'Growing' Monterrey aims for leisure market

Travel Weekly senior editor Mark Chesnut paid a visit to Monterrey. His report follows:

MONTERREY -- As I stood inside the gigantic cavern admiring dramatically illuminated stalagmites, I almost forgot that just a few miles away was one of the most powerful business hubs in all of Mexico.

Indeed, the contrast between the modern economic powerhouse that is Monterrey and the ruggedly beautiful countryside that surrounds it is proof that this city of 3.9 million residents is more than just a business destination.

Granted, Monterrey is already a success story when it comes to big business, thanks to its leading role in banking as well as the production of glass, beer, cement, steel and automobile parts. But officials also are promoting it as a leisure destination.

"Monterrey is very well positioned for business travel," said Elda Laura Cerda, executive director of the Monterrey Convention and Visitors Bureau. "But there are many other things to do, too. We want to complement [corporate travel] with [leisure] tourism."

Downtown Monterrey's Gran Plaza is marked with fountains, statues and trees. Its most visible landmark is a soaring tower that shoots laser lights into the sky when the sun goes down. Cerda said there already has been an increase in the number of options for adventure tourism, ecotourism and family travel in the region.

"Ten years ago, friends would visit and you would ask yourself, 'What am I going to do with them?' " she said. "In the last 10 years, however, we've seen a lot of new options. We are growing."

A history of success

Called the "City of the Mountains" due to the high peaks that surround it, Monterrey was founded more than 400 years ago. The third-largest city in Mexico, it is located in the northeastern state of Nuevo Leon, less than three hours by land from the Texas border.

Within the city limits, tourist attractions include a variety of museums and a lively historic district, while ecotourism and adventure travel are a big draw in the surrounding region.

Downtown Monterrey is home to the Gran Plaza, sometimes called the Macro Plaza, a sprawling corridor that is said to be the world's third-largest public square.

The Gran Plaza is marked with fountains, statues and trees. Its most visible landmark is a soaring tower that shoots laser lights into the sky when the sun goes down.

Surrounding the Gran Plaza is a variety of attractions, including the Nuestra Senora de Monterrey cathedral, built between 1603 and 1753; the Palacio de Gobierno, built in 1908, and the Museo de Historia Mexicana (Mexican History Museum).

Also on the edge of the Gran Plaza is the Museo Marco (the Museum of Contemporary Art), which features more than 53,000 square feet and 14 exhibition halls for both domestic and international art exhibits.

One block away is the Barrio Antiguo, or Old Quarter, which is filled with 18th and 19th century buildings. This neighborhood, which abounds with shops, restaurants and nightlife, is a pleasure to wander through during the day or evening.

The Barrio Antiguo also hosts the annual Festival Cultural Barrio Antiguo. This year's festival, which features live music, theater and other entertainment, is scheduled for Nov. 15 to 25.

Parque Fundidora

One of Monterrey's most ambitious leisure developments is Parque Fundidora, a park built among the remains of a giant foundry where, in 1903, steel was produced for the first time in Latin America.

Some of the found- ry's original structures have been restored and house art and photography exhibits, museums, workshops and theaters.

The Centro de las Artes, housed in a building constructed in 1901, is home to Cineteca, a cinema showing independent and art films.

Young children probably will be most attracted to Plaza Sesamo -- the only Sesame Place amusement park in Mexico -- also located in the park.

In addition to its leisure attractions, Parque Fundidora is a business destination, thanks to Cintermex, a convention center with 98,000 square feet of space and a 3,000-seat theater.

Plans call for Cintermex to expand by 2003, doubling the size of its exposition area and increasing convention and meeting space.

In the coming months, more attractions will be added at Parque Fundidora, including restaurants and bars as well as Arena Monterrey, a 17,000-person facility for sporting and performing arts events.

Nearby adventures

In under an hour, visitors to Monterrey can be transported to the natural beauty of the many mountains that surround the city.

One of the most impressive attractions is Garcia Grotto, or Grutas de Garcia. These massive caverns, similar to those in Carlsbad, N.M., are deep inside the mountains about 16 miles from Monterrey.

Part of the fun is the ride up to the caverns aboard a funicular railway that scales the sheer mountainside, offering a spectacular view.

Inside the caverns is an array of dramatically lighted stalactites and stalagmites. A tour guide points out some of the more interesting features, including a small cavern known as "the chapel," because it is shaped like -- and now decorated like -- the inside of a church.

Because the tour is usually in Spanish only, it's recommended that English-speaking visitors be accompanied by a bilingual tour guide, which can be arranged by hotels through local tour operators.

Admission costs 60 pesos (about $6.50) per person, including roundtrip transportation on the funicular and entrance to the caves.

Additional attractions outside of Monterrey include Cola de Caballo, or Horse Tail Falls, a 75-foot waterfall less than 15 miles from the city.

Here, visitors can take a leisurely walk through a heavily wooded park area. Visitors looking for a more leisurely ride can board a horse-drawn carriage for most of the trek.

The mountain ravine known as Huasteca Canyon is the place to go for rock climbing, with its high walls offering a formidable challenge. There also are picnic areas, swimming pools and areas for hiking and camping.

Chipinque Park, which overlooks the city, offers great views as well as mountain biking, rock climbing, camping and hiking. It also is home to a nature reserve containing 120 species of birds and 22 species of mammals.

Local tour operators report an increased interest in these destinations.

"I've been working in adventure tourism for four years, and compared with just two years ago, there is a lot more interest," said Luis Valenzuela, a guide with Geo Ecoaventura, a company that offers guided excursions for hiking, mountain biking, rappeling and spelunking, among other activities.

"Little by little, people have found out what Monterrey has to offer."

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