MCALLEN -- It was the turn of the 20th century, and the Rio Grande Valley was only a string of newly-founded communities capitalizing off the rich soil on the banks of the Rio Grande.
Instead of Interstate 2 and Interstate 69, much of the traffic in and out of McAllen came via railroad -- one the same tracks that today’s Valley-dwellers are only ever aware of when it beefs up traffic.
In 1918, a group of McAllen business leaders noticed something was missing in their community. Besides two small bed and breakfasts in what is today downtown McAllen, there was no place to house visiting business leaders while they scoped financial opportunities on the border.
On what used to be a deer park, they built the Casa De Palmas hotel -- the first complete hotel of luxury in the Valley. The hotel boasted an hacienda-style architecture, much of which is still in-tact today.
At the time they would give out match cases that read: “The Valley’s Most Beautiful Hotel Across From Old Mexico,” a statement that Princie Martinez, corporate sales manager for the hotel, believes still holds true today, minus the match boxes.
“We want to keep that Spanish charm that we have, but kind of bring in the more modern amenities and continue to pride ourselves in bringing the best in hospitality,” she said.
Today, the hotel still serves the same purpose: being the temporary home for visiting business leaders. Those making business ties with the Valley’s agricultural industry and the maquiladora plants in Mexico are usually the hotel’s frequent clients, Martinez said.
“They feel at home here,” she said, adding that many are repeated visitors. “A lot of the staff here has been here for so long, too, so they get to know them.”
Felicita Garcia, a housekeeper at the hotel, has been working in the building for over 20 years.
“We don’t always know their names, but when we see them we say ‘hi,’” she said in Spanish, adding that they often get to know how the guests like their coffee, and how they prefer their room maintained.
Some guests, however, come seeking a completely different hotel experience.
“A lot of people come and ask if there’s ghosts,” Garcia said. “It’s happened to me, especially when I work at night.”
The most notable ghost tale associated with the hotel is that of a woman named Roxanne, who hotel staff refer to simply as their long-term guest.
Legend goes that Roxanne, a long-time former employee, committed suicide years ago. She is said to roam the third floor of the hotel, sporting long, flowing hair and a white gown.
In one of Garcia’s handful of paranormal experiences at the hotel, she was heading over to check on a room that was vacant. When she knocked, a woman’s clear voice responded to her, and after checking the room later it was empty and clean.
“There are ghosts, you can feel them,” she said. “I’m not usually the one to get scared, but sometimes you can just feel it in your spine.”
But the hotel doesn’t shy away from its haunted reputation, either. It is all part of the history and the culture that comes with having a hotel with a century a service under their belt.
Besides ghost hunters, they’ve also housed a few celebrities during their visits to the Rio Grande Valley.
The hotel isn’t allowed to disclose explicit customer information, so it’s unclear exactly how many or what celebrities have stayed there. The most recent high-profile visit, however, was from Justin Bieber in 2014, who Martinez said rented out a whole floor at the hotel.
Even though Casa De Palmas is no longer the only hotel of luxury in the area, it still has a leg up over the sparkling-new hotels surrounding the McAllen Convention Center.
“We’re not just a shiny box,” Martinez said. Although it’s acquired plenty of new amenities, it’s still kept much of what’s made it great throughout the years.
Small details like the original metal door-stoppers and the porcelain art on some of the walls keep the original Spanish decor, making it a truly timeless building.
“Whenever I meet those locals they always have stories from when they used to come here,” Martinez said.
In the 1980’s there used to be a club on the second floor, in the “Ruby Red” room, which today hosts formal gatherings.
Some have told Martinez stories of having their first kiss under the Kigelia Africana, or “sausage tree” that stands in front of the hotel doors at about the same height of the building, with long hanging vines that litter the ground surface with bright red flowers. The African species is a few of its kind in the Valley, and easy to spot out.
Hotel officials hope to take things back to when it opened in 1918, when it served as the social, civic and business center of McAllen. With their 100th anniversary coming up, the hotel has several events lined up to engage locals.
With it’s hacienda-style architecture and sky-high palm trees, today it’s a prime location among Instagram users, brides-to-be and quinceañera searching for that perfect image.
While the hotel has gone through several renovations over the years, it remains an unmistakable landmark at the center of the city -- “The Valley’s Most Beautiful Hotel Across From Old Mexico,” if you will.