Head to Del Rioand south to Ciudad Acuñafor a fun summer jaunt and a taste of the border.
The little city of Del Rio enjoys the kind of setting travel guides like to boast about. Nestled along the Rio Grande, Del Rio is a gateway to Mexico. It also borders three sweeping Texas regions: Big Bend Country, the Hill Country, and the South Texas Plains. There’s plenty to do and see in this small southwestern Texas town, and it’s only a stone’s throw from there to the clean, friendly, and muy simpatica Mexican town of Ciudad Acuña.
My two friends and travel buddies, Jean Leider and Luann Williams, accompanied me recently on the nearly 250-mile, four-and-a-half-hour drive from Austin to Del Rio. Our agenda was simple. We wanted to hike in the picturesque countryside, see wildflowers and cacti in bloom, hit the local swimming holes, check out local sights, and shop and eat in both Del Rio and Ciudad Acuña.
We began our tour on the U.S. side, with a visit to the 1883 Val Verde Winery, which has a small orchard where two types of grapes are grown. The quaint little winery is located just around the corner from a spiffy bed-and-breakfast, the Villa Del Rio, an 1880’s Mediterranean-style mansion with a lush courtyard (“Great Escapes,” TM, June 2000). While touring the winery, we met a retired couple from Connecticut, Texas transplants who were stocking up on bottles of the Tawny Port, a sweet, almost oily potion, fortified with brandy, that goes for $20 a bottle. After tasting all seven wines bottled there, coffee and lunch were definitely in order, and much to our delight we found you can get a decent cup of joe in Del Rio. The Xprezzo Caffé Club (don’t let the silly spelling deter you) is a cute border bistro that also offers good soups, salads, and sandwiches, and even baklava and other goodies for dessert. We fueled up on double espressos then hopped on U.S. 90 and headed west to Langtry, the former home of the famed Texas lawman Judge Roy Bean, who called himself “The Law West of the Pecos.” As the myth goes, Roy Bean named his saloon and town after the love of his life, Lillie Langtry, a British actress he’d never met. Our mission wasn’t really a historical one though, we wanted to see the cactus garden at the Langtry visitors center, and the sixty-mile trek proved worth the drive. The little town of Langtry (population: thirty) was practically deserted, save for a few wandering sightseers. We met two such folks, James Hobbs and Jamie Smith, who were making an impressive trek on their Harley-Davidsons (their bikes’ names are Ruby and Betty) from their hometown of Merryville, Louisiana, to Big Bend. It was the first time they’d been in this part of Texas, and they were naturally impressed.
Our day trip also took us to the gorgeous and serene Seminole Canyon State Park. Located just off the highway about twenty miles east of Langtry, the park is home to pictographs ranging in age from two thousand years old to eight thousand years old. We hiked to the rim of the canyon, admiring the carpet of dainty wild and desert flowers where lizards darted from rock to rock.
The drive from Del Rio to Langtry is a stretch of mostly desolate highway, with nary a gas station or convenience store for long stretches. So when we began spotting handwritten neon orange signs that said “fudge, 4 miles,” “fudge, 3 miles,” and so on, we were rather amused. Why would someone sell fudge of all things in the summer and in the middle of nowhere?
“Why hot dogs or burritos?” was Neil Wellman’s answer. Wellman, a Wisconsin native, has been selling fudge on the same stretch of U.S. 90 for the past seven years out of a tiny little trailer hitched to the back of his car. When my friend Jean suggested he might make a profit by selling drinks in addition to fudge, he told us, “I’m not a very shrewd businessman.” Hmm. We paid our $7 for the smallest portion offered and went on our way.
Sweaty and dusty after our outing, we were ready for a swim. We passed up the shores of the 67,000-acre Lake Amistad, which is some thirteen miles from Del Rio, and opted for a dip in the city’s comparably modest San Felipe Springs, a series of spring-fed swimming holes, some bordered by man-made retaining walls. Later, I mentioned to a Border Patrol officer that we’d been swimming there and he asked, “Do you feel better?” I thought about it, and when I replied that I did, he informed me that the springs are known for having that effect.
The Rio Grande is beautiful at sundown. We had paid our $2, and were driving (yes, driving!) across the river. It was a perfect summer evening; Ciudad Acuña was lively but not overly stimulating. Almost all the tourist shops along the main street, Hidalgo, were open and we leisurely browsed while we worked up an appetite. Sticking to an American tourist tradition, we dined at Crosby’s, a restaurant with a stage area and a dance floor with the obligatory disco ball (the two-man band that evening played south-of-the-border-style lounge) and an adjacent, brightly lit dining room. We debated whether the margaritas on the rocks (made with the requested buen tequila) were the best we’d ever had, and after the second round, we were convinced. We also enjoyed the dinner, especially the fresh bass from Lake Amistad piled with chopped garlic, and the extremely attentive service.
As we left the restaurant, the pace of the city was starting to pick up, and across the street the Corona Club was hopping. There was a moment of temptation to check out the scene at the dance club, which we were told is frequented by folks stationed at nearby Laughlin Air Force Base. But we had decided to drive thirty miles to Bracketville that evening and stay at the Fort Clark Hotel, a prerequisite for swimming in the Fort Clark Springs pool. The accommodations in Fort Clark are utilitarian at best, but we were happy to wake up with a dip in the pool, and with thirty less miles to drive home.