Heading southeast from Laredo down US Hwy-83 (called the Zapata Highway) travellers pass through the Rio Grande Valley, a rarely visited subtropical slice of South Texas. San Ygnacio is a sleepy and friendly hamlet where yapping chihuahuas roam dusty streets. The tiny town was once part of the insurgent Republic of the Rio Grande, and its rich history is a reminder of the fiercely independent streak that contributes to the complexity of this region.
Roma, 55 miles down the highway, has a strong architectural heritage. Its nine-square-block downtown is home to several structures built in the 1800s; some date to Spanish rule in the 1750s. A birdwatching platform constructed on sandstone cliffs near downtown looks across the Rio Grande toward Mexico; try to spot with your field glasses one of 500 species like the groove-billed ani. You can also hear Mexican children playing across the muddy river, which until sixty years ago was plied by steamboats.
Rio Grande City, down the highway another 20 miles, has several motels and the La Borde House (t 956/487-5101; $61–80), a nonprofit historic hotel at 601 E Main St. It has clean, comfortable rooms decorated with period furniture and the restaurant Che’s, which serves breakfast beneath a mural depicting local scenes. Run by the same family for 70 years, Caro’s, 607 W 2nd St (t 956/487-2255), dishes up excellent Mexican food.
Further southeast along the highway toward the Gulf of Mexico is a booming urban region. With a population of 180,000, Brownsville is the biggest city, though smaller Harlingen, 25 miles to the northwest, is the most pleasant to visit. Its downtown is walkable and active, with several art galleries, coffeeshops and cafés. The Rio Grande Grill, 417 W Van Buren, is a popular local diner, and Chopp Shopp Records, 103 W Jackson St, has a good selection of CDs from local hip-hop artists like Nino.