It was just after we hit our first major-league dip in the road that I sensed something was amiss. My wife and I were in the bed of a pickup somewhere in the Chihuahuan Desert, cruising on an unpaved route south from Boquillas, headed for a night in Sierra del Carmen. The ride seemed pleasant enough to me. We had good company in the truck bed—Big Bend photographer James Evans and his longtime steady, Marci Roberts; Big Bend Gazette publisher John Waters; trip organizer Ernesto Hernandez Morales; and a former park ranger named Marcos Paredes—and our perches were cushioned by bedrolls and overnight bags. But when we hit that dip, we caught a little air. I turned to Julie, my sweet ballerina bride, with a big smile on my face; nothing had flown from the truck. She looked back with narrowed eyes. It occurred to me that we might be taking two entirely different vacations.
Mine was a reporting trip. It was April 19, 2013, and the border crossing at Boquillas had reopened the previous week after eleven long, shuttered years. Unelectrified and remote, the tiny Mexican village had, at one time, been home to some three hundred residents, who survived almost entirely on business brought by day-trip visitors from Big Bend National Park. But then 9/11 happened, and the informal crossing at Boquillas—the two-minute boat ride across the Rio Grande had always been illegal but never an issue—was closed. Boquillas’s tourism industry shrank down to handicrafts left by villagers on the riverbank for paddlers to buy on the honor system and performances by Victor Valdez, the Cantor of the Canyon, who sang corridos across the water for tips. The town’s population withered to seventy. Now the crossing was open, as an official point of entry no less, with a passport-reading kiosk on the U.S. side that piped a video feed to agents in El Paso and a FEMA-style trailer on the Mexican side staffed by real customs officials. My assignment was to see how Boquillas was responding.
Julie, on the other hand, had in mind that we were celebrating our second wedding anniversary. I should point out that I had not forgotten the blessed occasion. It had fallen four days earlier and been my first thought when the story was assigned. Not one to place work before marriage, I’d invited her along. I should also point out that we are accustomed to vastly different styles of travel. Julie is, in fact, a former professional dancer who owns a boutique garden design firm in Austin; before she married a journalist, hers was a life of first-class flights and five-star resorts, and her CV lists, under the heading “philanthropy,” multimillion-dollar fund-raising campaigns she marshaled for arts organizations. My résumé lists “hitchhiking” under “activities.” But we navigate that gap. When we travel, if I pick the hotel, she packs bedsheets. It’s a thread-count thing.
For this particular excursion, I’d put her at ease by relating what I’d learned of Ernesto and his plans for Boquillas. A gray-bearded native of Veracruz, he was a career adventure guide who’d spent thirty years leading trips through places like the Grand Canyon and the jungles of Chiapas, primarily for Far Flung Adventures. But he’d been working in Boquillas the past year and a half for Solimar International, a D.C.-based consulting group that helps communities develop sustainable tourism. The decade of neglect in Boquillas made this a difficult proposition. Ernesto had organized the locals into a tourism cooperative. They had patched and painted the small adobes lining the town’s two-block dirt road and opened a visitors center with interpretive learning stations and a mercado. Just like the old days, after Victor had greeted visitors with song at the river, the village men would play tour guide and lead burro rides into town, and the women would sell blankets and trinkets. Only now, the profits would be shared.
But the real money, Ernesto believed, was in trips into the mountains. Ecotourism. He’d led such outings with Far Flung; some were simple overnights with tents and campfires, while others had been practically lavish, complete with chefs and—get this, Julie!—fancy bedding. He’d guided heads of state and well-heeled socialites and, since arriving in Boquillas, had hosted a visit by the governor of Coahuila. When James talked to him earlier in the week, he’d mentioned a reconnaissance trip he was taking to pastureland in the mountains, an area called El Jardín. James had heard of it but never been; he knew the del Carmen mountains but only by their northern cliff face. Itching to go, James had invited himself, along with the rest of us.
Ernesto explained that he’d secured a ranch house in El Jardín for the night. That’s what I sold Julie. She’d thrown her bag in the back of the truck in Boquillas with the idea that she’d unpack it later in a grand hacienda. Ernesto grabbed her luggage before she could climb in the truck. “It is perhaps wiser,” he said in a low voice, “if the Louis Vuitton rides inside.”
The hard part of desert travel, even for those who love it, are the long stretches of nothing. But if you’re open to it, the dusty drive can be cleansing. We rolled on for well over an hour through flat desolation, the del Carmens to our left, waiting for us. No fan of her cellphone, Julie noted gratefully that no one had once checked theirs. We stopped in Las Norias to pick up supplies and two more guides, then continued. Time grew irrelevant. Soon enough we turned south toward the mountains, pausing at an empty cattle pen watched over by a Virgin Mary atop a seven-foot-tall, sun-bleached blue pedestal.
Finally we stopped at a small, L-shaped adobe at the foot of the mountains. Two wheelless horse trailers sat beside it, as did a beat-to-hell white Ford F-150 that appeared equally inoperable. It was a 1994 vintage, an old TxDOT fleet truck that had been retired by the state, bought at auction, and brought south. Its bald tires looked older than the vehicle itself, and its mangled tailgate was held on by rope; its primary purpose seemed to be giving shade to some chickens. Ernesto instructed us to move our bags to its bed.
Our lead guide, a stoic vaquero named Aurelio, knew the truck as la mula—the mule—and it would prove to be the most heroic pickup I’ve ever encountered. The only way to El Jardín was up the wash that carries snowmelt and monsoon runoff down from the mountains, and that was the route the old Ford took. Stalled boulders and narrow limestone walls made some stretches as tight as a parking space. Elsewhere, the climb was as steep as a stairwell, over terrain that was alternately soft sand and loose river rocks. With Aurelio at the wheel, la mula kept a deliberate pace, never more than 5 miles an hour. James, John, and I leaned over the cab like little kids, shocked at the pickup’s resolve. Julie sat back and asked Marcos about the weeping junipers growing in the wash. They looked like tall cedar trees with dreadlocks. She’d never seen one before.
Marcos was the lone English speaker in the group who had made the trip before. Decades earlier he’d worked counting bears in the del Carmens, after which he’d guided dozens of trips like this one. When the landscape leveled off, he announced our arrival at El Jardín. It was ranch country, a rolling expanse of scrub and spotty grasses that ran to the horizon in every direction but south, where it reached up to another collection of jagged peaks, Maderas del Carmen. Marcos said that Aurelio and his son worked cattle here in four-day stretches each week, then returned to their families in Las Norias. He added that on one trip up years ago, he’d passed a young vaquero on horseback riding down with a plastic dry-cleaning bag over his shirt—he’d cleaned up for a wedding in Las Norias and didn’t want to get dust on his clothes.
We pushed toward the peaks until we reached an adobe cookhouse. This was our lodging for the night, nothing like what I’d promised my wife. But Julie didn’t say a word. Such was the gravitas of la mula. She was particularly touched to learn that the men digging a hole just down the hill were building us an outhouse.
While Ernesto and two vaqueros unloaded our bags, Aurelio and two others saddled up seven small work horses and a mule. We were headed up Maderas now, to a rise called Pico del Carmen. It was a one-hour ride with no clear trail, steep and rocky, scattered with ocotillo, cacti, and, as we climbed higher, increasingly dense thickets of madrone and mesquite. The horses navigated the ascent like high-wire walkers. “I once brought a group from the El Paso Sheriff’s Department up here,” explained Marcos in a clearing where we dismounted. “They insisted on bringing their own horses. They were big, beautiful parade horses, but they’d never worked a day. The deputies made fun of these little paint horses. Then they ended up leading their horses up all these hills.”
Marcos walked us to a ridge and, glancing back at the rest of Maderas, guessed our elevation to be seven thousand feet. The view was endless, like looking out an airplane window, and the wind blew so hard you heard it before you felt it. I had the sensation I was flying. Looking toward the U.S., I saw the landscape stretch on and up at a slight, choppy rise that ended abruptly like a flat roof. That was the back of Sierra del Carmen; the other side was the sheer wall that James knew. “This is nothing like what I ever imagined,” he said. He squinted and pointed out the South Rim.
An hour later we were back at the adobe, where a vaquero was warming tortillas on a gas stove next to a saucepan of beans and a skillet filled with chiles. The sun was dropping and taking the temperature with it, but Julie didn’t notice. The only steady sound was the tinkling of bells on the necks of some goats being led into a pen by a small gray dog. Julie was captivated. “As a puppy, he ate at a goat teat,” explained Marcos, “so he thinks he’s a goat. But goats are herbivores and he’s a carnivore. He goes out with them in the morning and they eat all day, then by evening he’s hungry. He wants to go home. And he brings them with him.”
The night got cold, down in the thirties. Julie and I hadn’t brought bedrolls, so Aurelio insisted we take one of the twin beds in the adobe, where we kept warm wrapped in Julie’s cashmere poncho. She didn’t stir once, not even when I rose to make midnight use of el baño nuevo. Outside, the stars glowed in an inky sky all the way down to the horizon. We woke in the morning to the sound of goat bells.
Before we left the adobe, Ernesto translated a conversation with Aurelio. Unassuming as he was, the vaquero turned out to be a very important man in the area. El Jardín is, along with Las Norias, part of an ejido, meaning that the property is communally owned. Aurelio Oñate Ureste Sr. was president of this ejido. Now in his late fifties, he’d moved here forty years ago to live with his grandfather. Back then the name El Jardín fit because the land was covered with grass and flowers, but these days it was bare from overgrazing. He blamed the tragedy of the commons: when everyone owns, no one owns. The land can’t be preserved, because if you stop grazing in one area, someone else moves in. That’s why he was excited about the prospect of Ernesto’s trips. The ejidatarios aren’t making it ranching cows, so they want to ranch tourists.
We got a sense of what that might look like on the way down the mountain. Instead of heading straight for the wash, Aurelio drove east for an hour, finally arriving at a grove of tall cottonwoods fed by a crystal-clear spring. There was a dilapidated white house, with a big screened-in porch and a yard with a view of Pico del Carmen. If the house were fixed up, this would be the spot for big spenders. “You put a dining table over here in the yard,” said Ernesto, “with a nice tablecloth, some wine, and that view of the mountains?” Julie said she could stay there for weeks.
It is funny, though, the way life gets complicated the closer you get to so-called civilization. The detour made the trip down the mountain considerably longer than the ride up, and once in Las Norias, there was much math to be done in the figuring of our tariff—the cost of the horses, guides, lodging, and food. By the time we’d totaled it ($220 per person), we had just an hour to make it back to Boquillas, get our passports stamped, and cross the river. If we didn’t hit the U.S. side by 6, we’d have to stay the night in the village. Julie flashed that back-of-the-pickup glare from the morning before.
We slid to a stop at the customs trailer at 5:45, just as Victor was walking into town, his singing done for the day. Somehow Ernesto got our clearance expedited, and we flew to the river in the pickup. Our boatman got us stateside at 5:54, and Julie sprinted up the hill to the customs kiosk, leaving the rest of us to gather the gear and follow. When we got there, at precisely 5:59, an irate ranger was upbraiding Julie, complaining that cutting it so close wasn’t cool. She nodded in full agreement and looked at me. I held up her bag—a beautiful chocolate brown stamped with little gold LVs—to signal that I’d taken care of everything. She turned to the ranger. “We’ll plan better next time,” she said. “I promise you.”
A Quick Guide to Adventure in Boquillas
The boat ride across the Rio Grande is $5 per person round-trip (you can swim for free); the ride into town is $5 by truck or burro. The village features two restaurants, two small hotels, and a bar. U.S. dollars are accepted, and tips are appreciated. The crossing is open Wednesday–Sunday, 9 to 6. (Don’t forget your passport.) Because the Mexican government has yet to green-light visits to El Jardín, trips into the mountains are not currently offered, but Ernesto hopes to have them running by summer’s end. In the meantime, you can hire local guides for canoe trips to the mouth of Boquillas Canyon ($75, two-person minimum) and multiday hikes to the Puerto Rico mine ($150).