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New border crossing brings Boquillas tourism to life

Written by , published May 2, 2013

With the reopening of the Boquillas border crossing in Big Bend National Park, curious travelers have raised questions about the activities and safety associated with crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico.

The United States and Mexican governments opened the Boquillas port of entry on April 10, reestablishing local tourist access between the two countries for the first time since 2002.

Local officials estimate that more than 500 tourists have visited Mexico since opening day, most of them on a jonboat operated by Boquillas International Ferry, the company awarded the permit to operate the ferry.

“We’re seeing a great response,” says David Elkowitz, chief information officer for Big Bend. “Lots of visitors. Folks are enjoying Boquillas. We really don’t have any negatives.”

 A ferry boat lands this week on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande at the Boquillas border crossing. Tourists can take a horse ride for the mile trip to the village of Boquillas del Carmen. Photo Courtesy of National Park Service.

I talked with Elkowitz and Mike Davidson, director of the Brewster County Tourism Council, this week about the tourism experience for those interested in visiting Boquillas.

The tourism economy in the village of Boquillas del Carmen, on the Mexican side of the crossing, is just starting to take shape, says Davidson, who also is CEO of Boquillas International Ferry.

The town’s population dwindled considerably since 2002, when the U.S. shut down the crossing in the aftermath of 9/11. About 130 people live in Boquillas now, Davidson estimates, or about half of what it used to be.

In the old days, Boquillas had a reputation as a “Wild West” getaway, a place to drink tequila beyond the border. Such activity has declined, especially with no overnight lodging available, Davidson says.

“For some people it may not be as raunchy or free-swinging as they want it to be, but for most people it will be like stepping back in a time machine,” he says. “And it will be different in a year. People on the Mexican side didn’t have the confidence to invest time and money before. Now that the proof is there, and there’s some money starting to trickle into the economy, there’s no telling what will happen in three to five years.”

Round-trip ferry tickets are available for $5 at the Rio Grande Village Store; children age 7 or younger are free.  The ferry runs 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Visitors can also wade across the Rio Grande or take their own boat.

After crossing the river, visitors can rent a burro, horse, or car ride for the one-mile trip to town, or they can walk. Upon arrival, visitors first need to check in with the local Mexican customs office. Visitors should bring a passport, because they’ll need one to return to the U.S. anyway.

Davidson says the Mexicans have also established a visitor center that sells local handmade crafts, and where tourists can hire a guide to show them around town. Boquillas is home to two restaurants and a bar with a pool table. As mentioned earlier, there is no overnight lodging available.

“A lot of people are going over there to ride the ponies up to town, walk around town, and go to the restaurant,” Davidson says.

For hikers, the current options are limited. You can walk a short road to the entrance of Boquillas Canyon, or rent a truck to give you a lift. But Davidson says the tourist infrastructure is not yet in place to transport hikers who want to venture further into the national parks on the Mexican side.

The hot springs on the Mexican side of Boquillas Canyon have fallen into disrepair. Davidson says he expects them to be rebuilt as tourist traffic increases.

Returning to Big Bend National Park, crossers must check in at the National Park Service Visitor Center, about a five-minute walk from the river on the Texas side. At the visitor center, tourists place their documents on a scanner and conduct a short customs interview via telephone with Border Patrol officials based in El Paso. People re-entering the U.S. must arrive to the visitor center by 6 p.m.

Davidson and Elkowitz say crossing to Boquillas has been a safe activity so far.

“We’re trying minimize the risk of (visitors) getting hurt getting on or off the boat, which is statistically the biggest risk of getting hurt,” Davidson says. “Our border is pretty quiet down here. We don’t have too many problems. This is putting 15 more security people right down in this area.”

Elkowitz says there have been no incidents that he’s heard about, though he cautions that visitors are entering another country.

“The town is welcoming. There is staff from the Mexican immigration and parks service there,” Elkowitz says. “I do know that Mexico has a great investment in this, as do we, and we’re certainly not anticipating problems.”

Davidson says Boquillas International Ferry has hired Mexican residents to operate the boat and others are in training. The company, which is an offshoot of New Mexico-based Far Flung Adventures, plans to expand into more guiding and tourism services on the Mexican side of the river, he says.

As for the Big Bend tourism economy, the reopening of the crossing gives visitors another reason to spend time in the region.

“At the minimum it would induce them to spend another night in the area, which requires them to buy food and services, etc.,” Davidson says.

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