I recently returned from a 10 day visit to the Rio Grande Valley region of Texas, which is located in the southernmost tip of South Texas. It lies along the northern bank of the Rio Grande river, which separates Mexico from the United States. This area is known as The Valley to locals, and not only does it boast natural beauty and lively culture, but it’s quite historic as well.
Last week I wrote about my experience being Vegan in the Rio Grande Valley, but this week I wanted to share the photos I took of all the cool places there are to visit in the region. I’m only sad I couldn’t stay longer, because there was a lot I didn’t get to see.
This is one of the largest cities in the valley, but as someone that’s lived in huge cities, McAllen is just the right size. It still has a small town feel in certain ways, but lots of modern amenities so it was easy to find everything I needed. There’s lots of local events, which provided me a good chance to immerse myself in the community and interact with the locals.
The Cine El Rey Theatre hosts lots of events, including stand up comedy, open-mic night, wrestling, and musicals. They also offer tons of free movie screenings complete with free popcorn. I decided to join the local French Club for a Sunday matinee of a French thriller and it was pretty awesome. Free popcorn, drinks, donuts, cookies, and there’s couches in the theater if you prefer that to actual chairs 🙂
The family I stayed with took me to Art Walk McAllen, which is a seasonal event that takes place every first Friday of the month from September to May. We started at Archer Park where local vendors set up booths selling handcrafted items like jewelry, hats, purses, artwork, and live music blasted from the pavilion.
This was my favorite artist, with all his Frida Kahlo inspired art. From there, we walked down a couple of blocks into the arts district, where the local art galleries opened their doors from 6-10 pm and served free wine ??
The next day I decided to hit up both of the farmer’s markets, which you can read about in last week’s blog post. I definitely recommend checking them out.
Sunday morning I attended a free yoga class and meditation session at the McAllen Nature Center, which was really great. It starts at 10 am, so it’s not too early, and the classes are a good size, about ten people. The Nature Center offers a slew of cool activities, totally free of charge.
Right across from Archer Park is the Renaissance, a very historic hotel in town. In the front courtyard you can find the Kiglea Tree, also known as a “sausage tree.” It’s native to Mozambique in Africa, and there are only 6 of these trees in the entire United States.
I went to see it during the day, but apparently is blooms at night! Either way, definitely check out this interesting tree ?
McAllen Public Library – I mention this awesome library in last week’s post as well. The building used to be a Walmart, so it’s huge! I brought my laptop and found a quiet table to settle at and get some work done. There’s a cafe inside the lobby if you get hungry or need a caffeine boost, and out front is where one of the farmer’s markets takes place on Saturday mornings.
McAllen Heritage Center – This is a free museum downtown that focuses on the history of McAllen. It was interesting to see how the town has developed over the years. It’s a small museum, so it’s a great stop to make for an hour while you’re exploring the downtown area.
Downtown – A nice mix of historic buildings and brightly colored shops. Lot of shopping opportunities. The old railroad depot is here. 7th Street is home to the nightlife in McAllen, as well as some cool restaurants.
Right next to McAllen is Mission. This is where I stayed with a really nice host family. They have a beautiful property full of lush landscaping, citrus trees, pecan trees, a papaya tree, avocado tree, olive tree, jasmine, rosemary, hibiscus, and many other beautiful plants thanks to the warm, tropical climate.
It’s also home to 4 rescue dogs, including Peanut and Nala!
…aaaand two wild parrots that enjoyed squawking early in the morning and in the evenings. Can you spot the parrot in the photo below?
I visited downtown Mission to check out the historical museum, which not only focuses on the history and culture of the city, but also the famous people that have lived there, like Tom Landry and author Cleo Dawson who had the film version of her novel She Came to the Valley shot there. After touring the interior, explore the lovely outdoor garden.
Just a couple blocks over is La Lomita Historical Park and La Lomita Chapel (which some claim to be haunted) as well as a war memorial.
As I left the park, I heard old timey music coming from a church tower nearby. I followed it to Dunlap Ave, to the Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, which is a beautiful historic building.
I stopped briefly on my way to Brownsville to see the Iwo Jima Monument in Harlingen. This is the original monument, gifted to the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen by the sculptor, Dr. Felix W. de Weldon. It’s a massive sculpture – the figures are 32 feet high and the flagpole stands 78 feet high.
Just beyond the sculpture rests the remains of Harlan Block, depicted as the solider planting the flag in the ground.
You can also check out the Iwo Jima Museum located near the parking area to learn more about the soldiers above, the origins of the sculpture, and WWII.
This is an interesting, extremely historic town. The downtown area is full of old buildings, some beautifully restored, but many falling apart. There’s an international bridge into Mexico right in the middle of things, and nearby is a historic site that not only allows you to see the Rio Grande and Mexico, but is also the start of the famous Chisholm Trail.
Many of the locals that used to cross over to Matamoros on a regular basis to go shopping, eat at restaurants, or visit family are now too scared because of how bad the drug cartels have gotten. It’s really sad.
The Cameron County Courthouse is a really cool, historic building. It might not look like much from the outside, but the inside is amazing. There’s marble everywhere and when you look up, there’s the dome. This building is also haunted apparently, and the security guard took me down to the basement which used to be the prison but is now a law library, and the librarian was telling me stories about all the things people saw and heard in the building, mostly at night ???
Speaking of haunted, I love going to the old, historical cemeteries in towns that I visit because it’s kind of like going to a museum. The Brownsville cemetery looks like it belongs in New Orleans because the first thing you see upon entering are rows of gothic mausoleums and angel sculptures. This is where the rich people are buried but as you go further to the right you’ll find the simple headstones of the poor, which back up to the resaca. Resacas are former channels of the Rio Grande that are exclusively found in this area.
On the other side behind a white wall is the Jewish cemetery. At one point, there was a rather large Jewish community in Brownsville, and there were several important Jewish figures in the community.
Mexican Restaurants – Go to the locally owned Mexican restaurants to get a more traditional meal, rather than the popular Tex-Mex you find in the rest of Texas.
Museums – There’s a lot to choose from, including the Brownsville Museum of Fine Art, the Children’s Museum, and the Heritage Museum. If you want something a little smaller, go for the Stillman House Museum or the Historic Brownsville Museum, which previously housed the Southern Pacific Depot in the 20’s.
Just northeast of the city is Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site, which is where the first battle of the U.S.-Mexican war took place. And at nearby Palmito Hill, the site of the battle that ended the Civil War.
I also visited Raymondville, a small town farther north of the border, and La Sal del Rey (“The King’s Salt”), one of three naturally occurring salt lakes in South Texas. But I’m saving those for my next travel post so I don’t overwhelm you with too much awesomeness 🙂
Definitely get down to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas if you can. There’s so much to do and see, the people are extremely friendly, the history is amazing, the weather is warm, and the palm trees are everywhere!