Our bike tires glide across the hot asphalt as palm fronds wave at us in the breeze, like cheering bystanders. Just ahead, the U.S.-Mexico border awaits our group of cyclists on the Lower Rio Grande Valley Active Plan Tour, at the southernmost point of Texas.
The Active Plan is an ambitious project overseen by the border town of Brownsville. If successful, it will not only make for healthier citizens, it will also transform this tropical landscape into a must-see for the international active tourist.
We enter Matamoros, Mexico, Brownsville’s sister city on the southern bank of the Rio Grande.
Behind us, two boys in blue school uniforms giggle when we choose the wrong lane for our bikes. A guide tells me they go to school in Brownsville, but live in Mexico. The two cities have a history of a relatively fluid border, despite the current immigration rhetoric.
John Faulk, a photographer traveling with us, says he went to Matamoros regularly when he was growing up.
“Growing up along the Texas-Mexico border during the 1980s was a great experience,” he says. “Everything was less complicated. Matamoros was considered the fun neighborhood with the best restaurants and clubs, and we were there often.”
Faulk’s words are echoed by a former Brownsville resident.
“I miss the specific border-style Mexican tacos,” Megan Wyman confesses, even though she’s a vegan now and probably shouldn’t.
“For many, including my family, we went across all the time,” Wyman says. “My dad’s family all lived there and we would visit them or just go across for lunch after church. It was just a normal part of life.” The two cities, she says, felt like extensions of each other.
When both cities make national U.S. news today, they are usually depicted unflatteringly and incompletely—with Matamoros as a violent, cartel-run city and Brownsville as home to federal detention centers, high diabetes rates, and poverty, rather than for having a culture-rich community that calls this distant tropical corner of the state home.
That is partly why I’m participating in the Active Plan tour, to peel back the superficial layers.
At the heart of the plan is the development of an extensive trail system connecting 11 municipalities across Cameron County—428 overlapping miles of trails for cyclists, pedestrian walking paths, and waterway access for kayaking and paddle boarding. The Active Plan will not only use these trails for locals to be active and healthier, but also to promote the valley as a “world-wide magnet” for active ecotourists.
“I was always aware that there were lots of people with diabetes in my hometown,” says Dr. Rose Gowen, an obstetrician who serves as Brownsville’s City Commissioner. She notes that one in three people are diabetic and 80 percent of Southern Texans are overweight or obese, leading the region to become the subject of the healthcare-focused documentary, Diabetesville, USA.
“The numbers were an ‘ah ha’ moment for me,” she says. “I started thinking about walking, jogging, and bicycle riding, and I found many neighborhoods without sidewalks. Many with no access to trails and no safe way to walk children to school. Evaluating the built environment, and how to improve walkability and bikeability, led me to trails!”
Cycling through urban spaces or the thin stretch of beach that is the South Padre Island, I could clearly see the area’s appeal and the benefits a new trail system could have.
Riding through Bahia Grande—a wetland restoration project—we found an open sky framed by rippling green grasses, stout yuccas, and wide, shallow blue waters full of fish and coastal birds.
At Laguna Atascosa—a wildlife refuge—we rode a loop through colorful coastal prairies against a backdrop of blue and mineral green bay waters. There, visitors might find redhead ducks, the rare ocelot, or large nilgai—an Indian breed of antelope that escaped from an exotic animal collection early last century, and now runs freely through the refuge.
Two bolted across the trail right in front of my bike.
The region is rich in resacas, former oxbows and channels of the Rio Grande river that are no longer connected, and other waterways connected to the tidal waters of the Laguna Madre. And the valley is also the home to Brownsville’s Resaca De La Palma State Park—a world birding center—and their neighboring city of Harligen, the host of an annual international Birding Festival.
It was easy to see how an extensive trail system connecting these features could transform the area’s poverty hotspots, attract ecotourists, encourage exercise, and bring in businesses. SpaceX is building its new commercial launch site in the area, and the airport is adding terminals.
Funding and partnerships with county municipalities, the University of Texas RGV, and the Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation have also helped. A boost for the project came when Gowen connected the city with the Rails to Trails Conservancy’s (RTC) TrailNation program. RTC is an organization which repurposes defunct railways into paved bicycle paths, connecting communities, opening up options for healthy living and easier transportation (Full disclosure: I’m an RTC member.)
RTC President Keith Laughlin quickly saw its benefits. “There is an ever-growing number of long-distance transcontinental cyclists seeking a southern tier route through the U.S. in the winter who would welcome the opportunity to explore the unique culture and natural wonders of the valley,” says Laughlin.
Eva Garcia, a city planner and project manager for the Active Plan, is convinced of its local benefits. Garcia was studying environmental science at the local university and an intern when trail plans began.
“I had been biking to school and my internship every day,” Garcia tells me. “I think about all the people I love and the struggles that many of them face,” she adds, “and I truly believe that a safe and accessible active transportation network has the potential to improve their lives.”
Ramiro Gonzalez, Brownsville’s government affairs liaison, agrees, saying that the plan “combines the power of the public space, trail infrastructure, and an economic development strategy focused on active tourism.”
“There is no better way to experience a city,” insists Gonzalez, “than to have the ability to walk or ride through a city and perhaps wander into places that are off the beaten path.”
And the trails are already beginning to connect that “beaten path” with the economic centers of the town. On our first day, for example, we met at The Fairfield Inn, which has easy access to shopping and restaurants. The Active Plan SAG (support and gear) team fit us with bikes, supplies of water, and snacks. The day’s ride began there, along a paved trail leading us through neighborhoods and to Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park, the site of the first clash of the two-year Mexican–American War, in 1846.
From there, we cycled downtown, stopping at 7th and Park before we entered Matamoros. 7th and Park is a coffee shop along the trail that is also a bike shop. There you can fix your caffeine craving and your flat tire. Owned by Graham Sevier-Schultz, who is also RTC’s local project manager, it is strategically located along Brownsville’s Linear Park in the Mitte Cultural District.
Sevier-Schultz has seen the impact trails can have on a community. Soon after his shop opened, a young family stopped by, telling him how happy they were to have a trail to enjoy for recreation.
“This practically brought me to tears,” he tells me. “I was so happy. The joy I felt by being able to help contribute to this young family’s health, happiness, and wellbeing was incredible. This is a moment I think back on during good days and bad.”
While it’s clear that the Active Plan is already having an impact, there are still obstacles to its smooth connection to Mexico.
Though people living in Matamoros assured us that crime had dropped—enough even for some to bring their families to live in the city—Matamoros still comes with high crime and night travel warnings from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which strongly suggests limiting travel. This might keep tourists from exploring the Mexican side for a while.
Even so, what’s good for Brownsville is also good for Matamoros and its efforts to lower crime and revitalize downtown.
After crossing the border by bike into Matamoros, we were warmly greeted and guided by the local cycling club and a police escort, which helped to clear traffic—giving us a tour and closer look at what the city has to offer, like the new Rail Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, a new U.S. Consulate under construction, and dinner at the legendary Garcia’s.
For those leading the city forward, like Mauricio Ibarra Sacramento, the Director General of the Municipal Institute of Planning for the city of Matamoros, the Active Plan represents a return to the days when these sister cities had closer social and economic ties.
“Currently, we can see that most of the activities of the American border city affect the Mexican border city,” he tells me.
Short and long term plans that are modern and healthy, he explains, help to “build an efficient and compatible binational plan that would set in place inclusive policies for the needs of both borders. The Active Plan, as sister cities, might also help expand Matamoros’s tourist attractions and hike and bike trails.”
Other challenges are found on the U.S. side of the border.
More funding is needed to convert abandoned railways into trails. Some worry that SpaceX’s location near Boca Chica Beach will affect beach use or the nesting of endangered sea turtles. President Trump’s waiver of 28 environmental and public health laws to make room for the border wall will also negatively affect the health of communities and endangered species.
And then there is the impact of the president’s foreign policy. The Trump administration has dominated the negative branding of the region through federal detention centers, hyperbolic rhetoric about caravans and border walls, and by sending troops.
Political leaders have attempted to push back, but it has not yet ended the narrative. Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez has described the president’s “crisis” as “manufactured” and “totally fiction.”
Congressman Filemon Vela (D-TX) also sees the rhetoric as stoking “hate and violence,” and called militarization “direct attacks on our border economy.”
But these complications rarely seem to stop the community’s determination.
“The Lower Rio Grande Valley Active Plan is a bold vision for the future of our region that will provide benefits across the board,” Rep. Vela told The Daily Beast. “By connecting our communities, historical and cultural facilities, and recreational areas with an expansive trail network, residents of the Lower Rio Grande Valley will experience the convenience and health benefits of active travel. Not only will this investment benefit permanent residents, it will draw tourists to our communities and allow everyone to truly enjoy the natural beauty of South Texas.”
After a week of exploring these tropical spaces by bike, I know I wanted to stay longer. I definitely plan to return to Brownsville as an ecotourist.