McAllen, Texas: An Artful Family Bird-Watching Destination

by Carmel L. Mooney

Birding for Families

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 quickly becoming world-re-known nature tourism and cultural destinations sought the world over by vacationing families.

Nature tourism and art marry to create a spectacular South Texas family vacation 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 vacationing families from around the world.

One of our family’s favorite 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.

We loved the amazing rope bridge that takes birders through a canopy. They also offer guided tours and half-day canoe trips which we thought were fantastic.

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 families with some of the richest and rarest birding north of the Mexican border.

red shouldered hawk near McAllen TX

Kids, parents, and grandparents can ride their 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, and 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. We loved the educational, guided morning tour and we were all enchanted by the calls of the resident chachalacas.

Art for Families

Any artful birdwatcher will want to take in some of the fabulous art of McAllen. The area is brimming with galleries, museums, and theaters.

The First Friday Art Walk gave us a glimpse of the local talent as did the unique McAllen Creative Incubator, a surprising presentation space for local emerging artists. The Nuevo Santander Gallery is another local gem we all enjoyed.

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.

But the best part, by far, for our family, was the fascinating Science on the Sphere Theater in the IMAS. It 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. We could have sat there for hours watching it.

Hungry Families Dine Well in McAllen

After working up an appetite taking in the arts and watching the birds, we decided to eat like the folks who live 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 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. This was a win-win for everyone in our group as everyone could get creative and design their specialties.

There are stories of local college kids coming home from college and expecting their parents to meet them at the airport with something from El Pato!

For the best Italian food in the city, try Capellini Ristorante Galleria. Whether you choose the lovely outdoor patio dining or inside seating, you will love every minute facet of this local eatery where attention to detail in every delectable dish is a treat. We found this to be the perfect place to eat while enjoying the First Friday Art Walk.

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 facelift, this gorgeous property combines convenience and amenities with a colorful ambiance and setting of the past.

Neighboring Mission, Texas is for Families

Just minutes from McAllen, nearby Mission, Texas is considered a nature’s paradise and is home to the Texas Butterfly Festival and the North American Butterfly Center. Worth a day excursion, Mission offers another taste of art, nature tourism, and its dining gems. Make some time for lunch at Renee’s of Sharyland. We had a blast there, both eating and shopping.

With its adorable, airy, garden-like décor, romantic setting, truly awesome food, and shopping and spa/salon to boot, Renee’s is the perfect road trip stop.

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 for families to behold in McAllen and the Rio Grande Valley. Prepare to be delighted with serene sunsets, beguiling bird calls, astounding 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. I enjoyed this book so much on the flight back to Sacramento, that I never put it down!

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Carmel L. Mooney is the editor of Road Trips for Couples

Butterfly eating near McAllen Texas