DESTINATIONS

Five Things to do in Brownsville, Texas

About ten years ago, my folks decided the Idaho winters were a bit too rough for them (lightweights). Their solution was to become snowbirds (people who head south for the winter) and so they purchased a little spot in a retirement community in Brownsville, Texas. As a dutiful daughter, I have made it a point to visit them over the years and have compiled a list of 5 Things to do in Brownsville, Texas. Check them out if you ever find yourself ‘visiting’ your parents over the winter.

Cactus blooming in Brownsville, Texas
Cactus blooming alongside the road

Where is Brownsville, Texas?

Alright, so most people don’t have any idea where Brownsville is. That makes perfect sense; it isn’t exactly a must-see destination in Texas. That being said, picture the big ol’ state of Texas and imagine the pointy end at the bottom. That’s Brownsville. It borders Mexico to the south and the Gulf of Mexico to the east.

I should clarify…this post isn’t a ‘go see the unknown treasure of Texas’ kind of thing. This post is for people like my friend, C, who occasionally finds herself in Brownsville for business. These people might think, ugh, Brownsville, and hole up in the hotel watching HBO until they get to go home. To those people I say, give this place a chance. And while you’re there, check out these 5 things to do in Brownsville.

# 1 Gladys Porter Zoo

This was perhaps my most pleasant surprise on the trip to Texas I took a few weeks ago. This zoo is huge! It is 31 acres and has all sorts of exotic critters, such as gorillas, giraffes, and lots of African deer-things I’ve never heard of. Lots of times I feel sorry for the animals at zoos because I don’t think they have enough space. That did happen a few times at this zoo, but for the most part, the animal areas were quite large.

I really like that they divided the park up into different regions. For example, in the Africa region we saw savanna animals. It was interesting to see what animals live in what part of the world.

Giraffe at Gladys Porter Zoo, Brownsville, Texas
Why hello there, big guy

My favorite thing about the Gladys Porter Zoo were all of the different birds. I have no idea if these birds are part of the zoo or if they just land and hang out for a while. It seems like a pretty good place to live; lots less work getting food than in the wild.

If you do visit this zoo, or frankly any zoo when you are visiting another place, make sure to bring your annual membership card to your home zoo. Lots of zoos are on a national exchange program and you’ll get discounted or free entrance if you have your membership card. I got my mom and me into the Gladys Porter zoo for free; a savings of $26.

#2 77 Flea Market

This flea market is outdoors with people setting up shop at little stands underneath a roof. The lack of walls makes sure air circulates and the roof provides some block against the sun, so it is pleasant to stroll through the two long corridors and look for treasures.

Mango box
Mango Sale!

Most people here speak Spanish, but you can get by fine with English. There’s a hodge podge of goods: fruits, plants, toys, clothes, furniture, etc. We mainly went there for the experience so I bought some cut coconut that came with a lime and munched as we walked. My other purchase was for $2.00, but it was awesome! I got a whole box of mangoes–that’s 9 mangoes for $2. In Idaho, one mango usually cost $2.00. Needless to say, I at at least one mango a day on my trip.

# 3 Mexico

The closest border town to Brownsville is Progresso, Mexico. Mom and Dad wanted to make a trip to pick up some stuff so off we went. I’m not really a fan of border towns; they feel a bit inauthentic and everywhere you look you just see the same crap over and over. However, there are certain things that are really nice, such as services. Mom and I visited a nail salon and each got a very nice pedicure for about $10. We then made a stop at a pharmacy and picked up some medicine that would cost way more in the U.S. Speaking of medical services, if you ever need a dentist you should think about visiting Mexico. Mom got a crown put on for a fraction of the cost of one in the U.S. Most people from their community do the same.

Long line of traffic at the border crossing in Progresso, Mexico
Snails were passing us as we waited to exit Mexico

The bad thing about the visit (other than the depressing poverty that you’ll see in most Latin American countries) was that it took forever to get home! Due to border patrol shortages (supposedly), the U.S. Border Control only had one gate open. This meant we were stuck in a line that moved a quarter of a mile in two hours. Yuck.

#4 South Padre Island

This is Brownsville’s main attraction. The island is long and skinny and runs north for miles and miles along the coast. Its peak visit time is spring break. So unless you want to be surrounded by loads of drunk college kids, stay away in March. There are some outdoor activities you can do here: windsurfing, kite flying and fishing all seem very popular. The beach itself is nice and very shallow.

When we visited, things had calmed down nicely. We drove along the beach and parked our truck perpendicular on the sand to the ocean. I set up a chair and read a book for *maybe* 30 minutes. I had put lotion sunblock on my arms but opted for the spray on my legs. Big mistake. It is hella windy down here and the sunblock must have ended up in Oklahoma. It certainly didn’t make it to my body and I got very splotchy, very sunburnt legs.

#5 Civil War Sites

During the Civil War, the Confederacy needed to get its cotton supply out of the South to help fund their war effort. Brownsville was an important port city where they could do that and bring in new supplies, since Mexico was a neutral country and conveniently located a stone’s throw away. Battles were fought in this area throughout the war, but perhaps the most well known is the battle of Palmito Ranch. The reason this little skirmish is still remembered is because it happened a month after the South surrendered to the North at Appomattox.

During my trip we stopped at several war markers that explained the battle and the lay of the land. Historians aren’t in agreement about the motivations of the commanders, but I just feel sorry for the people that died here. What a sad way to go–having survived the whole war only to die a month after it ended.

Honorable Mention

The SpaceX Launch Site for South Texas is right next to my parent’s preferred stretch of beach (Boca Chica). As we drove to the beach there was a security guard in a Ford Explorer parked in front of a barbed wire fence. Within that fence proudly sat Star Hopper, what looked to me like a stubby rocket. Elon Musk seems to think that this is a perfect location to launch astronauts to Mars. I can’t figure out why, as it is so windy here it already knocked over one of the capsules. Go figure.

SpaceX's Star Hopper module in Boca Chica Texas.
Don’t blow over, don’t blow over!

Conclusion

While Brownsville isn’t ever going to be the most popular city in Texas, it definitely has its charms. If you are part of the older crowd (retirees) or younger crowd (frat kids) or somewhere in between (me), you can have fun in this southernmost city. At the minimum, these five things to do in Texas will keep you busy.

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