South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)

November 7th and December 7th…two very different but memorable day trips to Mexico.

The Boquillas crossing in November went like this:

We had been stalled several days while awaiting a new alternator first in Marathon and then in Alpine, Texas. Once Buddy, the mechanic, worked his magic we were back on the rainy roads to Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas. Our first campsite was in the Rio Grande Village on the shores of the Rio Grande River. The skies began to clear up the next day and we hiked to the Hot Springs which were overwhelmed by the rain swollen Rio Grande River. Afterwards we decided to take advantage of the recently opened and historic border crossing to Boquillas, Mexico. The crossing was closed following 9/11 and this Mexican village withered touristically. Last year the customs and border services in their wisdom reopened the border within this west Texas National Park. The reopening has breathed new life into this small town. There is a new school, a hospital, two churches, electricity is being installed as we write this post. Children’s voices can be heard everywhere. The backdrop to this bustling scene are the Sierra del Carmen mountains. We were told by the park ranger on the US side to be prepared for mud as we approached the river. Once down there we realized she was not exaggerating as it was easily knee deep in spots. It was also the only way to the river. We turned around, went back through US Customs to get our wellies from the van. Back down at the mud field we trudged grunting through the thick, deep, slippery, sucking clay-mud. As we worked our way through the mud we could hear a Mexican guy singing at the top of his lungs from the other side over the sound of the rushing Rio Grande. We made it to the shore and were greeted by Carmelo and his row boat which was to be our transport to the Mexican side of the border. Carmelo rowed at a frantic rate and an acute angle to where we would land, hitting his mark expertly. From here we scaled a twelve foot high vertical river bank, also mud. Truth be told the Mexican side was definitely more well maintained than the US side. We were given a few transportation options to get into town: 1. Walk 2. Truck 3. Burro 4. Horse. We chose a couple of burros. Once in the town centre we were assigned a guide – ours was 14-year-old Imperio. He led us to the Customs Office where we filled out forms, waited for approval from an agent struggling to work his computer. It was a lengthy process (about an hour) considering how few people actually made the crossing. There are two restaurants in Boquillas owned by cousins and are located directly across from one another. We were told that one has a great view and the other has great food. We chose the later. We appeared to be the only patrons of the day. The three of us sat down to a lunch of tamales and enchiladas prepared by Mina. Afterwards we wandered through the village taking photos and admiring the handicrafts of the villagers. We found a beaded spider for wee Harriet who has developed a love of arachnids. We had just enough time to return to customs to reverse the process of leaving Mexico. We opted to walk back to the river rather than irritate the burros who both looked like death warmed over. We were rowed back to the good old US of A, trudged through the mud, visited customs (again) and returned to our campsite happy.

Our final stop in Big Bend was the Santa Elena Canyon. A deep, narrow gorge separates the Mexican side of the towering Sierra Ponce cliffs from the US side. The road leading to the Canyon had been closed for several days following the intense rainfall as many of the roads and hiking paths were simply washed out. On our final day in Big Bend the road to Santa Elena Canyon was reopened so we decided to make our way there. To start the hike into the canyon you must cross the Rio Grande River on foot which wasn’t a problem for us because we had our trusty wellies with us. This turned out to be the easy part! Once over the river we immediately walked into mud that exceeded the height of our boots and got stuck! It took all of our strength to retrieve our boots and exit the path. Alas we never made into the canyon. One guy crossed the river bare foot and made it all the way in…bare foot. We saw him later in another part of the park and he said the mud was consistent throughout the hike and he was never able to put his shoes back on. Not an option for two folks without travel health insurance!

This past Sunday, December 7th, we drove to San Ysidro to meet up with Derrik from Turista Libre. Derrik is a young American guy originally from Ohio who made his way to San Diego before moving to Tijuana, Mexico. His curiosity and love of Tijuana combined with his desire to learn Spanish led him to leading tours of what he likes best of this border city. He met us and the rest of the group in front of the McDonald’s on the US side of the border. From here we all walked over to Mexico. We didn’t have to show ID or speak to any officials. It was simple. As we walked into Tijuana the lineup for the pedestrian crossing into the US was never ending and we were told it could take 4-5 hours to get back into the US. We watched as peddlars served hot and cold drinks, snacks, tacos, churros, knick knacks, blankets, crosses (prayers), ice cream, you name it. In this lineup one would never be hungry or without entertainment. The same held true for the lineup of cars waiting to enter the US. We walked to meet the bus that would transport us around Tijuana for the day. This bus is a former Tijuana city bus complete with graffiti on the seats, cracked windows, no air-conditioning and lots and lots of character. Derrik’s idea is that on his tours you experience the real Tijuana worts and all. We were greeted with Nescafe and pane dolce. The bus driver drove us up to a neighbourhood so high with vistas overlooking Tijuana and California. Our first stop of the day was at the city’s largest Swap Meet which seemed to take over a huge swath of this high altitude neighbourhood. Here you could buy just about anything: tools, clothes, beds, washers and dryers, toilet paper, fruits and vegetables, meat and fish, etc. Derrik suggested we try such Mexican specialties as Birria (spiced goat or beef in a taco), Huaraches (open faced sandwiches), Gorditas, Sopes, Carnitas (pulled pork), Elotes (corn with cheese and salsa), Crepas, Gorditas de Nata (tiny pancakes), Tejuino (a sweet salty corn drink), or Aguas Frescas (flavoured water). But no, what did we eat: Cueritos…raw pickled pig skin with seasoning. We thought it was ceviche. Christian thought it was squid. One bite and we knew immediately what we were eating. The two men selling this specialty were delighted that we wanted to try their dish. Next we were attracted to a cart with fresh clams, oysters and fish. We decided to try their ceviche. The best part of this dish was the cost. Of all the delicious smells wafting through the streets we chose the least tantalizing. We purchased a few items like a large enamel spoon that will complement our van cooking utensils, a bristled pot scrubber that will surely come in handy on the road and a Chespirito doll, our new mascot. Chespirito, we were to learn is a national treasure to Mexico, Latin and South America. Chespir refers to Shakespeare. Chespirito means Little Shakespeare. The actor, Roberto Gomez Bolanos, who portrayed Chespirito died recently and so our purchase was made more poignant. We wandered through these lively streets for about two and a half hours trying to take it all in and loving every minute.

We left the swap meet and drove to Mercado Hidalgo, the city’s oldest open-air farmers market. We had an hour to explore, taste and experience this colourful and exciting market place. We added a piñata to our Chespirito collection, Mexican candy and nut cake, locally made rosemary cheese. We searched high and low for the fabled Mezcal sold in plain plastic water bottles without success. Our final stop of the day was historic Avenida Revolucion where Derrik introduced us to a trio of local boutiques selling goods that vary from what typical shops on this touristy stretch sell. The hipster quotient was high indeed. We walked past the historic Jai Alai Palace which closed in around 1990. Tijuana, famous for gambling is the original Las Vegas. After hearing that the pedestrian lineup to enter the US was 900 persons deep and about 4-5 hours long we were told that there was another option. We could pay $6 per person and be driven in a passenger van to the front of the line and the wait would only be about 40 minutes. Well, you can probably guess what we chose to do. It wasn’t long before we discovered that this option provided income possibilities for people hawking ice cold water, a Karaoke performance and paper bags of hot churros. Fellow travellers shared a bottle of Mezcal (yes, the same Mezcal we searched for at the market) with all of us. There was much laughing and conviviality amongst the passengers. We made it to the front of the line within an hour, all the while enjoying a spectacular sunset and listening to complaining travellers who just wanted to be on the other side of the border already. Ourselves, we enjoyed all of it. The waiting included. Travelling the way we have been this past six months has made us more patient, less anxious and more willing to go with the flow. What did we learn from our trips to Mexico: we like it and that it isn’t scary. It is a feast for all of the senses. We can’t wait to return and explore more of this rich and exciting culture. Plus, we have a lot of great food still to try!