Brownsville beckons with border-influenced food, rich culture and thriving wildlife.
“Where are we going for dinner?” I ask Santiago “Junior” Munoz.
Smiling and licking his chops, Munoz responds, “I’m going to take you to one of my favorite places where they serve real Mexican food. It’s just up the way.”
Munoz lived in Brownsville some years back. He now lives and works at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, on the Coastal Bend of Texas, but he still finds his way back south.
Munoz’s friend, Ruben Rangel, whom I consider to be a “pied piper” of the outdoors in Brownsville, joins us. After shuffling our way through the small, crowded restaurant, I order several tacos de bistec (beef) and tripitas (tripe) — yummy goodness tucked into corn tortillas. I wish I ordered more of the crunchier tripitas — simply amazing!
I’m not here just to soak in the South Texas culture, including the authentic eateries around every corner. I’ve come to Brownsville to assist Munoz and Rangel with a Hunter Education course. Both are “area chief” volunteer instructors for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. They host many educational courses, youth hunts and shooting sports opportunities for people in and around Brownsville. Ruben’s already led two such courses in August at Resaca de la Palma State Park; both filled quickly, with 40 students each. Munoz and Rangel, both of whom formerly worked at Resaca, return each year to assist with dove hunts and other activities at the park.
Resaca de la Palma Superintendent Kelly Malkowski says the park welcomes hundreds of hunters each fall.
“We hosted 800 dove hunters during the 10 days of hunting season [two September weekends and the days between] at the park last year, and 600 the year before that,” she says. Local hunters from Brownsville make up the biggest percentage of those numbers.
The park offers a variety of activities beyond hunting for visitors.
“Even more popular are our interpretive tram rides/tours along a 3-mile loop at the park,” Malkowski says. “We also conduct a lot of events, including an archery class every month. With the hikers, mostly locals, and bird-watchers from throughout the United States and even the world, we stay busy year-round.”
Resaca de la Palma and nearby Estero Llano Grande and Bensten-Rio Grande Valley state parks serve as the hub of park visitation in the lower Valley. All Valley parks provide residents and visitors with places to get outside for activities such hiking, biking, wildlife watching or just getting away from the city. TPWD’s wildlife management areas (18 units throughout the Lower Rio Grande Valley), the region’s national wildlife refuges (Santa Ana and Laguna Atascosa) and a multitude of municipal and private nature centers provide even more options for outdoor exploration.
Founded just after the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and incorporated in 1853, Brownsville is the largest city in the Rio Grande Valley and serves as an outdoor and cultural center not only for the fast-growing local population but also for the hundreds of thousands of tourists who flock to the southern tip of Texas each year. In winter, thousands of “snowbirds” bring their motor homes to deep South Texas because of its comfortable semitropical climate.
Adjacent to Mexico and the vastness of Gulf waters, Brownsville brims with wildlife, most notably the region’s hundreds of bird species, many of them found no other place in the United States. With its variety of habitats, proximity to Central America and location on migration corridors, the Rio Grande Valley established the World Birding Center, a collection of nine unique nature sites with attractions for both the first-time visitor and the expert birder.
The nearby towns of Port Isabel and South Padre Island add to the rich menu of choices with historic sites, beaches, a wide variety of fishing options, dolphin tours and more.
Rangel and his wife, Marcia, know Brownsville well. They stay busy with two teenage kids, full-time jobs, sports and school schedules. However, heading outdoors is their preferred choice when searching for things to do.
“It’s our way of life,” Rangel says. “We hunt, fish, camp in our RV and bird/wildlife watch together, just about every week.”
Both Larry Ditto
Their favorite activity? Fishing.
“I will never leave Brownsville,” Rangel says with a chuckle. “The fishing down here is the best in the world.”
Munoz doubles down on that sentiment, sharing photos and stories of the many charters and fishing tournaments held in the area. (Munoz, Rangel and another friend took first place in the flounder division in one tournament.)
“I like to go after snook and even tarpon in the Brownsville Ship Channel, and for a ‘Texas Slam’ [redfish, spotted seatrout and flounder] in the bays,” Rangel says.
Naturally, the two also volunteer as Angler Education instructors. They host an annual “Hooked for Life” fishing event each April for 2,000 to 3,500 kids at the Brownsville Event Center, where they stock the local resaca with 5,000 pounds of catfish.
“That is just one of the many events held in and around Brownsville to expose the community to the outdoor wonders in their own backyards,” Rangel points out.
When I ask Rangel what he enjoys doing in Brownsville besides all those great fishing opportunities, his answer comes immediately.
“We love to go to the zoo,” he says. “It is a great zoo, and even rivals the one in San Antonio.”
The Gladys Porter Zoo is nestled inside 31 acres in the heart of the city and boasts nearly 400 species from four continents. In the Mitte Cultural District, the zoo is near other attractions such as the Brownsville Museum of Fine Art, Children’s Museum and Historic Brownsville Museum.
An even wilder Rangel favorite destination can be found in southeast Brownsville. Sabal Palm Sanctuary harbors a rare ecosystem of sabal palms, once a dominant plant along the Rio Grande. The striking Rabb Plantation home serves as the visitor center.
The Rangels embrace the Mexican heritage of the border, on display in Brownsville everyday with special emphasis on holidays.
“We love to celebrate at the parade each year, Charro Days,” Rangel says. They join family and friends to watch.
Held in late February, Brownsville celebrates this binational event with its neighboring city of Matamoros, Mexico. Charro Days offers four days of fiestas, music, traditional foods, performances and fun, culminating in the International Parade.
Rangel is an accomplished birder, though he only started several years ago. This past year, when a bat falcon showed up near Alamo, he left work and drove over to photograph the rare bird, something he routinely does when he gets word from his birding group about rarities such as blue buntings, crimson-collared grosbeaks and fork-tailed flycatchers traveling through the area.
During the fall and winter months, the entire Rangel family likes to hunt together, primarily for dove, deer, wild hogs and waterfowl. In December and January, the Rangels and their friends go duck hunting out on the mangrove-lined shores of the Gulf for pintails and redheads, among the many other waterfowl species that migrate through the North American funnel that is the Rio Grande Valley.
Growing development brings new hunting challenges as the shorelines and small islands face big changes to the landscape.
“We still hunt in the same spot,” he says. “There’s just a different view these days, to go with all the wind turbines that dot the lower Valley and coast.”
Brownsville has a lot to offer for outdoor enthusiasts, especially for folks like Rangel and his family who generally know best where and when to enjoy the various activities. For those new to Brownsville, take time to tour the city to find culture, historic sites, shops and authentic Mexican cuisine, then head outside to enjoy the beaches, bays, parks and wildlife refuges.
Disfruta de Brownsville. Enjoy Brownsville.
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