As I fly into Del Rio from the east, the land below changes from rolling green to rough scrubland. The U.S.-Mexico border, formed by the Rio Grande river, serpentines west into rugged elevations. I’d be exploring what looks, from up high, like a scenic place for the next few days. What I’d find on the ground is that there’s far more to this land of confluences than meets the eye.
Settled by indigenous tribes 10,000 years ago, then later by Mexican families in the 1860s and sheep and goat ranchers who migrated west after the Civil War, Del Rio today looks like a quaint, albeit eclectic American border town, a mix of hacienda and colonial design. Downtown is a sleepy grid that was dominated by the wool and mohair industry for the majority of the 20th century, until the commodity ebbed in the early 1990s. Now, art galleries and craft beer bars are moving in. The town is also three miles from the U.S.-Mexico divide, and very much defined by its relationship with its sister city, Acuña, on the other side. Families and cultures are braided together here, border or no border.
Del Rio and the rugged land around it sits at the junction of three ecosystems, three rivers, two countries and thousands of years of human history. A high plateau in Central Texas descends into the Lower Pecos Canyonlands and Texas Hill Country meets the Chihuahuan Desert running up from Mexico, blending climates, vegetation, topography and wildlife. As a result, you can paddle along miles of pristine riverfront, pop over to Mexico for a meal, view prehistoric cave paintings and witness stars that shine brighter here than most places in the world.
Bruno “Ralphy” Lozano picks me up from my hotel in his electric-blue Toyota pickup. With his jaunty floral-print shirt tucked into skinny jeans and long, flowing locks pinned under a Del Rio trucker’s hat, he looks nothing like what you’d expect from a small-town mayor. Truth be told, he’s not. A newcomer to public office, he was elected last year at age 35 by a wave of first-time voters, a large portion of them millennials. His status as a U.S. Air Force veteran certainly bodes well with a Texan electorate, but it was his sexuality that turned him into a national headline. In May 2018, Lozano became Del Rio’s first openly gay mayor.
As we drive through town toward Mexico—he’s arranged a dinner just over the border with his buddy, Acuña Mayor Roberto de los Santos—Lozano explains that his mayoral campaign had its vocal detractors: “If they want to focus on my sexuality, we can talk about my sexuality all day long,” he says, “or we can talk about things that matter to you, which are streets, infrastructure, the economy and tourism.”
After a brief stop to pick up his mother (they live next door to each other), we cross over a low bridge into Mexico. It’s a quick drive in, conducted by locals with an air of nonchalance. “It’s just like crossing the street,” says Lozano.
Through the walled entrance to Acuña, we roll onto its main drag—a street called Miguel Hidalgo, packed with cantinas, restaurants and dance halls, some of which date back to Prohibition. Neon signs for the Corona Club, Pancho’s and Crosby’s remain—vestiges from the heyday of Acuña, which began in the 1920s and lasted until the late ’90s, when college kids from Austin, attracted by the lower drinking age, used to sardine themselves in these bars to watch Longhorns games and live country acts. The Corona Club even had its moment on the silver screen—celebrated filmmaker Robert Rodriguez used it (and surrounding Acuña) in the first two installments of his Mexico Trilogy, El Mariachi and Desperado.
But tourism dried up in the early aughts, a result of the chaos wrought by warring Mexican drug cartels in various border towns in the region. While Acuña never experienced the degree of violence seen in other parts of Mexico, its image was tarnished enough to put several bars out of business.
We meet Mayor de los Santos at Fama, an airy, family-style restaurant and bar where Mexicans and Americans gather for regional wines, tequila and tostadas. The room slowly fills with young locals from both sides of the border getting a jump on their weekend, most of whom recognize Mayor Lozano and his mother and immediately clamor for hugs and photo-ops. Mrs. Lozano is soaking it all in.
The server drops off wafer-thin tostadas piled high with steak and shrimp, chilis and pico de gallo. We dig in. Talk turns to the tens of thousands of local residents who are employed in maquiladoras, American-owned factories (General Electric, Firestone and Oster) based in Del Rio and Acuña that import goods and employ a large portion of the workforce in both cities. “There might be two towns, but it’s one economy,” Mayor de los Santos says. “Also, parents from Acuña drop their kids off at private schools in Del Rio every day,” adds Mayor Lozano.
The two mayors wade into international relations on a daily basis—not just international trade and logistics, but also ensuring safe and speedy border crossings and comprehensive bilateral infrastructure projects—issues that most mayors would never have to deal with. “We’ve been able to manage a lot of things locally that the federal government can’t seem to figure out,” Mayor Lozano says. At the moment, with Lozano’s mom giving out more hugs, and more tequila arriving at the table, the complexities seem like a minor detail. We break tortillas and sop up salsa verde, the ambient noise of the restaurant rising in both English and Spanish. I can’t tell who lives here and who’s crossed the border.
Turkey buzzards work an updraft in the distance as I drive west on Highway 90, winding through stubby canyon walls and over dry tributaries. Cresting a knoll, I see the massive Lake Amistad, a reservoir that forms the U.S.-Mexican border, and typifies the relationship between Del Rio and Acuña (the name means “friendship” in Spanish). The lake is the result of a 1969 dam that connects the two towns, providing flood control, irrigation and hydroelectric power to both sides of the Rio Grande. Deep fingers feed the reservoir where the Pecos River, Devils River and Rio Grande flow in, creating miles of gin-clear water, a shoreline of towering bluffs, blue-green grottoes and swimming holes. Water seeps out of limestone shelves, and ferns and amphibians abound. Lake Amistad also offers some of the best bass fishing on the continent. On weekends, boat parties form in hidden bays, and scuba divers explore underwater coves at depths of 100 feet. Given the harsh landscapes surrounding it, the lake draws obvious comparisons to a desert oasis.
The abundance of fresh water, now dammed, is how this area has supported human life for thousands of years. Early Native American tribes (for whom there is no known name) began an artistic tradition roughly 5,000 years ago by painting giant murals in rock shelters throughout the region, depicting both naturalistic and mythological scenes. There are roughly 350 sites on the north side of the border alone, likely the highest concentration anywhere in North America.
To get a look at them, I drive on through Comstock, a town with one flashing yellow light, one gas station and one restaurant, to Seminole Canyon State Park, site of Fate Bell, perhaps the most accessible rock art in the Lower Pecos. After a short hike, I descend into a wide, shallow canyon, its floor made of soft limestone. It feels otherworldly — removed from the bright surface above, it’s cooler and quiet. I find a section pockmarked with grapefruit-size craters created by Native Americans and used as mortars where they would crack seeds, grind meal and mix pigments for pictographs. I bend down to feel the lip—the rock is worn smooth from centuries of human hands that have worked pestles into it.
Above me there’s a long, freight-sized alcove carved into the side of the canyon by rushing waters a millennium ago. I climb up to find giant rock panels, a prehistoric billboard sequenced to tell a story—creation myths, prescriptions for rituals. This work comes from nomadic tribes who predate the Comanches and Apaches who lived here by a thousand years. The artists used animal fat and plant matter—precious resources to a group of hunter-gatherers—in order to produce their art, and it survives, dramatically, today.
On the walls I see human figures in native dress—in all likelihood, self-portraits of the ancient artists—standing among sotol and lechuguilla, the same plants I just picked my way through on the hike into the canyon. As far as archaeologists can tell, the group died off around 800 A.D. And yet, in these canyonlands, their presence is so pronounced I feel like I missed them by just a few hours, not a few thousand years.
I find myself marveling at the sky in Del Rio, day or night, and always at sunset. The best place to see these twilight fireworks is the Devils River State Natural Area. Another jaunt northwest, another shift in microclimate, this time with cooler, dryer air due to a significant rise in elevation.
After an hour’s drive on a paved highway I find the entrance to a teeth-chattering, 22-mile-long dirt road—another hour of steering around boulders and chasmic potholes up a steady incline. White-tailed deer poke their heads out from the dry brush on the roadside and dart across, nearly clipping the truck. As demanding as the route can be for weekend warriors, it does provide a useful buffer—only those serious about accessing the park are rewarded by its bounty. Thankfully, I arrived with a few hours of sunlight to spare.
Beau Hester, the park’s superintendent, stalks out to the gravel road in his ranger uniform, square-toe work boots and sweat-stained ten-gallon hat to greet me. He’s tall, with a Texas twang, and is evangelical about the park’s wild grandeur, conservation and security. “There’s not a lot of remote areas left in Texas,” he says. “If you want that, it’s here: 22 miles down a dirt road, at Devils River State Natural Area.” He repeats the last phrase like a mantra, just the kind of guy you want as the steward of a virtually untouched 37,000-acre state park. Hester lives a quasi-monastic existence on the property during the week, and in Del Rio with his family on weekends.
The number of visitors to the park has steadily increased since January, when it was officially recognized as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary, one of only ten in the world—an accolade that causes Hester to beam with pride.
Although he takes no credit for it, Hester is a big part of why Devils River received its dark-sky designation: He wrote the application in July of 2018 after observing the absence of light pollution during his first couple years as superintendent. “But it ain’t about me, it’s about the resources,” he says.
We head down to the springhead of the Devils River. I look up and see water rushing out of the base of a cliff, then flowing nearly a quarter mile over smooth limestone and into the river, which is cobalt blue, to the point of seeming chemically enhanced. The canyon beds around us are in shadow, but a ridge of massive stone promontories rises in the middle distance, catching the last few panes of sunlight.
Back at the park headquarters, a few campers from Austin, five hours away, lounge in beach chairs in front of their dorms, glasses of whiskey in hand, settling in for a long night of stargazing. The dark-sky designation might seem like a small triumph, but, in truth, it has secured the protection of this land for years to come, adding a modicum of much needed optimism at a time when preservation can seem an afterthought.
Once the sun drops it is indeed dark, and constellations seem to pop out of the sky. A low hum of wind carries through the mesas. “There’s Jupiter,” Hester says, pointing to one of the brighter spots on the horizon. We remain quiet for a few minutes. He might see this every night, but I can tell it never gets old. “Yeah,” he says. “I often say this place is cleansing for the soul.”