After three days of driving U.S. 83 from Brownsville to Laredo, I decided that “the border” is an inadequate term to describe the curving corridor. The highway, which is one of the main arteries of Los Caminos del Rio—the Roads of the River—cuts through a wide borderland where architecture, food, and language overlap. Texas and Mexico are so interwoven there that I often couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began.
When I made the trip, in early March, the mesquite had put out new sap-green leaves. Yellow puffs of flowers covered the huisache. Winter Texans prepared to head back north as the thermometer was already pushing 90 degrees. I began at Brownsville, following the paths of early Spanish explorers and colonizers like José de Escandón, who established river settlements in the 1700’s. Between Brownsville and Harlingen, I detoured to Business 77 and went to San Benito, the birthplace of country music legend Freddy Fender. I didn’t find a statue of Fender (though the town has named a street in his honor), but I did discover a picturesque city park along the Resaca de Los Fresnos, a once-dry riverbed that’s now a wide canal. After I rolled into Harlingen, I played the accidental tourist. Earlier that morning I had flown into the Rio Grande Valley International Airport and thought I’d seen the famous Iwo Jima sculpture nearby. Curious, I backtracked north on Loop 499. Sure enough, just west of the airport on the grounds of the Marine Military Academy is the full-sized plaster original that sculptor Felix de Weldon used to cast the bronze Iwo Jima memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Outside Harlingen I abandoned the expressway for the slower but more interesting Business Route 83. In Mercedes, twelve miles up the road, I found some of the custom bootmakers for which the town is famous, including Camargo’s Hand Made Boots. Owner Henry Camargo emerged from his workshop to show me shelves of fancy custom boots with intricate designs. They were artworks in leather.
On the way to McAllen I drove through a string of towns in rapid succession—Weslaco, Donna, Alamo—which have some nice fruit stands selling bags of the Valley’s famous grapefruit and oranges. I wanted to see the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle in San Juan but had trouble finding it (turn north on North Nebraska and go less than half a mile). A plane crash destroyed the shrine in 1970, but the tiny statue of Our Lady of San Juan survived. Thousands of pilgrims visit the sprawling rebuilt basilica and shrine every month. On the north wall is a 33-foot-tall Italian mosaic that depicts Christ and the Virgin of San Juan hovering above green fields.
A mile west, in Pharr, I turned north on U.S. 281 and crossed the railroad tracks to Smitty’s Juke Box Museum. Leo “Smitty” Schmitt, Jr., proudly showed me the 75 restored vintage jukeboxes on display. It was a kick to see the 1940’s-era Wurlitzer nicknamed the Bubbler, with its long bubble tubes filled with alcohol heated to the boiling point.
The sun was setting when I entered McAllen. I quickly spotted my hotel, the pink Spanish Colonial-style Renaissance Casa de Palmas, a block off the highway on Main Street. With a shady courtyard, lush tropical plants, and a trickling fountain, it was a refreshing oasis after my day on the road. I expected to be eating lots of Tex-Mex on my trip, so I decided to try the pretty yellow-stucco Mediterranean restaurant called España several blocks from my hotel. One of its specialties is paella, a Spanish dish, which seemed apropos of my trip through history.
McAllen has revitalized its downtown, and I walked over to have a look the next morning. Old-fashioned street lamps lined neat landscaped avenues where small shops sold jewelry, perfume, electronics, and cheap ceramics.
Though Mission is just four miles west, I noticed that its small-town atmosphere gives it a completely different feeling from McAllen. Near downtown the business route splits one way in each direction, and the westbound side turns into Tom Landry Street, named for the Mission native. At the intersection with North Conway Avenue is a building with a nicely done mural of the late Dallas Cowboys coach’s career by local artist Manuel Hinojosa.
I parked and walked a block south on Conway to the stunning Border Theater. Completed in 1942, the old-fashioned picture show has Pueblo architecture with white plaster walls and colorful ceramic tiles and murals. I also wanted to see the mission for which the town is named (stay on Conway—which is also FM 107 and turns into FM 1016—and go south five miles). Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the simple little white, stuccoed stone chapel called La Lomita was built as a way station for Oblate priests traveling on horseback between Brownsville and Roma and dates from 1899. I noticed its plaster was deteriorating, and sunlight shone through the roof. The U.S. and Mexican governments are trying to preserve historic sites like La Lomita on both sides of the border as part of the collaborative Los Caminos del Rio Heritage Project, but much remains to be done.
West of Mission, the land changed from flat fields of aloe vera, onions, and cabbage to rolling chaparral thick with mesquite and prickly pear. Towns were farther apart, and farms segued to ranches. I had driven twelve miles when I came to FM 886 and turned south for two miles to Los Ebanos, the site of an ancient ford across the Rio Grande. Brightly colored artificial flowers festooned ornate headstones in the crowded cemetery.
The ford’s first recorded use was by Spanish explorers under Escandón in the 1740’s. Later, Mexican War troops, Texas Rangers chasing cattle rustlers, and smugglers crossed there. Today travelers can ride Los Ebanos International Ferry, the last hand-pulled, government-licensed ferry on any U.S. border. It takes about eight minutes for five or six men to pull the ferry and its maximum load of three cars, plus pedestrians, across the river using long ropes. Two miles on the other side is Ciudad Díaz Ordaz, but there’s not much for tourists to do there. It’s fun just to ride the ferry across the river and back.
I drove another nineteen miles to bustling Rio Grande City and checked in at the beautifully restored La Borde House in downtown. Designed by architects in Paris and completed in 1899, the two-story brick structure combines European, Creole, and Texas-border styles. With its shady verandas, shutters, and courtyards, La Borde looks like it belongs in New Orleans’ French Quarter. My comfortable room had a huge four-poster bed, an armoire, and a Victorian sofa. For dinner I headed to Caro’s, which claims to be the home of the puffed taco (there’s also a Caro’s in Fort Worth). I loaded up on—what else?—a plate of hot puffed beef tacos, rice, beans, and guacamole.
The next morning, I took a fourteen-mile drive to scenic Roma. From 1850 to 1900 the town served as the westernmost port on the Rio Grande for steamers carrying cotton and is one of the best-preserved Spanish Colonial town sites along the river. The fifteen-block historic district is perfect for walking, so I took Business 83 downtown to Convent Street and parked near the plaza.
Many of the ornate brick buildings were designed by German architect Heinrich Portscheller, including the so-called Pink House (now the Knights of Columbus Hall), where residents took refuge during the Mexican Revolution. At the corner of Convent and Portscheller streets is a two-story brick building that was used as a cantina in the Marlon Brando movie Viva Zapata!, filmed in Roma in the fifties.
The last suspension bridge over the Rio Grande links Roma and Ciudad Miguel Alemán. It dates to 1927 and is no longer used, but you can get a good look at it by walking out on the modern concrete international bridge. Turn around for a stunning view of Roma perched on sandstone bluffs above the river.
I like to cross the border at Ciudad Miguel Alemán because there’s not a lot of traffic. (A note about driving in Mexico: I didn’t encounter any delays at border checkpoints on my trip, but locals told me they can be unpredictable. As for your vehicle, the Mexican government does not require permits for travel within twelve miles of the border. If you don’t own your car outright, you must furnish a note from your lender okaying travel into Mexico.) Take Mexico Highway 2 nine miles north for a short side trip to Mier, one of the most unspoiled towns in northern Mexico.
Founded in the 1750’s, Mier feels old, with narrow streets and pristine historic churches. The shady Plaza Juárez is a good place to sit and people-watch. From the plaza follow the Calle Palacios several blocks to the stone Antigua Prisión (Old Prison). Here, a group of Texans were temporarily imprisoned after the Mier Expedition, a failed 1842 raid across the Rio Grande. They were soon moved to Salado, Mexico, and the next year, the surviving 176 prisoners were forced to draw lots to determine their fate in what came to be known as the Black Bean Episode. The 17 men who drew black beans were executed.
I backtracked to Ciudad Miguel Alemán and crossed over to Roma so that I could buy a picnic lunch for the highlight of my trip: visiting the ghost town of Guerrero Viejo. Founded by one of Escandón’s captains, the Spanish Colonial Mexican town was sacrificed in the name of progress when Falcon Dam was built in 1953. The town was partially submerged for decades but is dry again as Falcon Reservoir has receded after a long drought.
Past the 5-mile bridge over the dam, I picked up Highway 2 and drove 23 miles to the marked turnoff. It’s 9 more miles to the ruins on an unpaved road that’s rutted and rough (a sedan can make it fine in dry weather, but a high-clearance vehicle is best). I had to open and close a ranch gate; on my way out, a gatekeeper charged $2 to pass through the property. Follow the blue INAH signs erected by the Mexican Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia to the site.
The most haunting ruin is the Nuestra Señora del Refugio church. A decade ago fishermen trolled for bass near its graceful arches. I sat on a stone bench in what used to be the plaza and had a picnic with the ghosts (the site has no services, so bring plenty of water and be sure to gas up in advance).
Back on U.S. 83, I made one more stop, in San Ygnacio, to walk around its rustic downtown historic district. The Jesús Treviño Fort, a sandstone compound built by the town’s founder, has an unusual sundial suspended atop a stone arch. The dusty town is an unlikely artist’s colony with residents such as sculptor Michael Tracy.
Outside Laredo, I pulled over at a scenic turnoff for a last look at the Rio Grande winding through the chaparral. I realized how far I’d come—not just hundreds of miles but through hundreds of years of history. I felt like I’d seen a whole different country. And in a way, I had.
Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle, 400 N Virgen de San Juan Blvd, San Juan; 956-787-0033
Camargo’s Hand Made Boots, 710 W US 83, Mercedes; 956-565-6457
Caro’s, 205 N Garcia, Rio Grande City; 956-487-2255; lunch and dinner Mon-Sat, lunch only Sun
España, 701 N Main, McAllen; 956-618-1178; dinner only, closed Sun
La Borde House, 601 E Main, Rio Grande City; 956-487-5101; double rooms $60
Los Ebanos International Ferry, off FM 886, Los Ebanos; 956-485-2855; 50 cents for pedestrians, cars and trucks $2.50, passengers 50 cents each
Marine Military Academy, 320 Iwo Jima Blvd, Harlingen; 956-423-6006
Renaissance Casa de Palmas Hotel, 101 N Main, McAllen; 956-631-1101; double rooms $129
Smitty’s Jukebox Museum, 116 W State, Pharr; 956-787-0131; closed Sat and Sun