As I flew into Monterrey, I saw only desert, the pale dry earth, baked to
a powdery loam under the withering sun. A few scrubby plants push up their
dusty bending leaves. The newly enlarged and renovated General Mariano
Escobedo International Airport lies in the midst of this baked desolation.
Although it's not unusual to see a coyote on the way into the city, I saw
My taxi driver didn’t look Mexican. He didn’t even look like a
Spaniard. He might have been a cabbie in New Orleans or Dallas. It's a long
ride into town across the dusty desert. Over the earth spans a sky of powder
blue, flecked with gray dust. There's an alkaline aridity in the air and the
land. There's almost a smell and taste of alkali in the air that hangs over
the soil. The sun sprays down its fire unceasingly.
To a Californian or myself, an Easterner, it's a scorcher. To a Texan
it's a cool day, in the low nineties. Though the air feels hot by any man's
measure, it's also dry and not oppressive. Monterrey is definitely more
pleasant than Houston, Fort Worth, or Dallas.
The people of Monterrey, known as regiomontanos, are progressive
compared to the rest of Mexico. Ranked by Banamex as the No. 1 city in
Mexico. Here, I didn’t find the laid-back lifestyle of most of Mexico.
Monterrey isn't a beautiful or a charming city, but parts of it are
striking. It's a businessman's town. Regiomontanos say that the nearest
town, Saltillo, is "one hour and three centuries away."
I found downtown always full of traffic. It closely resembles San
Antonio, Texas, in atmosphere. In fact, I discovered more Texas newspapers
on sale in Monterrey than there are papers in Spanish.
Monterrey, the capital of the state of Nuevo Leon, is Northern Mexico's
powerhouse–second only to Mexico City as a commercial center. A bustling,
hard-driving, hard-working, wealthy city, it boasts an opera season longer
than in any twice its size in the U.S and one of the highest literacy rates
in Mexico. Legend says that the saddle-shaped crest of a nearby mountain,
Cerro de la Silla, was formed when a local citizen lost a peso on the
topmost ridge and kept digging frantically until he discovered it.
In 1579, Luis de Carvajal y de la Cueva, usually called
"luckless" by historians, received permission from the King of
Spain to found the New Kingdom of Leon in northern Mexico. He arrived in
1584 and established the outpost of Ojos de Santa Lucia to provide defense
against Indian attacks.
In 1596 when a dozen Spanish families, led by Don Diego de Montemayor,
established the first permanent settlement. He named it Villa de Nuestra
Senora de Monterrey after the then viceroy, the Count of Monterrey. Though
the infant town was exposed to Indian raids, it became an economic center
for the region's mines and vast cattle and sheep ranches. Early settlers,
frequently attacked by Indians, survived.
The town became a natural crossroads for all traveling north or south
through eastern or central Mexico, including every army that marched through
the country. Both sides held the city at one time or another during Mexico's
struggle for independence from 1810-1821. A century later, Pancho Villa
began his revolution here.
In 1846, Monterrey like Mexico City and Veracruz, was invaded by U.S.
troops and occupied by forces of General Zachary Taylor. One of most bitter
battles of the war occurred on the hill crowned by Monterrey's Obispado
(Bishop's Palace). Mexican forces held out for two days after the city
surrendered. Later it became the provisional capital of the government of
Benito Juarez when he was chased by French.
To reach the oldest part of the city, built along the Rio de Santa
Catarina, I had to cross the huge Gran Plaza, an ambitious multi-level urban
renewal complex, completed in 1985, with many monuments and fountains,
mixing the colonial with the ultra-modern.
At its south end stands the Cathedral, now dwarfed by modern buildings.
The U.S. invasion of in 1846 heavily damaged the pink stone building, begun
in 1635, and only completed in 1899. Next door is the ultra-modern Museo de
Arte Contemporaneo de Monterrey, known by the locals as the MARCO, and
designed by Richardo Legoretta, one of Mexico's most renowned architects.
No matter where I went downtown, I could see the Faro de Comercio
(Lighthouse of Commerce), a tall orange stucco obelisk from which a green
laser beam shines forth each evening.
The city also has a large collection of modern sculpture, much of it on
the Gran Plaza. The most notable pieces include Rufino Tamayo's striking Homage
to the Sun and Gabriel Ponsarelli's celebratory The Children and
Monument to Youth. More controversial are Luis Barragan's orange Beacon
of Commerce, with its piercing green laser, and the unwieldy Fountain
of Life by Luis Sanguino.
Streets west of the plaza comprise the Zona Rosa, the downtown shopping
area with many pedestrian walkways, restaurants, and hotels. Pancho Villa
once rode into the elegant lobby of the Radisson Gran Hotel Ancira on his
horse. Two main downtown avenues, Pino Suarez and Cuauhtemoc, run north from
the river. However, Monterrey's wealthy live and shop in the luxurious
Colonia del Valle and Garza Garcia neighborhoods, southwest of the city.
Friends told me to try cabrito, goat–actually, young goat–meat.
While Norteno-style cooking offers charcoal-broiled steaks and thin torillas
made of wheat flour rather than cornmeal, cabrito asado al pastor
(roast kid), served up barbecued and thinly sliced, is the local favorite.
So I headed for El Rey de Cabrito is the best in town.
Everywhere I traveled in this city, I saw grand examples of contemporary
architecture. One of the most notable examples is the Church of the Virgin
of the Immaculate Conception, built of concrete, steel and glass, all made
in the city.
The Palacio del Obispo (Bishops' Palace), completed in 1789, is
the only landmark to be completed in the colonial era. Set dramatically at
the crest of Chepe Vara Hill about a mile from the city center along Avenida
Padre Mier, it was originally built as a home for retired prelates, but was
used as a fort during the Mexican-American War in 1847, the French
intervention in 1862, and again during the Mexican Revolution in 1915.
Today, it houses Nuevo Leon's regional museum.
Although the Cuauhtemoc Brewery opened over a century ago, today the
complex includes the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame, a sports museum, an art
gallery, and a beer garden with free beer. In the days when everything had
to be made in Mexico, the brewery spawned a glass factory for bottles, a
steel mill for caps, a carton factory, and eventually several industrial
conglomerates, including Alfa, which gave the city the Alfa Cultural Center,
the best museum of science and technology in the country. In addition to
hands-on exhibits, it features an IMAX theater.
The legendary El Dorado that many Spanish explorers sought may not have
existed in the 16th century, but Monterrey has sure become Mexico’s city
of opportunity in the 21st.