Extending north and west from the mouth of the Rio Grande River, Texas' four southernmost counties - Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy - collectively comprise a region known as the Rio Grande Valley. While the Rio Grande Valley, also known alternately as the Valley or , is part of the larger South Texas region, it has a very distinctive character and charm.
Much of the Valley's distinctive character has to do with its location. Three of the four counties share a border with Mexico (Willacy County is the only one of the four which does not touch the Rio Grande River). Obviously this close proximity to Mexico has led to much of the Valley's culture and traditions being heavily influenced by Mexico. However, as much as the Valley has been shaped by its close proximity to Mexico, it has also been forged by its isolation from the rest of Texas and the United States. Due to the vast stretches of ranchland that begin in northern Willacy, Hidalgo and Starr counties and extend outwards for nearly 100 miles, there is no continuity of towns and cities between the Valley and the remainder of South Texas. While the effect of this isolation has diminished due to modern transportation and communication, it nonetheless was a major factor in the Valley's development, both culturally and economically.
The Rio Grande Valley's economy was traditionally based on agriculture. Ranching and farming were the mainstays. The RGV remains the state's largest producer of citrus. Cotton, onions, aloe and sugar cane are also important crops.
However, over the years, the primary economic mechanism of the Valley has shifted from agriculture to tourism. Port Isabel, located on the Lower Laguna Madre Bay, was the first Valley 'tourist destination,' drawing families from across the Valley and beyond since the late 1800s. Today, Port Isabel remains a top tourist draw. As one of the oldest cities in Texas, Port Isabel relies heavily on its historic past and landmarks, such as the Point Isabel Lighthouse, to attract visitors, as well as its natural bayside setting which affords great birding, boating and fishing opportunities.
In fact, historical and eco-tourism are the primary source of tourist traffic for several Valley cities, including Brownsville, Harlingen, Mission, McAllen, and Port Mansfield. Historic sites such as the Palo Alto Battlefield, the site of the first battle in the US/Mexican War, located just outside Brownsville, are popular with history buffs. The Valley also is home to numerous state parks and national wildlife refuges, as well as many stops along the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, all of which afford plenty of outdoor recreational opportunities, as does the Lower Laguna Madre, Gulf of Mexico and Rio Grande River.
However, without a doubt the crown jewel of the Rio Grande Valley's tourist industry is South Padre Island. Located just across the bay from Port Isabel, South Padre Island is a 32-mile-long barrier island between the Gulf of Mexico and Laguna Madre Bay. Bordered by the Brazos Santiago Pass to the south, South Padre Island was once part of the larger Padre Island which extends north of Corpus Christi. However, the southern fourth of the island was separated from the main portion of Padre Island when the Mansfield Cut was dug in 1949.
Although South Padre extends nearly three dozen miles from tip to tip, only the lower five miles are developed. But, that five mile stretch is chocked full of hotels, condos, restaurants, shops and clubs. South Padre Island is also a popular destination for surfers, windsurfers, kite boarders, fishermen, birders and sunbathers. And, popular attractions such as Schlitterbahn Beach Waterpark compliment South Padre's natural attractions.