The racing heart

Monterrey is big, brash and bursting to compete in the modern world. But stop a minute. Sink a beer. Take its pulse

Of all the places you can reach by bus from Chicago, Monterrey is the strangest. Once a week, a vehicle belonging to Autobuses Americanos sets off from the Great Lakes on the 48-hour haul to Mexico's third city - which this week is in a singularly good mood.

Of all the places you can reach by bus from Chicago, Monterrey is the strangest. Once a week, a vehicle belonging to Autobuses Americanos sets off from the Great Lakes on the 48-hour haul to Mexico's third city - which this week is in a singularly good mood.

The election of a new president, Vicente Fox, was celebrated more enthusiastically in the sprawling, hard-working city of Monterrey than anywhere else in Mexico. They like the victor's Coca-Cola cowboy image here. Huge, bare mountainous hulks crowd around the basin into which Monterrey is decanted, a constant reminder to the 2 million people that there is a wide open world beyond.

Until the Mexico City-Laredo railway arrived in 1888, Monterrey was little but an overgrown market town. But the train changed all that: pride of place in the city's remarkable museum goes to a locomotive, celebrating the municipal industrial revolution that took place over the next century.

For the tourist, though, the raw statistics of modern Monterrey are unappealing: it leads the nation in the production of everything from steel to soap, and is the economic dynamo that powers much of Mexico. Passenger trains vanished with the 20th century, so these days you approach on an ungainly highway that has been driven ruthlessly through shabby suburbs. These cling around the colonial core so effectively that it can be difficult to find the real heart of the city. The triumphant Arch of Independence, now marooned in traffic, used to mark the northern extent of Monterrey. Find it, and you are not far from the strangest public square in Mexico, a confection brought about by reckless civic ambition.

For proof that the pulse of the city is racing ahead of the rest of Mexico, check out the Macro Plaza. It sounds like it should be a shopping centre, yet it is actually an open space the size and shape of an airport runway - and decked in a haphazard but mighty collection of modern architecture. In the Eighties, when the area was enjoying an economic boom, the city fathers had a problem: how to distinguish Monterrey from its two main rivals, Mexico City and Guadalajara? Both are much bigger, and richer historically, than the northern contender. The solution was to celebrate the new-found wealth with some nouveau-riche flash.

A ten-by-one-block strip of land was flattened, flanked by steel and glass monoliths and bedecked with public displays of affectation, in the form of grandiose modern sculpture. Start at the northern end, where the post office and the Palacio de Gobierno are the sole survivors from the 19th century. The first sector is the Esplanada de los Héroes, a barren area save for the sculptures of all the usual revolutionary suspects from Pablo Gonzalez to Benito Juarez.

You move south into the Bosque Hundido, a shadier garden area with a striking, gaunt statue of a mother and two children. The area is framed by two hunky structures, the Palace of Justice to the west and the City Library to the east. At 800 Zaragoza Sur - the name of the street on the western side - the Infonavit conglomerate has its brash headquarters in a structure that is straight out of Houston.

A highway rather inconveniently cuts across the middle of Macro Plaza, but on the south side the extravagant structures resume: commemorating the Fountain of Life, the Workers of Nuevo Leon and the Fountain of Commerce, the trinity that keeps the city ticking. The enormous Lighthouse of Commerce is an uncompromising slab that dominates proceedings - and humbles the cathedral just south-east of it.

Your next mission will take you way across town. Cut down diagonally to the Zona Rosa, the pedestrianised shopping and dining centre and across a couple of viciously pumping traffic arteries. In an anonymous inner suburb, you reach the bizarre and beautiful Iglesia de la Purisima. This church looks like a prototype for the Sydney Opera House - which, in a way, it was. Half a century ago, Enrique de la Mora based his plans for the church on an arrangement of parabolic shells, a design that combines strength with a certain grace. The bolt-on shed at the back detracts from the overall effect, as do the air-conditioning units. But waiting inside is a tiny, and officially miraculous, figure.

Chiquita was supposed to be perched on the altar. This delicately carved 25cm-high figure was created in the 18th century, and has resided in a church on the site ever since. Her moment of glory was in 1756, when she was credited with turning a flood away from the city. The Catholic church has since recognised this as a miracle.

It was a minor miracle to track her down, but I finally found her sitting in a cupboard in the crypt, her crown bestowing sainthood. She was, explained the verger, being kept safe because of construction work in the church. I suspect that the real reason was to shield her from the cacophony of air horns underpinned by the rumbling chorus of unhealthy diesel engines that comprises the city's constant soundtrack.

The racket is enough to turn you to drink. Luckily, a supply of free beer is not far away. The Museo de Monterrey is a hilarious enterprise built on (and amid) the site of one of Mexico's leading breweries. Part of the original plant has been adapted as a beautiful and characterful museum, where 19th century red brick mingles with huge copper vats, and merges with 21st century glasswork to create a singular art space of which any city would be proud.

That doesn't mean, of course, that the paintings hanging on these handsome walls are any good. Apart from the huge angelic sculpture made of (full) beer bottles, most of the artistic contents are a lot less inspiring than the surroundings.

Outside, the grounds around the building are described as "interactive experimental gardens" (an elaborate name for what might strike you as a few trees, bushes and patches of grass). Of much more interest is a bar that has the highly appealing characteristic of giving away beer. "As a courtesy," reads a sign, "Cuahtemoc Brewery offers a Carta Blanca beer to our visitors." The idea, of course, is that you will be tempted to continue drinking the company's products elsewhere in Mexico and, indeed, when you return home. There are few finer ways to acquire a taste for Carta Blanca, and Monterrey, than to sip your way through a sleepy Mexican afternoon.

The best way to reach Monterrey from Britain is on Continental Airlines via Newark or Houston.

This an edited extract from 'The Panamericana: On the Road through Mexico and Central America' (Vacation Work, £12.95)

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