Every April, San Antonio throws an 11-day party called Fiesta. I was lucky enough to join this year’s celebration as part of a group of travel and meeting writers hosted by the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau. Stretched over 18 days this year to accommodate Easter and Passover, Fiesta has its roots in the Battle of the Flowers Parade, first staged in 1891 to honor the heroes of the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto. The Texas-sized, present-day festival reflects the city’s rich blend of cultures and traditions.
Our first taste of Fiesta was the Texas Cavaliers River Parade, where more than 40 elaborately decked-out boats cruised the San Antonio River. A pontoon manned by blue-and-scarlet-uniformed members of the Cavaliers civic organization was followed by a motorized raft carrying Navy SEALs, their grins plainly visible under camouflage face paint. Other floats were decorated with everything from disco lights to papier-mâché flowers to glittering tinsel.
We watched the parade from a pedestrian bridge just outside the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, which is undergoing a massive $325-million expansion and renovation project set to wrap up in 2016. Aside from more than a half-million square feet of new contiguous exhibit space and the debut of the largest ballroom in Texas, the project will devote more than $3 million to public art. The center already boasts life-sized statues of famous Texans, and classic cattle brands are woven into carpets and etched onto wall sconces.
The next morning, we got up early — before the sun was even up — to cross two San Antonio “must-dos” off the list: the River Walk and the Alamo. We joined a breakfast river cruise, during which our guide reviewed the history of the San Antonio River’s expansion, and pointed out hidden treasures like tiled mosaics on the undersides of the bridges and more than one family of ducks.
The Alamo is a surprisingly pretty little mission right downtown. A local guide offered a nuanced talk on the history of the mission, giving equal weight to the last stand of frontier legends like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie and the storied battle’s toll on Mexican President General Antonio López de Santa Anna’s army.
Our next stop was the Briscoe Western Art Museum, a converted Carnegie library with an imposing 13-foot bronze statue of cattle herds in the lobby. While I had to wonder about the practicality of a gold sword that once belonged to Santa Anna, not to mention the glass case full of elaborately tooled boot spurs, I couldn’t deny their beauty and grace.
After a morning steeped in history, we went to Mission Square, a downtown neighborhood dotted with food stands serving up Tex-Mex staples and shops selling everything from piñatas to cowboy boots to fresh avocados. The square is home to the colorful bakery and restaurant Mi Tierra, opened by the Cortez family in 1941, which serves up a full menu, including chilaquiles, tamales, and pork tacos 24 hours a day, and can host large groups on very short notice. A mural depicting famous Latinos covers an entire wall of the restaurant.
The next day, we ventured out to Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, which was founded in 1720 and restored by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. The mission housed around 350 Coahuiltecans, a collective term for the small bands of indigenous hunters and gatherers of South Texas, who had the onerous task of constructing the site’s stone buildings, including an imposing church that is still home to a local parish.
El Machito's mascot is a "little tough guy."
For our last hurrah, we had dinner at El Machito, celebrated local chef Johnny Hernandez’s newest restaurant. It’s a casual joint with family-style tables and an “altar” framing an indoor open-pit mesquite grill like those found in northern Mexico. The menu includes a range of traditional Mexican appetizers and a vast selection of grilled meat and seafood. My favorites were the queso fundido — a gooey concoction of melted cheese, peppers, and spices served up in a skillet — and the grilled shrimp. I also had a tequila cocktail that was so enormous I had to lift it with both hands. Dinner at El Machito was a fitting goodbye to a city where every new venture seems to pay tribute to San Antonio’s embodiment of Tejano culture.