Boquillas celebrates the return of American tourists as pandemic border closures lift

Gabriel Ureste Padilla transports tourists from Big Bend National Park across the Rio Grande in a rowboat to Boquillas, Mexico. The border crossing recently reopened after remaining closed for nearly two years. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

BOQUILLAS DEL CARMEN — The blades of Gabriel Ureste Padilla’s oars scraped the bottom as he rowed across the Rio Grande. It’s going to be a low water winter, and everyone knows it. Still, the mood at Boquillas Crossing was jubilant as the boat landed on the Mexican side. A crowd was gathered to ask the important question: Troca? Burro?

Truck or donkey? Those are visitors’ two options for the quarter-mile trek from the river into the little town of Boquillas del Carmen. $5 cash goes a long way here: $5 for the ride across the river, $5 for a ride into town. 

The town judge, Chalo Diaz, was waiting just up the hill. His SUV bounced along a dirt road as he talked about life in a border town of about 375 people, a number that fluctuates as there is work and isn’t. There hasn’t been for 20 months. That’s how long the border has been closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The crossing at Boquillas is a unique place. It’s the only way to legally access Mexico from the American side in Big Bend National Park. After 9/11, formal crossings between the two countries were shuttered and informal crossings were policed. This policy was devastating for border towns like Boquillas that depend on tourism as the local mining industry has dwindled — a history that might sound familiar to Big Bend residents on the American side. 

In 2013, the National Park Service and Customs and Border Protection tried an experiment. Why not open a small foot crossing at Boquillas? To this day, it’s the only border crossing that is not physically staffed by a customs agent. Instead, a park ranger offers directions and travel tips and points tourists toward the river. On the way back, visitors scan their passports at a phone booth that connects them to a customs agent in El Paso. 

The US reopened its land borders to nonessential travelers on November 8. Boquillas had to wait until November 17, in order for the Park Service to line up the right staffing. The only change for people crossing from Mexico into the United States is that they’re now required to show proof of vaccination — which, Diaz says, isn’t a problem because most people in Boquillas have been vaccinated.

As the town judge, it’s up to Diaz to resolve disputes within the community and to act as a liaison between the people of Boquillas and the legal entities that pull its strings — the National Park Service and Customs and Border Protection on the American side, the federal government and the Mexican army on the other. (The soldiers trawling through town in a Jeep from a nearby base are the only people he warns against taking pictures of.) He’s an expert tour guide, pointing out the house where he was born and a grocery store that used to house the town’s sole telephone. It was three pesos to make a call back then. Now most of the houses have internet and people chat over Facebook and Whatsapp. 

For the past seven years, Boquillas has gotten its power from a solar plant. There’s a small neighborhood of houses in an arroyo that don’t have electricity, purely out of fear that a flood will one day wipe them away. That happened to Diaz’s family in 2008, when a massive flood swept the canyons of the Big Bend. 

The tourists come and go, and the river comes and goes. The little trickle at the crossing is deceiving. A few weeks ago the river swelled over its banks and carried away two of his canoes and a kayak. Local river guide Billy Miller, known in town as Rojo, found what he thought were a couple of Boquillas canoes 200 miles away in Lake Amistad, but they were too damaged to recover. 

When the water’s low, the cattle and horses that provide a lifeline for many Boquillas families also cross. Rounding them back up can be a legal nightmare. Recently, park rangers gathered 25 cows and 6 horses that had strayed too far on the American side, and took them to Presidio, where there’s a facility for international stray cattle. The facility charges American dollars for feed, and the trip to get them back entails a 9 hour one-way drive to the crossing in Ojinaga.

Despite the ups and downs over the past 20 months, everyone is looking forward to the future. It’s been a long pandemic for business owners like Amalia, who’s been selling handmade tortillas out of her house for four years. “It was very difficult, because we live by what the tourists come and consume here,” she said. 

Larger scale businesses like Jose Falcon’s, a restaurant with a patio view of the river, can’t function without those tourists. Jose Falcon’s has been open since 1973, and when the border closed after 9/11, the restaurant shuttered for a decade as the family sought work in the United States. 

Lilia Falcon, José’s daughter, runs the restaurant today; her mother works in the kitchen, still going strong at 78. Still, the length of the COVID shutdown caught them both by surprise. “It was really shocking for us, because we didn’t expect it would be for such a long time. I’m 50 years old. I’ve never seen a pandemic before,” she said.

She estimates that the first day the border was back open, 100 tourists from the national park made their way across the river. During peak seasons, as many as 400 can cross in a day, posing problems for the limited local supplies. “If we run out of something, it’s not like we can just go to the store and get it. It’s 160 miles to go to the store. We make that trip once a week, to be able to have everything fresh.”

It’s four and a half hours to Múzquiz, where most people in Boquillas do their shopping. Everyone complains about the state of the road. A bus comes to town every two weeks to connect the village with the outside world. Making the right transfers, one could hypothetically take the bus from Boquillas all the way to Mexico City. 

When the border crossing is open Wednesday through Sunday, the women of Boquillas wait outside their houses, staffing tables laden with all kinds of hand embroidery and ceramics. Walking sticks and shot glasses are some of the most popular sellers. The ceramics get trucked in from neighboring towns, but the embroidery is local. The style changes from booth to booth, though the subjects — road runners, javelinas, ocotillos — stay the same. There used to be potholders and aprons protesting the border wall and cursing former president Donald Trump, but production slowed as the White House changed hands. The embroidery is an ancient tradition that keeps up with the times. 

During the pandemic, many of these local artisans kept to what they’d done for decades — cross the river and lay items for purchase out where the tourists are likely to find them, at popular spots like the Rio Grande Village boat launch and the Hot Springs Historic District. Then they’ll wait in the shade across the river and keep a lookout for theft. Off and on, people would sell tacos and tamales to tourists who would wade across the river from the Boquillas Canyon Nature Trail, but the Park Service shut them down.

“I’ve always heard of it. This is a really popular spot to come to,” said Danny Jones, who was visiting Boquillas with his wife and their friends. “Then for a while Mexico seemed like it was a little bit dangerous.”

The Jones were seated on the patio at Jose Falcon’s next to the Turners and the Jennings, a pair of couples visiting from Houston. Susan Jennings has a reputation in her group of friends as “the adventurer.” It was her idea to cross the border the next time she came to Big Bend. “Someone we knew said they were opening back up, so I texted everyone and said, ‘Bring your passports!’”

Friday’s crossing traffic was moderate —47 checked back in by the time 4 p.m. rolled around — but Boquillas got a chance to warm up for a busy Thanksgiving weekend in the park. In preparation for their arrival, Diaz stressed that visitors to his town would be well taken care of.

“It’s a safe place, a place where tourists are welcome,” he said. “When a tourist comes, we see him as just one more person from our town.”

Visitors to Boquillas must bring passports, and proof of vaccination is required for non-US citizens. Businesses and vendors deal in cash; American dollars are accepted everywhere. The crossing is open Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.