South Texas Tropics
Exploring the Lone Star State's wet, wild wonders
The "South Texas Tropics," also known as the "Lower Rio Grande Valley," is a 140-mile stretch of land that runs along the Mexican border from the Falcon Dam to the Gulf of Mexico. There are few places more tropical in the continental U.S. than the lush Rio Grande Valley. Temperatures here frequently top 100°F.
Thousands of "Winter Texans" make this region their winter home in any of hundreds of RV parks, resorts and campgrounds for several months each year.
The hub communities are McAllen, Brownsville, South Padre Island, Harlingen and Port Isabel.
McAllen is the main retail center of the Rio Grande Valley. Forty of America's top 100 retailers maintain outlets in McAllen.
The 17th St. Entertainment District in downtown McAllen is a constant draw on the weekends for people from all over the Rio Grande Valley and Mexico. Close by is Austin Street, also located downtown, which has many clubs, lounges and bars as well as posh dining.
The McAllen Art District is close to downtown. The area is home to more than a dozen art galleries. It's anchored by Spanish Colonial Nuevo Santander Gallery, the McAllen Public Library and the new Art Village, a 30,000-square-foot, Tuscan-style retail facility. The arts district is also home to historic Archer Park and restaurants. On the first Friday of the month, regional and local artists display their many galleries throughout the street. There are also music performers that cater to the crowds. The historic Cine El Rey hosts live bands, nationally known comedians and theatrical productions. North McAllen also has it share of nightlife along the Nolana corridor.
Other points of interest to visitors include the McAllen Dog Park, the 2nd St. Bike Path, the Bicentennial Bike, the Zinnia Spray Water Park and the Bill Schupp Park in North McAllen that has giant playscapes for climbing, sliding and having fun. For more information about this area, visit www.mcallencvb.com.
Visitors like Brownsville because it ranks among the least expensive places to live in the U.S.
Brownsville is an historic city as it played a role in the Texas War of Independence, the Mexican-American War and the Civil War. In fact, the last battle of the Civil War, the Battle of Palmito Ranch, was fought on a field located a short distance from Brownsville, on May 12 and 13, 1865, nearly five weeks after Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia, officially ending the Civil War.
Walking tours consist of six routes that take you past historic buildings and homes with interpretive plaques. Information kiosks are placed within buildings along the tour routes.
Tour maps are available at the Brownsville Convention and Visitors Bureau, Brownsville Heritage Complex and Old City Cemetery Center.
Brownsville has three international bridges that connect the city with Mexico. For more information about the area, visit www.brownsville.org.
South Padre Island
South Padre Island is situated on the coastal tip of Texas. This unique island is bordered by the Gulf of Mexico and the Laguna Madre Bay. Beautiful beaches, warm Gulf waters, fishing, boating, bird watching, shopping, and a diversity of year-round activities await every visitor. Choose from an abundance of activities such as windsurfing, kiteboarding, dolphin watching, parasailing, jet skiing, horseback riding on the beach, shopping, tennis, golf and lounging by the pool.
The island's only link to the mainland is the two-mile Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge. The 34-mile-long barrier reef is about a half-mile at its widest point and has about 5,000 inhabitants and about 1 million visitors annually. Streets are bustling with retail shops, resort hotels, condominium towers, restaurants and recreational activities.
The island is a year-round vacation destination because it enjoys a subtropical climate.
The Dolphin and Nature Research Center provides a hands-on encounter with the Gulf's inhabitants and stresses the significance of conservation. With more than 306 recorded bird species, the island has become one of the premier birding locations in the Western Hemisphere.
Historic Port Isabel is located just over the bridge to the island. It offers much of the same recreational activities. This historic Texas port is connected to the island by a causeway and offers the perfect setting for mainlanders who still want to be on the water. The town enjoys world-class fishing, events and festivals, lots of great food and friendly faces.
As one of the oldest cities in the Texas Tropics, Port Isabel has a long and interesting history dating back to 1519, when Spanish explorer Alonzo de Pineda first charted it. Port Isabel is home to three world-class museums: the Port Isabel Historic Museum, the Treasures of the Gulf Museum and the 1852 Port Isabel Lighthouse. The Lighthouse Keeper's Cottage, on the grounds of the Port Isabel lighthouse, also highlights the maritime history of the Laguna Madre area.
For more information about the area, visit www.portisabel-texas.com.
While all of Texas is home to great hunting opportunities, Harlingen's unique geography makes the area particularly rich in wildlife, such as white-tailed deer, nilgai, javelina, wild pig, dove, quail and ducks.
Valley Race Park was the first greyhound track in Texas to accept pari-mutuel wagering. The facility is fully air-conditioned and the grandstand totals over 80,000 square feet. The World Birding Center has a location in Harlingen's Hugh Ramsey Nature Park.
The Marien Military Academy and Texas Iwo Jima War Memorial are in Harlingen. For more information about the area, visit www.visitharlingentexas.com.
Birding in the Valley
The region is also one of the country's most popular birding destinations. Birders and other nature tourists generate at least $125 million and 2,500 jobs a year.
Both public and private ecotourism boosters invest in printing bird lists, maps and guides and sponsor eight nature festivals a year focusing on everything from birds and butterflies to ocelots.
The Free Trade Bridge at Los Indios is a state-of-the-art international bridge located just 10 miles south of Harlingen. With a full U.S. Customs inspection facility that accommodates up to 75 trucks simultaneously, the Free Trade Bridge is acclaimed as the most time-efficient border crossing in the Rio Grande Valley. The Free Trade Bridge accesses a four-lane highway in northern Mexico, offering a fast route to the border cities of Matamoros and Reynosa, as well as the industrial city of Monterrey.
For More Information:
South Padre Island
Texas State Travel Guide