LOWER RIO GRANDE, Texas, April 21, 2014 – Walking slowly along a trail at dawn so as not to startle the locals, I come to a hidden spot where I can set up my camera and tripod. As I wait in the cool air a Green Jay, one of the specialty birds in this part of the Rio Grande Valley lands on a branch. As I focus, his brilliant blue and black crown and yellow throat appears illuminated by the warm morning light.
After a few great shots, I wait for the next example of nature’s splendor to wander into my view.
Such are the sights in McAllen, Alamo, Mission, and other towns that make up part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. These are some of the most popular birding and butterfly watching destinations in the United States and home to over 580 recorded bird species, 39 of which are only found here.
What makes this area so special for bird lovers is that it is on one of the primary migratory flyways in the Western Hemisphere. There are 7 nature-related festivals held each year and 9 world birding centers, making McAllen and the surrounding areas popular destinations for tourists and snowbirds (known as Winter Texans in these parts).
More than 2.4 million visitors visit each year, most of whom are devoted to birding and wildlife watching.
The Rio Grande Valley is the southernmost region of the continental US and is as far south as Miami, Florida. There are over 1 million people on the US side within a 60-mile radius with the Rio Grande River as the dividing line from Mexico.
There are several special spots to see the wide variety of birds in this area, including many specialty birds such as Green Jays, Great Kiskadees and Altamira Orioles. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, for instance, has more than 400 species of birds and is considered one of the top birding locations in the U.S. At Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park in Mission, you can take a tram around a 3-mile loop and stop off at one of two blinds offering great views of the local wildlife.
There are also an exhibit hall, a coffee shop and camping facilities. ($3.00 vehicle parking fee for Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge/ $5.00 for adults at Bensten).
Once a private home, and one of the largest adobe homes in Texas, Quinta Mazatlan and its grounds are now owned by the City of McAllen, who has turned the lush landscaping into a beautiful urban oasis. House and grounds tours are available with some nice spots for viewing the many birds who call this home. ($3.00 for adults/ $2.00 seniors)
Many varieties of butterflies are also found in this area. This could be due to the relative ease involved in locating butterflies as well as their vast numbers (15,000-20,000 species). Whatever the reason, you will find an abundance of these insects in the Rio Grande Valley.
The North American Butterfly Association International Butterfly Park in Mission, Texas is one example of the efforts being made to attract butterflies for all to enjoy. The facility is expanding but there are already quite a few plant beds and vibrant flowers that are bringing in hordes of colorful butterflies. The entry fee is $10.00 for adults and $5.00 for children.
As popular as birding is, it isn’t the only thing to do in South Texas. Truth be told, shopping is probably the other activity that brings in the most tourists. In fact, the area is the number one shopping destination in the U.S. for those living in Mexico. Every type of store and a large selection of merchandise are available here with centers such as the Plaza Mall that features 150 stores and more than 1 million square feet of retail delights.
The International Museum of Arts & Science (IMAS) in McAllen is one attraction that kids of all ages will enjoy. More than 85,000 visit each year for the rotating art exhibits, kid-friendly playground and special events like their annual Brew-seum. This latter event, although in a seemingly unlikely venue, has grown in popularity and provides an opportunity for people to experience food, art, music, culture, and beer, all in a relaxed, local setting.
One of IMAS’s secrets (until I let the world know, of course) is a darkened gallery off one of its wings. As I entered, I was greeted by Gregorian chant music and three walls of beautiful full-sized stained glass windows designed by Lewis Comfort Tiffany, son of the famous jewelry maker Charles Comfort Tiffany.
Collected domestically from buildings and churches, the windows are on permanent loan to IMAS, one of only three such galleries in the United States. The colorful backlit windows depict Biblical themes from the Gospels and are rich in ecclesiastical imagery. I was told that it isn’t unusual to find people so overwhelmed by the beauty that they drop to their knees in prayer. If you come to McAllen, this is a must-see.
If you are tired of eating at the same old chain restaurants, then your palate is in for a pleasant surprise. There more than 600 eateries in McAllen alone, many of which are individually owned and operated.
One of the greatest joys of travel is seeking out regional dining options.
Como en Casa is located in a nondescript strip mall in the town of Mission. I was told that the owner is from Sinaloa, Mexico and that I would be able to experience authentic Mexican cuisine. They were right. After downing a freshly made green juice blend, I tried a generous portion of a dish made with chicken, squash, corn, tomatoes, and spices, all slow cooked to perfection.
The corn tortillas were hand-made, hot, moist and delicious.
For dinner, dinner is found at a newer restaurant in McAllen simply called Salt. Asking our host what sort of food they served, she simply replied: American—a term that seemed to fit but that understated the taste tempting items on their menu. Eat at the grill to watch as their staff prepares one mouthwatering dish after another.
First came the small plates with Texas quail knots with pomegranate gastrique and polenta.
Skipping straight to dessert when the guy next to her couldn’t finish his individual baked Alaska and offered her half of this strawberry ice cream atop butter cake made with buttermilk and pistachio ganache confection. Who could blame her?
Huge two inch-thick aged steaks were remarkable, however their version of mac and cheese made with ziti, béchamel and American, cheddar and smoked gouda cheese was simply the best, most flavorful mac and cheese I have ever had—anywhere.
In the mood to try something a little different? What started as one woman making homemade tortillas has grown into a thriving business with 25 locations throughout the Lower Rio Grande Valley. These tortillas at El Pato are some of the best you will ever savor, but while you are there, you must try their Nopalitos, a seasonal dish made with cactus, tangy sauce, tomatoes, and spices.
Skeptical of this at first, after the first bite you will probably want to take some to go for that midnight snack.
According to a 2012 study by the Council for Community and Economic Research, McAllen was ranked the 3rd lowest cost of living city out of 300 communities surveyed each quarter. Maybe that’s why so many winter here to escape the colder climates. Maybe they all know something we don’t?
Whether its birds, butterflies, shopping, dining, or other adventures, you will find South Texas the perfect, best kept secret getaway destination.
FTC Disclosure: Promotional considerations and sponsorship was provided by the partners and suppliers listed in this article.
Where to Stay:
Run by Keith Hackland, this is the birders’ accommodation of choice with delightfully-themed rooms (Poncho Villa, S. Padre complete with a huge sailfish and ceiling painted sky) as well as apartment suites. Keith is friendly and accommodating and an expert at bird identification, and there is a gift shop loaded with books, gear, apparel, and literature about every aspect of birding. We stayed here three nights and found Keith to be caring, helpful and all the things you could want in an innkeeper.
Como en Casa
901 Travis Suite #3
Mission, TX 78572
Salt-New American Table