Monarch Butterflies are sailors of the skies. They sail faster than Happy Dance, using thermals and air currents to travel 3,000 miles twice a year as they migrate north and south to avoid the cold and find their favorite foods. Sounds familiar! We travel with the wind and warm weather to go places, but we don’t always know where that someplace is; only that it will probably be warm and will definitely have good food, friends and fun. Monarchs do the same and somehow they know where they’re going even though it was their great-grandparents who last made the same trip, and they don’t have a handy-dandy chartplotter to help them get there.
Confused? I was too, but now I’m officially an expert on all there is to know about Monarchs – or maybe not. Here are a few factoids for your mental files; Monarchs love milkweed. Monarchs lay eggs one at a time, about 250 a day. Boy Monarchs have two black spots on their backs and girls don’t. Monarchs fly 12-25 miles an hour and flap their wings slower than other butterflies. The most amazing fact is that it takes four generations of Monarchs to complete the full round trip in their migrations.
Why am I rambling about the kings of the butterfly world? We have just returned from a trip up into the Sierra Madres to see the Monarchs in their winter habitat and it was quite an adventure. Before we get to the Monarchs, let me fill you in on how we got there!
Our trip didn’t have a very auspicious beginning; the alarm didn’t go off (new batteries might have helped), and our scheduled taxi driver was MIA. We walked to the collectivo bus stop through silent streets at o’dark thirty hoping to find transportation to our bus to Morelia. As luck would have it, we spied a taxi pulling out of a garage across the road and the driver came over to ask if we needed a ride (a fairly good assumption since we were the only gringos under the only street light watching the only vehicle on the road!). We made it to our bus only a few minutes late, clambered up the steps and plopped into a seat for the nine-hour butt-numbing ride to Morelia.
Morelia is a colonial gem. It’s the largest city in the state of Michoacan and it’s been designated a world heritage site by UNESCO. The wide boulevards and stately architecture reminded me a bit of Buenos Aires, and the city has muchas cultural, historical, educational, and culinary attractions (we especially liked the blue corn Michoacan style quesadillas!). We walked our socks off on our first evening in town, and while sitting in an outdoor cafe enjoying the view of the cathedral, we enjoyed a wild hailstorm with thunder and lightning – great entertainment.
The next morning we were up bright and early for our trek into the mountains. The ride was uneventful until we arrived in a village that was having a festival and market in celebration of their town’s founder. Because there were rain clouds hovering, the vendors all had tarps hung over their booths, held in place with ropes thrown over the electrical wires. That worked great until our bus came to town! Visualize a one lane road choked with people, vendors in the streets, and ropes stretching every which way across the road at a level lower than the top of the bus. What do you do? You send a few guys walking in front of the bus with big sticks to stretch the ropes up over the top of the bus as the driver slowly moves forward. This went on for nearly an hour, with tarps and ropes and electrical lines slowly skimming along the roof of the bus. It was crazy, but it worked, and all the townspeople and buspeople laughingly got us through without any electrocutions!
We arrived at the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary a bit later than planned and unfortunately the same thunderstorms we’d seen the day before were again looming on the horizon. We were in a hurry to beat the rain so we hopped off the bus and huffed and puffed our way to the entrance. This area is very un-Mexico like with its pine and fir trees. Plus the nearly 10,000 foot altitude is tough for two sailors living at sea-level – and we still had a long trek to get to where the butterflies were nesting.
While wheezing our way to the entrance gate we decided that hiring a horse for the main part of the uphill climb was a good idea. However, my heart probably pounded just as fast from terror during the steep ride up as it would have from walking! We were unceremoniously loaded onto horses, told not to touch the reins and to hang on to the oversized pommel. There was no checking for stirrup length, checking cinches or asking if we were ready – it was butt in saddle and off we went! Thankfully each horse came with a cowboy attached who walked or ran along with us, and at various times, pushed, pulled, or hung on to the horse’s tail as we made our way to the top.
I just held on to that pommel for dear life and tried not to kick the horse’s flanks…the last thing I wanted was to encourage my horse to trot up the rocky, dusty, muddy, STEEP path! After about twenty minutes of heart palpitations we reached a beautiful grassy meadow surrounded by fir trees. It would have been a beautiful site to enjoy had my horse not decided that it was time to pass all the other horses to get to the end of the trail and get rid of me! Off he went, with my cowboy dragging along behind and me getting even more scared. Where’s Meg when I need her? My sister Meg is an expert level equestrian rider who tried many times to teach me to ride, though without much success since I’m such a nervous-nellie around horses. I was more than happy to slide off that poor horse and get my feet back on the ground.
After my knees stopped shaking, Marty took my hand and off we went on the final leg of this crazy trek to see a bunch of bugs. Hiking through a quiet forest on a blanket of pine needles, we made our way to the area where the Monarchs were nesting this year. I’ve heard it said that they sometimes come back to the very same trees as they’ve been in the year before, but remember these are the great-grandkids of the butterflies that were here last year!
When we finally reached the roped off area for viewing, all we could see were trees with large dark blobs of what looked to be dead leaves hanging on them. Then we realized that the blobs were actually butterfly nests and when looking closely (good thing we brought the binoculars) we could see that the nests were covered in sleeping butterflies. When sleeping, Monarchs have their wings together and all you see is the white and grey underside of the wings. Since it was rather chilly and the grey clouds were blocking the sun, there weren’t many butterflies flying around. They were all huddled for warmth in the nests and we were in a roped off area about 100 feet away from them. A little disappointing to say the least.
Then suddenly the sun peeked through the clouds and after a few minutes, there were butterflies fluttering about in full glory with orange wings shining in the sun. We went silent with silly grins and enjoyed the show; listening to wings en mass, wind in the trees, watching sunlight filter through the branches onto bright orange nests coming to life. Everywhere we looked there were flashes of orange against the green of the firs as butterflies filled the air. It wasn’t long until the sun disappeared again, and the butterflies went back into their huddle. Due to the chilly temperatures and the threatening skies our experience wasn’t as intense as some I’ve read about, but it was still an experience we won’t soon forget.
We moved to a couple different areas and saw hundreds of large nests just waiting to explode in color when the sun warmed them. It wasn’t meant to be for us though as we started to hear thunder over the ridge and the clouds got darker. Down we mountain we went, walking the whole way on the trip down since I couldn’t fathom how I’d survive a horse going DOWN that steep path we came up. We lost count at 1,000 or so stairs on the way down, and our knees are still creaking four days later. After a yummy lunch of fresh blue corn tortillas and carne asada cooked on the grill, we piled back on numb-butt (our bus) and headed back to Morelia.
The next day we were off to Tzintzuntzan, Patzcuaro, and Santa Clara del Cobre. Our first stop was at the archeological site known as the ‘Yácatas of Tzintzuntzan’, home to the last great capital of the Purépecha Empire that dates back as far as 1325. Every area that we’ve visited in Mexico has its own personality and culture and this area was no different. One of the things that really struck us on this trip was the strong diversity of the various indigenous people still living in Mexico. This area of the Purépecha is especially impressive in that they continue to maintain their language and their culture in the midst of economic and cultural changes around them. The ancient temple is still standing, and though its been somewhat mismanaged by the government, that is slowly being remedied. There is much more to uncover at the site, but due to its relatively minor part in the history of Mexico it may be sometime before that happens.
We then went to Patzcuaro, appropriately called a “pueblo magico” (magical city). The town, the people, the history, the artisans, the food, the sights; it’s our absolute favorite town (so far) in Mexico. We didn’t have long enough to explore, but the exploring we did was perfect and we hope to come back for a longer stay. Narrow cobblestone streets lined with limestone or adobe buildings dating back hundreds of years. Cathedrals and convents that are now schools, artist studios and cubby hole restaurants, plazas full of locals enjoying their city, and music wafting out of doorways as you pass by. Perfect!
On the morning we were leaving we happened upon the weekly market that covers many blocks. The streets were packed with vendors of every fruit and vegetable imaginable, clothes, pastries, toys, candy, shoes, meats, fish, and anything you can possibly think of. The locals were there by the hundreds with lists in hand, getting their veggies for the week, or enjoying some of the famous pork carnitas. It was awesome just to walk the streets and enjoy all the sights and sounds of an authentic Mexican market; no gringo souvenirs or t-shirts with stupid sayings, just Patzcuaro for Patzcuaro.
One other stop that we made before leaving was to visit a copper artisan workshop in the small village of Santa Clara del Cobre. We watched a demonstration of how copper pots and other copper pieces are made – each from a single piece of copper. The amount of work that goes into one copper pot is mind boggling. It all starts with a single chunk of hot copper that is pounded flat by 3 to as many as 9 workers who pound on it with sledge hammers in a kind of wild pounding dance. It is important to have perfect timing as the sledge hammers pound in turn on the same piece of copper. From there, the piece goes through many phases as the artisans pound it into individual shapes. I’ll never look at a copper pot again without realizing that each one of those dimples in the surface is the mark left by an individual hammer blow. It makes my arm hurt just to think about it.
So there you have it; Monarchs, Morelia, Tzintzuntzan, Patzcuaro, and Santa Clara del Cobre! Five very different experiences in five very unique places. Our take away impressions are these; the sight of the sun finally peeking through the trees onto the backs of thousands of fluttering orange wings, the realization or possibly a better understanding of the immense and incredibly diverse country that is Mexico.