McAllen, Texas, The Artful Birdwatching Destination
Considered one of the top birding centers of the world and steeped in rich culture and arts, McAllen and its surrounding Rio Grande Valley are quick becoming world-re-known nature tourism and cultural destinations sought the globe over.
Nature tourism and art marry to create a spectacular South Texas attraction in this beautiful locale where it’s a toss up if the arts are more vibrant than the birds’ plumage.
“Because McAllen sits in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley, it’s the most popular and productive birding destination in the United States,” says Nancy Millar, Vice President and Director of the McAllen Convention and Visitors Bureau for the McAllen Chamber of Commerce. “We have more bird species than most entire states, and 39 species that are only found here among the U.S. States.”
A natural “flyway” between North America and South America, the Rio Grande Valley is becoming a natural “getaway” for human visitors from around the world. Few places in the world offer a dozen birding Bed and Breakfasts such as Indian Ridge bed and Breakfast, as well as a handful of birding RV resorts.
One of the crown jewels of McAllen is the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. This gorgeous wildlife reserve of birds, butterflies, and indigenous plants encompasses over 2000 acres known as the ‘birder’s paradise.” Birdwatchers from around the globe have documented over 400 species. 13 miles of walking trails, observation decks, photo blinds, lakes and ponds make this lush, subtropical habitat a magnet for birders and also for 300 species of butterflies, numerous dragonflies, and unusual snakes as well.
An amazing rope bridge takes birders through a canopy, and guided tours and half day canoe trips are also offered.
The World Birding Center consists of a network of nine birding sites along a historic river road and included in that network is the famous Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park which serves as the headquarters. The 760 acre park with another 1700 acres of adjoining federal refuge land provides visitors some of the richest and rarest birding north of the Mexican border. Guests can ride their own bicycles through the park, or rent them on site. Trams also operate hourly dropping visitors off at the butterfly garden, a lake blind, a hawk tower, and other vantage points.
Quinta Mazatlan is a historic Spanish revival adobe that is surrounded by spectacular gardens, tropical and native woodlands and lies on 15 acres of walking trails. This gem is also part of the World Birding Center and offers tours and a variety of nature programs. Take a guided morning tour and be enchanted by the calls of the resident chachalacas.
Any artful birdwatcher will want to take in some of the fabulous art of McAllen. The area is brimming with galleries, museums, and theaters.
First Friday Art Walks give visitors a glimpse of the local talent as does the unique McAllen Creative Incubator, a surprising presentation space for local emerging artists. The Nuevo Santander Gallery is another local gem.
McAllen is also home to the International Museum of Art and Science. Affiliated with the Smithsonian, this museum hosts the largest collection of Mexican folk art in the country.
An absolutely fascinating Science on the Sphere Theater in the IMAS was developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This spectacle imposes stunning images from the Hubble Space Telescope, orbital satellites, and unmanned space probes, all shown on a 3D six foot sphere that seemingly floats in the middle of a theater depicting seasons, solar activities, weather patterns, earthquakes, and more on a global scale.
After working up an appetite taking in the arts or watching the birds, you don’t have to eat like one in McAllen. McAllen is a dining mecca with simple to sublime and everything in between. Over 600 restaurants grace the city limits.
If simple, casual, quick, but delicious food is on the menu, you have to do as the locals do and try El Pato. Famous and loved by all, this mom and pop local chain serves the best patos you could possibly find. All ingredients are fresh and from family recipes that have grown a following to 14 locations throughout the valley offering legendary piping hot, hand-made tortillas, filled just how you want them. You cannot find a better and more reasonably priced breakfast anywhere.
For the best Italian food in the city, try Capellini Ristorante Galleria. Whether you choose the romantic and lovely outdoor patio dining or elegant inside seating, you will love every minute facet of this local eatery where attention to detail in every delectable dish is a treat. This is the perfect place to eat while enjoying the First Friday Art Walk.
Another favorite for locals and Mexican Nationals is The Patio on Guerra. A delightful historic eatery with an interesting past offers fine dining in a vintage atmosphere. Specialty salads, quail, steaks , seafood and border favorites round out the choices, along with cocktails that are pure works of art.
For a casual yet elegant eating respite, try house.wine. This unusual two-in-one store blends home furnishings with a boutique wine lounge that offers over 100 wines as well as nearly as many beers.
The place to stay to enjoy all that the downtown area has to offer is the historic Casa de Palmas Hotel built in 1918. Renovated in 2000 and soon to acquire more of a face lift, this gorgeous property combines convenience and amenities with a colorful ambiance and setting of the past.
Just minutes from McAllen, nearby Mission, Texas is considered a nature’s paradise and is home to the Texas Butterfly Festival and the National Butterfly Center. Worth a day excursion, Mission offers another taste of art, nature tourism, and it’s own dining gems. Make some time to lunch at Renee’s of Sharyland.
Los Ebanos Ferry is the last hand drawn ferry across the Rio Grande and is found a short drive from Mission as well.
There is so much beauty to behold in McAllen and the Rio Grande Valley. Prepare to be delighted with serene sunsets, beguiling bird calls, astounding gourmet delicacies, and warm hospitality.
Note: an excellent and thoroughly entertaining book on birding stories of the area is Birding the Border, Tales of the Rio Grande Valley by Nancy Millar and Ron Smith