Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Boquillas Del Carmen, Coahuila

A spectacular sunrise greeted Rusty and I as we stepped out of Gannet 2 and found ourselves surrounded by a sky infused with pink purple yellow and orange. It was chilly but not cold so I set up my computer and my Tervis tumbler of tea at the picnic table and  set to work keeping this page updated. 
I can't do a day by day diary as there is so much incident and so many things to see along the way I'd have to post twice a day to keep the page that close. I would end up writing all the time and you would end up reading all the time which would be untenable. I am writing this at the home of Layne's cousin outside Tucson where we are moochdocking for a few days before heading south to Naco and Mexico.
There was a historical marker at the picnic area explaining why this stop is labeled "Los Caballos" (the horses, in Spanish). Apparently the rock formations in this area are volcanic caused by magma breaking through the surfaced creating pale colored bluffs where granite and cooled magma meet. I think I have this right as it is complicated for a layman. If I am correct the white cliffs above are known as Caballos giving their name to the picnic area. I was going to learn more later in this journey when we got a guided tour, but I did my best to read and re-read the marker and get it straight.
Rusty mooched around but the place was spotless and apparently not that interesting. He sat next to me so I offered him his bed, dragged from the van but he as usual preferred cold gravel to sit on and watch the sunrise and occasional passing car.

We trundled into the park on the by now usual empty highway, me exhibiting my spray and pray photography technique above on the empty roadway. The guy at the gas station in Marathon had asked casually: "Are you crossing at Boquillas?" which surprised us. It turns out the official Port of Entry had been closed for Covid and has just recently reopened, a matter of a couple of weeks apparently. It was now possible to cross the Rio Grande, officially and properly with the blessing of the Border Patrol. We immediately set to figuring out the route to the border crossing. Cell service (Verizon) was we found rather spotty, available at park headquarters only. The paper map they provide is required even in this modern era.

I have a little history with Boquillas del Carmen as it is properly known. The village is 140 miles from the nearest Mexican town on a road that is now paved, all but the last twenty miles. It survives thanks to US visitors going over from the park and having lunch in the village. The US border post fifty yards from the river bank:

When I was riding across the US on my Vespa in 1981 I came to Big Bend and in those days you parked on the river bank and a Mexican dude with a rowboat came over and gave you a lift. Rangers in the park were responsible for law enforcement but it was all very casual as Boquillas was even then dependent on the US rather than Mexico for money. At the time I was a visitor with a piece of paper in my British passport permitting six months in the US with multiple re-entries allowed in that period. I was afraid the I-94 visa would confuse the Rangers and I feared crossing and getting caught and not being allowed back in. Perhaps I overthought it but I stayed on the US side and ever since have wanted to visit Boquillas...because I am curious about everything! I got my wish finally.

The Border Patrol agent was not too keen to let Rusty across as he was new on the job and wasn't sure about regulations (The Mexicans later told us they see Americans with dogs all the time) but he was cool with us leaving him in the van. We turned on the air conditioning for his comfort and locked him in. "No overnighting in Mexico!" were the agent's parting words as we walked down to the river. He didn't want us to abandon our dog: as if!

On the other side we could see a mess of horses and donkeys and pick up trucks which charge five dollars (as does the ferryman) to get us into town. We chose the truck which seemed most sensible and frankly still does. Layne felt awkward about riding a mule next to a walking Mexican as she isn't quite into the image of being looked after by a servant. I couldn't see crushing the family jewels on a saddle as I have never much enjoyed riding my sister's horses. Take your pick.

The ferryman with his aluminum skiff got across the Rio not very Grande in a couple of minutes. A couple from Kansas had gone through the border post with us and were very proud of this their second visit to "Mexico," and gave us all sorts of instructions about tipping and being nice to the peons who depend on the US tourists for their living. I found them rather charmless and condescending but after years of being mistaken for a tourist in Key West as I wandered with a camera when I met strangers who liked to advise me, unprompted, of how to behave and where to get the best food, I used the same technique of nodding and being agreeable and in this case hoping they would ride mules.

Rosalio took us in the "trocka" up the deep soft sand track to the town sitting on a bluff overlooking the river. My Spanish is a mixture of an Italian accent, some Italian words when I get stuck, much arm waving and joking around and generally playing Mr Bean abroad. I usually get along pretty well with Mexicans who are surprised to find a gringo with any ability to speak to them in their language. Rosalio explained the road situation and asked me if I'd like to borrow his truck keys to take a ride to the main town down the road...yeah I said I really need to get stopped for drunk driving on my short stay in Mexico... he laughed, his eyes twinkling. 

The town itself is geared to visitors from across with stands all over the place selling trinkets which the Border Patrol took pains to remind us were not to be brought back if they contained any natural products at all. We ended up with an oven glove disguised as a warm tortilla holder. The humorless Kansans proud of their equanimity in the face of poverty weren't wrong, they were just a bit too grumpy for me.

Rosalio, Layne and Rosalio's wife hanging out on the main drag such as it is.

There are two restaurants in town and we asked Roasalio which one and he laughed. "They are both owned by the same family," but he recommended Falcón which has a deck overlooking the river. I wanted a quesadilla montada (with a fried egg on top!) while Layne had flautas in green sauce. When we were in the truck ("trocka") Lupe was Rosalio's crew member and out of the truck he became our guide during our brief stay. I offered him lunch and he sat with us. 

It was quite the setting for lunch even on an overcast day. 

I could see the van in the Border Patrol parking lot and wondered about my dog. I can't get him out of my mind when we are apart. I think it was actually better that he stayed behind as there were lots of dogs, many new smells and a great deal of confusion for him to handle. Not to mention a boat ride that would have freaked him out.

Lunch with a Negra Modelo -$12. 

Lupe got tacos but got a bit grumpy as they forgot to bring him extra salsa and he never got his beans. He grumbled a bit under his breath for which I can hardly blame him. He actually made an interesting lunch companion as he has lived all his life in Boquillas and has a son raising a family in Dallas and two other sons living in the nearest town called Melchor Múzquiz. I'd never head of the place and had to look it up later but he made it sound like his kids lived in Mosquitos. 

The story was that Boquillas was a mining community years ago and Lupe spent five years in the mines. His father was a pit supervisor in charge of 25 miners mining for minerals, mostly fluorite after gold and silver veins gave out. He said an American owned the mines and shipped his ore off to Marathon in Texas where it got shipped out by train. "He paid no taxes," Lupe said darkly between bites of taco (without beans). One got the feeling the work was less than joyful.

Fluorite is a crystal gem used by faith healers as an "energy healing crystal" I am told. More prosaically it is used in industrial smelting processes, but Lupe told me it was ugly work. Three men worked in a shift underground taking turns to hand dig holes in the rock 18 inches (half a meter) deep into which they put dynamite. The dust didn't do the miner's lungs any good. Mining ended in 1973 which was when coincidentally Boquillas turned to cross river tourism to survive as he pointed out the start date of the restaurant:

He walked us down the back of the restaurant and showed us the machinery used to process the tons of ore dug out of the ground.

I asked him if tourism was better work and he agreed it was less tough but I got the impression the money wasn't as good. Covid has shut the border down for long enough that Mexico has suffered from a precipitous drop in tourism everywhere but this place was pretty much strangled. 

The cliff is Texas, the laundry is in Coahuila.

Layne liked the cute flowers for her water color efforts later so I made a picture:

The trick to street peddlers of all ages is a polite "No gracias" and they wander off. They are started early though as you can see:

Spot the American:

The Immigration office in Boquillas. The Border Patrol told us we had to check in with them and check out with them. He was very serious about it but as you might imagine the place was ignored as far as I could tell by everyone in town. We weren't going to the interior nor were we taking rooms for the night so we followed suit.

There were dogs everywhere but I figured they could have it worse than this. None of them looking anywhere near emaciated so that helped me not scoop them all up and take them home.

The flow of visitors seemed endless. Boquillas has an elementary school according to Lupe. As the kids get older they go to school in the the city 140 miles away. The government has built a water system for the town and installed solar panels for public electricity. The road to Boquillas is now paved to within twenty miles of town. They are becoming modern.

Rosalio's son came by and pick us up by some remote signaling method used by Lupe and we took the ten minute drive back to the crossing. Others chose the other means to travel and I did not envy them:

This is Jeff we were to learn later, an entertainment and arts lawyer from Dallas. He started out as a musician, got a law degree and combined them into a pretty decent career it seems.  He rode the horse like he knew what he was doing so I suspect he has a colorful past.

The ferry was running even as we arrived. I never saw this but I am told that the Border Patrol comes down sometimes and orders lunch from the ferryman, and tamales I am told are highly valued at the Port of Entry. 

We shared the boat with Jeff who had eaten at the Boquillas restaurant and had fried goat tacos which sounded delicious (envy!) and then he discovered he and Layne were both graduates of Hastings School of Law in San Francisco! Damn I said, here I am in the middle of nowhere with not one but two lawyers hounding me.

I dutifully brushed Mexico off my sneakers and we presented ourselves with our passports for inspection. The Border Patrol directed us to two machines that looked like ATMs but were remote connections to some Immigration office somewhere else. We put our open passports on a scanner, picked up a phone and looked at the camera. "Did you bring anything back?" the voice asked and I waved the tortilla holder at the camera. When Layne got asked the same question she replied brightly:"Only my husband," which elicited I am told a guffaw from the anonymous voice.

Rusty pretended he was on strict guard duty when we walked back to the van but we could see his sleepy eyes so we knew his bed in the van had got a proper work out.

It was an odd experience and not necessarily one I would repeat but it is certainly one I would recommend. Don't be like the folks from Kansas and think you have been to Mexico or have been particularly daring by crossing the river here. I thought of it as Disney type excursion, an Epcot exhibit perhaps but with none of the rough edges rubbed off. The total cost in expenses and tips came to about $90 and I would take cash because they don’t take credit cards!  They live a dollar economy in Boquillas and Lupe could accurately quote the exchange rate in Mosquitoes (the town) for his dollars. We never saw pesos, or met anyone without at least a few words of English. You will be well taken care of and treated very kindly as you would expect in Mexico.

Our adventure, of the very sanitized and careful sort was complete and I had finally closed the curiosity I had held for forty years. Our drive across Big Bend National Park was as you might imagine, a series of desert vistas and mountains to take your breath away and yet, even from the passenger seat, impossible to translate accurately into pictures. My effort: 

We had secured a reservation (recreation.gov) at Cottonwood Campground, 24 spaces with toilets and trash and non-potable water faucets with just one potable filtered water tap to fill water bottles for the desperate and I’ll equipped. It costs $16 a night or $8 for old farts with the National Parks pass like us. The volunteer host was a humorless little man who did not enhance the experience but it was a good place for us to stay before taking off for Terlingua. I only got yelled at once for having Rusty off the leash. Yes, he was playing with another dog, but they were both lawfully leashed, thank you. I much prefer picnic areas roadside.

Just for fun a picture of me entering the park in 1981 on my indomitable Vespa 200 which I bought brand new in Brooklyn in May 1981 from the New York Vespa dealer: