Qué pasa, yellow rose?

Affordability is the prime reason why people planning winter stays choose South Texas over other destinations. Because of the lower cost of living, RV and beach-front property rentals are half the price of Florida or Arizona, and just about everything else from food to clothing is cheaper too. But saving money wouldn’t keep 130,000 visitors coming back if they weren’t enjoying themselves. Talk to a group of these so-called “winter Texans” (as I did at the rec hall at Encore of Harlingen RV Park) and you’ll hear the same reasons why they return: they’re welcomed into the community by the locals (many volunteer at schools and hospitals); they like the Spanish influence in the food and culture (and they can nip over the border to Mexico to shop or attend a festival); and they love the beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. And, of course, there’s the square dancing – don’t forget the square dancing. The town of McAllen is the square dancing capital of the world, after all.

Many winter Texans head for three communities – Harlingen, McAllen and Brownsville – which range along the southern border with Mexico in what guidebooks call the Texas Tropics. Harlingen, a city of about 60,000 (inly Hispanic) is where most of the RV parks in the area are clustered. Like everywhere else in the valley, Harlingen is dead flat as far as the eye can see (it sits at 45 feet about sea level) and, except for the palm trees, the vegetation is low and scrubby. But what it lacks in topographical drama, it makes up for in manmade scenery. More than 30 murals decorate the downtown area buildings with the scenes depicting the history and flora and fauna of the area.

Vern and Cheryl Vogel of Oshawa, Ont., don’t mind the area’s flatness; in fact, it suits them because they both grew up on Saskatchewan prairie. They’ve made Posada del Sol RV Park their home for the past four winters since they retired in 2000. Vern had put in 36 years at General Motors, and Cheryl was a fund-raiser for the Canadian Red Cross. They own a one-bedroom model with a patio where they spend lots of time socializing with their neighbours, almost half of whom are Canadians. January is the coolest month, and even then the temperature is in the high teens. That first winter, Vern felt guilty about his relaxed lifestyle that included no snow-shovelling. “Just for the record, I didn’t feel guilty. I figured we earned it,” Cheryl says.

What they loved from the first winter was how quickly they met local people and how much they felt at home. Last winter, Vern volunteered with a local theatre group, which performed a choral show at Christmas, and Cheryl – who has diabetes – volunteered at the Valley Baptist Hospital diabetes education centre. They’ve also grown to enjoy the RV social whirl: golf, dominoes, happy hour and potluck suppers. And they’ve begun exploring farther afield – the beaches of South Padre Island, about a half-hour away up the Gulf of Mexico coast, and the Mexican border towns, where they shop for silver and pottery. And, on occasion, they go dancing.

Which brings us to the town of McAllen, a 40-minute drive west of Harlingen, where you will find winter Texans from all over the valley hitting the dance floor. Square dancing is big in other communities too, but McAllen is mecca.

“With the new girl, go do-si-do and go back to back. Look her in her good eye!” calls Daryl Lipski to an afternoon class at McAllen Chamber of Commerce. Lipski, one of the top callers in the world, is one of six full-time callers in McAllen during the winter. Dancers can choose classes from dozens offered a week. And they can take instruction as well. Lipski, who has been calling for 40 years, says square dancing keeps participants physically and mentally sharp. “You go into a restaurant in McAllen and you can spot the dancers. They look spry,” he says.

Besides square dancing, McAllen is a big draw for birders and butterfly enthusiasts. McAllen is at one end of a birding and butterfly sighting paradise that stretches along the Rio Grande through Harlingen and Brownsville east to South Padre Island on the coast. More than two dozen sighting locations – from the Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park, which is now headquarters of the new World Birding Centre (which offers bird walks, courses in birdwatching 101, observation decks and accessible bird blinds) to the Brownsville Sanitary Landfill – are listed in the annual birding and butterfly guide.

Most winter Texans spend lots of time over the Rio Grande in Mexico; as the southernmost community in Texas and smack on the border, Brownsville is an excellent spot to cross the bridge. The Mexican town of Matamoros is at the other end. The Juarez Market there, with its bargains in pottery, silver jewelry, woven rugs, leather goods and other handicrafts, is a big attraction.

From Brownsville, the beaches and modern resort community of South Padre Island are less than an hour’s drive away. South Padre is a 34-mile long and half-mile wide barrier reef, which stretches north along the Gulf Coast. It’s connected to the mainland by a causeway at the south end. Only about five miles of the island is developed with resort hotels, condos and theme parks. The rest is unspoiled beach.

Vern and Cheryl Vogel are heading back to South Texas this November for their fifth season. Vern is looking forward to a new theatre season, and Cheryl has already committed to the diabetes clinic. What started out as an inexpensive break from the Canadian winter is becoming a home away from home.