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Spotlight: South Texas Tropics

Butterflies and birds mingle with naval history and country music in this slice of the Lone Star State

The Texas Tropics is a sprawling region known for its vibrant Mexican influences and abundant natural attractions. The fertile Rio Grande Valley is a major part of this landscape, as birds, butterflies and other species gather here during long migrations. The communities of South Texas comprise a rich cultural mix of Mexican, European and early American pioneer ancestry, all offering singular appeal.

Start your trip in Laredo, where historic charm is plentiful. This colorful border town (its Mexican neighbor across the river to the west is the town of Nuevo Laredo) can be explored through a walking tour that starts at the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum. Once the residence of a rancher and former mayor of Laredo, the museum houses displays that simulate the interior of an authentic 1830s home.

The museum is located on San Agustin Plaza, where you can also explore the Villa Antigua Border Heritage Museum, San Agustin Cathedral, San Agustin Plaza, the Washington’s Birthday Celebration Museum and Casa Ortiz on your walking tour. True to its community, Laredo conducts its tours in English and Spanish.

Kenny Braun

Kenny Braun

Birding on the River

Continue your travels down the southwest edge of the region to McAllen. This rapidly growing city maintains its small-town feel and puts the focus on the rugged natural beauty of the Rio Grande Valley at Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center and the McAllen Nature Center. Quinta Mazatlan is a 1930s adobe estate that educates visitors about the region’s bird populations, plant life and environmental stewardship. It is the McAllen wing of the World Birding Center under the stewardship of the City of McAllen Parks & Recreation Department. McAllen Nature Center offers a variety of nature walks for families, bird enthusiasts and photographers on a half-mile of trails.

Expand your mind at the International Museum of Art and Science. This eclectic but inspired combination of disciplines features the RioScape, an interactive science playground. Guests can also see works of talented artists.

Brownsville, at the southernmost tip of the state, is a gateway to coastal recreation. Visit the city’s Historic Battlefield Trail, where the first battle of the Mexican-American War took place at Palo Alto on the trail’s northern end. The 9-mile hike-and-bike trail is a former rail line and is bookended to the south by the Gladys Porter Zoo. To the east, the Port Isabel Lighthouse is a historic treasure.

Island Time

Head east toward the Gulf and enjoy one of the state’s most popular oceanside destinations, South Padre Island. While it’s a crowded scene during college spring break weeks, South Padre can be also a quiet family escape the rest of the year.

Take a chartered boat out into the Gulf and watch dolphins dance in the waves, or venture out onto the sand under a full moon during nesting season to see baby sea turtles (from a safe distance). Make sure you don’t use your camera flash: Turtles can mistake the bright lights for the moon and become disoriented.

Learn more about the wildlife that call the Valley home at the Boca Chica unit of Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area. As part of the Las Palomas Loop, a Texas wildlife trail, Boca Chica provides a safe habitat for several species, including white-wing doves and the endangered ocelot.

Kenny Braun

Kenny Braun

Further up the coast, Padre Island National Seashore invites nature enthusiasts to explore 70 miles of sand, surf and grassy dunes. As the world’s longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island, it separates the Gulf from the Laguna Madre, a rare hypersaline lagoon. Here, Kemp’s ridley sea turtles return from the ocean to dig nests for their eggs, and more than 380 species of birds find cover in the native grasses. Historically, this was home to an indigenous tribe, the Malaquites. The South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center is a premier destination for bird watching. Divers can explore the several Spanish shipwrecks found off the coast.

Continue up the coast and dive into the adventure at Corpus Christi. Sport fishing, surfing or just hunting for shells along North Beach are just a few of the ways to spend your stay. Take the family to the Texas State Aquarium to watch otters play, then climb aboard the USS Lexington to learn about the aircraft carrier’s role in military action. See how sailors live while at sea.

Art exhibits, classes and lectures are plentiful at the Art Museum of South Texas. Here, visiting collections from modern masters like Andy Warhol mingle with traditional arts and crafts from Latin America.

Stroll past the yachts and schooners docked at Corpus Christi Marina as the sun sets, then stop to dine at one of several restaurants along the bayfront. When the stars come out, so does the live music. Head to Water Street Market to take in a performance, but don’t miss a stroll on the South Texas Music Walk of Fame. Fan favorites who have earned a place on the walk include Freddy Fender, Stoney LaRue, Michael Nesmith and George Strait.

For More Information

South Padre Island
Texas State Travel Guide