We had a four day weekend off of work this month, so Chris and I decided to spend a little time at the beach. We packed up our car and drove down to South Padre Island down in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas. Now, the last time I was in SPI was 1997 and it was college spring break week- and I was there to see Vanilla Ice in concert. So I was interested to see how the island had changed over the last 20+ years.
There is exactly one way to get onto South Padre Island, and that is via the Queen Isabella Causeway, from Port Isabel. You cannot enter the island from a more northern point, so just know that if you want to visit, you will need to go alllllllll the way down to the bottom of Texas to get there. From Austin, it took us about six hours. We arrived in time to grab an early dinner at Dirty Al’s, a Cajun-style seafood joint directly on the water. You can eat indoors or outside, and enjoy the Gulf breeze while watching the sailboats come in and out of the harbor. You can also book an island tour, sportfishing boat, or dolphin-spotting cruise from some of the businesses just steps away.
The entire south end of the island is Isla Blanca Park, run by Cameron County. To access those parts, you’ll need to pay a $12 day pass, or $5 for Veterans (you can also get a monthly or annual pass). Some of the cleanest beaches and best sunset-watching spots are down in Isla Blanca Park, as well as RV spots, cabanas, and a huge statue of “Cristo de los Pescadores”. But don’t worry. South Padre Island has plenty of free beaches in the mid-island and northern island sections.
For eating, drinking, and partying, most people head mid-island to Clayton’s, Bar Louie, and The Lookout. These 3 open-air bars are always full, with food and drink specials, music, and plenty of sandy feet. At night there’s usually a DJ or a band playing at one or more of these venues. For a more mellow vibe, try a local brew at the PI Brewing Company.
But South Padre Island has plenty to do for nature lovers as well. You can visit Sea Turtle Inc, or the SPI Birding and Nature Center. A bit further north from town, there’s the Stables, the SPI Equestrian and Events Centre. You can ride horses and zipline at the South Padre Island adventure park, or visit the Kite Boarding Ranch. If all of these sound too adventurous to you, just go to the end of State Road 100, and visit the beautiful white sand dunes and less-visited beaches in the north of the island.
While we were on SPI, a hurricane was affecting the tides throughout the Gulf of Mexico, so we took some time inland to explore a little as well. Just south of SPI you can visit the SpaceX launch site. Be warned: although only 6 or 7 miles south of SPI, it takes a while to get there- you’ll need to drive inland about 25 minutes, and then double back on another road to get to the space center (it’s just before Boca Chica State Park).
And if you’re wondering- can you walk across the border to Mexico? The answer is yes. There are 3 international bridges located in Brownsville, Texas, linking to Matamoros, Mexico. We walked across the Gateway International Bridge with our passports and $1 in quarter for the toll. On the Mexican side, you can hop on a bus to pretty much anywhere in Mexico (prepare for some long rides), or just have a cerveza and some lunch, shop a little, and head on back. Just a block or two over the border is a large shop and restaurant called Garcia’s- they have great food and specials on Mexican products and liquors. They took our temperature before we entered and sanitized our hands. The line back into the US took a bit longer than the one heading south- prepare for a bit of a wait- but it only costs 25 cents. Not bad for an international trip!