Take a photo of a windmill that taps groundwater where the walls of ancient hand dug Spanish wells have fallen. Hold a 200-year-old cattle branding iron, its steel tempered from generations of proud use.

Sight-seeing the man-made Llanos Mesteños would fill any travel diary. But even more paths unwind in coming to know the region's natural history.

South Texas, where temperate, and tropical climates gently overlap, harbors eleven major plant community sub regions and serves like the neck of an hourglass to funnel migratory bird mid butterfly species to destinations at the limits of the Central and Mississippian Flyways. No other zone in North America brings together such an abundance and diversity of winged and terrestrial life from so many distant places… Be on the lookout!

The Llanos Mesteños story begins in the mid-1700s as Spain, already weakened by efforts to sustain its global empire from foreign rivals, opts for a more practical and affordable means of deterring trespass into one of its last-mapped, least hospitable regions, the so-called Seno Mexicano. This unsettled void, later called Nuevo Santander, arched more than 100 miles inland along the Gulf Coast from Mexico's Bay of Tampico to Texas' lower Nueces River.

Support of military and religious outposts paired across its over-stretched frontier had worn thin Spain's treasury and patience. By the mid-18th century, the Crown weighed options to radically change its occupation strategies. For northeastern Mexico and South Texas the solution was clear: encourage self-sufficient colonization under the able leadership of Colonel Jose de Escandón already trusted as a Mexican frontier hero.

In January 1747, Escandón dispatched seven military columns to survey all parts of the region for prospective settlements, grazing lands and arable soils. Twenty-six village sites were pegged, including four locations along the Lower Rio Grande River where cattle ranching looked most promising.

Settlers rallied to follow Escandón's path. During the early 1750s some 2,500 civilians and ranchers had pulled up stakes from Central and Northeastern Mexico and moved as colonies with immense livestock herds to the Rio Grande plains.

Born-to-ride vaqueros, often of mixed Indian-Spanish blood, managed the free-ranging herds. These adroit horsemen - some barefooted and some colorful with their wide brimmed sombreros, thorn-proof chaps, clanking spurs, red sashes and rawhide ropes, exercised skills evolved over eight previous centuries from the Plains of Andalusia to the wild northern limits of Spain's New World.

Formal deeds to property throughout Nuevo Santander came in the late 1760s as respected settlers earned title to narrow porción tracts that jutted up to 15 miles inland from the banks of the Rio Grande and other occupied river lands. A decade later, as demand grew for more and better grazing rights, huge blocks of land were given across the isolated and dangerous vastness of South Texas - Llanos Mesteños.

Under Spanish and subsequent Mexican governments, these isolated ranches sometimes exceeded 80,000 acres in poorly-drained, sandy country that runs east of today's US HWY 281. West of this line, where surface water was more reliable, ranching grants were half as large.

The Llanos Mesteños was ready made for cattle kingdoms. Free-ranging Longhorn cattle and wild horses bolstered livestock herds imported by South Texas colonists. These feral animals had multiplied by tens of thousands after being released as seed stock by earlier attempts to explore and utilize the region.

Less abundant was water, the key to nourishing ranch life. Relying on centuries-old ingenuity, Spanish and Mexican-era ranchers tapped into shallow water tables by hand-digging shaft wells called norias de buque across the hardpan of the Llanos Mesteños. To capture runoff they piled up earthen dams, creating small reservoirs (presas). More than a century before windmills would arrive to revolutionize the South Texas range, these early water sources made possible the assembly of enormous livestock herds at the start of such long, northbound cattle drives as famous as the Chisholm Trail of the late 1800s.

Architecture surviving from the early ranching eras most clearly reflects the determination of South Texas' first settlers to endure harsh elements and nearly 130 years of ceaseless Indian hostilities. Until the end of Indian threats in the late 1800s, ranching settlements were protected by fortress-like casas mayores; stone blockhouses made of quarried stone called sillar (pronounced "see-yar"), a limestone particulate. Thickened with insulating layers of packed soil, the flat roofs of the casas mayores were topped with a layer of home-made concrete called chipichíl that helped repel rainwater as well as fire arrows. Defenders poked musket barrels through gun loopholes (troneras) cut into heavy walls, or aimed down at attackers from elevated roof-edge parapets.

Like the passage of ranching techniques from vaquero to Cowboy, the traditions of a defined Mexican-Texan regional culture, the Tejano, was shared far beyond South Texas boundaries, as well. Rooted to a borderland set at the fringes of two often-clashing worlds, the durable continuity of the Tejano grew as staid as the mesquite-tough ranching tradition of the Llanos Mesteños. Tejano faith and values, along with regional foods, arts and music, has long magnified the soul of the Lone Star State, reflecting the zest of an openhearted people shaped by wide-open spaces.

South Texas travel experiences are incomplete without visits to many ranches and natural areas that welcome individuals and groups interested in heritage farms and ranches, wildlife observation and history. For contact details check Farms & Ranches. Visitor Information Services are also included in this website.

Roadside markers are not placed along Trail routes. Carefully follow the outlined routes of the Llanos Mesteños Guide Map.

Point-by-point Trail descriptions begin at Alice, following a counter-clockwise direction. But the Trail may be started at any point, driven in either direction or explored in sections.

Por favor! Please respect private property rights along all points of the Trail. Absence of signage barring trespass does not limit strict legal enforcement. Encourage the willingness of South Texans to proudly share their heritage by complying with rules and basic courtesies.

Turnoff the beeline routes to the Lower Rio Grande Valley! Enjoy how this guidebook describes a region that tourism has largely bypassed but history cannot ignore.

You'll visit more than 120 historical landmarks where centuries of hard-won settlement and ranching tradition are not only preserved but continue as a cherished way of life.

The treasures of South Texas' vibrant natural world also open along the 300-mile route. Limitless prairies, cloistered thickets and best of all, private preserves where native plants, bird life, butterflies and critters abound as no where else in North America.

No one's a stranger at the dozens of Llanos Mesteños heritage ranches that welcome guests with old-time South Texas hospitality. Here, gates open for memorable ranching history and nature programs. Hunker down and hear the stories as "Cowboy coffee" and vittles are flamed over a mesquite campfire!

The Llanos Mesteños South Texas Heritage Trail is being sponsered by the Rio Bravo Resource Conservation and Development Council (RC&D) a non-profit support arm of the U.S.D.A. Natural Resource Conservation Service. Servicing 12 South Texas counties, the RC&D goals include helping guide the diversification of the region's traditional rural-based economies. Developing South Texas tourism potential is prioritized to increase appreciation among locals and outsiders for the region's abundant historical and natural assets.

Rio Bravo Resource Conservation & Development Council
P.O. Box 1006 • Zapata, TX 78076 • (956) 765-6911