• Arrival view of the STEC and the vibrant landscape that surrounds it - photo by Onnis Luque

A new ecotourism hub arrives in the Valley.

Project South Texas Ecotourism Center
Location Laguna Vista
Client Cameron County
Architect Megamorphosis Design
Design Team Jesse Miller, AIA, John Pearcy, AIA, Dillon Redding
Contractor Noble Texas Builders
Civil Engineer Mejia & Rose
Structural Engineer Green, Rubiano & Associates
MEP Engineer Ethos Engineering
Technical Systems Engineer WJHW
Landscape Architect Design Workshop
Exhibit Designer Clarke Design
Photographer Onnis Luque

The Rio Grande Valley (RGV), located in South Texas, is known for its rich ecological diversity. The region hosts an extensive ecotourism industry valued at approximately $700 million annually. Seasonal events like bird and insect migrations are significant contributors to this thriving industry. Thus, this region was a clear choice for the development of a new ecotourism center. 

The South Texas Ecotourism Center (STEC) is located on the southern edge of Laguna Vista. Its mission is to encourage the exploration of South Texas by highlighting the region’s environmental assets, which are spread across multiple counties. The roots of the STEC can be traced back to a generous donation of twenty-three acres of land to the town of Laguna Vista by local landowners, Mary and Frank Yturria. The town donated ten acres to Cameron County for the eco park, with officials envisioning complementary uses on the remaining land. Jesse Miller, AIA, a principal at Megamorphosis Design and the project architect, highlighted the firm’s relationship with the client, giving “credit to Cameron County and Commissioner Garza, amongst others, for their support throughout the process.” The project commenced in June 2018, with construction starting in May 2020 and the grand opening held on February 22, 2022. 

The STEC recognizes the need to preserve and restore the vanishing natural habitats in the RGV. The region once boasted a high percentage of undisturbed natural areas. Today, preserved natural lands make up less than 3 percent of the region. To address this reality, the project prioritized ecological revitalization. Early on, the STEC’s vision was clear: to become a “hub of ecotourism.” This hub would encourage environmental exploration, protection, and education. Landscape architects from Design Workshop collaborated on the design, aiming to celebrate the RGV’s diverse ecological regions and make visitors aware of the area’s numerous ecotourism opportunities. 

To complement the landscape, the architecture needed to have a symbiotic relationship with the site while still being visually interesting. The need to balance nature with structure became a fundamental aspect of the decision-making process. 


The STEC provides visitors with moments of arrival, engagement, transition, and immersion through a series of programmatic and ecological zones, leading to an intimate connection with the environment. As the site is located right next to a multilane highway, architectural elements are used to buffer against noise and distractions from the surrounding urban environment and to gradually guide visitors into the heart of nature.

The master plan begins with the design concept of arrival. Onlookers viewing the STEC from the road are drawn in by the prominent overlook, which rises twenty-five feet above the flat coastal plains and offers views of the visitor center and colorful environs. From the start, the STEC’s design prioritizes sustainability: Visitors are greeted by a permeable parking surface, rain gardens, and an arroyo showcasing responsible stormwater management. 


As soon as visitors step into the STEC, an immersive, tactile experience begins. The first exhibition introduces an ethnobotanical history of the area, told through the local plants that line the entry route. The placement of the vegetation is intentionally linear, and the design’s explicit man-made quality contrasts with the organic forms visitors will see later on. 

Further along their journey, visitors are greeted the low, horizontal structure of the visitor center, which provides an auditory and visual barrier from the road. While the design’s “bold form” and large overhangs prevent direct sunlight from entering the building, the structure is angled to take advantage of natural daylight. Inside are classrooms, restrooms, a meeting room, and an information center. One of the park’s goals is to become a destination for schools and educational groups, and the main building is equipped with ecology demonstration classrooms for such visits. 

This central hub responds to the environment through its materiality. The coastal climate, marked by salt air, strong winds, and harsh sun, demanded materials that could withstand extreme conditions and erosion. The robust, sustainable material palette includes board-formed poured-in-place concrete and low-fired clay brick, which pay homage to the area’s past, and copper panels to patina over time. These materials offer structural longevity and harmonize with their surroundings, creating a connection between the built environment and the natural world. 


Past the main building, elevation changes and winding pathways through smaller natural areas create a captivating transition zone. Bilingual signage allows guests to learn about the four regional ecozones as they navigate the site. The amphitheater provides a beautiful backdrop for educational events and presentations. The bridge and wooden boardwalk become welcoming focal points of the site.


Finally, the immersion is complete as guests approach the site’s man-made body of water and overlook. With its elevated grandeur, the overlook offers a unique vantage point and becomes an exciting destination for visitors navigating through the various zones. The overlook’s structure has been fortified to withstand flooding, tropical storms, and hurricanes and merges seamlessly with its natural surroundings, enhancing the sense of being a part of the landscape.

Future plans position the STEC to become part of an existing initiative to connect cities across the county through a network of hike-and-bike trails and waterways (a bike pavilion and connector trail were included in the design for this purpose). This development is in alignment with a broader vision to promote the hidden treasures of this region while fostering a culture of ecotourism. The STEC continues to host a wide range of events, such as Breakfast with the Birds or Film & a Picnic, to engage visitors and community members.

The center is home to an array of wildlife and envisions a growing ecosystem where birds, insects, and other animals can coexist with human visitors. The STEC is more than an ecotourism center; it is a dynamic and comprehensive project that offers a range of opportunities for the community to engage with the natural environment. 

As the project continues to evolve, the STEC is committed to further engaging with the community. The center is currently gathering input on how to enhance the visitor experience and strengthen its role as a hub for ecotourism and environmental education. The vision is for the STEC to continue to flourish as a place where people can experience the region’s natural wonders while fostering a deep sense of environmental responsibility. In essence, the STEC is a living testament to the intersection of architecture, master planning, nature, and community, providing endless possibilities for exploration, education, and ecological appreciation.

Mario Serna is a PhD student and lecturer in the Architectural and Engineering Design Technology department at South Texas College. 

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