Ride the only hand-pulled international ferry to Mexico


LOS EBANOS, Texas (Border Report) — Most of the workers at the Los Ebanos International Ferry wear gloves to protect their hands, but some don’t as they tug and pull thick ropes to manually operate the only government-licensed hand-pulled international cable ferry in the United States.

The entire ride across the Rio Grande here at this ancient ford takes about five to seven minutes. It’s even quicker if passengers help to pull, which is a bit of a tradition here.

This part of the river — which is only about 100 meters across — is steeped in history and tradition that goes back hundreds of years to when this area was part of Mexico.

A Texas historical marker on the banks of Los Ebanos Ferry Crossing in South Texas details the popularity of this spot for international river crossings dating back to the 1740s. The sign is under a giant ebony tree, which the town of Los Ebanos is named after. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Spanish explorers and colonists crossed here in the 1740s; Mexican War troops used this spot in 1846; Texas Rangers chased cattle rustlers here in 1874 and it was a popular spot to smuggle liquor during the Prohibition years of the 1920s and 1930s, according to a Texas historical marker which is situated here under a giant ebony tree, which is Spanish for Los Ebanos.

The old wooden rafts hauled horses and people, but the new incarceration of this international ferry — which can carry three vehicles and a handful of people — began its crossings on Dec. 22, 1950.

This photo shows the first “chalan” or wooden raft attached to ropes used to ferry two cars and people, which began service on Dec. 22, 1950, between Los Ebanos, Texas, across the Rio Grande to San Miguel, Mexico, which is now Ciudad Gustavo Dias Ordaz. (Fatima Garza Family Courtesy Photo)

Also called “El Chalan” for the name of the cable raft, the first chalan was wooden, but now there is a steel raft with a blue tarp cover to keep the sun and rain off passengers and to better hold today’s heavier cars and pickup trucks.

A car drives into the Los Ebanos International Ferry on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019, to cross the Rio Grande from Los Ebanos, Texas. Across the river is Ciudad Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

College student Fatima Garza, 20, who grew up in Los Ebanos, has been riding this ferry since she could first walk to visit her grandparents across the river in Ciudad Gustavo Diaz Ordaz in Tamaulipas, Mexico. The Garza family has lived in this town of 340 people since the 1700s “before this was part of Texas,” she said as she stood beneath the giant ebony tree and read the historical marker.

They settled here with land grants and have always traversed this ancient ford with pride and contentment, she said on Wednesday as she met Border Report for a ride back and forth on the chalan.

“Families have been crossing to and from Mexico on a daily basis for hundreds of years and there hasn’t been a problem w/in the communities,” Garza said as she joined in to pull the rope with a smile.

Now she has but one remaining grandmother, her 78-year-old Abuela Otilia, and she says she and her family cross via this ferry at least once a week to visit her. Her mother crosses almost daily, bringing groceries, gossip and love from the United States. It only costs $1.25 to ride across; cars cost $4.

And her entire family plans to take the chalan for Christmas festivities, gifts and all, she said.

“I always say it’s easier for me to cross here than to drive to McAllen and go over the bridge,” says Garza, 20, who is studying anthropology at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, and who recently had an op-ed published in the Rio Grande Guardian opposing border wall construction here.

“It’s been a very important part of my life growing up,” said her father, Jose Garza, 55, a retired carpenter who also rode the chalan on Wednesday.

Garza says his town of just 340 people is a peaceful, riverside community who have as many relatives across the river as they do in the United States. But recent stepped up patrols by U.S. Border Patrol, including helicopters circling above, he says have disturbed the tranquility here.

“It’s noisy. All hours of the day and night,” he says as a helicopter circled above. “The ferry behind me is quiet but they are not.”

Fatima Garza, 20, who grew up in Los Ebanos, Texas, rides the Los Ebanos International Ferry across the Rio Grande on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

Within the past decade, U.S. Customs and Border Protection constructed an intake building where all crossers must pass through. “That’s new. We never had that before,” the elder Garza said.

As she crossed the middle of the river, Fatima looked out and said: “It’s a cultural tie. It’s a connection we have between the United States and Mexico. Right here we’re standing in between both and that symbolizes our multi-historical background, my family, my roots,” Garza said.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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