Hot Springs, Donkeys, Rio Grande, and a Ghost Town – Big Bend National Park

It was time to explore the lower elevations of the park and head toward the Rio Grande Village and its views of the famous river. One of our first vistas was the river canyon walls at sunset.

In the previous post (link) we explored the Chisos Mountains area that is the location of the park lodge and is a hub of activity. Ironically, the Rio Grande Village area farther east is a more remote section of the park and has no cell service though there is a large campground and camp store. It is also well known as the site of the Boquillas Canyon crossing. On the other side of the river, you can visit a very remote Mexican town.

One of our “bucket list” items was to canoe down the Rio Grande through some of the park’s canyons. The forecast was not great for the day that we had scheduled it but fortunately the weather turned out to be almost perfect. We had a great guide and the three of us were the only ones on the canoe trip.

Part of the river adventure is to stop for lunch at the local hot springs. The inviting warm water is adjacent to the river and is a popular place.

We had a fun day traveling down the river with the U. S. on one side and Mexico on the other.

We also hiked the Hot Springs Canyon Rim Trail which had some of the best views of the entire area.

The next day the weather was even better and it was an opportunity to visit the little town of Boquillas, MX. This is one town where the journey is a major part of the experience.

At the border, rowboats ferry you across to the other side, a trip of five minutes at most.

On the Mexican side there are numerous donkeys waiting to give you a ride into town. This is not traveling in the fast lane. Your guide just walks along beside the donkey-riding tourists and easily keeps pace.

What I did not realize is that your guide accompanies you the entire time (at least during the slow season). In January, the donkeys make one trip a day to town. A month or two later we were told that they may make 30 such trips a day!

The town of Boquillas relies on tourism for its survival. The pandemic was especially hard for the townspeople as the border was closed for an extended period. The town lost 50% of its population during that time. The town is about 240 km from the next village so they are very isolated. Because of the road conditions, it is over a four hour drive to access the village from the closest town. Even though there is now a solar farm within the town, our guide said that the section of town where he lives is still without electricity.

Many of the houses in town are little shops for souvenirs and gifts. There are also two restaurants run by the same friendly owner.

It is fun just to walk the streets in town, have some lunch, and hitch a ride back on the donkey express.

The whole “border thing” is very laid back in this remote area. The authorities know that the ranchers on the other side of the river sometimes have their horses cross into another country. They retrieve them unmolested. Some of the “merchants” setup an honor system of trinkets on overlooks beside the road. You place your payment in a coffee can and it will be picked up later.

Next, we ventured outside the park to stay in the small ghost town of Terlingua, TX. I haven’t figured out how to describe this area. It is part ghost town, itinerant village, “chili heads” destination and tourist spot. All of it has a quirky vibe. In November, the town of about 200 draws thousands for its annual chili cookoff that first was held in 1967.

The Terlingua Trading Company and Starlight Theatre Restaurant are the heart of the ghost town. The porch of the store has about six signs that say “keep your dogs off the porch.” Each night we saw 10-15 dogs and their owners gather on the porch to spend the evening. We also ate some of our best meals at the restaurant.

From Terlingua we drove to the western side of Big Bend park and hiked the popular Santa Elena Trail. The Rio Grande flows through a very narrow canyon.

The Park Service has a small presence in the western part of the park that once was a U. S. Army encampment in the 1920s. The barracks and other buildings were lost in a 2019 fire. The Park Service now has a very small visitor center in an area that is called, Castolon.

The road between Terlingua and Castolon has many overlooks and trails. One of these that was recommend to us was the Lower Mesa Burro Pouroff trail. We were especially lucky to see some of what we thought were bighorn sheep but we later determined were aoudad. The Barbary sheep (aoudad) of North Africa are considered invasive in Big Bend. Studies are now underway to determine the impact they are having to native plants and animals.

We were glad that we had taken the time to really explore Big Bend. We were able to visit all the spots that we had hoped to see and experience another one of our great national parks.

It was time for the long drive back to El Paso. We traveled through the town of Van Horn and ate at a Mexican Restaurant that had the John Madden Museum, complete with a mural on the wall with Jesus looking down on the Madden bus cruiser.

After a memorable trip to Big Bend National Park, it was back to sunny Florida.

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