to cool off on a hot summer day, but our recommendation is to take the boat. Not only will you stay dry and cross safely, you’re helping support their local enterprise. Once on the other side and ashore in Mexico, you’ll be greeted and charged $5 USD per person for the ferry and given a ticket that you’ll need to keep up with for your ride back at the end of your stay.
Once you’ve gotten that taken care of, you’ll decide how you’d like to get into town, which is a little over a mile from the river down a rough dirt road. You have three options: walk, ride a burro or a horse, or get a ride in a truck. If you’ve never been to Boquillas before, we suggest riding a burro for the most authentic experience. Burros are $5 USD per person, horses are $8, truck ride is $5 per person, and walking is free. Again, we like to support our neighbors, so we always choose to ride rather than walk. This road can also be quite muddy at certain times of the year, so unless you’re into that kind of thing, you’ll be happy you are up off the ground.
You’ll also be assigned a guide for your day in the town. This is another way the locals make a living, and these guys are friendly, often funny, and will make sure you get to where you need to go and might even take you to their own home for a fresh tortilla and a quick shopping visit for some of the souvenirs that he or his family has handmade. Don’t forget to save some cash to tip your guide at the end of your trip. At least $10 is customary—we tip $20—but any amount will be greatly appreciated.
As you arrive in town, you’ll park your burros in the shade and your guide will take you up to the portable building where you’ll check into Mexico. You’ll need your passport here, and on some days you’ll have to fill out a visa, even though you’ll only be there for a few hours. Boquillas is also within the boundaries of the Coahuila, Mexico, state park known as Area Natural Protegida Maderas del Carmen. Most times you visit Boquillas, you’ll also have to pay a $2 USD fee, proceeds of which go to the preservation of the park.
Now that you’ve gotten all of your travel and official government business out of the way, you can begin to explore and enjoy this amazing little slice of life hidden away from much of modern civilization. There are two restaurants, a bar, a church, even a hospital, two solar arrays installed in 2015 bringing electricity to everyone in town, and many local homes with handmade goods for sale out front. Your guide will likely give you a recommendation, but the choice is yours on how you’d like to spend your day.
How to Boquillas Like a Local
Since we love this town and are interested in supporting all of our neighbors (vecinos en Español) we’d like to offer up our perfect day in Boquillas so that you get the full experience. Tourism is the major industry in this remote town, so you are their lifeblood. So follow our lead, and you’ll have a great day ahead and come back to the US with a full belly, some great gifts, and maybe a slightly warming buzz from your first sotol experience.
There are two restaurants in town, and you’d be remiss not to try each one as they each offer a unique menu and respectively unique hospitality. While most of you won’t eat two meals in an afternoon, the best way to experience both is to pick one, either one, to hit first for some chips, salsa, and the best guacamole you’ve maybe ever had. Order a margarita, a cold Tecate or Carta Blanca, or a shot of sotol for sipping. At Jose Falcon’s, you can enjoy a view of the Rio Bravo del Norte, as it’s known on the southern side, and sit back and relax as Lilia and her familia treat you to some tasty eats. At Boquillas Restaurant right across the street, Ventura and his familia will serve you like a VIP as you sit street side enjoying the lazy bustle of the town. Again, both restaurants are great in their own right, so try to get a little taste of both while you are here.
After you’ve had a drink and a snack, tell your guide you’d like to do some shopping. Both restaurants have souvenirs for sale, but we suggest taking a walk through town, checking out the stands along the way. You’ll find all kinds of handmade trinkets inspired by the plants and animals of the desert, NO WALL koozies and shirts, handbags and dresses, walking sticks and much more. While each purveyor might have some of the same items, each are handmade by the people at each home, so you have an opportunity to pick your favorite artist, as each are uniquely designed and crafted. As mentioned above, most of the guides would love to take you straight to their own home so that you can buy from them, another thing we would like to suggest. The entire time you are in town, the local kids will come at you from every direction with a handful of koozies, NO WALL bracelets, all kinds of things. They are the sweetest kids and would love it if you buy something. If you have already bought one and don’t want to buy anything else, the best reply is, “No, gracias.”
Important to note that in Boquillas, no one takes credit cards, so be sure to get plenty of cash before you leave Terlingua or Study Butte. They will accept pesos if you have them, and you’ll likely get a better deal if you do pay with them, but US dollars are the most common currency for all transactions. Another tip is to make sure you have plenty of change unless you don’t mind paying a little extra for whatever you buy, as most don’t have change for large bills.
Once you’ve done some shopping, head over to the Park Bar for a spell. The faithful bartender, Miguel, will set you up with your favorite Mexican beer, shots of tequila, sotol, or mezcal, or a Mexican Coke. You can play pool on one of the two tables, hang out with the locals, buy your guide a beer, and generally just have a good time. What you must do though is carve your name on the bar top, a tradition so old that they’ve had to replace the top more than once over the years. A knife works well, but if you don’t have one or think you might cut your hand because of a little too much sotol, ask Miguel for the engraving tool and he’ll be glad to set you up. Interesting to note that Miguel is also one of the locals that drives the ambulance from Boquillas to Muzquiz when necessary. An all-around good guy in our book.
Now that you’ve had a drink or two, maybe three, you’re going to need some food to soak it all up. Here is where you will head back to the restaurant that you didn’t hit before. Our favorite dish at Jose Falcon’s is the beef or veggie burrito plate. These burritos are pretty tiny—think burrito-itos—and come five to a plate, plenty to get your fill without being too full. At Boquillas Restaurant, try the stacked enchiladas with an egg on top for maximum enjoyment. At either joint, there is usually a local mariachi playing guitar and singing while you dine, so be sure to throw a buck or two in the tip jar.
When your day is done and you are ready to head back, let your guide know and he’ll either radio for a truck to come get you if that’s how you arrived, or he’ll take you back down to the shade where you left your burro or horse and help you back in the saddle. Keep in mind that while the town of Boquillas doesn’t close, the border checkpoint on the US side does, and you don’t want to be late getting back across or you will have a whole new adventure on your hands. The checkpoint hours vary, no matter what the sign says, but they typically close by 5 or 6PM. Check with the Park Ranger on your way in to make sure you are aware, and allow up to 45 minutes to get from Boquillas to the river and cross so that you can hike back up. Also, remember that if there are a lot of tourists in the town the same day you are, it will take a little longer at every step of your return journey.
Once you’ve crossed the river and have made your way back up to the border checkpoint, make sure to knock the mud off your feet with the boot brush outside the door because no one likes a grumpy Park Ranger. Have your passport ready as you wait in line, make sure that you aren’t trying to bring back any prohibited items like rocks, artifacts, booze, produce, etc., and wait your turn. Again, if it’s a busy day in Boquillas, this line can take some time, so please be patient.
Before you can legally re-enter the United States, you’ll speak via video phone with a US Customs and Border Patrol agent at a kiosk inside the border checkpoint building. The Park Ranger will give you instructions, but really all you need to do is remove your hat if you are wearing one, place your passport face down on the reader, pick up the handset, and wait for the agent to pick up on the other side.
After you and your group have all passed through the checkpoint, head to the parking lot and load up for a beautiful drive back through Big Bend National Park. Another thing to think about is that while enjoying your day in Boquillas, be mindful of how much you drink. Designate a driver, be smart, and don’t drive drunk. We love you and want you to get back safely.
One More for the Road
A favorite of frequent visitors and many locals after a trip to Boquillas is a stop at the hot springs in BBNP. The road to the springs is right off the main road on your way back up through the park, and it’s a short drive down to the trailhead. Drive slow on this rough road, and mind the drop-offs. Park in the designated area and take a short hike down to the springs. Being one of the more well-known and relatively easily accessible attractions in the park it’s often crowded, but it’s a fairly large pool and a great relaxing way to end your day.
Some of the handmade gifts you can buy in Boquillas.
Images © Boquillas.org