Thursday morning we saw hikers coming up one of the paths from behind the lodge. They were dressed for the cold; thermal jackets, hats, gloves and heavy hiking boots. They carried all their gear in backpacks, hearty souls to be roughing it in this cold rocky terrain. We went to the lodge dining room for breakfast. It was overcast and cold, in the 40s.
We decided to head to Rio Grande Village where visitors can get a ride in a boat across the border into Boquillas del Carmen, Coahuila Mexico. It was about a 30 minute drive south through the park to Rio Grande Village. Once there we went into the Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry building where we were met by a US Customs Department employee who explained to us and two other couples the procedure for going into Mexico and what to expect on the other side. He said that they had a working relationship with several residents of Boquillas who had work visas and contracts with the National Park to transport tourist across the river and into the town. He told us that the border had been closed after 9/11 and reopened again in 2013. You can go into Mexico at this point Wednesday through Sunday, from 9 am – 5 pm. He warned us if you did not get to the river by five you’d have to spend the night in Mexico. And if you failed to get to the river by five on Sunday you’d be in Mexico for the next two days. He then checked our passports and did a show and tell of the items we could not bring back across the border; the usual restrictions; tobacco, alcohol, animal, vegetable and mineral.
We walked the trail to the river bank where a Mexican man waited for us with his aluminum john boat. All six tourists fit into the boat and at $5 a head the man earned every dollar, rowing us all across the shallow water. On the other bank was a bevy of men, trucks, horses and donkeys waiting for us. We could walk up hill on the muddy rutted road into the tiny town, about one mile, we could pay another $5 to get a ride in one of the several trucks waiting like taxis at the airport or we could pay to ride a horse or burro into town (as the others on our boat did). We decided to go in luxury and hired a truck. The first vehicle, a battered pickup with a crack in the windshield, that we hopped into would not start, so we ended up in the next taxi, a newer red F150 which also had a cracked windshield. Our chauffeur, whose name was Enrico and who spoke English, tried to give us a nice ride but it soon became obvious why the trucks had cracked windshields. Enrico said he wanted to take us to his home where he had items made by his mother, his wife and his daughter for us to see. But first we had to go to a white trailer to check in with Mexican border patrol.
When we came out we joined Enrico, walking down the unpaved street through the middle of town. There were two restaurants, Jose Falcon’s and Boquillas and two cross streets, lined by small adobe houses. Enrico took us into his kitchen where on a table was a display of different items made of twisted copper wire and glass beads; cactus, trees, road runners, owls and a few other pieces. I picked out a cactus with a road runner standing under it for $15. No one else was at the house and Enrico said his daughter and wife had moved to the nearest town 160 miles south. He said he drove back there for two days each week when the border closed. Boquillas was surrounded on all sides by steep cliffs and ominous mountains. Enrico told us that there were only 40 families who lived here full time, about 140 residents in all. He explained that the small school here had only 3 classrooms for all the grades. That is why his family left, so his daughter could attend a better school. We parted ways and Enrico told us he’d wait for us and drive us back to the river whenever we were ready. We headed down the street and stopped to look inside the small Catholic Church with a sign that read Nuestra Senora, which translates “Our Lady”.
It was simple and humble inside, matching the residents of this small village. Further down, we crossed the street to where a girl was selling handmade items in the front yard of her home. We bought two beautiful handmade rosaries for $10 each and I bought a small cloth bag with an owl embroidered on it. We ended up in the Boquillas Restaurant for lunch, where we had fresh chips and guacamole, excellent quesadillas and two bottles of Coke (with real sugar). We ate outside on the patio that overlooked the Rio Grande, even though it was a little cool and still overcast. The floor of the restaurant and the patio was a mosaic of ceramic tiles of different colors and styles, many were broken and fitted neatly together. I think maybe the proprietors of this establishment had the floor done with discarded tiles. If so, they did a great job making something beautiful out of repurposed materials. As we left we noticed a decorated cow skull hanging on the wall. It had an image of President Trump with a red slash over an image of a wall. The message was clear. “No Wall”.
We had to stop once again at the white trailer before we left. When we came out Enrico was there waiting for us by his red truck. He drove us back to the bank where we crossed over the river the same way we came. Joe tipped our oarsman as we stepped onto US soil, thanking him for the ride. Back at the visitor’s center we had to go through customs via an electronic device with a telephone receiver on it. Joe went first, placing his passport into a slot to be scanned. Following the instructions on the screen he picked up the phone and stood facing a camera. He answered the questions of a Customs Officer in El Paso, telling him where we went and what we did in Mexico. Then I heard him say, “My wife bought some trinkets.” Next up, I inserted my passport and picked up the phone for my interrogation. The voice on the other end (this was not Skype, no video conference, only a voice over a phone and a one way camera) said “Your husband said you brought back trinkets? What kind of trinkets?” So I proceeded to explain about the copper cactus and road runner and the rosaries and before I could get to the last item, he dismissed me. So I hung up and retrieved my passport. I’m sure I would have gotten more attention if I said “I brought back a bottle of Tequila and some marijuana.”
We headed back up through the park, deciding we’d go to the Fossil Exhibit. There we saw dioramas that showed how all this land was once covered by warm seas teaming with simple life forms. We also saw fossilized bones of many creatures, some that lived on earth over 200 million years ago. One was a replica of a fossil leg bone from a prehistoric reptile that was as tall as a man. This femur was part of the huge discovery in 1999, when paleontologists uncovered giant dinosaur bones so large that they had to be airlifted by helicopter and transported via flat bed truck to the Dallas Museum of Natural History where they remain today.When we left the exhibit the weather was not improving, only getting cooler and wetter, so hiking on any of the trails, even the shortest one seemed too daunting. We headed back to the Lodge where we had dinner. Joe ordered the chicken fried steak and I had a bean burger and salad. We returned to our room, resigned to another night of no stars, but we did enjoy watching the sun go down behind the Chisos Mountains. We could see the outline of Casa Grande Peak which is 7,736 feet high as it was back-lit by the setting winter sun. We had to resign ourselves to the fact that we’d be leaving without truly experiencing all that Big Bend has to offer. We missed all the off road sites, such as the Santa Elena Canyon, carved by the Rio Grande, accessible only by water, and Ernst Tinaja, (Spanish; meaning water hole), accessible with high clearance four wheel drive vehicles only, and the road to the spot may not be passable at all when it has been raining.
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