Texas Travel

City Spotlight: Port Isabel

By Peter Simek 8.18.22

Located south of South Padre Island near the Rio Grande delta, Port Isabel is a small town with a colorful history and a big reputation for watersports and recreation.

Today, it’s perhaps best known as a favorite beachside getaway for vacationing in Texas — and for its historic lighthouse, which was constructed in 1853. But before this sleepy fishing village became a tourism hot spot, its proximity to Mexico and strategic location along the Intracoastal Waterway made it a hub for smuggling.

A Southern Port

The earliest settlers came to the area now known as Port Isabel in the late-18th century. What drew them was access to water. Although a small Mexican community flourished here before the Texas Revolution, it wasn’t until after Texas broke away from Mexico that Port Isabel began to grow into the town we know today. By the mid-19th century, the lighthouse had been constructed and residents established a vibrant cotton industry. During the Civil War, the town’s proximity to Mexico made it a strategically important port that allowed ships to bypass the Union blockade of the South. That came to an end in 1863, when Union armies captured the town and burned all the ships in the harbor to stop smuggling.

Water, Rail, and Recreation

After the Civil War, attempts to grow Port Isabel focused on extending rail access to the town and dredging its harbor to allow for increased ship traffic. But by the early 20th century, the town had not grown larger than a few hundred residents. The town dredged a new ship channel in 1933 and, perhaps more significantly, hosted the first Texas International Fishing Tournament in 1934. These two events symbolically launched Port Isabel’s new identity as a fishing and shrimping hub popular with tourists and sportspeople alike.

Port Isabel

Beachside Relaxation

Today, Port Isabel draws avid ocean anglers, who enjoy casting off from the town’s famous fishing pier or charting ocean fishing tours. Visitors looking to soak up the local marine life can also go on whale and dolphin excursions and take eco-tours of the Laguna Madre Bay. You can also experience the town’s rich history by visiting the Treasures of the Gulf Museum. Here, you can learn about the Spanish galleons that wrecked off the coast of Port Isabel in 1554 and explore relics from the Mexican-American War. The museum is also home to a massive two-story mural painted in 1906 by a local fisherman that celebrates Port Isabel’s fishing heritage. And no trip to Port Isabel would be complete without a hike to the top of the historic Port Isabel Lighthouse.

Explore more of Texas’ beaches here.

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