As you see yourself, I once saw myself; as you see me now, you will be seen.
      Mexican Proverb


México is the most populous Spanish-
speaking country in the world. According to the latest statistics, México's total population is over 99 million. Mestizos, of Indian and Spanish blood), make up 60% of the population, followed by indigenous peoples  (30%), whites (9%), and other ethnic minorities  (1%).

Carnaval in Mazatlan

Visitors and locals scream, sing, shout and dance amid confetti and ribbons. Bands of all kinds play the infectious rhythms of the State of Sinaloa. And the food–oh, the food–camarones (shrimp) prepared in every way possible, washed down with ice cold Pacifico beer, for it’s Carnaval Time, Mazatlán’s biggest pachanga (fiesta). 
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March 12, 2006

by Wendy A. Luft

I’m going to visit Saltillo, I announced. I confess I didn’t have the foggiest idea why, but basically I’m always ready to travel any place, any time.

The little I knew about Saltillo had nothing to do with what you would call tourist attractions. In fact, I didn’t even know if Saltillo had any tourist attractions. I’d seen – but never liked –stiffly woven, gaudily colored so-called "Saltillo serapes" peddled in shops in the border towns. I’d heard Saltillo referred to as "The Athens of the North," because it has a number of good educational institutions, and "Mexico’s Detroit," because two important automobile assembly plants are located there. I’d also seen -- and admired-- Saltillo Tile, that rich chocolate-colored floor covering that adorns the floors of so many homes in the southwestern US, and that, it turns out, is actually manufactured in Saltillo. I’d also heard that the city is known for its benign climate, making it a popular weekend getaway for the people of Monterrey, where the weather is much more extreme, even though the two cities are only an hour or so apart.

Well, now I’ve been there and I can give you several excellent reasons for visiting Saltillo…

Museo del Desierto
There’s the Museo del Desierto, a stunning, visitor-friendly museum, with exhibits that explain every aspect of desert life including the interaction between plants and animals and how they adjust to lack of water; the rituals and customs of the nomadic groups that inhabited the area some 12,000 years ago; and the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors and the railroad (a ticket on the railroad allowed passengers to hunt down one buffalo from the moving train, which explains one of the reasons why the species became extinct). One gallery contains models of dinosaur skeletons, including Isauria a duck billed dinosaur that was the first of the species collected and mounted in Mexico (this particular specimen, that was found in the desert not far from Saltillo, was named after a popular actress from Coahuila state). There’s also a colony of live, adorable prairie dogs, that looked as if they stepped out of a Dr. Seuss storybook, a botanical garden with some 400 varieties of cacti, plus a water patio where it "rains" every 14 minutes – very refreshing after the three-hour tour! All the explanations of the exhibits are in Spanish, but an English-language guide sheet available in the ticket office is helpful.

After visiting the museum we had another opportunity to get close to dinosaurs. We drove out to the town of Rincón Colorado, about an hour due west of Saltillo.

Museo Paleontológico de Rincón Colorado
Surprisingly, this dusty, thoroughly uninviting spot in the middle of the desert is totally unremarkable except for the fact that it is home to the Museo Paleontol
ógico de Rincón Colorado. And why would a museum of paleontology be located here? Because just a few minutes away is the site where paleontologists found the fossilized skeleton of Isauria, the duck-billed dinosaur, a copy of which is on display in the Desert Museum (the original is in the Museum of Natural History, in Mexico City). They’ve also found bones and skulls of several other species and the largest impression of dinosaur skin ever found.

As our guide, we were very fortunate to have Dr. René Hernández, a paleontologist who has devoted his life to studying this part of what is known as the Chihuahua Desert -- parched land for as far as the eye could see, interspersed with an amazing variety of cacti and other desert plants, and fragments of pinkish rock. René reached down and picked up one of the pieces of rock. Clearly visible was the outline of an ammonite, a precursor to the snail! Another contained the fossilized remains of a fish. In the middle of the desert? Before and during the early Cretaceous Period, René explained, this area was covered on several occasions by the ocean. During the mid Cretaceous Period, the ocean began to recede leaving a swampy environment where dinosaurs thrived. That was about 75 million years ago! When man started to inhabit this area, some 14,000 years ago, this same land was covered by a forest. A word of warning: the sun and glare can be brutal so be certain to wear a hat, sunglass, and smear on lots of sun block.

Museo de las Aves de México 
No less impressive is the Museo de las Aves de M
éxico which exhibits the collection – beautifully displayed -- of some 730 different species of birds (about 2,400 specimens), from a tiny hummingbird to a magnificent specimen of an eagle in flight, that were amassed over 40 years by Saltillo native, ornithologist Aldegundo Garza de León. One of the most outstanding features of the museum is its corps of guides, made up of ten volunteer students, ranging in age from nine to 15! Ours was an 11-year-old girl named Roselin, very serious, but she really knew her stuff! Not only did she offer interesting explanations of each exhibit, but she was able to field questions without hesitation.

For a true taste of life in almost any Mexican town or city, a visit to the zocalo, or main square, is a must. Life tends to revolve around the plaza and. Saltillo is no exception. Its zocalo, called Plaza de Armas, is a tree-shaded park with an abundance of benches, that is flanked by the cathedral on one side and the Government Palace on the other. Sadly, modernization has destroyed much of the city’s original architecture and flavor, but several examples of its early colonial life remain in the downtown area. The 18th century Catedral de Santiago is considered one of the finest examples of Churrigueresque architecture in North America. Its centerpiece is a sterling silver altar base dating from 1608 that was exhibited in "Thirty Centuries of Mexican Art." Other points of interest in Saltillo are the Vito Alessio Robles Cultural Center, with a mural illustrating the history of Tlaxcala that is remarkable only because mural art is almost the exclusive terrain of men and this one was painted by a woman, Elena Huerta. There’s also Alameda park, a quiet, tree-shaded spot containing the Pond of the Republic, which is built in the shape of Mexico, and an impressive equestrian statue of General Ignacio Zaragoza.

El Serape de Saltillo
While downtown, take the time to visit El Serape de Saltillo they make authentic Saltillo serapes that aren’t anything like the rip offs I’d seen in souvenir shops along the border. They are made from fine hand-spun and dyed wool, on the same type of looms that the Tlaxcalan Indians brought with them when they were imported to this area in the 16th century to help the Spanish settlers control the inhospitable Plains Indians. The serapes feature a striking central design and geometric border and the clever use of about six different tones of each of the brilliant colors gives the serapes an almost three-dimensional quality. They aren’t inexpensive, but they make a really unique rug or wall hanging, as well as a cherished souvenir of a memorable trip.


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