McAllen, Texas, is one of the fastest-growing and most cosmopolitan cities in Texas. It’s becoming a big city while still retaining its small-town feel. Almost everywhere you go, things are posted in both English and Spanish. The Rio Grande Valley area is the number one destination for birders from all over the world who come to look for its 540 bird species and over 330 butterfly species.
Besides the birding, there is so much to see and do in this area. It draws over 100,000 retired “Winter Texans” (their name for snowbirds) to the area when snow falls farther north. McAllen should be on everyone’s bucket list. It scores tops in history, nature, art, culture, and award-winning food. My visits to McAllen were comped, but my opinions are my own.
1. McAllen Heritage Center
The best place to get a feel for McAllen’s history and heritage is the McAllen Heritage Center. The Center, located in the old Spanish Colonial Revival post office, is filled with far more artifacts than you can imagine. From the railroad’s beginnings to the music style of the city, it brings McAllen’s past to life for you.
2. The Museum Of South Texas History
From prehistoric to present, the Museum of South Texas History tells the history of the lower Rio Grande region.
The 1910 Jail
One of its three sections is the old 1910 Jail, one of the oldest remaining buildings in Edinburg. The exhibit, “The 1910 Jail: An Arresting Artifact and Its Story,” explains the jail’s history. I was impressed with its tower hanging room which was only used once. Abram Ortiz, a convicted rapist and murderer, was executed there in 1913. Legend says his ghost still rattles his chains at night.
Viewing the hanging room and seeing the shackles used on prisoners is amazing. The jail has many other stories. There is an exhibit showing all the crimes inmates were convicted of. There are also exhibits about famous citizens like Nathanial Jackson who used his ranch as part of the Underground Railroad and helped escaping slaves over into Mexico.
Rio Grande Legacy
Rio Grande Legacy is the section telling the history from prehistoric times with a mammoth exhibit to one on how horses survived on Spanish ships when first being brought to America. This museum depicts the history and culture of South Texas into the 1900s. You can even see the saddle that belonged to Pancho Villa.
The Will Looney Legacy Park
The Will Looney Legacy Park is a beautiful outdoor park with lots of native plants and a sculpture of Margaret Montgomery Looney handing a document to her grandson, Will Looney, representing the passing of a legacy from one generation to another. It’s called A Texas Legacy and was created by Deborah Copenhaver Fellows.
3. Quinta Mazatlan
Quinta Mazatlan is part of the World Birding Center but combines history and culture with wildlife. It has a huge amount of natural acreage in the heart of the city. Jason Chilton Matthews and his wife, Marcia, built the home in 1835. Matthews was a world-wanderer and adventurer who fought against the Turks with Lawrence of Arabia during WW1. He also published American Mercury Magazine.
Some things I found most interesting are the front doors, which are a recreation of the front doors of the Spanish Governor’s Palace in San Antonio, Texas. Another is Cedar Hall. The exposed ceiling beams are built from rough-cut Lebanese cedar trees gifted to him by the King of Lebanon as a thank-you for helping Lebanon in its fight for independence. Not all of the furnishings are foreign; there is a rosewood piano that belonged to Jefferson Davis. You’ll see lots of artwork here too.
I found the number of birds, butterflies, and other wildlife I saw amazing. I spotted an owl, a family of doves, and a bunny just a few feet from the home. Lifelike bronze sculptures fill the Forest Sculpture Trail as you stroll around the grounds.
4. National Butterfly Center
The National Butterfly Center in Mission, a 100-acre preserve that abuts McAllen, is the largest native plant botanical garden in the United States. There are about 150 species of North American butterflies here, amounting to about 40 percent of all the butterfly species in the United States. You’ll find one creature you’re not expecting: Spike, a giant African spurred tortoise. Spike came to live at the center after his owner went away to college and abandoned him. He has become such a part of the center, Marianna Trevino Wright, executive director of the National Butterfly Center, said, “Spike thinks he’s a butterfly.”
5. Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park
Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park is another hotspot for spotting rare birds, called “valley specialties” because they live nowhere else in the United States. The park has seven miles of trails and much of it is wheelchair accessible. Some of the birds you might see include the plain chachalaca, hook-billed kite, white-tipped dove, groove-billed ani, common pauraque, golden-fronted woodpecker, Couch’s kingbird, green jay, olive sparrow, and Altamira oriole. I even spotted a rare great kiskadee there.
Besides the birds, you may spot lots of other wildlife. The park is a no-car area, so my favorite thing is to take the tram. It’s free with park admission.
Murals abound in McAllen. The old Bethel Missionary Baptist Church has an interesting mural of the Booker T. Washington School and the contributions of African Americans to McAllen history. Across the street from the International Museum of Arts and Sciences, there is a mural on musical history. You’ll find a mural honoring Narciso Delgado, a pioneer in Tejano and Frontera Music, near his former home.
International Museum Of Art & Science
The International Museum of Art & Science is a Smithsonian Affiliate where not only can you view art, but where you can also create your own art at the Ann Moore Art Studio. You’ll find live animal ambassadors, a rock-climbing wall, a Tiffany stained-glass room, and Discovery Pavilion for the kids. Outside, RioScape traces the journey of the Rio Grande River from the mountains to McAllen.
The McAllen Creative Incubator
The McAllen Creative Incubator is a place where aspiring artists can rent low-cost studio space. Visitors can see the artists at work in their studios.
I don’t usually consider a public library an art venue, but in McAllen it is. McAllen’s Library is the largest single-story library in the country. It won the 2012 Library Interior Design Awards for best interior design from International Interior Design Association. When you drive into the parking lot, it’s hard to believe this was once an abandoned Wal-Mart. A graceful arch over a circular pond graces the entryway. Inside and on its patios, you will find art and several murals.
McAllen’s Entertainment District crosses the line between art and dining. You’ll find dozens of restaurants, lounges, bars, and McAllen’s 1940s theater, El Rey. It’s been restored and offers films, comedy, and live theater. There’s an interesting mural at Rex Cafe depicting life in McAllen in past times.
Where To Eat
Salt | New American Table
Two of my favorite restaurants are owned by one award-winning chef, Larry Delgado, and his wife, Jessica. Salt – New American Table in the Art District has a chef’s table facing the kitchen so we could watch our food being prepared. The ravioli are fantastic.
Pro Tip: If they have truffles for dessert, get them no matter how full you are.
House. Wine. & Bistro.
Chef Larry’s house. wine. & bistro. opened in 2008. It rivals Salt but has a whole unique personality. There are wine racks surrounding the tables and a full bar.
Pro Tip: I loved the Bee Sting Flatbread.
Republic Of The Rio Grande
Another restaurant I love in McAllen is Republic of the Rio Grande. Besides the fantastic food, it has great atmosphere. The courtyard and its fountain make you feel you’re in an old Mexican mission. I had the house salad and stuffed chili fritos, hand-breaded Anaheim peppers stuffed with goat cheese, cream cheese, chorizo, and fried to a golden brown.
Costa Messa is another restaurant with the feeling of old Mexico. You can get classic Mexican cuisine or Tex-Mex. If you have a group, try the botanas. It has a little of everything.
Where To Stay
Casa De Palmas
One of my favorite hotels there is Casa de Palmas. It was built in 1918 on a parcel of land that was a city park. The hotel was named Casa de Palmas for a row of stately palms that graced the front entrance. For dining, its Spanish Room is a good choice, and the Cantina Lomax, a bar in the lobby, is the perfect spot to relax in the evening.
LaBorde House was designed in Paris and built in 1899 as the home of Francoise LaBorde. In 1917, LaBorde died of a gunshot wound that might have been suicide or an accident. The house is now an authentic bed-and-breakfast, complete with authentic period furnishing, in nearby Rio Grande City. It is reputedly haunted and has a mysterious tunnel.
Pro Tip: Take the ferry. Just a few miles out of McAllen, cross the Rio Grande aboard the last hand-pulled ferry on the US border, the Los Ébanos Ferry.