this winter Author & Photo credits: Beth Pollock
How is it possible that a town with gorgeous Mexican folk art, phenomenal birding, a terrific museum, and the best ceviche I’ve ever eaten can stay off the beaten path? If that isn’t enough, how often do you have the chance to visit the Square Dancing Capital of the World?
Perhaps what I loved most about McAllen, Texas was its embrace of diversity. Like Claudia Martinez of IMAS told me, “It’s not really America, it’s not really Mexico – McAllen is a mixture of both.”
The International Museum of Art & Science (IMAS) may be small in size, but it offers intriguing artwork, workshops and volunteer opportunities for winter Texans. Claudia Martinez, Director of Education, showed me around the museum, where I heard about the permanent collection, the exhibitions, and the fascinating sculpture garden.
Martinez’s favorite piece in the Sculpture Garden is La Fuerza (‘The Force’) by Mexican artist Victor Salmones. “I adore the eerieness that surrounds this work,” she said. “The extended hand is inviting, though it also pushes away the viewer. The organic lines bring the viewer in and out as the eyes follow its ghostly curves. Many of the school kids say it looks like a Dementor from Harry Potter!”
The permanent collection on display changes occasionally; when I visited, I fell in love with Spun for James Kirsch by American artist Sam Francis. Check the IMAS website for a full list of current and upcoming exhibits.
Martinez is most proud of the inquiry-based tours at the museum. “A lot of people look at a work for a few seconds, and move on to the next,” she said. “But when you hear the story behind the art or notice the special techniques used, you start having an experience with the work.”
If you’re looking for other activities at the gallery, you won’t be disappointed. You can attend adult art classes (BYOB!), on the first Thursday of each month. The gallery also hosts monthly Senior Saturdays, where visitors explore an exhibit before taking a related workshop. Recent classes include impressionism, pencil sketches of the Old Masters, and found object jewelry. Opening receptions and artist talks are popular with winter Texans, too.
“I believe most visitors leave feeling inspired. I know I do!” Martinez said. After a tour through this lovely museum, I know I did too.
Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Centre
Any visit to Quinta Mazatlan starts with the Adobe mansion, and not just because it’s where you join the tours. The beautiful Adobe house was built in the early 1930s and was inspired by the Spanish architecture in Mazatlan, Mexico. Owner Jason Matthews made the Adobe bricks and built the house himself, with the assistance and guidance of Mexican Abode brick layers.
The entire home is lovely, but the Grand Hall is particularly impressive. This long, narrow room features exposed wooden beams and oversized Abode bricks made on site. Tiled archways lead to an expansive sitting room; the mosaic around each arch was modeled after designs used in Zacatecas, Mexico, a city rich with silver mines. Zacatecas was also the site of one of the most important battles in the Mexican Revolution, and a tiled mural in the Grand Hall pays homage to the city and its soldiers.
Quinta Mazatlan is the home of McAllen World Birding Center. I took the Saturday morning Songbird Stroll, with leader and urban ecologist John Brush leading a small group looking for the elusive blue bunting and other birds. After the tour, Brush emailed me the list of the 23 species we saw; for avid birders, lists are also published on eBird. It was a lovely, informative walk, with the most beautiful specimen I saw being a butterfly, the two-barred flasher.
In addition to Saturday songbird walks, Quinta Mazatlan offers weekly garden tours, healing nature walks, and history tours. The fall brings bird and butterfly festivals, and throughout the winter, weekly Nature Speaker sessions are on offer.
For me, the highlight of Quinta Mazatlan was the Mexican folk art room in the main building. McAllen native Ann Moore has collected folk art for forty years, and recently donated part of her collection to Quinta Mazatlan.
Some of the pieces are Alebrijes, Mexican folk art that depicts animals and mythical creatures. Traditionally made from painted paper-mache, they’re now often carved from copal wood, and portray rabbits, badgers and iguanas, as well as dragons and hybrid animals.
Other pieces are religious, whimsical, or simply beautiful. They’re all brightly coloured, beautifully designed and full of life and creativity. Seeing such a rich collection in this lovely Spanish-style home was one of the highlights of my trip.
Square dancing capital of the world
“Do you dance once a week?” I asked.
The dancers chuckled politely. “We dance between nine and eleven times a week,” said Betty. “And they’re each two-hour sessions.” Square dancing is not for the faint of heart.
McAllen is the square dancing capital of the US, and I visited a session at a local American Legion Hall. Whatever you’re thinking of square dancing, think again. The dancers wore street clothes, rather than crinoline skirts and bolos, and they danced to a variety of music, from rap to polka.
This was an intermediate-level class, which means dancers are responsible for knowing 300 different steps. I watched them glide effortlessly through a series of calls that were like listening to another language. (The only square dancing call I remember from my elementary school days, is “Do-si-do around your partner.”)
I met Jean and Marcel from New Hamburg, Ontario, who love square dancing so much, they started a club there. When I asked what they like most about it, Marcel said, “I know there’s a ‘Hee Haw’ image to square dancing, but it’s not like that at all. It’s a great mental and physical challenge – it staves off Alzheimer’s, and keeps us fit. We dance nearly day, and often more than once a day.”
“There’s a real social aspect to the activity,” Jean added. “Even the Nationals aren’t competitive.”
During a break in the dancing, I spoke to Randy Dougherty, the caller for the session. “I’ve called for 50 years,” he said. “It started when I was a teenager and had a football injury. I’d been dancing since I was a kid, but couldn’t do that with a broken leg. I decided to give calling a try, and I’ve never looked back.”
Dougherty spends the winter in Texas, and the rest of the year in Arizona and travelling around the world. “I’ve gone to Saudi Arabia, Japan, Germany and other countries with my calling,” he said. “But no matter what language is spoken, English is the universal language of square dancing.”
And forget the idea of square dancing being old-fashioned. One of the dancers showed me an app on her phone to help beginners learn new moves: Taminations shows detailed animations for over 300 calls.
Lanny from South Dakota dances with his wife Sheryl, and said in a nutshell why he loves dancing. “It’s an equalizer,” he said. “Class differences are gone, and you get to know each other on a level playing field.”
There are bigger and more famous destinations in Texas, but nowhere that packs a greater punch than McAllen. Next time you visit the state, be sure to visit this town that delivers a bit of everything.
For more information on Texas and to receive a free copy of the Texas Travel Guide and Texas Official Travel Map, visit TravelTexas.com
Notes: The writer saw McAllen as a guest of Texas Tourism, who did not review or approve this story.
Where to stay:
Cambria Suites McAllen Convention Center – Cambria Suites is thoughtfully laid out, with a Keurig, microwave, fridge and Bluetooth-connected mirrors in each of its 121 rooms. Public areas feature numerous USB ports and purse holders for the convenience of business and leisure visitors. 702 S. Ware Road.
Where to eat:
Kocina il Forno – 905 N. Main Street. Imagine the love child of Neptune (god of the sea) and Pomona (goddess of fruit trees). The freshest of mahi mahi, tossed with a squeeze of lime. Don’t even look at the menu – just order the Peruvian Ceviche. You’re welcome.
Costa Messa – Great Mexican food in a fun atmosphere. 5248 N. 10th Street.
SALT New American Table – Owned by Chef Larry and Jessica Delgado, SALT presents the freshest of local food, with a constantly changing menu to reflect what’s in season. 210 N. Main Street.
house. wine. & bistro. – This restaurant shares the philosophy that sophisticated, delicious food should be affordable. Part of the Delgado Collective. 1117 West US Highway Business 83.
What to do:
International Museum of Art & Science (IMAS): 1900 Nolana Avenue.
Quinta Mazatlan: 600 Sunset Drive.
Square Dancing: I watched square dancing at the Legion Hall, but there are nearly 50 locations you can choose from. The Rio Grande Valley Square Dancing website lets you choose your dancing by date, skill level and caller.