Boquillas, Mexico is a small border town with little more than one restaurant, electricity in half the homes, a school for young children and the incredible nature that surrounds it. It's also the only "un-manned" border crossing in southern United States.
The town is a small reminder of what American border towns used to look like in the pre-9/11 world. But now, instead of simply walking across the river like you may have done in the 1990s, you come through a brand new $1 million kiosk border crossing facility in Big Bend National Park. After being greeted on the banks of the Rio Grande by pretty mesquite trees and a singing group of Mexicans in lawn chairs and rowboats, boatmen cheerily row over to retrieve you. Upon stepping foot onto Old Mexico soil you pay a man named Victor five dollars as a fee for crossing the river. Then you get to choose between a pick up truck or burro to ride up the hill into town, the latter being the most tempting choice for tourists.
Photo: Isaac Saul
Once a thriving hub of mining and tourism, where Mexicans and Americans came together in one of the most gorgeous parts of Mexico, residents of Boquillas and Americans were separated by post-9/11 fear and increased border security. Between 2002 and 2014, rampant panic about terrorist entryways destroyed a thriving tourist economy for Mexicans who were as far removed from Islamic terrorism as one could be.
Nevertheless, as illegal immigration continues to decline, anti-immigration and pro-border fence sentiment have grown to a point that disdain for Mexicans and open borders is bubbling over in many places throughout America. And in the 12 years that border crossings were illegal, Boquillas was absent the tourists who helped make its economy thrive.
But in 2014, the Mexican and American governments came together to make Boquillas accessible again, re-opening one of the most important border crossings in America with that $1 million kiosk and reigniting a cross-cultural love that was once a staple of the southwest.
Because of a deal between President Barack Obama and former Mexican President Felipe Calderon, the border has been open for two years now and is seeing renewed activity. Between October 1st, 2014 and September 30th, 2015, 9,000 tourists have crossed into Boquillas, a border official told A Plus. The number of Mexicans crossing into the U.S. is far smaller, though the port of entry was unable to provide exact numbers. Aside from The Diablos, a group of Mexicans that comprise the only international wild land firefighting team, fewer Mexicans come through the Boquillas port of entry now than before 9/11.
The Boquillas Border Crossing has been sold publicly as the only un-manned border crossing in the Southern U.S., but this is only partly true. There are no border agents there, but there is an armed park ranger. And in order to come back into the States you need to scan your passport, then speak on the phone and through a camera to a remote border agent in El Paso. Having grown up in a far freer climate, these restrictions concern Lilia Falcon.
"It is different," Falcon, who lived in and out of Boquillas her whole life, told me. "The town is the same, the people are the same, but there are too many rules on both sides."
Photo: Isaac Saul
During my visit, I was shown around the area by a guide named Isidrio. We drove in his truck to the top of the town, where we got out and walked inside small rock caves that were once used as prisons. Then we took dirt roads to the hot springs, where I took a shower in warm, 85-degree fresh water. We stopped on the river banks and exchanged pleasantries with a friend of his who was fishing, catching six fish at once on a single line with several hooks. We walked through sand dunes, peered at crystal caves and picked up arrowheads from old Native American ruins.
Pointing south down the only road out of town, Isidrio explained to me that the next closest city — Músquiz — was 150 miles away on mostly dirt roads. Músquiz is where they buy gas, at a steep five dollars a gallon, along with various kinds of food, and vehicles for long trips south. The high price of these items is the reason they do their best to have Americans bring them things like gas and food at far cheaper prices, still adjusting to the fact they can't go into Big Bend and visit gas stations or stores.
"It was like a big family," Falcon, said. "For me it was home, for me, there was no border."
Photo: Isaac Saul
Falcon's father Jose opened Falcon's Restaurant in Boquillas in 1974. When Falcon was a kid, Americans could come and go across the Rio Grande without a passport. Mexicans could do the same, though they would mostly use the privilege to go into town to buy supplies and haul back home across the river. Friends and families would come into Mexico and stay for weeks, months even. At a time when the town had no electricity and little more that tortillas and tacos with beans to eat, her father's restaurant — which she now runs — became the unofficial center of Boquillas.
Photo: Isaac Saul
Mike Davidson, a river guide who lives about two hours from Boquillas, just outside the park in Terlingua, Texas, was one of the thousands of Americans who frequented Boquillas before 9/11. In the 1990s, he would take four-day trips out into the limestone Sierra Del Carmen mountains, crossing the U.S. and Mexican borders leisurely. But the National Commission For Protected Natural Areas has made it so difficult to become a guide that nobody in the area has the proper certification anymore. Now Davidson is responsible for organizing the boat crew that operates authorized crossings on the river.
"This little town kinda dried up and blew away," he said. "There was still always someone who was around, but most people had moved away. It was a pretty meager means of making a living."
Well over 20,000 tourists from the States have visited Boquillas in the new era. And yet, despite the absence of any incidents, regulations on the border have remained far stricter since it's opening than they were when Falcon was a child.
"It's not just harder for Mexicans," Falcon, who has dual citizenship, said. "Not everyone in the U.S. has passports either… it's pricey."
She's right. Only about 35 percent of Americans have passports, with the highest estimates at around 42 percent. Even among those who could legally cross, many have been scared away by stories of drug dealing, disappearing students, violent illegals sneaking across into Texas and terrorists using porous borders to attack America. To people like Falcon and Davidson, who actually live on the border, these fears are absurd. The town is so isolated and so far from the nearest town that it's easy to monitor any happenings inside. Even if there were drug activity or danger, the nearby military base does an armed patrol of the town every day, providing more than enough security for the roughly 300 residents.
"I'd hear about it if someone twisted their ankle," Davidson told me. "But there's been nothing."
Photo: Isaac Saul
As to the threat of terrorists, Davidson was dismissive. "The idea that a terrorist is going to go to Mexico, where they'd stick out like a sore thumb?" he scoffed. "They'd barbecue him down there."
Looking around at Boquillas, I see his point. The town is so small people would notice a new dog, let alone a new person, presumably one who looks, dresses, and sounds different than your average Mexican. A drug trade seems outlandish as well, given how few people live here and how many are striving to make an honest living.
Most of the Mexicans you see crossing the border are visiting family. Jesse Vooz, the supervisor of the Boquillas Port of Entry for Big Bend National Park, told me. "Every weekend, and especially those when there is a quincenera, wedding, or other celebration in or around Boquillas, we see family and friends from nearby communities and cities coming through the Boquillas Port of Entry and staying for the weekend."
Despite all the restrictions, the town's familial, easygoing attitude remains one of its defining — and most endearing — features. One of the park rangers dates a girl that lives in Boquillas. Several tourists who I saw were known to the Boquillas residents by name, people who came on a weekly basis. When I was leaving Boquillas after spending a night and two days there, I ran into a woman who was crossing over into Mexico with boxes of supplies and gasoline she had bought for a family she met during a trip for lunch. Even I left feeling like a part of the Boquillas family.
That feeling of unity is central to Boquillas, and it's precisely what is needed on a much wider scale to heal the divisive nature of present-day Mexican-American relations.
"The park is a symbol for what the border can be — a place that brings us together, not one that divides us," U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Earl Wayne said during a ceremony celebrating Boquillas re-opening.
Photo: Isaac Saul
In addition to all the border paranoia, Boquillas faces other challenges in reviving its small economy. After almost 12 years of being closed off, there was no official announcement from federal authorities when the border re-opened (which didn’t happen until about a year after the target date of early 2011).
"The park is a symbol for what the border can be — a place that brings us together, not one that divides us."
Add to that the fact that for the 500,000 tourists who come through Big Bend National Park every year, there is only a tiny brown sign with an arrow advertising Boquillas, which makes it a wonder that 20,000 people have visited the town since the border re-opened, presumably drawn to it by word of mouth.
One reason might be that the experience is so worth having.
Despite having only a few phones and almost no Internet (Falcon's home being a rare exception), the town manages to keep in touch over Walkie Talkies that nearly every family and boatmen on the river have. There are even a few look-outs manned throughout the day by various locals.
It's also one of the best hotspots for protected areas and stunning wildlife in either the United States or Mexico. There are four protected areas on the Mexican side, including the Sierra del Carmen mountains and the Rio Grande river. With an open border, conservationists, scientists and researchers on both sides have a much easier time working together to study and preserve the many unique species of wildlife and plants in the region. Prior to the re-opening, sharing research about Mexican black bears, Mexican long nose bats, beavers, fish, mussels, giant cane, salt cedar and other exotics meant taking a 15 hour trip in either direction. Now scientists can meet at the border and pool their knowledge and resources.
Another thing that has changed: electricity. Before the border re-opened, the Mexican government spent $1.5 million installing a solar field that now powers half the town, a major improvement that some thirty families are now benefiting from. Unfortunately, the other half, who live on the lower part of town near the river, suffered a devastating flood in 2008 and have yet to be connected to the grid.
Photo: Isaac Saul
Still, it's better than no electricity at all, which for a long time was the norm. After a deal to run electricity from Texas into Boquillas fell through, the cable that had already been bought for the project was donated to the town. Local families have turned that wire into beautiful sculptures of desert critters like scorpions and snakes, which they sell for five dollars a piece. Little purchases like that do a lot for the local economy, and families are finding all sorts of innovative ways to earn money off tourism, everything from guided tours to selling wood for fires.
For residents of Boquillas, the overwhelming hope is that things will continue to pick up until the town once again resembles the thriving hub of diversity, family, and friendship it once was.
"I used to drive over to that hill there," Falcon said as she pointed to across the Rio Grande to a vista on the American side. "I'd honk my horn and my dad would check to see who it was with his binoculars and then they would just cross the river to come get me. That's how it was."
It may not be so simple anymore, but things are looking up. And if you happen to be in Big Bend National Park, you'd be wise to keep an eye out for that tiny little brown sign.