SALTILLO, capital of the state of Coahuila, is the place to head for if you can't take the hustle of Monterrey. Lying just 85km to the southwest, down a fast road that cuts through the Sierra Madre Oriental and a high desert of yucca and Joshua trees, it's infinitely quieter, much smaller than Monterrey and, at 1600m above sea level, feels refreshingly cool and airy. There's not a great deal to do here, but it's still a great place to stroll around, admire some beautiful buildings and soak up the colonial ambience.
The town's oldest streets fan out from Plaza de Armas with some fine old houses still in private hands. One historical building worth seeking out is the carefully preserved old Ayuntamiento (town hall) on the corner of Aldama and Hidalgo. The walls of the courtyard and the staircase are adorned with murals depicting the history of the town from prehistoric times to the 1950s. Calle Victoria spurs west off the square, passing a few hundred metres of the city's major shops and cinemas, on the way to the Alameda, a shaded, tree-lined park, peopled with students looking for a peaceful spot to work – there are several language schools in Saltillo, as well as a university and technical institute; in summer especially, numbers of American students come here to study Spanish.
Saltillo is famous for its sarapes, and there are several small shops where (at least on weekdays) you can watch the manufacturing process – the best is tucked at the back of the artesanía shop El Sarape de Saltillo, Hidalgo 305 Sur (Mon– Sat 9am–1pm & 3–7pm). Sadly, the old ways are vanishing fast, and most now use artificial fibres and chemical dyes: all too many of those on sale in the market are mass-produced in virulent clashing colours.
Birders should head to Museo de las Aves de México, at the intersection of Hidalgo and Bolívar (Tues– Sat 10am–6pm, Sun 11am–7pm; M$10; Web: www.museodelasaves.org ), where you'll find a large collection of stuffed birds on exhibit throughout various themed rooms.
City buses (marked "Centro/Camionera") run from Saltillo's main bus station, 3km southwest of the centre, to the cathedral on the Plaza de Armas, and onwards a couple more stops to the Plaza Acuña, right at the heart of things. At Padre Flores 159, Cyberbase has Internet access for M$10/hr (Mon– Sat 8am–10.30pm, Sun noon–8pm). In the centre try upstairs at Victoria 573 (Mon– Sat 9am–10pm, Sun 11am–10pm; M$10/hr).
Most of the better-value hotels are in the side streets immediately around Plaza Acuña, but have a tendency to fill up each night. Both Hotel Jardín, Padre Flores 211 (Tel:844/412-5916; Price: M$200-250), and Hotel Bristol, Aldama 405 Pte (Tel:844/154-0134; Price: M$150-200), are good-value budget places, the latter having the edge with cable TV. If you can spend a little more and want to savour some colonial splendour, have a look at the Urdiñola, Victoria 207 Pte (Tel:844/414-0940; Price: M$350-500), with its tiled open lobby dominated by a wide staircase flanked by suits of armour, and fountains trickling amidst the greenery of the courtyard. If all these are full, you might try the unremarkable Saade at Aldama 397 (Tel:844/412-9120, Ejrsade@prodigy.net.mx; Price: M$350-500).
Restaurants in Saltillo tend to close early, and the ones in the centre mainly cater for office workers and students. There are plenty of cheap places to eat around the Mercado Juárez, beside the Plaza Acuña, which is a decent market in its own right – tourists are treated fairly and not constantly pressed to buy. The Café Victoria, on Padre Flores just south of Plaza Acuña, is good for breakfasts, bulging tortillas and comidas corridas. At the western end of Victoria by the Alameda, Terrazza Romana serves up toothsome pasta dishes for around M$80 and fine pizzas for around M$90, while El Conde, the fast-food joint downstairs, dishes out single slices for M$10. If you're stocking up for a journey, pick up wholemeal bread, great carrot cake and the like from Trigo Limpio, Victoria 670; Natura Es across the street has good, healthy frozen yogurt for M$15 and up.
From Saltillo you can head southeast to Zacatecas or follow the direct route to Mexico City via San Luis Potosí, passing through Matehuala (with the possibility of branching off to the mountain ghost town of Real de Catorce) and Querétaro. Going through Zacatecas, though slower, gives you the chance to visit more of the beautiful colonial cities north of the capital.