Monarchs are impressive creatures …
When you live in a different country there is always a list of things you feel you need to see, do or experience before leaving one day.
Witnessing the Monarch Butterfly’s annual wintering in Mexico was definitely on this list. The fact the Monarch population seems to be decreasing and this year hit a new record low here in Mexico, made our visit even more urgent. Reasons for this dwindling in the population numbers are being attributed to the use of pesticides in the US which has been reducing their food sources, the milkweed, substantially. Another reason is the climate change and the extremely high temperatures registered in North America last year when the Monarchs arrived in spring for reproduction.
In North America, Monarchs spread from southern Canada to northern South America. Being the only butterfly that migrates both south and north like birds do, makes them even more special.
Each year around October they travel up to 4,828 kilometers (3,000 miles) to Mexico ahead of the cold weather, they come in millions and they usually stay until March in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserves created by the Mexican government to protect their habitat as Monarchs need the high altitude Oyamel fir-tree forests to survive. They start their migration back to Canada and the US usually around March 20.
It is the biggest butterfly reserve in the world comprising four different sanctuaries situated on the borders of the states of Mexico and Michoacan.
We went to the sanctuary El Rosario in the state of Michoacan. It is almost at 3,000 m of altitude (10,000 feet). As we arrived very early it was still cold when we got to the mountain, around 4º C (42.8). There was even some ice on the pavement from the previous night. You walk 15 minutes to get to the payment booth where, if you have a small child you will have to leave your stroller. This is when I wished I would have exercised a bit more and would be in a better shape. It will take you around 45 minutes to reach the top and you will have many sets of these to climb…
The guide will keep telling you it is not very far, it is just a few more flights of stairs but they just seem to multiply with no end in sight. When you ask again how far, she or he will smile and reassure you that there will be a corner very soon and once you pass that, there will be no more stairs, and you will just walk straight until you reach the butterflies. You keep passing corners hoping this will be the one that will end your suffering but they also seem to multiply somehow and finally the guide, again smiling announces that 10 minutes more and you will definitely reach the straight pass! And eventually you do! Then it will take you around another hour to reach the butterflies.
However difficult it is, when you finally reach the butterflies and the first sight you see is whole trees covered with these beautiful beings, it is all worth it! Apparently they like to group together when the temperature is a bit low to keep warm.
And then you look around and they are everywhere and so near to you, that when you move sometimes you even have to be careful not to step on them. They ask you to be very silent not to disturb them and everywhere you look there is beauty.
It is definitely worth it to arrive early if you go on a weekend, after 11 a.m. many people start arriving and it gets a bit crowded, you can hardly move anymore and enjoy as much.
The reserve is quite beautiful as well. When you go back and are no longer under the spell of the Monarchs, you can appreciate it better.
For those who can´t walk much there is always the option of renting horses. You just have to be aware that they go through another path and they should tell you exactly where you can find the butterflies.
People that live in this area are poor farmers who were used to get their resources from the forest. Since it became a protected area, the government with the help of several international organisations have been developing alternative agricultural programs to help and encourage them to protect the forests. Another compensation is of course tourism. There is a small market comprised of a few shops with handicrafts and restaurants that try hard to get your attention on your way to the butterflies and when you get back down. After all, they need to make a living and tourism only lasts for the duration of the Monarch´s migration, between October and March. On our way back we had a nice home-made meal at one of the restaurants.
One of the dishes was the typical Chiles Rellenos, which is chiles poblanos filled with cheese or meat. Sometimes the simplest food is really the best…
Afterwards, we walked a bit through the market as I always love to do. Bought a nice basket, talked with several vendors and enjoyed the atmosphere.
As in Michoacan the blackberry is in season, we bought some. Also some very odd-looking peaches and a few very sweet “granada china” which is a kind of passion fruit. These are the “granada china” and below you can see the type of baskets that are typical of Michoacan.
I am very happy we got to visit this wonderful reserve and got to see the Monarch Butterflies before they start flying back home. It is a unique experience that just makes you appreciate the beauty of nature even more.
There are a great number of links available with information on the Monarch, these are just a few I recommend: