My partner, Marshal, was approaching a milestone, his 75th birthday. Such an occasion required a special celebration, something unique and something unexpected, in addition to the obligatory house party. So, I made plans for us to visit the Monarchs of Michoacán.
Michoacán has been plagued with gang violence and safety issues in recent years, but with such scenic countryside and an important historical past, it remains a great treasure trove waiting to be discovered. Despite the U.S. Department of State warnings, we never felt threatened or at risk during our trip. I only wish the Monarch butterflies themselves were as safe!
After an uneventful flight from Mérida to Mexico City we met our amazing co-travelers, an intelligent, interesting and accomplished group, and boarded the bus to Rancho Yapalpan, high in the mountains on the border of the states of Mexico and Michoacán. Many in our group were from Mérida, including our guide, Marina Aguirre, a cultural anthropologist and expert on all things Mexican. Many travelers had journeyed with her before, so they already had a good idea how memorable this trek would be.
The Rancho was isolated and rustic. Some rooms even lacked hot water. The staff was accommodating, and the food provided was quite tasty. The air outside was crisp, and the gardens and views of the valley were spectacular.
We left early the next morning and climbed even higher up a nearby mountain. The Monarch butterfly biospheres in the states of Michoacán and Mexico lie nestled in forests of pine, cedar and oyamel, between 9,000 and 11,000 feet elevation, so breathing can be a challenge. The sanctuaries are among the world’s largest, and their peak season is late winter. Marina explained the environmental threats to the Monarchs, especially loss of habitat. Widespread insecticide use and unbridled development in the U.S. and Canada have destroyed much of the milkweed plants on which the butterflies feed.
Our first sanctuary was Sierra Chincua. It was a Sunday when we arrived, and the park was bustling. A significant eco-tourism compound at the entrance includes crafts shops and restaurants, most of them of the cocina economica type with a limited, but affordable, menu planned each day. At the end of the compound was the stable. It was Marshal’s first time in the saddle, but he reveled in this new experience. After a three-mile horseback ride there was a further half-hour hike to reach the butterflies. (A bottle of water and a cloth to keep dust out of one’s mouth are recommended.)
At Chincua, the trails were treacherously narrow and steep, making access precarious. The biosphere is enormous, and butterflies are capricious in deciding where to gather. They are carefully attuned to weather conditions. They took flight as the sun warmed them, sometimes individually, sometimes in great swarms, but they remained frustratingly distant. The experience was interesting but not quite what we were expecting.
The next morning we again left early to visit a second reserve, El Rosario. The road to El Rosario snakes slowly but precipitously up the mountainside. As we approached the sanctuary the quality and decoration of the houses improved from those of surrounding villages, the financial benefits afforded by tourism clearly evident.
The entrance compound was similar to that at Sierra Chincua, but better arranged and easier to negotiate. The horses were better tended and dressed here. Our escorts stepped gently but confidently as the incline increased. Once we left the horses behind, silence was requested. Rangers had clearly marked the path to areas of greatest density, something that changes daily. We were suddenly surrounded by butterflies fluttering in every direction, sometimes briefly landing on one of us. Bushes both near and far were a solid mass of golden yellow. One often took care in stepping to avoid trampling butterflies under foot. It was an absolutely magical and unforgettable sight. Even the impressive video images taken at the site pale in comparison to the actual experience! We remained as long as the park rangers would allow before returning to the entrance compound.
By late afternoon we were back on the autopista zooming past mountain vistas and beautiful Lake Cuitzeo en route to Morelia, a city of almost one million people, similar in size to Mérida. Morelia’s downtown is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen, not just in Mexico, but anywhere in the world. The magnificent cathedral with its renown pipe organ; glorious colonial mansions and churches now re-purposed as museums, libraries and public offices; stunning murals by notable Mexican painters; and, lush parks set against the distant mountains, all make Morelia a must see destination, and a convenient starting or ending point for a visit to the Monarchs of Michoacán.