Butterflies in the mountains of Mexico

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When I was a little girl my mother subscribed to National Geographic’s World Magazine for me. It was a kid’s magazine filled with all kinds of stories about the world we live in, and I LOVED it. Each new issue held so many discoveries for me. I remember getting absorbed with an article about Egypt, and being obsessed by dolphins and whales after another. And I remember one issue in particular about Monarch Butterflies that really moved me (and when you’re 8, “moving you” means a new poster obsession).

For many years scientists didn’t know much about them: where did the butterflies go in winter, how and why did they migrate, and how did they navigate, etc. I remember the article’s vivid photos of tall trees covered with millions of Monarch butterflies, a carpet of Monarchs on the forest floor, and in the middle of it all, a human being touched ever so softly by dozens of these wonderfully delicate creatures. It was my idea of being inside a fairytale. To a little girl, it seemed about the most incredible dream imaginable, being able to experience those butterflies, in a forest on some high mountain in the wilds of Mexico.
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Fast forward 35 years…

I’ve been reading a lot about the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Mexico and trying to keep them in mind when lacing together a route through Mexico. While the Monarchs have been in the back of my mind, I didn’t really think a visit to them was in the cards for me for this trip. Monarchs winter in trees at about 10,000 feet in the heart of Mexico, in Michoacán State. And Michoacán has a bad reputation. Since even before I rode into Mexico in January I have been trying to stay somewhat informed (although not too informed or I may be too afraid to travel at all) of where dangerous and political hot spots are in order to steer clear of them. Michoacán has always been at the top of the “don’t go near there” list. It’s a rugged, remote, and less-populated state in Mexico. And Michoacán is known for drug cartels. People get “disappeared” there, if you know what I mean.

In late January a solo rider from New York who had only been riding for a few months disappeared in Michoacán. My personal opinion is that the missing rider is as likely to have gone off the road due to his lack of riding experience (and I’ve been told these are technical roads where he went missing) as he was to have come to harm in Michoacán. But from the time I heard about it in early February I was more nervous about Michoacán. Much as I would love to see the butterflies, I wasn’t prepared to take any unnecessary chances. I emailed a contact through a motorcycle forum about Michoacán and he said he and all of his friends have stopped going into the state. Yuck. I hear reports over the course of January, February and March about vigilante groups taking up arms and things coming to blows in parts of the state. Then the week I was within a hundred miles of the border to Michoacán I hear more news…there are now roadblocks being set up in some of the tourist-rich towns in Michoacán.

As Brian and I sit down and he evaluates the map, he comes up with a possible route from San Miguel just over the northeast border and barely into Michoacán. This route would steer clear of the “hot spots” and tourist towns mentioned in the latest news reports and would take us just over the border into Michoacán and to a small mountain town close to two butterfly preserves. So on a Friday morning, we load up and ride out of San Miguel bound for the mountains of northeastern Michoacán, in the Cordillera Neovolcanica formation.
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The Monarch is probably the best known of North American butterflies. But it doesn’t just live here, it has also been found in New Zealand and Australia, where it is appropriately known as the “wanderer”. The butterfly is known for its long migration from its summer homes in Canada and the northern United States, to its wintering grounds in the Mexican mountains and southern California. The strange thing is that each migration (north or south) covers so many miles that it takes 3 or 4 generations of butterflies to complete each one-way journey. How incredible is that? Butterflies beginning life in Mexico start a journey to a land they will never see and their great-grandchildren lay eggs for a generation that will make the return trip south. It’s incredible to think of how they do it. How do they know where to go when none of them have ever made the journey themselves and no one generation makes the whole trip in a lifetime? Until the mid-1970s no one actually even knew where they went in the winter. The migration route was fully determined through a 38-year study by Canadian entomologists Fred and Norah Urquhart. Naturalists Kenneth Brugger and Catalina Trail helped to finish outlining the trail by locating the butterflies’ wintering grounds in Mexico. And that’s when the big news broke in National Geographic, back when I was a kid and subscribing to the kids version of the magazine.

There are two reserves I can get to from my base for the next two days in the small village of Angangueo, and El Rosario is the one I decide to visit.
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I’m told that this preserve of 56,000 hectares has been set aside by the Mexican government as a permanent refuge for the butterflies. Sadly, their populations have been dwindling in recent years, and so too are the visitor numbers to this incredible place. The troubles in Michoacán probably don’t help tourism, but for the two days that I am here, I experience only a rural village with friendly locals and staff at the preserve who are eager to protect the butterflies and their home. Local schools, businesses and homes are decorated with paintings of Monarchs.
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Everything is heated here with firewood, and most cooking is done with firewood as well. So I can imagine the impact that closing off 56,000 hectares of forest must have made to the local people. I can only hope that tourism can replace the value of the firewood that these communities lost when this land was set aside.
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Our guide for the day is Jose Luis, and he is kind and gentle. We have already climbed from 7800 feet in Angangueo to over 9400 on the way up in the transport bus, and now Jose Luis guides us the remaining few hundred feet vertical ascent via stairs and trails that lead to the groves where the butterflies await their spring departure. We climb and hike a mile or two through pines and cedars and across an open mountaintop meadow and then into the woods filled with Oyamel trees.
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I check my watch and see we are over 10,000 feet now.
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It’s chilly this morning so the majority of the butterflies haven’t left their warm swarms on the trees yet. We are quietly led to a small group of trees to observe. Bike Trip Angangueo 314
At first, I think these are simply trees with branches covered with fall leaves. And then I look closer…
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The clusters weighing down the tree branches are made up of thousands of butterflies gathered closely together to stay warm. Their wings are closed to allow them to fit together closer which doesn’t show the bright orange color of the top of their wings, dulling them down a bit in the clusters. The trunks of the trees are covered, every inch, with butterflies.
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As we watch and quietly wander among the trees, the sun continues to warm the woods more and more butterflies are starting to take to the air. They make more noise than I expected and I can hear their wings fluttering as they fly by me.

Jose Luis explains that when they are cold sometimes the butterflies will fall onto the ground and appear to be dead. But when they warm up they often revive. He carefully picks one up from the trail and holds it in his cupped hands and gently breathes warm air onto it until it starts to slowly flap its wings and wake up. Then he finds a small leaf in the sun and gently places the butterfly on the leaf for a morning rest.
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Hundreds of butterflies start to leave the clusters and find warm perches in the sun.
Some find pools of water for a morning drink. I watch one and am reminded of an embroidery my mother made that had a Monarch in the design. I hadn’t really thought of it before, but I know she liked them.
One lands in my hair and I quietly wait while it rests…a childhood dream come true.
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  1. Michelle,

    This is one of my favorite posts. I am a friend of Sharon Beals and have been living through this adventure.

    I am so proud of you and enjoy that you are taking the time to share the adventure

    Thank you

    Margaret Bader

    Sent from my iPad


  2. What a beautiful experience you had! I’ve read a lot lately about the numbers declining and it’s nice to know the locals are trying to take care of them. Thank you so much for sharing your stories!

    • Thanks so much! I heard the numbers are down, poor things, and I think there are a lot of things playing a part in that sad trend. I could tell the locals really love the Monarchs and want them to thrive. Here’s hoping they do.

  3. Very interesting! I’d never heard of an animal that had a migration that lasted multiple generations….fascinating!

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