South Texas Tropics
Head south to a borderland region of lush riverbanks and butterflies
At first glance, you might mistake this region of Texas as some idyllic vacation spot in an exotic, faraway place. It is, in a way, since it basks in the balmy weather of the Rio Grande Valley as the waterway lazily runs through rich forests and friendly towns. Colorful butterflies, an abundance of birds and lush, green landscapes may not fit the stereotype of a Texas landscape, but the hospitality, mouth-watering cuisine and spirit of fun will remind you that you’re in Lone Star country.
Cool Breezes, Cool Places
The warm Texas Tropics run along the Mexican border from inland at Falcon Dam in Falcon State Park to Boca Chica State Park at the mouth of the Rio Grande.
The inhabitants of the valley follow long-standing regional traditions, with some modern influences sprinkled throughout. Here, Mexican and American cultures overlap beautifully.
The area is a popular winter destination for vacationers, with daytime temperatures rarely dropping below 70.
Because of its favorable soil, the Rio Grande Valley was made up of communities of citrus farms in the early 20th century. Many have remained, and during harvest time, the smell is heavy with the scent of oranges and grapefruit.
Visitors to this area will find fascinating natural attractions and history-rich cities. Upon entering the region on Interstate 83, visitors will encounter Rio Grande City. The town was settled in the mid-18th century and is one of the oldest inhabited communities in South Texas.
Charter a trolley tour of the area, or see the city with a guide. Another must-see stop, located on Route 2, is Mission, home to the Mission Butterfly Gardens, where 150 species of the colorful insects flutter about. In November, enjoy the Texas Butterfly Festival.
Mission is also home to the Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park, which is considered to be one of the top birdwatching destinations in the nation. Home to one of nine World Birding Center sites in the Rio Grande Valley, this location attracts tropical birds, including the white-tipped dove, groove-billed ani and ringed kingfisher.
Further along Route 2, hit the stores great shopping. McAllen attracts people from all over South Texas and Northern Mexico to browse the more than 40 shopping centers, from the high-end stores to specialty boutiques. The fun continues in the towns of La Feria, Alamo and Weslaco, all found along Route 2.
Culture in the Tropics
Visitors will discover an abundance of artistic and natural treasures in the city of McAllen. Here you’ll find another World Birding Center site, centered in the Quinta Mazatlan, a Spanish Adobe Revival hacienda. Tropical gardens surround the 10,000 square-foot mansion, with native plants lining foot paths. Visitors will see birds like common pauraques, clay-colored thrushes, green jays, buff-bellied hummingbirds and olive sparrows.
On the first Friday of every month, local artists showcase their creations and sell creative pieces as keepsakes. Stroll through galleries at your own pace on a self-guided tour from September to May.
Night owls will find a haven in McAllen after hours. Walk down 17th street and relax in a lounge, club or bar.
East of McAllen lies Harlingen, a town that wears its Old West past on it sleeve. Although today it’s much less wild than its “Six-Shooter Junction” days of the 1800s, Harlingen still has plenty of gumption. You’ll find it at free summer concerts during “Blues on the Hill” in McKelvey Park, and during live productions at Harlingen Performing Arts Theatre. The Rio Grande Valley Museum tells the story of Harlingen and its role in the growth of the region, and World War II heroes are honored at the Iwo Jima Monument and Museum on the Marine Military Academy campus.
Motoring toward the Gulf, you will reach Brownsville, which preserves the city and valley’s history. The Brownsville Historical Association works to educate visitors on the area’s dynamic past.
Younger visitors will find a treat at the Children’s Museum of Brownsville. The exhibits are filled with hands-on projects for children of all ages to enjoy. Parents don’t need to worry about being bored, since the environment allows parents to help their children explore.
South Padre Island is the go-to place for those that love the water. Rent a water craft, charter a trip out on a boat or set out and see some dolphins. Beach lovers can find lots to do on the coast between the Gulf and Laguna Madre Bay.
The warm climate makes South Padre Island a tropical escape every day of the year. The most popular months for visitors are March, April and July. Hang out in Port Isabel, a festive town with world-class fishing and outstanding restaurants. Check out the Port Isabel Lighthouse, which showcases views of the surrounding shores.
In the 1600s, pirates used South Padre Island as a hideout. Modern-day visitors can fulfill their buccaneer fantasies by taking a trip aboard the Black Dragon, a replica of a pirate ship operated by a colorful crew of “wastrels and brigands.” Powered by a modern engine, this pirate vessel offers entertainment and food for adventurous families.
The Texas International Fishing Tournament is held every year in the summer. Cash prizes approach a quarter of a million dollars. Additional tournaments held in South Padre including Redfish Rodeo and Ladies Kingfish Tournament.
The Texas Tropics end in Boca Chica, where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The road crosses coastal grasslands and skirts the South Bay.
Guests who make it to the mouth of the Rio Grande may be treated to the sight of some of the species of sea turtles that call the beach home at certain times of the year. The beach also serves as a habitat to a diverse array of birds.
For More Information
South Padre Island
Texas Office of the Governor, Economic Development and Tourism