There are no guns or robberies in this story, no convertibles, and, I’m sorry to say, no trysts with a young Brad Pitt. We are no Thelma and Louise; we’re just L and L on our own girls’ road trip with plenty of laughs, a whole lot of talking, maybe a little bit of wine, more than a few foodstuffs that rarely pass our lips on a regular basis, and even a few “daring” border crossings.
In pre-pandemic January, my friend L flew from Chicago to Houston to take a four-day road trip with me into the middle of Texas. As a little background, L is one of those people who is interested in everything (that is a good thing), and the mere mention of a place or activity, no matter where it was heard or read, can send her off on a quest. (I still thank our lucky stars for her voracious guidebook reading, or we would have never screeched to a halt a few decades ago to herd our six kids into the best sheep farm ever in New Zealand!)
With that in mind, you must know that this trip largely came about because of an article L saw on a plane in American Way magazine, in which the tiny city of Del Rio, Texas, was featured. She was convinced by the flattering multi-page spread that Del Rio had to be the best kept travel secret ever, “a peach of a town” she kept calling it, and she wanted to make it the centerpiece of our trip.
I did some research of my own and quickly determined that the small town on the Mexican border sounded like a good place to drop in. For a day. Max. It did have some appealing draws – new art galleries and craft beer bars in the small downtown, a curious mix of vegetation and wildlife based on its location, and nearby, incredible prehistoric cave drawings and an International Dark Sky Sanctuary. A nice bonus would be a walk over the bridge linking Del Rio and Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, if we got our way. (Lots of people tried to dissuade us from getting our way. Before we left, we got the usual friends-and-family lectures on U.S./Mexico border towns, and even the front desk employees at our hotel looked at us in dismay when we asked how we could make the crossing. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)
We left Houston on a weekday morning, hoping to get to San Antonio for lunch and Del Rio for dinner. We planned to spend the evening and the next day in that peach of a town, and then move on to Fredericksburg, Enchanted Rock, Dripping Springs, Luckenback, and every farm-to-market road we could find on the way back home. While many of those places deserve to be, and have previously been, chronicled here, the rest of today’s story is all about Del Rio and its Mexican sister city, Acuña.
Our first glimpse of the magazine-lauded qualities of Del Rio turned out to be the bright yellow Julio’s tortilla chip factory and restaurant, right on our route into town. We resisted a stop, but we did succumb to a supermarket purchase of a jumbo-sized bag of the famous chips to power our ride the next day. (As a side note, there were also Buc-ee’s sea salt caramels, home-made chocolate chip cookies from another hotel, and a few more wonderfully unhealthy treats consumed along the way.)
We “explored” downtown Del Rio that evening; almost everything was closed, but we did find a great little craft brewpub with good beer, some comfort food, and most important, a couple of young girls who worked there who assured us that a walk into Acuña the next day would be safe and fun.
Wednesday dawned wet and dreary, with a heavy mass of swollen clouds nearly touching the ground, so we had to ditch our bird sanctuary hiking plans and replace them with a nature museum and a drive across the Lake Amistad dam – half in the U.S. and half in Mexico – in case we got rained out (or chickened out) of the walk across the border later.
Having accidentally driven into Mexico from El Paso a number of years ago, and then getting stuck there for hours trying to get back into the U.S. with a rental car and a minor daughter with no ID, I was a little more skittish than necessary about driving past the sign that warned “LAST CHANCE TO TURN AROUND BEFORE ENTERING MEXICO.”
So we made mistake #1. We parked outside that gate and walked in. It appeared that only vehicles could go to the right, so we went left … apparently into an official area where entry was forbidden. We walked for about two minutes before we were approached by the border police and pointed right back out to our car.
Still confused but slightly emboldened by the instructions he gave us, we got in the car, crossed our fingers, and went through the official lane to cross the bridge. A quarter of the way across the bridge/dam, we saw a parking area on the side and got out to see what we could see. Almost before we saw anything, shots rang out, a peppery rat-a-tat-tat that sent us jumping back into the car and hightailing it down the ramp into the U.S entry checkpoint, our minds full of violent scenarios.
The immigration officer was semi-amused. “Those were shots to ward off the turkey buzzards,” she smiled, barely. “Did you at least get to the commemorative plaque in the middle?”
“Umm, no,” we replied sheepishly. “If we actually enter Mexico, will we be able to get back in here easily?”
“It’s hardly a border; you’ll be in the middle of the bridge. You can park and then turn around. I’ll be here,” she added. I could sense her trying hard not to roll her eyes.
Since there were no other travelers and no lines, we finally went to stand with one foot in each country, straddling the Rio Grande, sort of, and contemplating the forbidding terrain on either side of the river. Re-entry was quick and easy, as promised, and we were on our way back to Del Rio.
We couldn’t really say that was going to Mexico, could we? Googlemaps and some other online sleuthing led us next to a bleak parking lot on the U.S. side of the Del Río-Ciudad Acuña International Bridge. We waded through giant mud puddles, slogged for a mile down the berm of a 4-lane highway, crossed the bridge, and finally reached an impressively large and modern Port of Entry complex. We went through customs with about two other visitors on foot, wound through a series of corridors, and landed in Acuña just before noon.
The welcome sign suggested it was party time, but unfortunately, the town was a bit less colorful, with only a few little bodegas and kitschy shops open for business. (To be fair, the weather was truly dismal.) We strolled up and down the main drag, Miguel Hidalgo, and finally lucked into the one spot we’d read about for lunch: La Fama, a more modern bar/restaurant with a homey atmosphere and good food and beer.
In the past, Acuña apparently had quite a late-night scene; a string of clubs and bars drew crowds of students and others, and during the day, citizens of both towns crossed the border for work and school. Even though much of the after-dark revelry ramped down with the rise of warring cartels, the cities avoided much of the drug-fueled violence of other border towns, and today, as in many places along the Rio Grande, Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio still have a symbiotic and easy relationship.
Hundreds of workers continue to go over the border and back each day for work, children are driven to private schools on the other side, and the economy is inseparably integrated. The mayors of the two towns are friendly, cooperating daily on big things, like international trade and infrastructure projects, as well as smaller details like easy border crossings for their residents. It all works just fine, as far as we could discern. No big walls, no big deal, just the way it should be.
By mid-afternoon, we had crossed back into the U.S. for the third time (the immigration officer asked us why we had two stamps in the last four hours!) and were on our way north into the better-known Hill Country. Although the next three days had many highlights of their own, I had to admit the unlikely destination L had discovered in her in-flight reading ended up being the part of the road trip that stuck with us longest. There’s a whole other world out there, and a lot of it is just a short road trip away from home!