The Texas Rio Grande Valley hosts birders from around the world to see species they can’t find anywhere else. More than 560 species have been documented in the two largest counties that make up the Rio Grande Valley (or RGV, as they call it). McAllen is one of the best areas to explore, and if the birds aren’t enough, it’s a great place for foodies to flock, and also offers quite the cultural experience. I had the opportunity to visit this Texas treasure in the spring and I was quite pleasantly surprised to see how much they have to offer.
I stayed at SpringHill Suites by Marriott, convenient to Palm View Golf Course, McAllen Botanical Gardens and La Plaza Mall. Places to visit My first birding experience was at the Quinta Mazatlan (quintamazatlan.com), “a mansion with a mission.” It is one of nine world birding centers in the Rio Grande Valley. As you wind your way through the themed gardens, the diversity of plant life is amazing. The RGV’s subtropical climate hosts more than a million types of plants; some that get pushed to their furthest limits. Our guide explained that drought lasting up to seven years causes some plants to extend their roots 60 feet into the ground in order to survive. In contrast, some years are subject to Gulf-produced flooding. Moving through the 15 acres of birding habitat feels like you’re in a foreign land.
Around 1910, the railroad came to Texas and the RGV experienced its first taste of agriculture in the mineral-rich ground. After WWII, there was a surge of land clearing and farming increased into the ‘60s. By the ‘90s there was a huge increase in industry. After all was said and done, only 3 percent of the RGV’s plant species remain. Quinta Mazatlan is one of two patches of remaining forest, where the lush plant life can still be enjoyed. While here we saw the plain chachalaca eating oranges, a golden fronted woodpecker, a curved bill thrasher, jackrabbits (which I learned were actually a type of hare), and many other forms of wildlife. The mansion is lovely and it was hard to believe it was purchased in 1968 for $24,000! Next on our agenda was the Museum of South Texas History (mosthistory.org). Shan Rankin, executive director, described it as the “best first stop” in the area. With 18,000 square feet of permanent exhibits, be prepared to soak up some Texas history you may never have heard about. The museum first opened in 1967 in the Hidalgo County Jail building, which was built in 1910. It has since undergone a $5.5 million expansion, of which the original section in the old jail continues to be an important part.
Among the displays are prehistoric plant and animal fossils, a steamboat replica and, as part of the expansion, the first two sections of the Rio Grande Legacy. This exhibit takes visitors through the prehistory and history of the area. If you’re a history buff, the museum has more than 100,000 historic photographs in its archives. Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park (tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/bentsen-rio-grande-valley) claims to be one of the nation’s top birding destinations, and it’s not hard to see why. This was most definitely a highlight of the trip. The 760-acre park offers camping and special group rates. You can rent a bike for $10 a day or $4 for a half-day and take in the sites at your own pace. I tried this and it was a very nice ride. You can also rent trikes and binoculars.
The park sits along the Rio Grande River and offers refuge to tropical birds found nowhere else in the U.S. I saw beautiful green jays, two kinds of kingfishers, and many more. They were magnificent! The ring kingfishers that I saw were rarely seen in the past, but are now regulars at the park and can also be found as far north as Dallas. And from the Hawk Observation Tower you can see the canopy and even into Mexico. The park is open 365 days a year and not only hosts a vast number of birds, but also some 300 types of butterflies and 100 different dragonflies!
This park adjoins 1,700 acres of U.S Fish and Wildlife refuge tracts. You could spend a week here and still not see it all. Some of the birds are here year-round, while for others it is part of their migration south. They offer some excellent bird blinds where you can watch the birds in their natural habitat without disturbing them at all. Whether you choose to hike, bike, kayak, tram, or some of each, you’ll have plenty to see and enjoy. Then we were off to the incredible International Museum of Art & Science (IMAS). Here we got a bird’s eye view of Science on a Sphere (S.O.S). One of only 100 in the world and created by NASA and the NOAA, this spectacular display shows weather, ocean temperature, views from the Hubble Space Telescope, and more.
Wow, was this amazing! It’s basically a video projection of the world on a 68-inch globe made from carbon fibers. And it’s not limited to Earth, as it can also mimic the sun, moon, or other planets. If you can’t make it to McAllen to see the S.O.S. exhibit, the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Sugar Land also has one. IMAS (www.imasonline.org) is currently displaying Calaveras del Monton: A Tribute to Jose Guadalupe Posada (till Nov. 10) and Entombed Treasures: Funerary Art of Han Dynasty China (till Sept. 15). And if you miss the Han Dynasty exhibit in McAllen, it’s on loan from the San Antonio Museum of Art. And while enjoying the culture in McAllen, be sure not to miss the Nuevo Santander Gallery (nuevosantander.com).
Opened 15 years ago by Becky and Che Guerra, it is internationally known for collectibles such as vintage saddles and spurs, antique guns and knives, Native American beadwork, and much more. Their objective is “to give you the chance to own a part of history.” This unique gallery, located in Old Towne, features Spanish Colonial and Old West finds. Local artists are allowed to consign their work, and at least five local artists’ work is on exhibit at any given time. McAllen Artwalk is held in Old Towne on the first Friday of each month, September through May.And while we’re talking art, be sure to check out McA2 Creative Incubator (mcallenart.com). Described as the “driving force of the Rio Grande Valley art movement,” you’ll find sculptors, painters, photographers, graphic designers and even a stage for performances. McA2 calls itself the “home, support, and voice for local artists.” They even offer classes if you would like to sit in on one.
Places to eat
Did you know that McAllen has over 600 eateries within its city limits? McAllen is a foodie’s fiesta. You’ll want to pace yourself, but here are a few that we enjoyed on our visit: Frida’s Grill & Cantina – elegant food, fantastic service and superlative entrees makes this a huge favorite by locals. Try the mole! Il Divino - another cozy, romantic restaurant filled with art. Beautifully presented food, great cocktails, and the Capone Filet was to die for! The Republic of the Rio Grande – tall ceilings, great service and authentic mexican food makes this a hit. You will find lots to choose from on the menu as they offer everything from pizzas and burgers to delectable steaks and Mexican specialities. Former Austin residents Larry and Jessica Delgado own and operate the lovely and eclectic House. Wine. & Bistro. Tuna, duck and risotto and offered in thoughtful ways but the menu also features pastas, steaks and flatbreads. Live music! The Palenque Grill was created by the founder of the Pollo Loco chain of restaurants. The menu has all the standard Mexican favorites in a nice atmosphere. Loved the margaritas. Delia’s – One of McAllen’s success stories! Delia’s serves thousands of homemade tamales in more than 18 flavors in five locations. Definitely worth a stop to try their dessert tamales! Roosevelt’s at 7 – McAllen’s first ale house offers 45 micro-brews and many other beers on tap and by the bottle. Lansky’s – Touts prime-cut steaks and “the world’s most-coveted Pacific seafood.”
McAllen is the number one U.S. shopping destination for Mexico, according to our guides. It offers countless galleries and many national-brand stores, along with a variety of high-end boutiques. Whether you’re looking for souvenirs, art, jewelry, or just about anything you can think of, be prepared to shop till you drop … so wear your comfy shoes! Some local favorites include: Barn White, Oh-Kays, Lux Décor and S. Klein Gallery. For everything you need to know to plan your trip to McAllen, visit www.mcallencvb.com.