The Rio Grande Valley (informally called The Valley) is a region in Deep South Texas, which includes Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, and Willacy counties. To the east this region is bordered by the Gulf Coast of Texas. To the south it is bordered by the Rio Grande River and the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico. To the north and west it is bordered by the Texas counties of Kenedy, Brooks, Jim Hogg, and Zapata.
The region is known for its warm weather, exotic birds, citrus orchards and large volume of palm trees. The warm weather attracts large number of retirees from the Northern United States and Canada during the winter months. Its abundance of great shopping opportunities attracts Mexican nationals throughout the year. Beach lovers and sports fishermen are drawn to South Padre Island, Port Isabel, and Port Mansfield on the Gulf Coast. Bird-watchers can watch a wide variety of exotic birds throughout the region.
Located in the southernmost tip of Texas, the Rio Grande Valley is a distinct region from other parts of the state. With the exception of Willacy, all counties in this region border Mexico. For this reason, many traditions from Mexico have been mixed with American customs.
The region upholds several stereotypes that outsiders identify with Texas. For example, the further you go towards Starr County, the more rural and conservative the culture there is. Although, as you move eastern towards Cameron County, the area becomes more tropical and greener.
The Rio Grande Valley is not a valley, but actually a delta or floodplain. Cameron and Willacy counties are part of the Gulf Coast geographic region of Texas, whereas Hidalgo and Starr counties are part of the South Texas Plains region. The terrain is mostly flat, although there are some hills in the western part of the region in Starr county and sandy terrain near the coast.
Everyone knows Texas is big. However, you can't truly appreciate its size until you take a Texas road trip. Texas is about 800 mi (1,300 km) north-south and about 800 miles east-west depending on your route. A 10-hour drive from the Rio Grande Valley will take you to Mexico City, Mexico or to Dallas, Texas. Although the region is only four of Texas' 254 counties, the Valley is comparable in size to the U.S. state of Connecticut.
Also called the "Texas Tropics", the Rio Grande Valley is known for its hot weather. Winters are usually warm and comfortable. It is rarely cold, and the infrequent winter cold snaps do not last long. Summers are usually very hot. Contrary to what many say, cities near the coast rarely have days that go above 100 °F (38 °C) weather. This is only a common feature in Hidalgo and Starr county. The humidity does add to the hot temperature feel, making indices go up to 105 °F (41 °C).
Although hot weather is common in this region, the weather here tends to vary depending on location. Cities closer to the ocean such as Brownsville and South Padre Island tend to see much more rainfall than cities further inland such as McAllen or Rio Grande City. For this reason, the counties of Cameron and Willacy feature greener vegetation and higher annual rainfall totals. South Padre Island and Brownsville are also known for successfully growing coconut palm trees.
The first Spanish settlers arrived in the Rio Grande Valley in the 1740s. Jose de Escandon was commissioned by the Spanish government to establish settlements in the area. At that time, the region was part of the Spanish colony of Nuevo Santander. After Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821 the Rio Grande Valley was part of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. In 1836 Texas won its independence from Mexico, and the Rio Grande Valley was disputed territory between Mexico and Texas. Texas claimed that the border with Mexico was at the Rio Grande River, whereas Mexico claimed that the border was at the Nueces River about 200 miles (320 km) to the north. The dispute was finally resolved in 1848 at the end of the Mexican–American War. The first battles of the Mexican–American War were fought in the Rio Grande Valley in the Brownsville area.
Many Mexican–American families in Rio Grande Valley can trace their ancestry to the first Spanish settlers that arrived in the 1740s. As a result, a frequent expression they like to say is "we didn't jump the border, the border jumped us."
During Spanish and Mexican times the region was mostly ranch land. Large numbers of Anglos (English-speaking Americans) immigrated to the region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Those settlers were large scale farmers who established citrus farming in the region. Since the 1980s the Rio Grande Valley has witnessed an explosive population growth that continues to this day. Agriculture continues to be important to the economy, but trade with Mexico and tourism are becoming increasingly important as well.
- 1 Brownsville - The southernmost port city of the continental U.S. and an important border town, is the second most historical location in the state of Texas. The city played an important role in two historical events: the Civil War and the Mexican–American War and has many battlefield and state park sites dedicated in their name. It is home to the only enclosed zoo in the region, the Gladys Porter Zoo and will be the world's first commercial orbit facility for SpaceX. Brownsville is bordered by the Gulf of Mexico along with three international bridges that connect itself with its border town, Matamoros, Mexico. For this reason, the city adopted the motto, "On the Border, By the Sea" in 1966.
- 2 South Padre Island - On the shore of the Gulf of Mexico, SPI is an international tourism destination with a wide range of accommodations, attractions, restaurants, RV parks, and bars. It has five continuous miles of traffic-free beach, an active nightlife, and several bay side and beach side cafes, bars and restaurants. There is a large birding and nature center, a sea turtle center, a marine lab, and large water park.
- 3 Port Isabel on the Laguna Madre is usually considered the gateway to South Padre Island, but it is also an destination in its own rights for history buffs, sports fishermen and shoppers. It has four historical museums, a cluster of art, craft, and souvenir shops surrounding the lighthouse, a sea life center, and a fun pirate ship cruise. Hotels, RV parks and restaurants are generally more affordable than on "The Island."
- A popular retiree location, Harlingen is beloved by Winter Texans, seniors from Canada and states in the Northern United States. Many consider the city to hold more conservative roots and a "slower" routine from other major cities in this region. It is commonly referred to as the central city in this region. One of the city's main attractions is its Bass Pro Shops store, which also houses an indoor museum and art gallery. Downtown features a collection of bright murals depicting different artistic perspectives found in the city.
- A shopping and dining destination, McAllen is a popular location for Mexican Nationals. The outskirts of this place are landlocked with a cluster of cities all around. It is home to the McAllen Convention Center, a mixed-use retail development project with chain restaurants and retail stores. In the main lobby, performances by musicians are held here. One of Simon Property Group's highest grossing malls in the country, La Plaza Mall, is located here. The city is about 10 to 12 miles from the border with Reynosa, Mexico.
- The northernmost established city, Edinburg, is the region's "college town". It is home to one of the main campuses belonging to the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and is the site of the largest arena in the region. To locals, it is regarded as the Gateway City to the Rio Grande Valley.
- 4 Weslaco - With the naturalist in mind.
- Regarded as the most tourist-friendly location in this region, South Padre Island is a popular destination for young college students. It is a haven for electronic music concerts, with some of the most popular artists performing around the second week of March, during the Spring Break holidays.
The two major languages you will find in the Valley are Spanish and English. If you are fluent in either of these languages you will get along just fine. 80% to 90% of the Valley's population is Mexican-American. Also, there are usually many Mexican visitors in the Valley, so it is not uncommon to meet people who speak little to no English. A knowledge of Spanish is helpful, but not necessary.
You will find that most Valley natives are bilingual and can quickly switch from English to Spanish, sometimes in the same sentence. Since this is a border area there is a blending of American and Mexican cultures in this region. Its quite common to encounter people speaking 'Spanglish.'
There are three regional airports operating in the Rio Grande Valley.
- American Airlines (non-stop service between Dallas and Brownsville)
- United Airlines (non-stop passenger service to/from Houston)
In late 2020, the terminal will be replaced by a modern, larger facility (June 2020).
- Allegiant Air (non-stop service to Las Vegas, Seasonal service to Los Angeles and Sanford/Orlando)
- American Airlines (non-stop service to Dallas)
- United Airlines (non-stop service to Houston)
- Southwest Airlines (non-stop service to Austin and Houston)
- United Airlines (non-stop service to Houston)
- Delta Air Lines (seasonal service to Minneapolis/St. Paul)
- Sun Country Airlines (seasonal service to Minneapolis)
- From other Texas cities -The only bus line that connects to this region from other cities in Texas is Greyhound, which makes stops at all four counties.
- From Mexico - Greyhound has routes that connect to central Mexico and Mexico City. Mexico's close proximity to the Rio Grande Valley has encouraged Mexican bus lines to offer bus services to Mexico. Some of these companies include Tornado, El Expreso[dead link] and Transpais. For more information on this, check out La Plaza at Brownsville website[dead link] or the Metro McAllen website. Both services have information on this.
- U.S. Highway 77 is an interstate spanning over 1,000 miles and connects with cities such as Dallas and Oklahoma City. The highway ends at Sioux City, where it interchanges with Interstate 29 and stops at the U.S.–Canadian border near Winnipeg. Its southernmost point is in Brownsville, where it connects to Mexican Federal Highway 180.
- U.S. Highway 281 is an interstate that starts SH 48 in Brownsville and connects with the cities of Pharr and Edinburg. Further away, it meets with San Antonio and goes northern until meeting at its ending point on the U.S.–Canadian border. It is regarded as the longest three-digit highway in America.
- U.S. Highway 83 meets with the several of the same cities as U.S. Highway 281, but goes west from McAllen and towards Laredo. It passes through Abilene and goes northward until reaching the U.S.–Canadian border. All three highways meet in North Dakota.
When traveling south of this region towards Mexico, it is strongly advised to carry a passport and other important identification with you. There are several checkpoints where Mexican police will search your vehicle for weapons and drugs. Police will also search for unwanted fruits and vegetables that are illegal in their state. Failure to comply with the law may result in a fine.
Most personnel will most likely not speak English so it is also advised that foreign travelers learn simply answers to questions such as Where are you from? or Do you have drugs or firearms? Officers will visibly carry large weapons with them, a practice not present in the U.S. Although it may seem threatening, they are simply doing their job and there is no reason to worry.
- Federal Highway 40D is a four-lane toll road that leads to Monterrey. It is a restricted-access road that splits with Mexican Federal Highway 40. It meets with the same cities as said highway.
- Mexican Federal Highway 40 is a major road that starts in Reynosa and connects to large cities such as Monterrey and Torreón. Baluarte Bicentennial Bridge, the highest cabled bridge in the world, runs along this highway. Sections of this highway connect with Federal Highway 40D, one of Mexico's toll roads. It's western point leads to Mazatlán, which borders the Pacific coast.
- Mexican Federal Highway 97 is a short road that connects from Reynosa to Ciudad Victoria. The road splits into Mexican Federal Highway 101 near San Fernando and continues until reaching the outskirts of San Luis Potosí.
- Mexican Federal Highway 180 starts at the interchange of Mexican Federal Highway 101. It temporarily splits off with Mexican Highway 80, then reconnects and meets at Tampico. The road meets through the cities of Veracruz and Merida before reaching the tropical city of Cancún in Quintana Roo.
There are no commercial boat lines that make port this region. If you own a boat, you can arrive via the, through Brazos Santiago Pass to South Padre Island or Port Isabel, and through Mansfield Pass to Port Mansfield. However, if you plan to arrive through Mansfield Pass, you should check in advance to learn if it will accommodate your boat's draft and the availability of dock space at Port Mansfield. Port Isabel and South Padre Island offer ample marina facilities and docks, even for large boats. The Port of Harlingen primarily serves tugs and barges while the Port of Brownsville primarily serves ships and commercial fishing boats.
The most convenient way to get around the region is by car. If you do not arrive by car, there are car rental agencies next the three regional airports in the area.
If you are not traveling by plane, these are the major interstates and highways that connect most cities in this region:
- Interstate 169 splits off with Interstate 69E in Olmito. Leads to SH 48, the main road towards South Padre Island. The road partially splits sideways, then meets with SH 550, then splits into two routes: one leading to the Port of Brownsville and SH 48.
- SH 550 is a toll-road in the outskirts of Brownsville leading to SH 48. It is the only toll road in the Rio Grande Valley. While 18-wheeler trucks tend to use this road, tourists can also use this as a way to reach Padre Island Hwy at a faster rate.
- U.S. Highway 100 is a road connected with U.S. Highway 77 leading to Los Fresnos. One of the two main roads leading to South Padre Island. F.M. 803 is another road that is being constructed to connect with Highway 100, in order to decongest incoming traffic and provide an alternative route for tourists driving east for the SpaceX monthly rocket launches.
- U.S. Highway 83 connects the west part of the region with Cameron County. It is a popular road for truckers and tourists coming in from Laredo. It splits off and on with Interstate 2 and ends in Harlingen, where it meets with Interstate 69E.
- US Highway 281 is the main road used to arrive at Edinburg. It connects itself with Interstate 69C in Pharr, then unsplits eventually leading to the U.S.-Mexico border at the Pharr International Bridge.
- TX-48 is about 20 miles long and connects Brownsville and Port Isabel. It connects to the Brownsville airport via Iowa Street and it passes the Port of Brownsville. Between the Port of Brownsville and Port Isabel the stretch is devoid of development, even utility poles, except for two bridges and a boat ramp. Shore birds are often seen feeding in the shallows along the highway. The Bahia Grande is the largest wetland rehabilitation project in North America, and an ocelot corridor crosses the highway just west of it. Permitting is in progress to construct three liquid natural gas (LNG) plants, storage tanks, and export docks along much of the eastern part.
- Queen Isabella Causeway between Port Isabel and South Padre Island is the only bridge that connects South Padre Island to the rest of the region. It is the longest[dead link] bridge in Texas with a span of 2.37 miles. Tourists are advised by flashing lights to watch out for pelicans during strong winter winds because they sometimes land on the causeway.
The whole region is interconnected, so finding a route between other cities will be relatively easy.
These are the main bus lines providing services throughout cities in the Rio Grande Valley:
- Metro Connect 1501 W U.S. Highway 83, +1 956 681-3550, Toll Free: +1-855-220-8827 - local bus service acting as an intercity and regional bus. Routes stretch from Hidalgo and Cameron County. There are three bus lines: Green (McAllen to Edinburg), Red (McAllen to Brownsville) and Blue (Brownsville to South Padre Island). Free Wi-Fi is provided.
- Island Metro (previously, "The Wave") 4601 Padre Blvd, +1 956 761-3864 - provides rides from South Padre Island to Brownsville, Port Isabel and Laguna Heights. Service runs daily from 7AM through 9PM. It is free of charge. Connects to Metro Connect Blue Line near the intersection of TX-100 and TX-48.
- Valley Metro[dead link] 510 S. Pleasantview Dr, +1 956 969-5761, Fax: +1 956 969-8176 - in Weslaco, this regional bus line offers regular shuttle service throughout cities in this region. Fares cost $1.50 with discounts for students and seniors. Routes run Monday to Friday from 6AM to 5PM.
There are only two main terminal centers in operation in the Rio Grande Valley. One is in the central part of the region, while the other is in the eastern side of the region, near the coast.
- Brownsville Metro (B-Metro)[dead link] - Main bus service providing rides on 13 routes throughout the city's major arteries. The system operates M-Sa from 6AM through 8PM each day. The terminal center, called La Plaza at Brownsville, is at 755 International Blvd close to the Gateway International Bridge. The center provides several restaurants with indoor and outdoor seating.
- Metro McAllen - bus service for the city of McAllen. Operates M-Sa 6AM-10PM, Su 8AM-6PM. Offers 7 routes that pass only through the city limits. Formerly the McAllen Express Transit. Fares are $1.00 with a .5 cent discount for elders, children and those on Medicare.
By foot or bicycle
Since most big cities in this region are far apart, walking and cycling are not the best options to get across the area. If you wish to explore the area by bicycle, it is best to do it within one city only, since it tends to be more bicycle-friendly. This includes the Downtown area, wildlife refuges and other trails dedicated to the city.
The city of Brownsville has been designated the "Bicycling Capital of the Rio Grande Valley" for integrating its many trails through its commercial and forest areas.
A BikeShare Program by Zagster is available for renting a bicycle. The program has six bike stations around Brownsville, including several in the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Other locations include La Plaza Terminal, CityPlaza, Linear Park, Washington Park, Dean Porter Park and the Belden Connect. Edinburg has five stations near the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and Harlingen has two stations: one in McVeley Park and one at the other university campus. Membership for the program costs $35 per year, $15 per month and $2 an hour.
A"bike-hike-paddle" trail is being developed to connect each city in the county. It is anticipated that resacas (or floodplains) will be used for this plan as well.
The warm, tropical climate has made the region a hub for migratory birds. There are excellent reserves and wildlife refuges scattered throughout many areas of the Rio Grande Valley where you can observe parrots, egrets, spoonbills and a hundred other species as well. Many tourists have referred the area as a "must see" for bird enthusiasts.
Laguna Madre is a bay formed between the mainland shore of Texas and the long, narrow North Padre and South Padre Islands. The island runs much of the length of the Texas coast and has few outlets to the Gulf of Mexico. Fishing is outstanding with favorite fish being Sea Trout, Red and Black Drum and Flounder. Being a shallow bay, most of the bay boats you will see have tunnel hulls, and motors that can lift (usually a jack-plate). There is also excellent offshore fishing. You will find numerous captains/guides that charter both small or large groups people for deep sea fishing. Highly productive snapper banks are 30-60 miles out and other locations yield trophy quality big fish from the deep blue waters. Several small coastal towns are favorite locations for fisherman. One of the best known is Port Mansfield which is about 40 miles north of Harlingen. It is also a great place for windsurfing or kiteboarding. Because the bay is relatively shallow throughout most of its course, it is an outstanding location to learn these water sports. South Padre Island has two rental locations and several easy ways to reach the launch sites. The wind blows out of the south-east at about 10-30 mph most days of the year and, because of its southern latitude the weather is warm, even in winter. Surfing and kiting is also possible on the Gulf side of South Padre Island but the surf waves are not as big as those found in the waters of the east and west coasts.
While the Gulf of Mexico often has a "murky layer" there are artificial reef areas set aside specifically for scuba (these have several features sunk for divers to experience) and in the upper layers of water where the visibility tends to be above average.
Discussions and explorations of re-opening Delta Lake for recreational use are underway (north of Edcouch-Elsa, and the Monte Alto area).
There are many eating options across the Rio Grande Valley area. Local dining stands are sometimes small, with hamburgers and traditional tacos around (a normal order is 6 small format tacos).
In Brownsville, the La Southmost neighborhood has earned a national reputation for the quality and diversity of its tacos. From machacado con huevo (salt beef in scrambled egg) at Sylvia's for breakfast, to pit-grilled cow's head barbacoa at Vera's for lunch (weekends only), to the fried-potato tacos dorados at Taco El Compadre for dinner, you could spend days eating through just this small area.
On South Padre Island, Blackbeards has been serving up half pound burgers, shrimp and even steaks for more than 30 years. The back room is the original restaurant seating area. There are many places to eat at the island, from Beachside to Bayside; many places on the bay are excellent spots for sunset watching.
Many people enjoy a beverage while watching the sun set. Pelicans Wharf is one such spot, as is 202, and Louie's Backyard.
The food options extend to both sides of the border: just be sure to bring your passport. Garcias, Arturos, La Mansion, La Fogata, and many other high service food options are just across the border, or for the adventurous, several Calle de Taco options are out there.
Many of the great local places have grown out of walk up stands- to full service places and even adding on rooms for special events like weddings and such. One is Trevino's in Edinburg (north of the Courthouse on Business 281).
La Jaiba Shrimp House has several locations around the Edinburg area. There are also several places on North 10th in McAllen as you approach the Trenton cross street.
Drink plenty of water as this is a very hot climate. Dehydration will make your trip a bad one.
Violent crime rates tend to be lower in the valley when compared to the U.S. national average. However, other crimes such as theft and auto theft tend to be higher. It is advised to take precautions to protect your car especially if you drive a model that is a frequent target of theft.
- Mexico, 301 Mexico Blvd, Brownsville (From US-83/77 Boca Chica exit, travel a few dozen yards west and turn left onto Palm Blvd. Travel SW on Palm Blvd about two miles until it ends on Mexico Blvd. The conslate is in the remodeled mall building.), ☏ , fax: .
- Mexico, 600 S. Broadway Ave., McAllen, ☏ , fax: .
- Other Texas cities -When leaving the Rio Grande Valley whether you are flying or driving you may be asked for proof of status from the Border Patrol. If you are driving north on US 77 or US 281 there are Border Patrol checkpoints about 70 miles north of the international border with Mexico. At these checkpoints all cars must stop. The agents there are looking for illicit drugs and undocumented immigrants. If you are not a US citizen then you need to have appropriate documents (e.g., passport, visa, greencard). When flying out of a Valley airport you may also be stopped by a Border Patrol agent when going through security. Even though you are still in the United States you will need to show documentation verifying that you are in the USA legally before you can fly.
- Mexico -If you are a U.S. citizen traveling to Mexico you do not need any documentation to travel to Mexican cities and towns along the border. Mexican authorities at the international border will not ask to see any documentation. However, if you travel deeper into Mexico then you will need a tourist visa. There is a secondary checkpoint further south, and there you will need a tourist visa to proceed past that checkpoint. US citizens must bring their passports or passport cards when crossing the border into Mexico in order to return to the US. The United States Department of State travel advisory[dead link] recommends U.S. citizens defer all non-essential travel to the state of Tamaulipas because of violent crime, including homicide, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault. It further advises criminal activity is more common along the northern border. Additionally, the advisory notes that the border area has experienced a lot of gun battles and attacks with explosive devices.
- US 83 follows the border out of the Valley to Laredo area through historic Zapata county.
- US 281 and US 77 go north out of the Rio Grande Valley.
- MEX 40 goes south to Monterrey, Saltillo, Torreon, Durango, and ultimately Mazatlan
- MEX 97 goes south to Victoria and Tampico towards Veracruz Mexico.