Brownsville is the largest city in the Rio Grande Valley. Its sister city across the river, Matamoros, is 3 times larger. The 2 communities economies and cultures are seriously intertwined. I found Brownsville the most fundamentally Mexico-influenced town Ruth & I visited. Although it has a reputation for having one of the highest poverty rates in the United States, its economy seems to be improving with a bustling port and some new businesses, like the nearby SpaceX South Texas launch site. Brownsville’s downtown is compact and reminded me of both New Orleans’ French Quarter and Havana. Our favorite attraction, the Sabal Palm Plantation, is in the U.S. but geographically surrounded by Mexico.
East of Brownsville are 2 other towns whose fates are intertwined, Port Isabel and the resort community at the bottom of South Padre Island. Connected by the Queen Isabella Causeway, they have a combined population of about 8,000. Compact and congested Port Isabel experiences a lot of tourists because of its lighthouse and museums, one of which is devoted to shipwrecks. The resort town across the causeway reminded me of a smaller version of Miami Beach with half a dozen high-rise hotel complexes and lots of restaurants and shops catering to beachgoers. Our favorite attraction in the area was the SPI Birding & Nature Center, one of 9 such facilities in the Rio Grande Valley but the only one on the Gulf of Mexico.
The first town we spent time in was Harlingen, which was once known as Six Shooter Junction. It struck me as having a fair number of non-Hispanic residents, including many seasonal ones. It has many murals downtown including one celebrating the most famous person born in Harlingen, a town that was named after a city in The Netherlands. Bill Haley, the first rock & roller, smiles down from this mural on a quiet, commercial street. The ladies at Harlingen’s Chamber of Commerce insisted that their community a close-knit with lots of civic pride. Harlingen is large enough to have a shopping center, a cinema complex, and a tourist attraction that we both really liked, an Iwo Jima Memorial. It’s there because of a World War II marine hero who was born in nearby Weslaco.
The 2nd largest town in the Rio Grande Valley is McAllen. Known as The City of Palms, McCallen looks more prosperous than other area towns because of its air base, railroad, and ranching history. With contiguous Mission and Pharr, it contains every familiar store franchise in the United States; but Mission seemed more rural, Spanish speaking, and nature-centered (the National Butterfly Center is just outside of it) than McAllen. Behind a golf course near town center, Quinta Mazatlan was McAllen best attraction. It’s affiliated with the world birding centers that abound in the Rio Grande Valley and caters to serious birders and nature lovers. The best restaurant we found in all of these communities was in McAllen. In a small shopping center, the Santa Fe Steakhouse surprised us with wild salmon on its menu. It has added “and Cantina” to its name to compete with almost every other restaurant in this part of Texas. Quinta Mazatlan is a hacienda/estate founded by a fascinating Renaissance Man.
West of Mission there’s far less urban action and lots of scrubland all the way to Rio Grande City.
PS Ruth & I saw Prickly Poppies in 3 colors because this part of the United States has relatively mild winters.