Winter Texans and other snowbirds have devoted themselves to keeping a big secret as best as they can, but the word’s definitely out: South Texas is the promised land for anyone interested in birds, butterflies and botany. You can add another “b” to the list, too, if you’re headed to Mercedes. Not only is this Rio Grande Valley town headquarters for Magic Valley Electric Cooperative, it’s also a dandy place to order up a custom-made pair of Western boots. So pack your binoculars and camera, jot down your list of footwear needs and head out on this road trip, taking you on a 40-mile journey from Mercedes east and south along U.S. Highway 83/U.S. Highway 77 to Harlingen and Brownsville.
Known as La Reina del Valle, or Queen City of the Valley, this town of about 14,000 in southern Hidalgo County lies about 10 miles north of the Rio Grande. Make your first stop at boot-makers Cavazos or Camargo’s, two homegrown companies that will craft belts and wallets to match your boots, too. Driving in and around town, you can’t help but note the impressive yet unassuming proliferation of lush tropical botanics and citrus farms. Just 5 miles west near Weslaco, see the 176-acre Estero Llano Grande State Park, part of the magnificent World Birding Center. The wetlands here include a shallow woodlands lake, ringed by marsh cane, offering a fantastic population of waders and shorebirds.
Estero Llano Grande State Park, 3301 S. International Blvd. (FM 101) near Weslaco, (956) 565-3919; www.worldbirdingcenter.org
Cavazos Boots, 302 Second St., (956) 565-0753; www.cavazosboots.com
Camargo’s Boots, 710 U.S. Hwy. 83, (956) 565-6457; www.camargoboots.com
Mercedes Chamber of Commerce, 316 S. Ohio St., (956) 565-2221
Indulge yearnings for nature and history in this city of 67,000, long known as a gateway to South Padre Island. The local World Birding Center sites here include Hugh Ramsey Nature Park and the Harlingen Thicket Bird Sanctuary, the latter a 40-acre brushy destination in the middle of the city that attracts feathered friends. Possibly more impressive are some 40 species of butterflies found at a special garden by the Harlingen Municipal Auditorium; pick up guides for these at the Chamber of Commerce and at the local Texas Travel Information Center. Check out Harlingen’s Jackson Street District, the historic downtown quarter that’s now the Valley’s destination for antiques, local art galleries, vintage clothing and jewelry, furniture and glassware, tucked into assorted 1930s–1940s buildings. At Harlingen’s Marine Military Academy, see the original working model for the famous Iwo Jima Memorial Bronze at Arlington National Cemetery. Donated to the academy by sculptor Felix de Weldon in 1981, the sculpture’s figures include Weslaco’s Cpl. Harlon Block, the Marine placing the flagpole in the ground who was killed in battle just days after helping plant the flag on Mount Suribachi.
Iwo Jima Monument and Museum, 320 Iwo Jima Blvd., (956) 421-9234; http://www.mma-tx.org/about-us/iwo-jima-monument/
Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce, 311 E. Tyler St, (956) 423-5440; 1-800-531-7346; www.harlingen.com/visitors
Make your way to this city of some 167,000 by detouring to Los Ebanos Preserve, a private refuge on Texas Highway 100 between Harlingen and Brownsville at San Benito. Wander the nature trails coursing through the 82-acre haven for such bird species as the green jay, buff-bellied hummingbird and the loud-chattering chachalaca. Still wild for winged beauties? Head to Resaca de la Palma State Park, another tract in the World Birding Center network, a 1,700-acre spread just west of the city where you can add colorful finds to your birding life list. Back in town, admire the towering palms and walls covered with brilliant bougainvillea. The ultimate destination on any trip to this southernmost city in Texas is the lauded Gladys Porter Zoo, an extraordinary sanctuary for more than 1,391 animals of 360 species—all living in gorgeous subtropical environments with no bars or cages.
Los Ebanos Nature Preserve, 27715 Texas Hwy. 100 at San Benito, (956) 399-9097; www.losebanospreserve.com
Resaca de la Palma State Park, U.S. Hwy. 281, (956) 565-3919; www.worldbirdingcenter.org