Incredibly remote and frequently misunderstood, the Mexican border in Texas is home to one of America’s most fascinating national parks.
We hear about it from vitriolic pundits on TV or from outraged posts on social media, but for most of us, the Mexican border feels more like a concept than a place. That’s why it’s more important than ever to actually go there and stand in the stark desert wilderness, to meet the people who live on either side, to hike the trails and taste the cuisines that are often left out of the narrative when the massive but mysterious boundary is discussed. There’s no better way to do that than by visiting Big Bend National Park.
A Park Defined by the Border
Established as a national park in 1944, 801,163-acre Big Bend National Park doesn’t just happen to be on the U.S.-Mexico border; it’s defined by it. The name itself is a reference to the park’s position along the big bend of the Rio Grande, an undulating ribbon of river that is, in fact, a natural border in its own rite stretching for 196 miles throughout the park. Often referred to as three parks in one, Big Bend offers mountains, rivers, and desert, along with 118 miles of shared border that separates the national park from the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila. If you visit, you will never stop remembering that Mexico is right there. Climb 7,832-foot Emory Peak (the park’s highest summit) and you’ll be looking right at it. Travel to the Rio Grande at night and you’ll find trinkets on the U.S. side that you can take if you leave money, seemingly left there by phantoms from just across the river.
Crossing Into Mexico
Visit Big Bend and you can cross the border into Mexico, have lunch, and be back in America before dinner. Located near the park’s Rio Grande Village, the Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry is a far cry from the border stations north of the park, which are staffed by humorless border patrol agents and unfriendly dogs. Instead, you’ll find a ranger who will check you in and direct you to a kiosk where you’ll insert your passport and chat with a border patrol agent over 300 miles away in El Paso. Next, make your way down to the river, where a small boat will carry you across for $5. Minutes later, you’ll be in Mexico, where you can choose a burro, horse, or truck ($5, $8 or $5 respectively) to take you a half-mile to Boquillas.
This tiny village, which did not have electricity until 2015, is 160 miles away from the nearest Mexican town. The current population of about 300 residents is still recovering from an 11-year post 9/11 border closure. Instigated in May 2002, the closure decimated the remote village’s tourist-based economy, causing businesses to shutter and residents to leave. The 2019 government shutdown, which culled Big Bend traffic and halted border crossings within the park, served as an unwelcome reminder of what life was like during those years. Without tourists, the rural village felt strangled. Not only did this impact the Boquillas economy, but it also poised an unexpected threat to the Chihuahuan desert environment. Big Bend relies on a crew of Mexican wildland firefighters, known as Los Diablos, to come to the rescue when the remote park is besieged by flames. Los Diablos are employed by the U.S. government, but most are not U.S. citizens, making it impossible for them to fight fires in the event of a border closure. Prior to the border closing, there were no checkpoints, allowing people on both sides to come and go.
Nowadays, you can wander Boquillas and purchase handcrafted goods from outsides of homes, such as copper roadrunner figurines and embroidered tote bags. It’s not uncommon to find decorative cloths with the words No al muro (“No to the wall”) stitched alongside smiling burros. After buying some souvenirs, have lunch at Jose Falcon’s, a humble restaurant with Rio Grande views and chile rellenos, burritos, and cold Carta Blanca beer. Be sure to have small bills on hand for food, gifts, and gratuities.
The Border’s Influence
Even outside of Boquillas, the intersection of Mexico and America can be felt throughout Big Bend. You’ll experience it if you glimpse a Colima warbler, an amber-tailed bird that breeds in the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend and then spends winters in Mexico. You’ll experience it if you spot a black bear. The park’s bears thrived in the early 1900s, disappeared over the next four decades and then reintroduced themselves in the 1980s after a solitary female bear from Mexico swam across the Rio Grande and gave birth to her cubs in America.
You can also experience the border by hiking the 16-mile South Rim Trail loop, which affords sweeping views of Mexico from a rocky outcropping. After your mountain trek, drive to the Hot Springs District along the Rio Grande. As you soak your aching bones in the geothermal springs, Mexico will feel almost close enough to touch. When you’re done, toast the day with a cocktail made with sotol, a Chihuahuan desert spirit distilled from the eponymous spiky green plant that conveys the rugged, mystical essence of the landscape. Often served in margaritas at Big Bend area venues like the Starlight Theater in Terlingua, the liquor from Mexico is slowly spreading north. Like the desert it originated in, it is like nothing else you’ve ever experienced before.
The Case For Going Now
If the 11-year border closure, recent government shutdowns, and no al muro pleas are any indicator, Boquillas may not be eternally accessible from Texas. As
The border region inside Big Bend is not defined by clashing ideas and walls.
of right now, the opportunity to be ferried across the Rio Grande and ride on the back of a burro into Mexico is still there. The national park service’s website, however, acknowledges that the border in Big Bend is “subject to political and social pressures that continue to evolve.”
Curious travelers who seek to expand their worldviews and give themselves context amidst the cacophony of the news cycle should not be deterred by these ominous statements, but rather emboldened. The border region inside Big Bend is not defined by clashing ideas and walls. It is an open desert where ocotillo cacti bloom. It is the children of Boquillas. It is Los Diablos. It is sotol, sage, and limestone. It is a bear making its way into the mountains. It is a bird flying north for the summer. It is the Rio Grande River, floating between but never dividing.