According to legend, busloads of foreign tourists frequented Saltillo, Mexico, just three hours south of the Texas border. The proximity to Texas makes it an easy distance for those who want a quick taste of Mexico, but those three hours from the border give the city a more wholesome air than the infamous border towns.
Why does Saltillo now get overlooked? Maybe flights to the beaches are cheaper. Maybe Saltillo’s industrial nature turns people off. However, if you steer clear of the factories, Saltillo is charming. Whatever the reasons, it’s a real shame this Mexican colonial city gets passed over. Being small and also very far north, it has that same self-reliance and cowboy pride that characterizes Texas. To get a feel for Saltillo in just a weekend trip, there are two must-sees: Downtown and the Desert Museum.
Day 1: Downtown Tour
Start your tour at Compadres and order a parrillada. It’s a heaping pile of beef typical to northern Mexico, with traditional red sausage thrown in (don’t worry, it’s not spicy). All this meaty goodness is served with handmade flour and corn tortillas. Guacamole is not included, so be sure to order it.
Plaza de Armas
To walk off that feast, turn left out of Compadres and head three blocks to the Plaza de Armas. Elsewhere in Mexico, the main plaza is called the zócalo. In northern Mexico, they prefer the term Plaza de Armas. Regardless of what it’s called, every Mexican city’s main plaza is bordered by a church on one side and a government building on another. Saltillo is no exception, and the state government building and the cathedral sandwich a fountain showcasing Victorian-era frolicking nymphs.
Saltillo’s cathedral concentrated all its over-the-top baroque efforts on the outside of the building. On the inside, the decorations are much more subdued than churches further south, making it an authentically peaceful place.
Crossing the Plaza de Armas, the State Palace flaunts its imposing pink façade over the square. Don’t be afraid of the armed guards at the entrance. Walk through the metal detectors and enjoy a series of murals depicting key moments of Mexican history. Across the courtyard is a small, free museum highlighting Saltillo’s role in Mexican history. And, if you drank too much lemonade at Compadres, they have free, clean bathrooms.
How to Spend 48 Hours in Saltillo, Mexico
Saltillo’s claim to fame is the serape, that colorful blanket that used to be worn like a poncho and is engraved in most people’s minds as the traditional Mexican costume. Although most Mexicans haven’t worn a serape in over 100 years, Saltillo is still proud of its serape-making heritage. This small, but comprehensive museum showcases the history of the serape, the techniques to make one, complete with a collection of serapes from the colonial era to the present. In the afternoons, an octogenarian weaver works a loom by the entrance, demonstrating his skills. He’s not chatty, but his work is mesmerizing.
To get to the Serape Museum from the Plaza de Armas, walk to the backside of the government palace, and turn left at the stoplight on Allende. It’s half a block up the street, on the right side.
Once you’ve had enough serape fun, head back down the Allende, toward the market. Past the stoplight, take a left at the lions on Guadalupe Victoria, and then a right at the newsstand on the pedestrian street, Padre Flores. Follow that street for two blocks, and you’ll face the angel statue at Plaza Acuña. Just behind that is the market.
The bottom floor of the market has everything the tourism industry has to offer visitors to Saltillo. Need a horse saddle, cowboy hat, or whip? You’re in luck. Tacky Saltillo souvenirs? Yep, they’re here, too.
Head upstairs and find yourself in piñata paradise. Browse ceramics and clay dishes galore. However, most of the proprietors on the second floor are butchers. This is not for the faint of heart. Chances are good that you’ll come face-to-face with a severed pig’s head. Stomach lining is displayed for those preparing their weekend tripe soup. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Leaving the market, take a right on Guadalupe Victoria. Walk for several blocks, passing more shoe stores than should be possible in a city this size, until you find yourself in a tree-covered park.
There are a number of things to see at the Alameda, but at the top of the list is to buy an ice cream and eat it on a bench by the frog fountain. The benches and the fountain are colorfully tiled talavera, traditional Mexican tiles. Four copper frogs spit water into the shallow fountain. Students and families relax on the benches, whiling away the afternoon. Seems to me, they’ve stumbled onto something spectacular.
Day Two: The Desert Museum
The Desert Museum does its best to pack the essence of the whole region under one roof. The first few rooms are rather scientific, defining what is a desert, as well as the flora and fauna that exists in the Chihuahuan Desert. This state is home to some great dinosaur digs, and they have paleontology labs on display, followed by a gallery of huge dinosaur skeletons.
The second section of the museum explores human history in the state of Coahuila–prehistory through the present age. At the end, they have a collection of reptiles, and outside, prairie dogs frolic, black bears roam (cubs rescued from forest fires), and big-horned sheep graze.
Bonus: El Principal
Before you leave northern Mexico, be sure to try the regional specialty of roasted goat. The restaurant chain, El Principal, has a number of branches throughout the city. They boast an upscale atmosphere, great service, and a passion for northern Mexican food.
Where to Stay
Hotel Colonial San Miguel is right downtown, down the street from Compadre´s, and within walking distance of the more interesting places to see in Saltillo, good restaurants and bars. They also have an outdoor swimming pool for when the weather is warm.
Top photo by Aaron Ortiz (Creative Commons)