By ROB PINKERTON
The most memorable experience of my trip to Mexico this winter, indeed a scratch off the bucket list, was a drive into the interior mountains to see the Monarch butterflies at the end of their southern migration route. We took it slow, using the back roads of Colima state, past looming volcanoes, into Jalisco and finally into Michoacan. The countryside was spectacular in places. Some of the roads in the Jalisco mountains, horrendous. We stayed in lovely old colonial towns such as Mazamitla and Patzcuaro and finally to the gold mining town of Angangueo. It is situated on a good sized creek and is built up on both sides about two kilometers in either direction from the town centre. We had our pick of hotels. Even though it was an easy drive from Mexico City, we saw no other tourists that first night. The recession has hit Mexico hard and very few Americans are traveling. Our room had a fireplace and three blankets on the bed. We were at 10,500 feet and it was cold.
There was only one restaurant open in Angangueo, run by a couple of disinterested girls who stared off into space as we chose our meals. No menu; just some rapid fire Spanish outlining the two specials. We were quickly given our meals and they resumed gossiping and checking out the boys going by. After walking back to the hotel, we were very glad to get the pine log fire going and dive under the three blankets.
Next morning there was frost and there were no restaurants open. There are two sites to see the butterflies, both about the same distance, about 15 kilometers from Angangueo. Sierra Chincua is to the north. We chose the southern one, through Ocampo (looks like good hotels there) and up a mountain, through pine forests, to the bucolic village of El Rosario. At the highest end of the village was a huge parking lot, room for hundreds of cars. We were the only vehicle. Our saviors were two women with a fire going who cooked us fresh blue corn tortillas with cheese and poured boiling coffee from a pot. We contributed an avocado from our cooler to the feast.
Now we had to hike. At first there were a few other eating places and then for about half a kilometer, the trail was lined, both sides, with rough shacks for selling souvenirs, all empty. No tourists. Breathing became difficult and we had to stop often to fill our lungs with the thin cold air. A nice information area with good washrooms and Spanish signage told us the sanctuary was at 12,000 feet. We paid our very reasonable entrance fee and were assigned an obligatory guide. The rest of the trail wound up through a beautiful forest with alpine flowers and bushes blooming all around. It was well defined and maintained with seats every 100 meters for lowlanders to sit and gasp their heart rate down. We chatted to our young Spanish speaking guide and he pointed out flowers, trees and birds.
Suddenly we were there and all discomfort was forgotten. From a hill we gazed into a valley of pines.
Every tree’s branch was hanging with masses, thousands of butterflies. In the perhaps two acre area there must have been millions of them. We sat, silent and mesmerized. As the sun made its way into the valley and touched them, they rose in the thousands and danced through the trees, lighting on our jackets, hair, on sunny patches of ground and shrubs.
The Monarch butterfly ranges from southern Canada to Central America. In the spring and summer their life span is less than two months but the last generation of summer produces a non-reproductive phase called a diapause that lives seven months. Our western Monarch diapauses fly to California and the eastern ones fly to Mexico and some further south. They are, of course, escaping our weather and searching out food sources. They congregate in the same places every year, hibernating in massive clusters part of the time and then waking and sipping at the mountain flowers. They mate in early spring and then head for Texas or Oklahoma to find milkweed where they lay eggs and die. This is the same insect that flew south, months ago. Three or four generations later, their children’s children reach Canada.
These beautiful creatures, tawny orange with black outlines with white spots at the extremities, have few predators as the larva feeds on milkweed and ingest nasty chemicals that are poisonous to birds. Habitat destruction on the migration routes is their biggest threat.
Hours later, we reluctantly pulled ourselves away. The butterflies seemed to follow us but they were feeding on the flowers now that the sun was up. One thing became apparent as we hiked down the mountain. We had to get back to the coast. It’s cold up there.