The Big Bend And Boquillas: An Experiment On The Border

By Lorne Matalon
November 18, 2013
Lorne Matalon
Ventura Falcon Diaz, behind him on the right is his father Roberto. Ventura says even more people would come to Boquillas but many don't bring their passports when visiting Big Bend National Park.

BOQUILLAS, Mexico —The best part about going to Boquillas, in the Mexican state of Coahuila, might just be arriving. You float in near bliss for 30 seconds or so as Carmelo Sandoval rows you across the Rio Grande into Mexico.

“More people are coming" he says excitedly in Spanish.

The border was sealed by presidential order in 2002. Before then, thousands of people crossed informally as they had for generations.

And trade benefited both countries. Visitors to Big Bend National Park in Texas tacked on a trip into Mexico to savor another culture for a few hours.

Mexicans accounted for 40 percent of the revenue earned at the national park's supply store. 

With a new crossing, the U.S. and Mexico wanted to see if damaged economies on either side of the river could be rescued. The experiment — so far — appears to be successful. About 500 people a month are coming to Boquillas. That exceeds the predictions.

Marilyn Fowler of Austin, Texas, is back for the first time in 12 years.

“When they closed the border it broke our hearts," she said. "We wanted to stand and wave and send hugs.”

Jaime Davila Ureste, another boatman says in Spanish, "We’re all organized, ready to welcome tourists."

Lorne Matalon
Javier Hernandez de Leon inside an adobe he's renovating.

Horsepacking guide Ventura Falcon Diaz says even more people want to come over. He relates a recent conversation on the river. He was riding his horse on the southern shore of the Rio Grande which here lies 30 or 40 feet away from the United States.

“And they told us to the Mexican side,’Yeah we want to cross but we forgot the passport or we don’t have any,” Falcon said.

Villagers began getting ready for visitors last year. The tourism co-op was run by a private contractor based in Washington D.C. But despite the tens of thousands of dollars spent, the co-op never got off the ground. The work ended after nine months.  

“Most of that hundred thousand dollars was shoved down a rathole," says Mike Davidson, Tourism Council director in Brewster County, Texas.

He’s also CEO of Boquillas International Ferry, the boat crossing business here, a business that is largely staffed by Mexicans who retain most of the profits.

“We started seeing important parts of the project falling away," Davidson said.

Lorne Matalon
Jaime Davila Ureste, a boatman who works with Boquillas Int'l Ferry. Though owned by an American, most of the profits from the $5 round-trip tickets stay in the village.

"They had subcontractors in Costa Rica who did this lovely website that’s never been actually published that offers experiences and products that you can’t get," he said. "They did everything, they put the cart before the horse.”

But the co-op project did succeed in one critical way. It galvanized villagers to get busy on their own.

With help from the now-shuttered co-op's consultant, Ernesto Hernandez, villagers applied to Mexico’s equivalent of the U.S. National Park Service to be trained as guides, a prerequisite before the Mexican government permits people to lead tours in federally protected lands.

The village of Boquillas, a former mining town, is the gateway to the protected Sierra del Carmen mountain range.

That application brought in Javier Ochoa Espinosa. He’s in Boquillas representing Mexico’s federal government.

He says villagers who worked with the co-op project asked for more training once it closed. 

“The problem of the organization in Mexico is that maybe it can take a lot of years," Ochoa said. "The project was just the first step.”

Lorne Matalon
Ventura Falcon Diaz waves goodbye to a visitor from the middle of the Rio Grande.

Boquillas feels like old Mexico. There are no locked doors, you can approach anyone and know they'll always be friendly.

At night, the stars seem closer. People exude warmth and an innocence born of isolation.

No one here expects traffic will reach pre-2002 levels. But when you see the village’s two restaurants filled up and people sprucing up faded adobe gems, you see hope for a relaunched economy.