Surrounded by the dry, rocky, cactus-filled terrain of Mexico and South Texas, clear, deep Lake Amistad was created when the muddy Rio Grande River, separating Mexico from the United States, was dammed. The project is an ongoing partnership between the two countries. In 1969 Amistad Dam was completed creating a reservoir for flood control, water storage, and power generation. The lake became an oasis for cool, refreshing recreation in a hot, desolate, desert area of Texas where water was once a scarce commodity. Houseboats, sailboats, and fishing boats dotted the dark blue waterscape. Scuba divers, snorkelers, and swimmers cooled off in the amazingly clear lake. In 1990 the National Park Service took over managing the United States side and the Amistad was designated a National Recreation Area. For years, the lake continued to be an active, fun spot for respite from the South Texas heat. However, in recent years active drug cartels and illegal border crossings have scared away many visitors. In 2010, a jet skier was shot and killed by Mexican pirates. Forever Resorts, the National Park concessionaire at Amistad, packed up and moved their houseboats to other, safer, regions of the U.S. The marinas were abandoned by all except the most daring fisherman.
With a little trepidation and a lot of curiosity, I begin my exploration of this “dangerous” border area of Texas. Amistad National Recreation Area, near Del Rio, Texas, has five campgrounds located around the lake. Although primitive, all campgrounds are suitable for both RVs and tents. Governors Landing Campground, 15 sites located on a narrow ridge above the lake, offers gorgeous views of the lake on both sides of each site. Sites are first-come, first-served so I choose a site and quickly set up camp (takes ten minutes with the T@G!) and head to the Visitors Center. I watch the out-dated film, look at the current exhibits (including a really cool computer table like they have on the TV show CSI), and shop in the small bookstore. Armed with literature, maps, and brochures I strike out to discover the secrets of Amistad.
Amistad National Recreation Area extends 81 miles up the Rio Grande, 14 miles up the Pecos River, and 25 miles up Devils River. There are many well-maintained dirt roads that lead to nooks and crannies all over the park. I have so much fun getting lost on these back roads of the lake: watching two scuba divers explore the clear water in Diablo East, hiking a short trail in the Figueroa Trail area, discovering a pizza place still operating at Rough Canyon Marina and enjoying an outdoor sunset dinner overlooking the lake.
The next day, a sunny, warm Sunday in February, is a perfect day for a Talk And Hike Ranger Program. Because of my natural abilities to become hopelessly lost on solo hikes, I prefer to have a guide. And National Park Rangers are the best! At the Visitor Center the ranger gives an excellent powerpoint presentation about Amistad Dam and the Lake Amistad Area. After a Q & A and a bathroom break our small group of three grab our packs and hike the 3-mile round-trip out-and-back Sunrise Trail. The trail begins at the NPS Visitor Center and ends at Spur 454 near the San Pedro Campground. Along the way the enthusiastic ranger stops often and shows us many different native plants. We are a willing audience so he takes us a bit further as we discover barbed wire fences and abandoned water cisterns from early South Texas ranching days.
As the day progresses, the peaceful, private park begins to change. The morning quiet has turned to afternoon entertainment. The soft buzzing of insects is drowned out by the pleasant sound of music, laughter, and the sizzle of barbecues as people enjoy the gorgeous weather with picnics and fun in the sun. The festive, friendly atmosphere encourages me to visit the dam that created this lake paradise in a desolate landscape. The Amistad Dam is maintained with the cooperation of both Mexico and the United States. Half of Lake Amistad is in Mexico and half is in the U.S. One of the most interesting and fun experiences of visiting Amistad National Recreation Area is the dam. Although there are no tours, the dam is an official Port of Entry and a valid passport is required to cross. But you do not have to go all the way into Mexico. Approximately 2.5 miles from the Port of Entry, there are parking spots and a turnaround area. Here it’s possible to stand with one foot in Mexico and one foot in the United States and gaze at Mexico in one direction and the United States in the other. Cars arriving from Mexico, cars arriving from the U.S., the mix of Spanish and English, and the double eagle memorial make it easy to understand the friendship and the connection between the two countries.
Although Amistad National Recreation Area is not the vibrant, exciting, fun-filled place it once was, it is being reinvented. Increased border patrol, stricter laws in both Mexico and the U.S., and public awareness are improving citizen safety. I never felt threatened or insecure. There have been no incidents within park boundaries since the unfortunate jet skier. Private houseboats are slowly coming back for leisurely weekends, scuba divers are returning to explore the depths of the lake canyons, fisherman are competing in tournaments almost every weekend, and snowbirds are gradually returning to flutter in the mild winter climate of South Texas. Amistad is Spanish for “friendship”. After four days of exploring, discovering, and digging into the heart of Amistad, the national recreation area became my friend.