All About Monterrey, Mexico

Feb 5, 2008 - Robin Elsham

All About Monterrey, Mexico

Monterrey, Mexico is one of the loveliest tourism destinations you'll ever visit.   Should business end up taking you there ~ and medical tourism is a business that might ~ afterward, you'll be asking,: “How is it that Monterrey escaped notice for so long?”

As a medical tourism destination, Monterrey is just beginning to attract attention.  The first hospital there to receive JCI accreditation, the CHRISTUS Muguerza High-Specialty Hospital, did so in mid-2007.   A second facility, Hospital San Jose, affiliated with the med school of Tec de Monterrey, Mexico's top university, gained JCI accreditation this past March.  And a third facility, CIMA Engracia Hospital, has completed the JCI application and auditing process, and expects to gain accreditation by mid-summer, according to its medical director, Dr. Horacio Decanini. 

That gives Monterrey two, and possibly soon three, JCI-accredited hospitals, the standard emerging as a de facto requirement for ranking as a Tier I Medical  Tourism destination.  Monterrey now has the only JCI-accredited hospitals in Mexico, and actually more than the total that exist throughout Latin America until one gets to Brazil (which has 11.)That's important, since the time it takes to get to a treatment center is a major factor in  enhancing its appeal to medical value travelers.  To fly from Miami to Sao Paulo, Brazil, takes eight hours.  To Singapore, at a minimum, 21 hours.  To Monterrey -- four hours.

Due to its location, just 150 miles south of the Texas-Mexico border, Monterrey  offers American and Canadian medical tourists a suitable proximity to home.  Among those border destinations, Monterrey is the most appealing destination, for factors beyond its concentration of JCI-accredited hospitals.  It's Mexico's wealthiest city, in terms of average income (about $11,500).  It's Mexico's safest city, according to a 2006 Mercer Human Resources report.  And Fortune magazine has rated Monterrey as one of the best cities throughout Latin America to do business.

Those are all factors likely to prompt growing numbers of medical travelers, and group health providers looking to introduce global care plans, to start looking at Monterrey.  I am confident that they will share my satisfaction and delight as they experience the many facets of what make Monterey such a great city.
I spent eight days in Monterrey in February, to conduct site visits at a number of hospitals and clinics -- dental clinics, IVF treatment centers, Lasik eye surgery clinics, and cosmetic surgery operations.  It was the first time I'd visited Monterrey -- and only the second time I'd ever traveled to Mexico.  The impact of even that brief exposure was remarkable.  An epiphany, really.…

I came away thinking Monterrey can change the way foreigners think of Mexico itself.   And the significance of those changes in perception and attitude could actually affect the development of the global medical tourism industry itself, impacting rival destinations near and far.

This article is not meant to analyze how and why that may happen.  It's not intended as a pointy-headed thumb sucker piece.  The intent is simply to describe the city that awaits any international visitor to Monterrey. The city's attraction as a medical service center is another story.  What follows is just the tourism part of Monterrey's appeal as a medical tourism destination.

Ground Zero

Monterrey is surprisingly interesting and attractive.;  sSurprising because so little has been written about Monterrey as a tourist destination.

It's landlocked, so not the sun-drenched beach resort-style destination that tourists instantly picture at the mention of Mexico.  Instead, Monterrey's appeal to travelers is similar to Seattle or Toronto or even Washington, D.C., the city it reminded me of most.  Like those cities,  you'd visit Monterrey because it's a large and ,  significant city in the life and history of its country.  Ground zero for many of the most important, interesting things happening within the country. A dynamic, vibrant metropolis, filled with fascinating architecture, gorgeous public spaces, and wonderful food (with the exception, oddly, of its most famous specialty, cabrito.)
That combines to give Monterrey an inspiring buzz, a vibe that flows from its size, wealth and economic pre-eminence in Mexico. 

Metro Monterrey is a sprawling urban area of nearly four million people, making it the third-largest city in Mexico after the capital, Mexico City, and Guadalahara.  But it doesn't seem that large because of its topography.  It doesn't sprawl as far as the eye can see in every direction.  Instead, high buttes section the city into enclaves, with the whole surrounded on three sides by steep limestone mountains.  From central Monterrey, one can drive in 10 minutes to the top of a nearby mountain, for breathtaking views of the splayed city below. 

Mountains frame the city.  They form the backdrop to inspiring vistas from a multitude of vantage points.  All variations on the same tableau: southwestern cityscapes.  A city built to the edge of limestone massifs.  Then walls of rock, covered  by pine forests.

Monterrey is bordered to the southeast by mountains shaped like a saddle, providing the city's most famous landmark, the Cerro de la Silla. 

To the west lie the Cerro de Las Mitras, whose highest peak at 6,800 feet towers over a mile above the city.  That's modest, because to the south the highest peaks of the Sierra Madre Oriental top out at 12,300 feet, making them higher than the mountains that surround Denver.

The city occupies an arid basin, with the dry river bed of the Santa Catarina running through the heart of the central city.  It rains heavily so infrequently that soccer and baseball fields, some with well-tended pitches and built-up facilities, occupy the flood plain.

Bridges span the bone-dry river bed at irregular intervals.  One, the Puente Atirantado La Unidad, a showy twin-spire suspension bridge, was completed five years ago at a cost of $70 million.  Even in Monterrey, spending $70 million on a bridge to cross a shallow, dry ravine struck many as excessive.   But that's emblematic.  Much of Monterrey's infrastructure is high test.  The international airport is modern and immaculate.  Two freeways connect it to the city center.  It seldom takes more than a half hour to drive the 20-mile distance.

Within the city, traffic moves at speeds remarkable for a city approaching four million.   An extensive freeway system speeds traffic between enclaves.  Wide main roads keep traffic humming within most sectors of the city.  A mass transit system, while limited to just 23 stations and two lines, helps relieve road congestion. 

Traveling around central Monterrey by taxi is cheap and easy.  Taxis are plentiful, and trips within the city seldom cost more than $4 to $5.  Unless you speak Spanish, communication can be challenging since few drivers speak Anglais.  But I personally found Monterrey cabbies to be
trustworthy, the most honest in Latin America.  I seldom had to ask a driver to use the meter; they did so automatically.  And no cabbie sought to take me for a ride, by taking a roundabout way to run up the meter.

That's a good object lesson in the ethos of the city.  Prices are fixed, and marked.  There's no ambiguity, no haggling.  Monterrey isn't the cheapest city in Mexico.  In fact, overall it's one of the most expensive.  But prices are still low in comparison to the United States, Canada or Europe, and service standards are high.  You don't head to Monterrey in search of bargains.  But you would if looking for consistency in value for money.

Fundamentally, it often seems the values that animate Monterrey are more Anglo-Saxon than Latin.  It's a mockery to think of Monterrey in cliche images of Mexico as a manana mañana culture.  When Monterrey businessmen fix a meeting for 3 p.m., the meeting is meant to start at 3 p.m.  If you arrive at 3:05, chances are high everyone will be waiting, impatiently, staring at their watches as you finally walk in!
That happened to me, prompting memory of a New York Times article I'd read some years ago about Chile.  It described how extensively Chile had pursued privatization and free-market reforms.  It explained how the ethos of rugged individualism was changing the fabric of Chilean society.  And it explained how neighboring peoples had begun to suspect Chile was losing its Latin soul.

When late to a meeting, as a ploy to deflect the annoyance, I mentioned that article to Dr. Horacio Decanini, the medical director of CIMA Santa Engracia Hospital.  His reply was telling about which direction Monterrey faces in its business behavior.  "Monterrey is nearly 600 miles from Mexico City,"  he noted curtly.  "It's 300 miles from San Antonio."

Latin Flair

Physically, though, Monterrey is a Latin American city in the most wonderful ways.  To understand what is meant, you just have to travel there, to stroll through the MacroPlaza.  Or along the Paseo Santa Lucia.  Or stagger back to your hotel from an evening spent listening to Latin music at any of the live-house clubs in the Barrio Antiguo.

The MacroPlaza, Barrio Antiguo and Paseo Santa Lucia are adjoining districts, collectively large enough to require days to explore. The area begins a stone's throw from the central business district, where many big hotels are located.  Walking around any of the areas by day or night is unusually safe by North American urban standards, due to unobtrusive but vigilant policing and the presence, always, of many people.
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The MacroPlaza is the best example.  It's a mile long, about 50-yards wide, and lined on either side by a visually stunning, eclectic assortment of architecture.  The Nuevo Leon government, locally-based major companies, Catholic church and lavishly financed public institutions have all erected, over decades,  buildings that are monuments.  Many are masterpieces of their genre. The Placio Palacio de Gobierno, the one-time residence of the state governor and main state office building, is a massive 19th-century Italianate building made of red granite. It sits on the Plaza of Heroes.  Directly behind it is the Antiguo Palacio Federal, a gorgeous art-deco building finished in 1929.  Adjacent to both is the Sagrado Corazon, an exquisite chapel-like Catholic church.  And in front of the church, a Parisian-style view park, circa 1880.  Meticulously planted with geometrically laid-out rows of saplings.  The effect is like a Seurat painting. 

Up and down the MacroPlaza, on both sides, these buildings stand -- the Torre LatinoAmericana building next to the Congreso del Estado (state parliament building); the MARCO museum adjacent to the gorgeous 19th-century Catedral Monterrey, next to the Casino Monterrey.     
The 50-meter wide center of the MacroPlaza is filled with gardens and fountains.  There are plenty of places to sit and savor the spectacle, all framed against the towering distant mountains and the often cloudless Mexican blue sky.

In the evening, the serious action moves to the nearby Barrio Antiguo, a large historic district of well-preserved 19th-century buildings, now transformed into restaurants, bars and nightclubs.  By 9 p.m.  on weekend nights, this area truly rocks.  The air is filled with music pouring out of the crowded clubs:  great music, Latin and raggae and Brazilian.  Weekday nights, certainly in February, were more subdued affairs.  For me, that meant finding a bar with a second-floor balcony where one could sit outside, watching the sun slip behind the Sierre Sierra Madre while drinking tequila sunrises.

The Paseo Santa Lucia is a canal that starts below the Museo de Historia Mexicana, and meanders1.6 miles to the Parque Fundidora.  On weekends, the canal is busy with barge-like sightseeing boats, packed with locals and tourists from elsewhere in Mexico.  In arid northern Mexico, any waterway is a big attraction, and I was repeatedly encouraged to make time to see this canal zone.    

Truth be told, though, I was underwhelmed by it, but only because of my own standards for waterscapes.  I was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Minne is a Sioux Indian word meaning "water,"  sota the Sioux word for "land."  It takes an awful lot of water to make an impression on anyone from the Water City, in the Water Land. 

The rest of Monterrey made quite an impression.  I left marveling at the international obscurity of this city -- and trying to calculate its potential as a medical tourism destination if and when media attention is focused on it.

ENDS

About the writer:  Robin Elsham is the managing director of St. Paul, Minnesota-based Patients With Passports Corp., the first international medical care arranger established in the north-central United States.  He can be contacted at robin.elsham@PatientsWithPassports.com
 

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