Suzanne and I first noticed the tiny little town of Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico way off in the distance during our hike to Boquillas Canyon. The next evening, we decided to hike what we thought would just be a simple, flat loop trail at the campground called the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail. The park brochure said it was ADA-accessible, so we both had visions of a paved granny loop around a few trees and plants—nothing too exciting, just a way to walk off our dinner.
The nature trail started out pretty much as expected. A flat boardwalk around a marshy lagoon
But it soon lead out to a rocky plateau that then continued to a large boulder-filled hill. Only the really spry grannies must make it this far! Suzanne decided to head down one fork of the path towards the river’s edge, while I headed towards
Mt. Everest to climb the hill.
As I climbed higher and higher, excellent views of the nature trail’s boardwalk, the lagoon, the campground, and the river itself began to emerge.
“Look at all those little hikers down there!”
Once at the summit, I had a full 360-degree panoramic view. I could even see my Winnie hiding in the trees down at the campground!
Looking to the east, I now had a clear view of the little village of Boquillas, nested on a ridge just above the Rio Grande with the massive Sierra del Carmen range behind it.
Soon, Suzanne arrived up to the summit and we enjoyed watching the sun set brilliantly over the river and campground. Amazing geology here as the distant mountains align to the nearer ridgeline almost perfectly
After the sunset show to the west, I turned around to watch it’s last rays illuminate the Sierra del Carmen mountains to the east. We had casually mentioned going to Boquillas before, but after now seeing it like this, we just had to go see it up close!
We both had fond memories of our recent winter visits to Mexico. But it seems whenever we meet up south of the border, our crazy, wacky alter-egos start taking over. At our last meet-up down in Mazatlan, it was “Lucy & Ethel” paddling the Sea of Cortez trying to not capsize our boats in between fits of laughter. This time we wondered if it would be “Thelma & Louise” speeding off the edge of one of Boquillas’ tall cliffs!
As we parked and walked to the brand new Customs building on the U.S. side, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Was there a walking bridge over to Mexico? A barge ferry? Did you have to roll up your pants legs and just wade across???
The large customs office is curiously staffed by just one, lone NPS ranger who takes a quick look at our passports and tells us to be back before closing time at 5:00pm. He directs us to a gravel trail that leads us down to the riverbank and says the ferry will soon be over to get us.
As we look over to Mexico’s shore, we see a half-dozen men and vehicles, a couple canoes, and some row boats. Hmm…
There’s really a ferry for this little shallow stretch of river?
“Why, yes ma’am, there sure is!” and not just any two-bit ferry either! It’s officially called the Boquillas International Ferry and just started service 11 months ago when the border crossing formally re-opened after an 11-year hiatus (due to tightened border security after 9/11).
“Ethel” is the first to board the International Ferry and takes her first-class seat to await “Lucy” to climb on board.
We are transported by no mere day-laboring oarsman, but by the Operations Manager of the International Ferry (and he has a nametag to prove it)! He’s a fun guy, speaks perfect English, and within 3 or 4 paddle stokes, has us safely delivered over to Mexico.
International Ferries don’t come cheap though! Our round-trip fare costs us $5.00 each, which our ferry captain says can be paid to the singing man at the top of the riverbank. Alrighty then!
The singing man takes our cash and asks us how we wish to get up to the village. The ever-enterprising Mexican villagers provide multiple transportation options: we can walk up the hill for free, take a burro for $5 round trip, take a horse for $8 round trip, or take a taxi (pickup truck) for even more! Without discussion, we both simultaneously blurt out “BURRO!!!” and, thus, another “Lucy & Ethel” Mexican adventure begins!
The handlers are chuckling a bit beneath their sombreros as they see us waddle up to our new faithful steeds. “Are these donkeys really big enough to carry us?” Lucy asks. “Oh Sí, Señora, No Problema! These donkeys can carry A LOT of weight!”, the handler replies (diplomatically avoiding the subject of the riders’ actual weight).
“How will we know how to get to town?” Lucy asks. “The donkeys know the way,” our handler assures. But sensing further reassurance, he adds: “We’ll have a guide walk with you up the hill.”
By the time we’ve saddled up and made it to the first overlook, I must say that Lucy & Ethel are looking quite like accomplished horsewomen (or would that be “donkey drivers”?).
While Ethel’s burro trots right along perfectly…Lucy’s mule tends towards the stubborn side and needs the guide’s continuous prompting to keep it moving up the hill.
Soon we are relaxed and enjoying the scenery. The springtime flowers are blooming in the sandy arroyos, and there are great views of Big Bend National Park across the river.
Lucy then asks: “does this small ass make me look thinner?”
“Ay, Carumba!” the donkeys exclaim, “it’s gonna be a long slog getting these two ditzy Gringas up to town!”
Suddenly, my mule halts in the middle of the road and his large ears stand straight up to attention. “Trouble ahead!”
“Horses!!!” his little donkey sidekick yells from behind him.
Apparently, donkeys don’t much care for their taller, faster, more popular genetic cousins. Sort of like the way geeky teenage drama club dorks slink and blend into the wall whenever the High School prom queen or star quarterback passes them in the hallway.
Once the horses trot on by though, the donkeys resume their slow and steady plod.
We finally arrive into town and park next to this handsome little white donkey.
Our guide directs us to some trailers behind a new chain-linked fence where the Mexico customs office is located, and then asks us if we’d like him to stay and wait for us. “Huh?” We’re not quite sure how long we’ll be to eat lunch and explore the town, and besides, the return trip looks exceptionally easy to just return down the only road (within a hundred miles) to get back down to the river. So we tell him we’ll be fine. “Well, if you’re sure,” he says “I’ll leave your burros tied to this post for you” and away he leaves us to head back down the hill.
We enter the crowded Mexican Customs trailer where a half-dozen other Gringos are filling out their visa forms. Unlike entering via car at one of the larger crossings, the visas are free at the Boquillas crossing, and a 10-minute formality to fill out.
As we wait to present our papers to the customs officer, Suzanne and I compare our passports. Since Canada never stamps US passports, mine is pretty barren except for the lone Mexico stamp it received a few months ago in Nogales.
World-traveler Suzanne’s, on the other hand, is loaded with all sorts of interesting visas and stamps—here’s one from China, that one’s from Russia, and wow, take a look at this one of Suzanne wearing a burka over her face to gain entry into Iran! It is at this point, that Ethel realizes Lucy may not be the jolly, fun-loving hiking pal that she appears --- Lucy could very likely be a secret international CIA operative! (and that would now perfectly explain all the strange antennas and hidden communications gear in Lucy’s RV! As well as her near-paranoid aversion to “all things Google”!).
My palms begin to sweat as we are called up to the customs officer to review our passports. He alerts me that I have an unreturned visa from my 3-hour tour crossing at Columbia that I should immediately go back to return (“yeah, I’ll get right on that!”). Then, he begins to page through Suzanne’s passport. With no more than a second glance, he finds an empty page, stamps and returns it back to her, “have a nice day in Boquillas!” OK, I guess, Lucy must not be a spy after all!
We walk the only street through the small, dusty town and soon realize that Boquillas is nowhere near the sophisticated, enterprising border tourism town that Algodones and others are. It’s surrounded by gorgeous, but extremely desolate, national parks on all sides. Life here is a whole lot harder than most other towns in Mexico. There is no electricity (other than solar panels), and no city sewer system (just outhouses). But still, the boundless Mexican spirit manages to prevail. Their simple concrete block church is painted with bright colors inside and out, as are many of the other modest homes throughout town.
Those towns folk not working at the border or the town’s two restaurants focus on making and selling hand-crafted souvenirs from small tables in front of their homes. Most items are small, crude, and simple things like bead bracelets, embroidered dish cloths, and small scorpion-shaped knick knacks made of wire and beads. Sadly, most items are also pretty wildly over-priced.
The restaurant’s gift shop has a bit larger selection of traditional tourist items like Mexican blankets, hats, purses, and t-shirts, but it too is also very over-priced compared to the more popular Mexican towns further south. Things we’re used to seeing priced at $10 there (or even $20 in the US) are priced $30+ here. Why on earth are they charging so much?
We soon learn the answer from the owner of the José Falcon Restaurant, where we eat our lunch. She speaks perfect English (a result of her parents sending her to high school in the US since the Boquillas school only goes to the 6th grade). To get the food and supplies to run her restaurant, she must drive 150 miles south to the nearest large town south of the Maderas del Carmen Protected Area (national park). Half of that drive is only via a gravel road, so it takes a full day each way (and an overnight stay) to make the trip. She makes that long drive every single week.
Before 9/11, townspeople were able to come across to the US to buy food and goods, but the border crossing was closed by the US in 2002 and did not re-open again until just last year. Many had to leave this small village just to survive. But now that the crossing has opened again, they are hoping the tourism business will increase enough to allow more to return back home.
The new border crossing has revived optimism in the town (as well as the state of Coahuila). Restaurant owners have made large investments in their businesses (such as large solar arrays to run refrigerators that store meats and cheeses for the menu entrees), and the state Governor recently funded construction of a new riverfront town plaza and gazebo (now almost finished!).
After our chat with the restaurant owner, we now appreciate our simple enchilada, rice and bean lunches that much more, and pose for pictures at the entrance to the restaurant before we depart.
With bellies now full, we find our little hee-haws waiting patiently (and now the last ones left) to take us back down the hill to the river.
Without the guide’s assistance, a young townswoman comes to help Lucy saddle up and offers her a small stick if she should have any trouble “starting” her donkey. It comes in quite handy more than a few times, but Suzanne tries to be gentle!
Meanwhile, Ethel whiles away the return trip with riding stunts: “Look, Lucy! No Hands!!!”
and both of us take a few selfies while driving. “Is that illegal here in Mexico?”
Soon, the view between the mule ears is of our river border crossing.
And then I swear I hear the little donkey whisper to the big one “Should we wait a few more minutes? Or buck them off our backs now?!!!”
Thankfully, the guide returns just in the knick of time to grab the bratty burros before any rough landings occur. Our International Ferry captain awaits to row us back to familiar comforts of the US.
Back on US land again, the path leading back up to the car is now looking a whole lot greener than it did when we left.