The Rio Grande Valley’s semitropical climate turns fall and winter journeys into pleasurable cruises past citrus groves, palms and mesquites. From Roma southeastward to Mission, U.S. Highway 83 passes Spanish land grants from the 1700s, riverboat ports of the 1800s and the rich delta farmland that spurred the Valley’s agricultural boom 100 years ago. A 65-mile trip through this stretch of southernmost Texas brings experiences you won’t find elsewhere.
Settled in 1765 by Spanish colonists, Roma perches on a bluff overlooking the Rio Grande. At Roma Bluffs Observation Deck of the World Birding Center, use the free telescope to check up and down the fast-flowing river for colorful and noisy kingfishers, green jays and great kiskadees.
On weekdays, City Hall will send someone to open the Roma Museum for you. At this hodgepodge collection housed in a historic peach-colored building, you can discover oddities such as high-button boots from a long-closed shop, vintage projectors from the Roma Movie House and the vast old cistern that underlies half the building. Posters from the Viva Zapata festival acclaim the movie filmed here 56 years ago when the streets were unpaved.
Rio Grande City
Eastbound and westbound lanes of U.S. Highway 83 hug the central blocks of Rio Grande City, which 100 years ago was winding down from its heyday as a thriving riverboat port. Stop at La Borde House, once a busy dry-goods store and boarding house, but now restored as a seven-room inn and café. You can tour the Victorian-era bedrooms, the courtyard and the marvelous second-floor veranda. Walk a block south to the bluff above the long-gone pier, past beautiful old brickwork buildings, all of which, according to local legends, had secret tunnels for the illegal goods that flowed back and forth across the Rio Grande during Prohibition and revolutions. If you’re hungry for a meal more Mex than Tex, try the entomadas or puffy tacos at Caro’s Restaurant.
A drive around Fort Ringgold, established in 1848, takes you past old army barracks with their arched verandas and the parade grounds where cavalry troops once assembled. Today, any ghosts are outshouted by the school- kids who attend classes in old and new buildings at the fort. Call ahead to book a ride on the town’s trolley tour of Fort Ringgold, historic buildings and a replica of the Grotto of Lourdes.
La Borde House, (956) 487-5101
Trolley tour, (956) 488-0047
Caro’s Restaurant, (956) 487-2255
Twenty miles east on U.S. Highway 83 at Sullivan City, turn south onto FM 886 to Los Ebanos and follow the historical marker signs. The hand-pulled Los Ebanos Ferry carries pedestrians and three cars at a time over the Rio Grande at a narrows known to Indians, Spanish explorers, Mexican settlers, Texas Rangers and centuries’ worth of smugglers. Many passengers lend a hand, pulling on the rope, which is anchored to a 250-year-old ebony tree. Since the river is barely more than five times wider than the ferry, the crossing takes only a few minutes. Pedestrians pay 50 cents. Halfway across the fast-flowing river, you’re in Mexico, so be sure to bring your passport.
The end of South Bentsen Palm Drive provides two delightful reasons to stay outdoors. The World Birding Center at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park lists more than 300 species of birds observed in the park. Hop on bicycles or the tram to visit the bird-feeding stations and observation decks, since no cars are allowed in.
One mile east, down Military Highway, the remarkable North American Butterfly Association International Butterfly Park and its native plant gardens are a magnet for 175 species of wild butterflies, particularly during fall butterfly migration. Mission’s Texas Butterfly Festival, which includes field trips, runs October 16-19.
From FM 1016, go south to FM 494 and La Lomita Chapel, a small 1865 mission used by circuit-riding priests on horseback. This whitewashed, thick-walled chapel set amidst mesquite trees gave the city of Mission its name. Just yards from La Lomita, relax under the thatch-roofed patio at Pepe’s on the River, possibly the only place in Texas where you can watch the Rio Grande flow past while you enjoy a cold drink and fried catfish. On your way home, get freshly picked grapefruit from Sharyland Orchards at Shary Road and 4 Mile Road.
NABA Butterfly Park, (956) 583-9009
Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, (956) 584-9156
Eileen Mattei is a feature writer based in Harlingen.