Published Jan/Feb 2007

Saucy South Texas towns delight visitors with a blend of cultures
and storied histories.
By Kathie Sutin
Also see: Laredo celebrates G. Washington, Texas style

ife in south Texas is colorful, exciting and vibrant. Here the melding of two cultures–Old Mexico and the New World–creates a personality found nowhere else in the United States. It’s a magical area where the food, arts, festivals and architecture are infused with the best of both worlds.

A two-nation vacation is easy to accomplish in Texas border towns–simply walk or drive across the border into the colorful world of mercados, mariachis and margaritas. It’s a true feast for the senses.

Three towns–El Paso, Laredo and McAllen–prove life really is livelier at the border.

El Paso pastimes

Country singer Marty Robbins made this west Texas town famous in his 1959 recording, “El Paso.” Set in Wild West times, the song paints a picture of gunslingers, a cowboy and his doomed love for a beautiful Mexican woman. But more than 300 years earlier, El Paso’s story began.

In 1581, Spanish explorers reached the Rio Grande River, finding a pass between two mountain ranges rising from the desert. They named it El Paso del Norte, (pass of the north). Seventeen years later, Don Juan de Oñate colonized the area.

Steeped in more than four centuries of history, El Paso is the birthplace of the American Southwest. Elements of the Old West live on in today’s El Paso, like El Camino Real, one of the oldest roads in the United States, and three of the oldest missions in the Southwest: San Elizario Presidio, Socorro and Ysleta.

Located on the Rio Grande at the southern end of the Rocky Mountains, El Paso is cut in two by the Franklin Mountain range. Here travelers can visit Texas, New Mexico and the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

Outdoor enthusiasts can bike along the Rio Grande or rock climb at nearby Hueco Tanks State Historic Site, home to 2,000 rock art paintings. Take in the natural beauty from the scenic route along the Rim Road, or enjoy the panoramic view of Texas, New Mexico and Mexico from the tram at Wyler Aerial Tramway.

History buffs will love the museums at Fort Bliss, one of the country’s largest Army bases. Hop on the Border Jumper trolley into Juárez, Mexico, to see the city market or Mission Guadalupe. Trolleys depart hourly from the convention center in downtown El Paso.

Loving Laredo

So what’s hot in Laredo? In a word, shopping.

“We cross more trade at our land border across the bridges than any other port in the U. S.,” said Roger Creery, director of the Laredo Development Foundation. “We’re the fourth-largest custom district behind New York, Los Angeles and Detroit. This little sleepy town out here crosses more commerce on our three commercial bridges than any place else in the United States.”

Some of those products from around the world find their way into downtown Laredo shops. For Mexican goods–including furniture, pottery, metalwork, textiles, dishware, mirrors, traditional crafts and hand-blown glassware–visitors hit San Bernardo Avenue.

When not shopping, visitors will find lots to do on the Texas A&M International University campus, including the Lamar Bruni Vergara Science Center and adjacent planetarium, as well as the Laredo Center for the Fine and Performing Arts. Younger visitors will enjoy the Laredo Children’s Museum, while those seeking information about Laredo’s history can explore the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum. The Heritage Trolley Tour departs the museum–by appointment only–and travels through the historic district.

Festivals are big here, said Jorge Vega, project coordinator of the Laredo Convention and Visitors Bureau. One of the biggest is the month-long celebration of George Washington’s birthday, this year held from Jan. 18–Feb. 18. For 110 years, the Washington’s Birthday Celebration Association has worked to create greater understanding between the people of the Americas and to promote Laredo as one of Texas’ most patriotic cities. For more information, visit www.AAA.com/traveler.

Founded in 1755, Laredo claims to be the oldest independent settlement in Texas. While six flags have flown over Texas, seven have flown over Laredo. The city was the capital of the short-lived Republic of the Rio Grande before it became part of Texas.

McAllen is for the birds

As Texas towns go, McAllen–founded in 1909 by Scottish immigrant James McAllen–is a relative newcomer. Of course, the area had a history before that. Aztec Indians from central Mexico made annual trips there to gather peyote (a small, spineless cactus) for their tribal rituals. When Alonzo de Pineda discovered the mouth of the Rio Grande River in 1519, this area became the second place in the United States visited by European explorers after Columbus came to the New World.

McAllen is just 13 miles from the Rio Grande so visitors will find it easy to visit nearby Reynosa, Mexico.

Although attractions here include museums, a national shrine (Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle), a mission (La Lomita, dating to 1865) and the only remaining hand-drawn ferry (Los Ebanos) across the Rio Grande, McAllen is renowned for three things: birding, butterflies and square dancing.

The area has more than 100 hot spots, viewing areas where people can see birds and butterflies, said Keith Hackland, innkeeper at the Alamo Inn, a bed-and-breakfast that caters to birders. The inn offers special rates for birders and an extended continental spread 24 hours a day “because birders have all kinds of different schedules,” Hackland said.

McAllen is also dubbed the Square Dance Capital of the World, as thousands of square dancers visit the area each year and swing their partners to favorite callers.

These border towns in south Texas, when partnered with neighboring Mexico, make for a culturally rich escape anytime of year.

Kathie Sutin is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.

Above: A folkloric dancer performs during a festival. El Paso CVB photo

Below: Shopping in Juárez, Mexico is popular while visiting El Paso. Kenny Braun/Texas Tourism photo

Before You Go
For more information, contact:

• El Paso Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-351-6024 or www.visitelpaso.com;

• Laredo Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-361-3360 or www.visitlaredo.com;

• McAllen Convention & Visitors Bureau 1-877-622-5536 or www.mcallencvb.com.

Stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks and TourBook guides. View a list of offices.

Order free information through the Reader Service Card online. Click on Reader Resources.

South of the border inspires San Antonio
By Kathie Sutin

While it’s not on the Texas and Mexico border, San Antonio draws much of its personality from south of the border. This influence–plus a mix of the Old West and the Deep South–makes San Antonio a great city to visit.
San Antonio is some 150 miles north of the Rio Grande, but it feels like a border town in the best ways.

“Everything is very blended. Everything is very TexMex—the culture, the food, the music, the clothes, the architecture, the art,” said Dee Dee Poteete, public relations director for the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We've been called the most Mexican city in the U.S.”

For tourists, the focal point is the Paseo del Rio, a 2.5-mile River Walk 20 feet below street level. The path meanders under giant cypress trees through lush tropical foliage and flowering shrubs, past hotels, restaurants, outdoor cafés, gift shops and boutiques.

History buffs love this city. Visitors can tour five missions dating from the early 18th century, including the famed Alamo.

Many outstanding attractions–such as the zoo, Witte Museum, Institute of Texan Cultures, the McNay Art Museum, SeaWorld®, San Antonio Art Museum and the San Antonio Botanical Gardens–keep visitors busy for days.

Poteete said San Antonio is a city of festivals, and the calendar is bursting with options, including the River Walk Mud Festival held each January (Jan. 11–14 this year) when the San Antonio River is drained by the Parks and Recreation Department.

For more information, contact the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-447-3372, www.sanantoniovisit.com.

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