I often tell friends and family who live in chillier climes that winter is the best time to be in the Rio Grande Valley. After years of exploring my adopted home, I’ve discovered 15 adventures that allow visitors to experience the authentic Valley—beyond the wonderful sunshine, iconic palm trees, and great Mexican bakeries.
1. Behind the Scenes. The 65′ Double Sunshine cruises the Laguna Madre around the South Padre jetties, where dolphins abound, before heading down the restricted-access Brownsville Ship Channel. The boat provides front-row seats to observe the world’s largest “green” ship salvage yard (Esco Marine dismantles and recycles ocean freighters and naval war vessels); the towering, sea-going oil platforms made at Keppel AmFELS; and the Shrimp Basin where about 100 net-draped shrimp trawlers are docked. The charter service American Diving starts this four-hour cruise Thursdays at 9 a.m., December-March, from Sea Ranch Marina Pier. Reservations required, $25; 956/761-2030; www.divesouthpadre.com.
2. Citrus Collecting/Juicy Fruit. Pick your own red grapefruit at Thompson’s Rio Pride Orchards in Weslaco, November-March, Monday-Friday. This longstanding, family-operated orchard is one of the few that lets you pick yourown. Call ahead for a time, and to tour Donald Thompson’s exotic citrus tree collection, which includes pomelos and Mandarin limes. Or, get just-picked oranges and famous Rio Red grapefruit to go. Rio Pride, 2823 S. Pleasantview, Weslaco; 956/ 968-2644 or 888/667-2644; www.riopride.com.
3. Iwo Jima Monument. The original model for the Arlington Cemetery memorial dominates the skyline at the Marine Military Academy, near Valley International Airport in Harlingen. Visit the Iwo Jima Memorial and Museum before taking a free tour of the campus. Watch cadets parade to lunch and join them in the mess hall ($10). 320 Iwo Jima Blvd., Harlingen. Call 956/423-6006, ext. 235, to arrange the MMA tour; www.mma-tx.org.
4. Bygone Burials. Explore Brownsville’s Old City Cemetery on a guided walking tour of a New Orleans-style graveyard. The above-ground crypts and weathered headstones reflect more than 150 years of border life. Brownsville Historical Association docents lead the tour ($5 for members, $7 for non-members) Friday mornings at 10; reservations required. Call the Brownsville Heritage Complex at 956/541-5560. Or tour yourself: The Old City Cemetery Center, 600 E. Jackson (corner of 6th and Monroe), has maps. Tuesday-Saturday, 10-4.
5. Old Salts. Looking like a field of snow, the La Sal del Rey salt lake, 28 miles northeast of McAllen, could be a mirage under the bright sun with exotic birds in the distance. Your feet crunch on the lake’s dried salt, leaving footprints that rapidly fill with brine. Go four miles east of US 281 on Texas 186 and park at the US Fish & Wildlife Service kiosk on the north side of the road. Hike one mile on a gravel path to the lake. Call 956/784-7521; www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges.
6. Christmas Sights. Nighttime Christmas parades continue a Valley tradition. McAllen’s parade goes up Main Street to Archer Park on December 4 at 7 p.m. The next night brings the Christmas Posada—a procession of Mary, Joseph, and a donkey looking for room at an inn. Anyone can join the choir accompanying the posada. Archer Park stages free entertainment both nights. Call 877 / 622-5536; www.mcallen.org.
7. River Watch. Slip through a wide gap in the border wall in Mission (really, it’s legal here) and watch the Rio Grande flow past at the Riverside Club. This restaurant, famous for its pork tenderloin sandwiches, sits right on the river bank and offers pontoon boat cruises on the international waterway. 214 E. Chimney Road, Mission; 956/581-1033; www.ontheriver.net.
8. The MOST-History. In Edinburg, The Museum of South Texas History’s first-class exhibits of borderlands heritage cover topics from marine fossils and Spanish colonizers to steamboats and ranching families. Many of the museum’s holdings are showcased within an impressive Spanish Colonial Revival addition. The historic Old Hidalgo County Jail, connected to the complex by a lovely courtyard, includes a second-floor hanging room, complete with a trapdoor. Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 10-5; Sunday 1-5. The museum is at 200 N. Closner, Edinburg, 956/383-6911; www.mosthistory.org.
9. Watch the Birdie. Raucous squawks help you spot the wild, red-crowned parrots and green parakeets in Weslaco. About an hour before sunset, the flocks fly around Valley Nature Center at 301 S. Border Avenue (956/969-2475) and Frontera Audubon at 1101 S. Texas Blvd. (956/ 968-3275; www.fronteraaudubon.org).
10. Art in the Dark. McAllen’s Art Walk rolls through the art district like a progressive feast of fun and creativity the first Friday of the month. Pick up a venue listing at Nuevo Santander Gallery at 717 N. Main, and visit 12 studios and galleries between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. Details at www.mcallenartwalk.com.
11. Naturally Green. The new Resaca de la Palma State Park covers 1,200 acres of native habitat ringed by a tributary of the Rio Grande. Hiking, biking, and tram-riding visitors spot plentiful whistling ducks and tropical birds. $4.1000 New Carmen Road, Brownsville; 956/ 350-2920; www.worldbirdingcenter.org/sites/brownsville.
12. If the Boot Fits. Armando’s Boot Co. makes custom boots and lets visitors look over the shoulders of artisans at work on weekdays. Expect to wait around four months for your handcrafted caiman or calfskin boots. 169 N. 7th Street, Raymondville; 956/ 689-3521.
13. Murals on the Walls. Come and see border artists on Harlingen’s mural trail. The dozens of whimsical, historical, and cultural artworks include Dia de los Muertos and The Golden Age of Hollywood and Mexican Cinema. Pick up a guide book at the Harlingen Chamber of Commerce, 311 E. Tyler; 956/ 423-5440 or 800/ 531-7346; www.visitharlingentexas.com.
14. You at the Zoo. With most animals on islands instead of in cages, a walk through the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville is akin to a safari park visit. The multi-generational gorilla troop hogs the spotlight, but don’t miss the Egyptian fruit bats in flight. Hours: Mon-Fri 9-5:30; Sat-Sun 9-6. Adults $9, children $6. At 500 Ringgold Street, Brownsville; 956/ 546-2177; www.gpz.org.
15. Float to Mexico/Cross the Border. Bring a passport and hop on the last hand-pulled international ferry in the U.S. The Los Ebanos Ferry runs 8-4 daily. Go 14 miles west of Mission, then south on FM 866 for three miles. The small Mexican town of Diaz Ordaz, relatively untouched by tourists, is a mile from the ferry and Rio Grande.