By Randy Brudnicki
Travel time from:
- Austin - 6 hours /
- Brownsville - 1.25 hours /
- Dallas - 8 hours /
- El Paso - 12.75 hours /
- Houston - 7.5 hours /
- San Antonio - 5 hours
- Lubbock - 11 hours
From top-notch birdwatching to eye-popping art to spicy cuisine, McAllen delivers delights for all your senses.
Visiting the Rio Grande Valley (the Valley) is all about nature, or so I thought before arriving. I was struck by the cultural, social, commercial and culinary opportunities. And, did I mention food? More on that later.
The four-county Valley is booming with new development; and, of course, with the influx of Winter Texans from October to April the population increases by about 150,000 people for half the year. I went in late October and the weather was very pleasant, if not a tad bit too warm.
McAllen is a great central location for exploring the Valley. The Valley is special for nature lovers because not only do the Mississippi and Central flyways converge here, but also the Gulf Coast and Tamaulipan thorn scrub meet on the fertile alluvial plain. The subtropical climate enhances bird and butterfly populations: About half of all bird and butterfly species recorded in the U.S. have been spotted in the Valley.
Depending on where you live in the state, the trek to this subtropical haven could be a long one by car. Fortunately, McAllen’s airport has numerous daily flights from two airlines, Continental and American, if you decide to fly. Within walking distance of the airport is La Plaza Mall, which is one of the most popular shopping destinations for Mexican nationals in the U.S. Many of the stores in the mall enjoy some of the highest income per square foot in the U.S.
After arriving in McAllen, my first stop was to check in at the Casa de Palmas Renaissance Hotel. The Spanish-hacienda-style hotel, originally constructed in the early 1900s, was rebuilt after being destroyed in 1973. The rooms aren’t much different than other hotels, but the hacienda feel — with the red tile roof, white stucco towers and lush vegetation with palm trees — offers a change from the ordinary. With easy access to the airport and area highways, the hotel is an excellent starting point for exploring the Valley, and it is within walking distance of what is now my favorite Valley restaurant, España. The Nuevo Santander Gallery, which features art and artifacts from early Texas and Mexico, is also just down the street.
Art plays a role in many aspects of daily life in McAllen. The local chamber of commerce, in addition to typical business development activities, also actively cultivates the arts. For example, the McAllen Creative Incubator is a former public school building that has been converted into low-cost studio and office space for developing artists. Here, artists have access to a personal suite-studio for perfecting and displaying their craft. The facility also includes typical office equipment (copiers, fax machines, computers) that is shared with other tenants. For those looking to make art a full-time profession, the McAllen Creative Incubator offers classes in marketing, business management and business plan development.
After a short visit to the incubator, it was off to the International Museum of Art & Science (IMAS). The display of Mexican Folk Art and pre-Columbian and Mayan art and artifacts is part of the museum’s 10,000-piece permanent collection.
The IMAS also has collections of African art, European paintings, Pablo Picasso and American pop art. A large amount of space in the museum is devoted to children’s hands-on experiences with arts, crafts and sciences. Smithsonian-affiliated exhibits often are available and other exhibits feature images downloaded from the Hubble Space Telescope.
After looking at museum collections at IMAS, we ventured to the Nuevo Santander Gallery near the hotel where the collectibles on display are available for purchase. Spanish colonial period pieces are intertwined with Old West firearms, saddles, spurs and Mexican coins. The gallery also hosts exhibits by local artists on a rotating basis.
Finally, it was time for dinner at España. The Mediterranean cuisine is served elegantly in the formal dining area or, for a more casual experience, dine on the patio with live music. All of the dinner choices looked appetizing, but after much deliberation, I opted for the veal cutlet. It was the perfect way to end the evening: The green salad and veal were excellent.
The next morning, after a quick bite at the hotel’s breakfast buffet, we were off to canoe the Rio Grande at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, a site operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The 2,000-acre refuge is an island of native thorn brush habitat where one may observe about 400 bird and 300 butterfly species and, if lucky, the occasional ocelot or jaguarundi.
Historically, the region encompassed by the refuge was periodically flooded by runoff from the Rio Grande. Now that the river’s flow has been significantly reduced by dams, invasive saltcedar and other factors, flooding rarely occurs. However, the ecological benefits of the floods are now artificially reproduced by creating oxbow lakes or resacas. Natural resacas are dry streambeds that hold water only after heavy rains.
The Friends of Santa Ana host half-day canoe trips for only $20 per person, which includes a guide for the group. With two or three people per canoe, the leisurely pace of the river in fall and winter requires some downriver paddling. It is easy, though. We saw birds on both sides of the river during the two-hour float, and we stopped often to observe some of the rarer species. A word of advice — leave the new shoes at home. The riverbank is muddy at the take-out point.
After getting the canoeists on terra firma, shuttling back to the visitor center and looking around the many paths, hiking trails and butterfly gardens, lunch seemed in order. With the border so close, we couldn’t resist the lure of international adventure. We chose to cross into Nuevo Progreso, which is smaller and more intimate than the area’s other popular destination, Reynosa. We parked on the U.S. side and walked across the short bridge.
Most of the restaurants are within a few blocks of the bridge. The waiters all spoke English and the menu was “Americanized,” so chicken fajita sounded good — and it tasted good too. After lunch, it was off to look for a souvenir. Many shops and merchants line the sidewalks on both sides of the street for many more blocks. Although there were many trinkets and goods for sale, I could only manage to spend $10 in four hours of exploring — even though I looked at nearly every shop.
Back on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande that evening, we went to the Blue Aquarium for dinner. The food again was excellent. Keeping with a somewhat low-carb diet, I chose chicken zarandeado and asparagus spears and was happy with my selection.
Our last full day in the Valley proved to be the most packed with activity. Breakfast on the run at the local fast-food chain, El Pato, was a pleasant surprise. The signature dish, the Pato, is a handmade tortilla filled with a combination of breakfast fare such as eggs, potatoes, cheese, migas, jalapeños, avocados, bacon or ham. Delicioso!
We traveled north on Highway 281 along wide-open agricultural fields until we approached La Sal del Rey (which translates literally as “the salt of the king”) to participate in a half-day hike along the shores of the salty lake (see also “Salt of the Earth,” on page 58). As we started to get out of the vehicles, a group of nilgai antelope appeared and disappeared before I could get my camera out of the backpack. Native to India, nilgai antelope were first brought to Texas in the 1930s to be hunted on exotic game ranches. These were the first live nilgai I had ever seen. Hiking from the road across the salt flat, salt crunched under every step until I got too close to the water’s edge. There, the thin salt crust easily gives way, revealing its muddy underbelly. Shorebirds waded in the shallows, probably probing for brine shrimp. The harsh, salty and dry environment starkly contrasted with the riparian corridor of the Rio Grande the previous day. Today’s guide, Christina Montoya of the Lower Rio Grande Valley NWR, cautioned us appropriately as we hiked from the salt flat to the surrounding brush and cacti: “Everything around here bites, stings or pokes.” (She had checked the trail earlier in the morning to make sure there were no rattlesnakes waiting for us.)
Returning to McAllen gave us the opportunity to visit the still-under-renovation Quinta Mazatlan, the city’s portion of the nine-venue World Birding Center. The 10,000-square-foot Spanish revival -style mansion, originally completed in the 1930s, had only two owners before the city purchased the 15-acre property in 1998. Both previous owners could be classified as “eccentric,” and the city renovation manager told us he feels that the mansion is haunted. Well, we didn’t see any apparitions, but we did see lots of fleeting birds and butterflies in the gardens and surrounding paths. The property, which should be open soon to visitors, features catering facilities, conference rooms and tropical landscaping.
The next stop on our birding excursion was the crown jewel of the World Birding Center, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, which is the headquarters of the WBC. One would need to spend several days here to see everything. The 24-foot hawk-observation tower and the viewing blinds near feeders offer many opportunities to see birds. There are butterfly gardens and resacas here as well. The educational exhibits showcase the species noted in the area and help novices such as myself with species identification.
On the way back to the hotel, we popped in to the final evening of the Texas Butterfly Festival for barbecue, after-dinner entertainment and talks by renowned entomologists. Not only was the evening informative, but the speakers were quite entertaining (for scientists). By the end of the evening, the long day was catching up to me and I was relieved when we decided to head back to Casa de Palmas.
Soon after getting back to my room, however, my traveling companions decided that we couldn’t let the last night end so quietly, so we ventured out once more for dessert and live music on the patio at España. What was to be a light snack ended up as a fun-filled night with new friends, assorted rich chocolate desserts (so much for the low-carb diet) and grand plans for another visit to this south Texas wonderland. I can’t wait to go back.
- España Mediterranean Cuisine, (956) 618-1178, <www.espanacuisine.com/index.php>
- International Museum of Art & Science, (956) 682 -1564, <www.imasonline.org/>
- Nuevo Santander Gallery, (956) 618-4959, <www.nuevosantander.com/>
- McAllen Chamber of Commerce, (956) 682-2871, <www.mcallen.org/>
- Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, (956) 784-7500, <www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/texas/ santana.html>
- Friends of Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, (956) 783-6117, <www.friendsofsantaana.org/>
- World Birding Center, (956) 584-9156, <www.world birdingcenter.org/>