A Day on the Border: Lake Amistad, Del Rio and Ciudad Acuna

I recently took a weekend trip to San Antonio, Texas. Rather than spend the whole time in the big city, I decided to take a day trip out to the Amistad National Recreation Area about 2 ½ hours due west.

Despite landing in San Antonio at midnight, I rallied and was in the rental car at 6:00 am, partially due to sharing a hostel dorm with an incredibly loud snorer. I headed west on the US-90 and soon stopped at a bakery for a kolache. Texas has a very large European presence and kolaches-Czech pastries that resemble jelly donuts- have not become part of the cuisine. There are numerous European cultural enclaves around the state.

After 2 1/2 hours of two lane highway and a lot of red dirt country music later, I reached the Amistad National Recreation Area visitor center. There, I learned a little bit about this most unusual National Park Service site.

This part of the borderland sits at the convergence of three major rivers: the Rio Grande, the Devils River and the Pecos River. The rivers made the area was very prone to flooding. To control this flooding, the US and Mexican governments built the Amistad Dam in 1969. The dam created the 101 square mile Lake Amistad above it.

The lake is managed jointly by the National Park Service and the Mexican government. On the American side, the lake is used mostly for house boating and fishing. On the Mexican side, the lake is used mostly for fishing both recreational and commercial. The differing standards on catch limits make this a popular spot to fish.

I asked the park ranger what the best way to see the park is and he shook his head. Since I didn’t bring my own boat (BYOB), I had no shot at getting out on the lake. Additionally, because this was the middle of deer hunting season, the entire north side of the lake is considered “hike at your own risk”. Luckily there was a two-mile out-and-back trail that led from the visitor center to a nearby road. While nothing exceedingly special, the trail allowed me to experience the desert scenery.

Afterwards, I drove over to a place to the nearby Diablo East, which apparently was a great spot to see the lake. I drove down to an empty boat launch. Since nobody was around (on land or in the water) and because it was 90 degrees outside (warm for November), I went skinny dipping in the cool lake.

Just 2 minutes from Diablo East was the Amistad Dam itself. The dam is actually in the middle of the lengthy no-man’s land between the US and Mexico. I decided to drive the rental car out to the middle of the dam to take pictures.

Rather than enter Mexico here, I drove back to the emptiest US border crossing I’ve ever seen. There, I got the strictest interrogation I’ve ever experienced at any border.

They asked me what I was doing in Mexico. I told them that I only went to see the dam and didn’t actually go into Mexico. They said that I could be lying. They then asked what I was doing in this part of the United States. I then pulled out my National Parks Passport and showed them my Amistad National Recreation Area stamp. After a few more questions (job, hometown, education, travel history, parent’s names and jobs) I was told to shut off the car engine and stand against a wall. Then one agent searched the car including the hood and trunk while another agent patted me down. After 10 minutes or so, they low-fived me and let me go on my way.

My next stop was Ciudad Acuna, the Mexican border town 10 miles south of the dam and just across the river from Del Rio, Texas. Unlike most border towns where the downtown is a quick walk from the US side, Acuna is about a mile and a half from the US border control station, so most people drive. However, I felt uncomfortable bringing the rental car into Mexico without the compulsory Mexican auto insurance, so I found a lot near-ish the border post and paid $5 to park. A guy in a 12 passenger van offered to take me across for $30, but I refused and decided to walk it instead.

I paid the 50 cent (cash only) bridge toll then jogged the 20 minutes over to Mexico. On the bridge over the Rio Grande, a guy wearing a black polo shirt walked up to me and asked to see my passport. He glanced at it for about 2 seconds and then let me go. That was the border control.

Further along, I saw a huge group of people who appeared to be Central American standing under armed guard by the Mexican army. They looked at me and I looked at them and we both came to a most uncomfortable understanding of each other’s situations before I walked through the crowd and into the town.

Like most border towns, Acuna has seen better days. It has long regarded as the friendliest of the border towns and was a popular spot for Texans to drink for cheap and with fewer regulations. In fact, the famed country singer George Strait performed a song about a notorious bar called Ma Crosby’s. That bar closed in the wake of the Drug Wars of the early 2010’s, but the sign is still there.

Although not what it was, Acuna was anything but empty. Tons of cars from Texas were driving through and it looked like there was going to be a motorcycle rally going on later that day. I encountered some White Texans who came over for the day for margaritas- a rare site nowadays in border towns. They said many locals regularly cross the border, but the tourists from afar who used to come here have all stopped coming since 2011 due to perceived violence.

Like all border towns, Acuna, had its street of bars, pharmacies, and doctor’s offices. That street is called Miguel Hidalgo here. I ended up walking about a mile out of the tourist zone to a popular restaurant called Tierra Bandita where I had the best enchiladas of my life.

I strolled around a bit more, got chased by some semi-wild dogs, found an old military fort and listened to a mariachi band in the main town square.

At around 3pm I walked back to the US. This time, I breezed through customs and only got asked a single question: “What were you doing in Mexico”. Apparently “lunch” was deemed an acceptable answer and they let me go.

Now back in Texas, I drove briefly through the town of Del Rio, population 40,000. On the south end of town, I stopped at the Val Verde Winery, the oldest winery in Texas according to a proclamation signed by none other than Rick Perry. It’s also the only winery in a 200 mile radius. For $10, I got to sample all of their wines which admittedly were okay- I guess there is a reason why nobody else wanted to establish a second winery there.

Outside, they had a live band which was great. I sipped my wine and talked to some of the wine club members. One couple lives in Mexico and goes to the winery every Saturday. Another family drove 3 ½ hours to visit the dentist in Mexico because it’s cheaper and they get treated better. The family decided to celebrate a successful dental visit by drinking teeth-staining red wine.

At 4pm, I hit the road and drove back to San Antonio.

While not the nicest cities by any means, Del Rio and Ciudad Acuna are a model for a successful cross-border community. It’s clear that both communities have respect and appreciation for one another. I really wish I had more time to spend here. It would have been interesting to learn more about the culture and to do some river exploring.