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Quinta Mazatlan: Mother Nature’s Mansion

This World Birding Center site in McAllen offers natural beauty in historic setting

Feasting on yellow berries in an anaqua tree, bandit-masked great kisk-adees fly above me at Quinta Mazatlan, a McAllen mansion with a mission and one of the nine World Birding Center sites in the Rio Grande Valley. Quinta Mazatlan immerses visitors in lush native plants and the thrill of observing urban wildlife. Art indoors and out, historic architecture and encounters with deep South Texas’ colorful birds inspire visitors like me.

Eccentric adventurer, hydroponics re-searcher and publisher Jason Matthews, who viewed McAllen as the “crossroads of the Western Hemisphere,” built the mansion in 1934. It is one of Texas’ largest adobe homes, using 10,000 sunbaked adobe bricks. The Spanish Colonial Revival mansion, with wrought iron grilles and arched doorways, includes carved front doors by San Antonio woodworker Peter Mansbendel, who used Matthews as the model for the goateed gargoyles. Matthews also painted the adobe blocks with aluminum sulfate, believing it blocked radar waves.

In 1998, the city saved Quinta Mazatlan from the wrecking ball and opened the expanded 20-acre property to the public in 2006 as an environmentally green model, from its grassy parking lots to the cactus growing atop the red roof.

On the tour, I discover a blue-tiled Roman bath 10 feet long, Talavera tiles inset in the walls, the tropically landscaped courtyard and the stunning new Mexican Folk Art Room. This color-saturated explosion of mythical, magical and religious figures features about 3,000 objects crafted of clay, tin, paper and wood.

Outside, garden tour guide Silvia Barr leads the way through lavish gardens and Tamaulipan thorn scrub, explaining how to landscape a “bird café” using native fruit and seeds. Native plants give this garden its identity and a sense of place.

Beyond a bell-topped gate, we wander tidy trails posted with interpretive signs. Barr encourages us to notice that “fruit from different plants are ready to be eaten at different seasons.” She strokes the bark of an umbrella-shaped Mexican olive tree; runs her hand over the smooth, mottled bark of a Texas persimmon; and invites us to feel the sandpapery leaves of anaqua and the velvet lantana. A spiny hackberry arches its zigzag branches over our path. Slender stalks of night-blooming cereus cactus drape and coil into a tangle, providing both food and shelter for Texas tortoises and wood rats. We have escaped into a patch of the brush country that’s been preserved right in the middle of McAllen.

Flashes of green and orange draw us to identify a buff-bellied hummingbird, a noisy resident. Birding guide Erik Bruhnke says, “This is a northern extension of true tropical habitat,” he tells me as we watch chachalacas nibble chile pequin and green parakeets nest in dead palms.

Under an ebony tree, a bronze sculpture of a great horned owl spreads its wings. Twenty-six wildlife sculptures dot the grounds and seem lifelike to me, even if the leaf-cutter ants are 24 inches long and the Texas horned lizard is equally outsized. Close-by is a Mexican free-tailed bat sculpture along with bronzes of javelinas, raccoons and a Texas indigo snake.

Departing the mansion, I visit the International Museum of Art and Science, where the exhibit “Science on a Sphere” presents a three-dimensional exploration of earth and sky. I wander into nearby Nuevo Santander Gallery to check out the lustrous old saddles, contemporary art, Mexican icons and the spectacular Guerra family spur collection.

After all the activity, it’s time for a late lunch, so I head to the nearby Republic of the Rio Grande Grill & Cantina for tortilla soup followed by a crushed-almond taco filled with white chocolate mousse, strawberries and pineapple. Today, I’ve truly enjoyed the beauty and bounty of the Texas borderland.

Eileen Mattei, a member of Nueces and Magic Valley ECs, lives in Harlingen.