Life at the Two-Restaurant Town on the Mexican Border

Welcome to Boquillas del Carmen, population 300, that you visit by rowboat across the Rio Grande—unless Washington’s border policies change everything (again)

By Katherine Whittaker

Published on July 24, 2017

The best way to cross the border to Boquillas del Carmen is aboard the Boquillas International Ferry—a $5 round-trip rowboat ride. A village of about 300, Boqui­llas is on the south side of the Rio Grande, nestled inside Big Bend National Park, which straddles the Mexican-American border. There are signs at border control discouraging swimming, but some tourists wade through the green water on hot days.

After September 11, the crossing here closed. Until then, this stretch of border had always been fluid, devoid of checkpoints. Tourists seeking tacos at the town’s single restaurant and tequila at its only bar entered freely, and Boquillas residents could run errands in Rio Grande Village (the nearest Mexican town, Santa Rosa de Múzquiz, is 160 miles away). When the United States sealed this corridor, Boquillas, which depended almost solely on American tourism, changed overnight.

Burritos served at Jose Falcon's Restaurant. Burritos originate from the area.

The town’s original restaurant, José Falcon’s, opened in 1973. When its owner and namesake died in 2000, his wife, Ofelia, and daughter Lilia took over, serving a small menu of tacos and burritos made with this region’s ubiquitous chewy, fresh tortillas filled with meat, cheese, green salsa, and the occasional diced tomato or potato.

The town of Boquillas Del Carmen across the Rio Grande from Big Bend National Park.

At Falcon’s, locally made beaded jewelry and painted ceramic bowls are for sale, and tables are draped in hues of blue. A framed, weathered photo of José hangs over the cash register. Lilia watches her daughters take orders. Nearly every table is full, and residents reminisce about crossing without security, and the propane trucks that would arrive daily to power refrigerators keeping their beers cold.

“When the border closed, I remember seeing my mom pack the blankets and onyx figures that she and my dad sold here,” Lilia says. “It’s still very hard to think about that day.”

She was no longer able to cross into the U.S. to buy ingredients, and her American customers disappeared. Eventually the restaurant closed, and for 11 years, the town was suspended in a sort of limbo. Its 50 families dwindled to four. Some went to Santa Rosa de Múzquiz to the southeast, and others left for the U.S. to look for work. They didn’t know when, if ever, the border would reopen.

But in 2013 it did, and Lilia’s staff was ready. The work still isn’t easy—once a week she makes the 160-mile drive on a dirt road to Múzquiz to buy basics like eggs and soap—and the present border fluidity feels precarious, but for now, the town has settled back into its routine.

Lilia and her daughters.

Families have returned, and just past the bar, the church, and a few brightly colored homes, a small garden of solar panels has been installed. Financed by the World Bank in 2015, the panels introduced permanent electricity to Boquillas, allowing the Falcons to run a refrigerator for the first time without propane.

At Park Bar, a Spanish singer croons over crackly speakers and bartender Miguel Valdez chats with customers. Valdez is one of the town’s two ambulance drivers. The town judge is the other.

“Everybody who left started to return, and the town came back to life,” Max, a Boquillas resident, recalls. “Kids born when the border was closed were shocked by the newcomers in their tiny town. They had never seen a gringo before.”

The future is still uncertain, though. Max, like other locals, is worried about the border closing again. “If it does happen, everyone will leave,” he says. “Our economy is tourism.”

More Scenes From Boquillas

Lilia Falcon is the owner of Jose Falcon's, the first restaurant in Boquillas. Lilia clearly remembers the day the border closed, but is happy with how the town has recovered since. She runs the restaurant now with her mother, husband, and daughters.
Most homes in Boquillas are simple, painted in bright colors that pop out against the barren desert landscape.
Miguel Valdez is the bartender at the only bar in Boquillas. He is also the acting ambulance driver in the town.
Boquillas locals make these copper and bead trinkets to sell to tourists based on the honor system—there's a coin jar on the table, and customers drop their money in. You can find stands selling these on both sides of the Rio Grande.
The brightly colored church in Boquillas.
Looking from Mexico into Texas, you can clearly see how remote the town really is. Unlike most border towns, Boquillas doesn't have a sister city (which would normally provide food and employment)—it sits in Big Bend National Park, and it's 160 miles away from the nearest Mexican town.
Tequila shots to help wash down a Dos Equis at Jose Falcon's restaurant. Besides drinks, you can get traditional burritos and tacos.
Boquillas is a two-restaurant town, and this meal of tamales, tacos, and beer comes from Boquillas Restaurant, on the right side of the street as you walk up from the border crossing.
There are three ways to get from the river to the town: a truck, on foot, or a burro ride. Here, one burro takes a break next to an abandoned building.
Ladies cook lunch for hungry tourists at Boquillas Restaurant.
Locals often talk with tourists, telling them about what life is like in the town and what the border crossing used to be like—before September 11, you could easily stroll across the border without any checks.
Park Bar's preferred beer (it's their only beer).

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