South of Harlingen, US-83 merges with US-77 for the final 26 miles to Brownsville, where you may well feel like you’ve unknowingly crossed the border into Mexico. One of the most historic cities in Texas, Brownsville retains its Spanish and Mexican heritage more than most places, particularly in the architecture of the downtown district around Elizabeth Street, which runs northwest from the 24-hour border crossing at Matamoros, Mexico. U.S.-Mexico trade supports the local economy via a Union Pacific rail terminus connected with Mexico’s national railway over the Rio Grande; also, a 17-mile deep-sea channel in the river delta links the city with the U.S. Inland Waterway System and the Gulf of Mexico.
Besides the historic downtown, another must-see is Gladys Porter Zoo (956/546-2177, daily, $12 adults) at Ringgold and East 6th Streets, with a good show of unexpected and local creatures hailing from around the world.
Sabal Palm Sanctuary
The last remaining grove of the squat endangered sabal palms in the Rio Grande delta (they are the only palm tree native to the continental United States) is protected for future generations in the 527-acre Sabal Palm Sanctuary (Thurs.-Tues. 7am-5pm), run by the Gorgas Science Foundation with the National Audubon Society and located about five miles southeast of Brownsville. The palms are nice enough, but the reserve is really for the birds: Bird-lovers flock here to catch a glimpse of the rare green jays, as well as the colorful parakeets and hummingbirds that make their homes in the dense junglelike growth. Hundreds of species of butterflies are found here as well.
To reach the reserve from Brownsville, take Southmost Boulevard (Hwy-4) east, then turn right (south) on Sabal Palm Grove Road. The small visitors center (956/541-8034, Thurs.-Tues., $5 adults) has maps and natural history guides to the sanctuary.
South Padre Island
Twenty-eight miles or so northeast of Brownsville via Hwy-48 and the Queen Isabella Causeway, the resort town of South Padre Island provides a strong contrast to the sleepy historic towns of the Rio Grande Valley.
Multistory hotels and condominiums line white-sand beaches on both the Gulf and Laguna Madre sides of the island. Rooms are easy to come by except during the annual spring break in mid-March, when thousands of college kids from all over Texas and the Midwest fill the hotels and beaches with round-the-clock revelry. Gift shops lining Hwy-100, the main route to “SPI,” are fronted by giant seashells, giant sharks, and a 40-foot dinosaur. The main daytime activity is sliding down the slippery chutes at the giant Schlitterbahn Waterpark & Resort (33261 Hwy-100, 956/761-1160, $51 and up). Drinking is legal on the beaches here—you have been warned. To dive in, try the Padre Island Brewing Company (3400 Padre Blvd., 956/761-9585) for great seafood, sports on TV, and microbrews. For spring break mayhem, another popular spot is Louie’s Backyard (2305 Laguna Blvd., 956/761-6406), a bayside bar “as seen on MTV.”