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)

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
Sport
Jonas Gutierrez (r) competes with Yaya Toure (l)
football

Newcastle winger is in Argentina having chemotherapy

Arts and Entertainment
Blossoming love: Colin Firth as Stanley and Emma Stone as Sophie, in 'Magic in the Moonlight'
film

Actors star in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
News
news

Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
News
We are phenomenally good at recognising faces; the study showed that humans have been selected to be unique and easily recognisable
science

Human faces unique 'because we don't recognise each other by smell'

Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show?
Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
news

Man's attempt to avoid being impounded heavily criticised

Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Student
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is to offer a BA degree in Performance and Creative Enterprise
student

Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum
theatre

Returning to the stage after 20 years makes actress feel 'nauseous'

Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams in the video of the song, which has been accused of justifying rape
music...and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week