Mid-February, 2013 – After our whirlwind tour of beautiful Morelia, we piled into the car with our friends Joe and Nancy and headed even further into the mountains to see the phenomenal throngs of butterflies that migrate there each winter. We were getting off into the hinterlands now, and the road narrowed dramatically and began to climb even more steeply, easily reaching 15% to 20% grades at times, while the town names quickly became very hard to pronounce.
The thing that sets Mexican roads apart from roads elsewhere is the plethora of speed bumps, or “topes” (pronounced “toe-pays”). This is a very effective way to slow drivers down without having to post patrol cars and radar everywhere, but it sure makes for some hair-raising driving. The speed bumps are very steep, usually they are unpainted, and they are only occasionally marked with a sign. So you don’t know if a speed bump is there until you hit it and go flying.
A two hour drive in the Mexican countryside can quickly become a torturous “all eyes on deck” pavement scan while you wait for the inevitable jolt accompanied by the sound of scraping metal as the underbody of the car loses yet another layer of skin to the road.
However, the little towns we passed through were intriguing. One boasted a beautiful church we saw from the distance, and when we got there we discovered a huge festival was in full swing.
A fellow told me the town was called “Tlalpujahua,” which is pronounced (“Tlal-poo-hah-wah”) and it was once a gold mining town and has churches dating to the 1500’s. Along with a huge outdoor market that lined the main street, they were celebrating the Day of Señor Jesús del Monte.
What luck!! Kids were dressed up in fantastic costumes, and they paraded in the streets and climbed the steep path to the church where they danced and sang and made music.
It was a colorful celebration, and every kid in town seemed to be a part of it.
My favorite was the line-up of youngsters that were reenacting a sword fight, clashing their (real and sharp) machetes together while doing some dance steps and singing.
We wandered around town, fascinated by what was going on but not understanding what it was really all about. There was so much music and noise and hand clapping going on that we couldn’t have heard an explanation even if someone had been willing to try and give us one.
We jumped back in the car and continued our journey higher into the mountains. A very long freight train labeled “Kansas City Southern” went past pulling an endless stream of cattle cars that bore the same name on the side. We couldn’t tell if the cars were empty or full, but if they held cattle coming from or going to Kansas, those animals had a lot of miles under their hooves.
We passed old style haystacks and horses in pastures, and eventually we made it to El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary.
We hadn’t had any idea what to expect, and we were surprised to be greeted with several stages of fees: parking fee first, entrance fee second, and then the mandatory hiring of a guide to take us into the woods.
We are experienced hikers, and we couldn’t imagine it would be all that hard to find the butterflies. But when we protested against taking a guide, we learned that viewing the butterflies is an eco-tourism tour that helps sustain the people in this area.
The sanctuary provides a job base for the locals and, on that note, a guide — who was paid only tips — seemed like a fine idea.
The hike is an uphill, hour-long jaunt through the forest, and the locals provide rides on “caballitos” (little horses) for those who don’t want to walk. These cute little horses are just about my height, and I thought it was neat to be able to look a horse right in the eye.
Joe opted to go on horseback, and he and his guide set off into the woods. Mark ran behind them, getting quite a vigorous (and dusty) workout in the process.
Nancy and I were directed to the walking trail, which is a different trail than the horses follow. The horse guides are shrewd businessmen, and they know that lots of people will change their minds about the $150 peso ($12 USD) fee for a round trip horseback ride once they’ve hiked a little ways up on the steep trail.
So a collection of horses and guides accompanied us for quite a while, patiently waiting for us to ask for a ride. Eventually Nancy saw the wisdom of arriving at the butterfly site rested, so she selected a horse and vanished into the woods after Joe and Mark, and that left me and my guide alone on foot on the walking trail.
My guide, Berenice, was 14 years old and a sophomore in high school. She lived in a town nearby and she said she guided two tours a day when she wasn’t in school. Today was a weekday but it was a school holiday, so she was out on the trail. She didn’t speak any English and she was very shy.
The path wound higher and higher. We were now at 10,000′ elevation (3,000 meters), and although I didn’t need my jacket, I knew if I stopped hiking I’d get chilled. We had heard reports of people getting snowed on during these wintertime butterfly excursions.
The woods were very similar to the woods in northern Arizona: full of evergreens and with a fine, grey dust underfoot. We stopped to take in a few views of the valley below, and as I scanned the horizon I saw brief flash of orange go by. Then I saw another and another. They were here… the monarchs!
“There’s more up ahead,” Berenice told me. And sure enough, more and more of them floated by us until we turned a corner and saw literally thousands filling the air.
They clung to the pine branches so thickly that the pine trees seemed to be in bloom. The air was so full of orange butterflies it was as though there were an autumn breeze blowing tiny leaves around.
Mark and Joe and Nancy had already arrived at the spot when we got there, and they were playing with some of the butterflies.
Joe held out a flower and coaxed a butterfly onto it, and then held it up so we all could see. What a miraculous little animal.
Looking at them closely, although many were in fine shape, we noticed that many of them had faded and tattered wings, and they looked tired. There’s little wonder, as their north-south migration route is 3,000 miles between southern Mexico and the US and Canada.
The butterflies have three different routes into the northern US states after they cross the border a little west of Brownsville, Texas.
Some head northwest, some due north, and some northeast. Unlike birds that migrate long distances, though, individual monarchs don’t live long enough to travel the full migration path.
Busily courting and mating here in the mountains of Michoacán, these monarchs will fly north in the spring to produce the next generation in the southern parts of the US.
The butterfly lifecycle of pupa to caterpillar to butterfly will take place, and then somehow the young butterflies will all know to continue the flight north that their parents had started.
Then the cycle begins again in one of the most complex animal migrations on the planet.
How do these delicate little guys do it? Tiny butterfly corpses were scattered all over the ground, with pieces of wings and bodies strewn among the leaves and flower petals, ready to decompose at the blink of an eye. These creatures are frail! Yet they doggedly get their species across 3,000 miles of treacherous ground twice a year.
We wandered among the butterfly laden trees for quite a while, enjoying this miracle that science can’t yet fully explain.
As we hiked back down the mountain path, we passed familiar wildflowers we see in the summers up north: lupine, penstemon and others. This had been a beautiful day in the woods, and Mark, a man who comes alive among the mountain pines, was completely in his element.
We made our way back to Morelia through small mountain towns where riders commuting on horseback are a common sight. After collapsing into bed, the next day we topped off our excursion into Mexico’s interior with a brief stop at the colorful town of Pátzcuaro.