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Monterrey, Mexico, beckons with mountains and modernity.
(The following story was published by Journal & Topics Media Group January 30, 2017. The photos also are mine.)
By Pamela Dittmer McKuen
As Mexico’s third-largest metropolis, Monterrey (with two r’s) has long been a global business destination. But it is quickly growing in popularity with pleasure travelers as well.
For good reasons. Huddled against the majestic Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range in the northeastern state of Nuevo León, Monterrey is a strikingly modern city. The architecture is a mix of colonial and avant-garde, the culinary scene is festive and flavorful, the nightlife is vibrant, and the outdoor adventures are thrilling.
A good way to familiarize yourself is to start at the Macroplaza (or Grand Plaza) at the east end of the Santa Lucía Riverwalk. Hop aboard a tour boat. The 1.5-mile manmade canal winds past cafes, sculptures and fountains. Contemporary glass-and-steel high-rises contrast with the rugged mountainscape. You’ll end up at the Parque Fundidora, a massive urban park. One of the highlights is Horno3, a science-and-technology museum built around a refurbished blast furnace—a reference to the region’s past as a leading iron and steel producer. Ride the funicular to the top for expansive views of the city and beyond. Or go the other direction and take an elevator 656 feet underground into an authentic coal mine.
Another worthwhile museum is MARCO, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Monterrey. The extensive permanent collection and special exhibits represent works for Latin American, North American and European artists. The entrance is marked by an 18-foot bronze sculpture of a dove, “La Paloma,” by Juan Soriano.
The mountains are a major tourist draw, either traversing them or looking at them. One morning our itinerary began at the Parque Grutas de García, a 16-chamber cave system embedded within the 2,460-foot El Fraile Mountain. It’s called “The Friar” after the priest who discovered the caves in the 1840s. The cave entrance is midway to the peak and accessed via a 5-minute cable-car ride or a strenuous vertical hike. A sprawling plaza invites leisurely mingling or, you guessed it, taking selfies with mountains in the background.
Inside the cave, a guide leads visitors along a convoluted pathway of catwalks and 750 stair-steps. The various chambers are creatively named and illuminated to show off their unique formations. “Las Columnas,” for example, is a grouping of ceiling-to-floor stalactites that resemble columns. The “Salon del Aire” is a voluminous chamber with a balcony overlooking it from 40 feet above.
More outdoor adventure awaits at the Cola de Caballo eco-park in nearby Santiago. A gentle stroll down a meandering, wooded path leads to the namesake attraction: A picturesque 82-foot waterfall, which splays outward like a ponytail. Even amateurs can capture great photographs from the wide viewing platform at the base of the fall. If you’re more daring, try zip-lining and bungee-jumping.
The colorful village of Santiago is a Pueblo Mágico, or Magic Town. Mexican tourism authorities grant the coveted designation based on significant historical, cultural and aesthetic qualities. About 110 sites throughout the country have been branded Magic Towns since the program began in 2001.
Downtown Santiago is anchored by a tree-lined central plaza surrounded by eateries and shops. Reigning over the plaza is the twin-towered Church of the Santiago Apóstol, which was built in 1745 and is still active. Wander past the outdoor craft market. Follow the signs and stairs to the Plazuela del Mirador, or lookout point, for a scenic vista of the lake formed by the La Boca dam. And mountains, of course.
Kitty-corner from the church is the celebrated hacienda-style Las Palomas, an intimate 24-room hotel, restaurant, bar and spa. The restaurant, cheerfully decorated in jewel tones, serves authentic regional fare. After a morning of hiking, we were happy to indulge in a lunch of fried panela cheese sticks with guacamole, chili rellenos, puerco asado, hibiscus tea and cerveza.
Dozens of new hotels and eateries have opened in the greater Monterrey area over the past decade, due in no small part to the influx of international corporate and convention visitors. We were hosted by the just-opened, 180-room Grand Fiesta Americana, Monterrey Valley, a gleaming tower with a modern urban vibe. Among our dining choices were La Vaca Argentina, a Latin steakhouse, and La Feliz Cantina de Cuidad, a local hangout where empanadas and ceviche get rave reviews.
Our last evening was spent at the Habita MTY, a 39-room boutique hotel attached to an upscale shopping center. Dinner was a chef’s tasting menu that included a fig salad, cream of salmon soup and ribeye topped with a spinach-and-pistachio tapenade. Dessert was a heavenly corn flan with caramel, meringue and berries.
We then retreated to the hotel’s fashionable rooftop bar. Two infinity pools flank the space, and rows of conversation-inducing banquettes line the center. As the sunset descended, the mountains disappeared and city lights dazzled. Throngs of soccer enthusiasts were fixated on the overhead video monitors. They were cheering boisterously for Mexico in a face-off with Chile in the quarter-finals of the Copa America Centenarios. Many held in hand the house special, the PB-rita, a fruity margarita concocted with mezcal and rimmed with chili salt.
Ultimately, their high spirits were dampened. Chile beat the home team 7-0 and went on to claim the 2016 title later that month.