The third-largest city in Mexico (with over four million in the metro area), and capital of Nuevo León, MONTERREY is a dynamic showcase for contemporary Mexico, though the heavy industry that made its wealth has far less importance these days – the biggest steel works closed in 1986. While the vast network of factories, the traffic, urban sprawl, pollution and ostentatious wealth that characterize the city are relatively recent developments, the older parts retain an air of colonial elegance. The city’s setting, too, is one of great natural beauty – ringed by jagged mountain peaks, the Cerro de la Silla, or “Saddle Mountain,” dominates the landscape. The city in general rewards a day of wandering, but there are three places specifically worth going out of your way to visit – the old Obispado (bishop’s palace), on a hill overlooking the centre, the giant Cervecería Cuauhtémoc to the north and the cluster of world-class museums around the Macroplaza.
Spanish conquistador Diego de Montemayor founded Monterrey in 1596, at a spring close to the current location of the Museo de Historia. Steel production began in 1900, fuelling an economic boom that continues today, with Cemex (the world’s third largest cement company), FEMSA (Coca-Cola Latin America and owner of the OXXO convenience stores) and Banorte among the many companies based here – the business district of San Pedro Garza García, now Mexico’s richest community, contains some of the highest skyscrapers outside Mexico City (on completion, the Torre KOI is set to become the tallest in Mexico at 276m). Once known as one of the safest cities in Mexico, Monterrey’s sense of calm was rattled by Hurricane Alex in 2010, causing severe damage costing an estimated M$16.9 billion. That same year, conflict between the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas began to spread to the city for the first time, culminating in a terrifying arson attack on the Casino Royale in 2011, in which more than fifty people were killed. Things have improved dramatically since that low point, and if you take the usual precautions (especially at night) you are unlikely to have any problems.
In addition to the national and religious holidays, Monterrey has a number of exuberant local festivals.
Festibaúl Internacional de Títeres (mid-July). This one-week puppet ‘festibaúl’ is particularly appealing to kids, with Mexican and international puppeteers holding shows in the city.
Festival Internacional de Cine de Monterrey (end of Aug). The Monterrey film festival is one of Latin America’s largest, showcasing the best Mexican, Latin American and international films, as well as organizing lectures and other free events.
Festival Internacional de Santa Lucía (Sept/Oct). Massive celebration of performing arts, with international dance, music and theatre (this replaced the former Festival Cultural Barrio Antiguo).
Festival Internacional de Danza Extremadura-Lenguaje Contemporáneo (end of Oct). Scintillating dance festival with a heavy emphasis on local and Mexican troupes (contemporary), as well as some international guests.
Monterrey is surrounded by surprisingly wild and scenic countryside, though getting around the sights in the vicinity – the Parque Ecológico Cola de Caballo, for example – can be a hassle without your own vehicle. The exception is the colonial city of Saltillo, a worthwhile destination in its own right and easily reached by bus.
Business in Saltillo in the early twentieth century was dominated by William Purcell (1844–1909), a talented Irishman who left his home to seek his fortune in Texas and Mexico aged 17. When he died in San Antonio he was a millionaire, owning half a million acres of cattle ranches, cotton farms and several silver mines. In the 1890s he opened a bank in Saltillo (now a gallery). You can also view the Casa Purcell, at Hidalgo 231, a grand English Gothic mansion built by Purcell in 1906.
Hot Dogs Alameda Victoria 502 (near the Alameda). Excellent hot dogs.
Gorditas La Campana Victoria 208. Tiny shop knocking out tasty gorditas and fresh jugo de naranja.
Tacos El Pastor Aldama 340, at Padre Flores. Sets of five tasty tacos (the bistec is best) start at around M$30; the salsas are always fresh.
Tortas Calientes Del Mero Mero Homero Xicotencatl 257, just off Aldama. Scrumptious tortas for M$25.
Around 160km west of Saltillo, the Valle de Parras is the oldest wine-growing region in Mexico. Dismissed as poor quality for years, the region’s Cabernet Sauvignons in particular, which account for around seventy percent of production, are finally garnering a following in international markets. The region is anchored by the pleasant oasis town of PARRAS DE LA FUENTE, a good place to base yourself.
The biggest draw in the Valle de Parras is wine – most vineyards offer tours and tastings and can be visited on day trips from Parras de la Fuente. The following are good ones to try.
Antigua Bodega de Perote Ramos Arizpe 131, 2km west of Parras de la Fuente (84 2422 1698). Produces fine wines as well as brandy and sotol, the local spirit. Call ahead for tours and visits.
Las Bodegas de Casa Madero Carretera 102 Paila-Parras km 18.5, Hacienda San Lorenzo, 8km north of Parras de la Fuente (84 2422 0055). This is the largest and oldest Parras wine producer, with roots going back to the Americas’ first winery, established here in 1597 by the Spaniards. You can take free 30min tours of the facilities and museum, buy and taste the wine and admire the colonial Hacienda de San Lorenzo on site.
Las Bodegas El Vesubio Madero 36, at Andrés S Viesca, Parras de la Fuente. Established by Italian Nicolás Nicolielli in 1891 in downtown Parras, this is a smaller operation. The shop is open daily.