Magical Mariposas!

From Oaxaca to Michoacán. Our hotel is in the town of Zitácuaro
This is the area we are focusing on within Michoacán. As you can see the butterfly reserves straddle the State of Mexico and Michoacán.
The pink line is the border between Michoacán and State of Mexico.
Our hotel, Rancho San Cayetano is on the Michoacán side. Our first reserve was Cerro Pelon, on the State of Mexico side. Our second reserve was Sierra Chincua, on the Michoacán side. The other two reserves currently open to visitors are El Rosario and Piedra Herrada.

Our food tour ended and we were about to embark on our mariposa (butterfly) adventure! It started with breakfast at the hotel, and Rafa taking us to the airport. The 40-minute flight to Mexico City was uneventful. We picked up our bags and headed for the taxi stand, where we spent 40 minutes getting to the bus station. When we arrived, we were a little confused. There were apparently two bus companies that went to Zitácuaro, so we wanted to go with the company that was leaving first. We approached one of the counters and attempted to inquire in our lousy Spanish. The lady understood enough to give us the name of the other bus line. We continued walking through the terminal and approached another counter with the same question – yes, they were leaving in about 40 minutes. We purchased our tickets and proceeded to look for something to eat.

Without Isabel or Iliana around, we had to go with our gut (no pun intended). None of the food places in the terminal were busy, but it was also off-meal hours. There was a bakery shop that was getting a fresh delivery of sweet baked goods, but I wasn’t in the mood for sweet. Hubs made a purchase for himself. I decided to hit the carnita shop and ordered a torta (sandwich). The lady grilling proceeded to ask me something, but I didn’t understand. Luckily, a very nice young man had just sat down with his torta, and he approached me and asked if I wanted some help. He told me that I needed to choose a meat, and was telling me what the options were. Looking at his torta, I said I wanted whatever he had (carnita, pulled pork). He was super friendly and was telling me about his recent visit to Montreal. I didn’t have much time as I had a bus to catch. He offered to give me his sister’s phone number as she lives in Zitácuaro and could help us if we needed anything, but I graciously declined. We got back to our bus bay holding area just as they were starting to board. As you show your ticket at the bus door, they offer you a beverage and snack! The bus is like a Greyhound bus – comfortable and large. It was not a full bus. All the curtains were drawn, so you don’t get to see much. A movie was playing, which I actually got into, even though it was dubbed. That reminds me, I wanted to look for it when I got home – Phantom Thread.

I ate my tasty torta, watched the movie, and intermittently stared out our window at the farmland scenery that was flying by. With the sun beginning to set, the landscape looked quite pretty. I really wish the curtains on the bus were open. Hubs was snoring softly, waking every so often as I leaned over him to try to get a photo of the passing landscapes.

About two hours later, our bus pulled into a shady-looking bus station. A few of us on the bus got off and grabbed our bags from under the bus. This was no fancy terminal, but I didn’t feel unsafe. It wouldn’t be a place I wanted to spend too long in though. We quickly located the taxi stand and purchased our fare. When we turned, I saw that the taxis were old. The car we got into looked like a beater. The gas fumes were strong in the car. I’m glad the windows were open. The town looked really run down. I was really hoping this wasn’t where we were staying. The drive was about 20 minutes, and as our driver turned into a long, stone driveway, I started to feel a little more relieved. As we approached the main grounds of Rancho San Cayetano, I was excited. Although it was now dark (we had spent our whole day traveling from Oaxaca), the buildings were lit and you could see that the grounds were well maintained. The trees and flowering plants were abundant by the main office. Mark greeted us, in English. Another relief. Two guys hoisted our suitcases over their shoulders and took our suitcases away while we were talking to Mark. When everything was set, Mark took us to our cabin. Now I knew we were getting our own place when we originally booked, but had since forgotten what we booked, so as we approached the cabin, I was giddy. The cabin was so cute and felt welcoming with the lit path and porch lights. Inside is just as cute and cozy. We had a fireplace!

There wasn’t much time as we didn’t want to miss dinner. We were famished and we didn’t know how long the kitchen was open, so we quickly cleaned up a bit and headed back toward to the main building and dining room.

The dining room is clean and has a rustic feel. Yes, we did see a little field mouse after dinner, up high on the rafter, and were told they are getting the cats in the next day. For some, the sight of mice in a food establishment might be concerning, but this did not turn me off.

Most of the reviews you’ll find for this restaurant are positive. In fact, I think they are considered the best restaurant in town. I wouldn’t say they serve amazing food, but they definitely put in a good effort. None of the staff speaks English, which wasn’t surprising, but we managed. They were friendly and I was able to pick up on most of what they were saying to us. Bottom line is that we managed to order and eat the entire time we were there. I think that their chef does know how to cook and does make an effort to produce good meals. I did feel that the chicken and steak dishes were under-cooked, but much to my own surprise, we ate whatever we got. Hubs later told me that the Australian couple sent back the steak because it was too raw. Hubs and I simply took more pepto after dinner as a precaution. In addition to the under cooked meats, we also ate their salads. Hey, I’m here telling you the stories, so clearly the food didn’t kill me.

Breakfasts were served on the outdoor patio. The scenery is very pretty and serene, but holy heck was it chilly in the mornings! We threw on some extra layers and enjoyed our coffees, fruit plates, and massive mains.

One point about the meals at San Cayetano is that everything is a set menu. For dinner, this was fine, but we felt that it would be better to have à la carte for breakfast, and just order what we wanted so as to not waste food.

Cerro Pelón with JM Butterfly B&B

On our second day in Zitácuaro, we took a taxi out to JM Butterfly B&B as we had pre-booked a tour with them to Cerro Pelón.

After a 35 minute drive from Rancho San Cayetano, we arrive at JM Butterfly B&B

I originally wanted to stay at their B&B, but they were fully booked. If we ever return, we will definitely book our stay here. I don’t think it’s anything fancy, but it looks clean, and it’s literally at the entrance of Cerro Pelón. I also feel that JM is more about conservation, whereas Rancho San Cayetano is more upscale, catering to people looking for more of a retreat experience. Even in terms of tours, JM’s tours have a more educational feel versus a sightseeing vibe.

We are currently located at the bottom-left of the map and will be traveling by horse up to the red star representing El Llano at 3,400 m

When we arrived, our small group gathered in a small meeting room. We each introduced ourselves and shared why we were here. Co-owner, Ellen, introduced herself and the work that JM are involved in, and how they use their business to support their community by employing locals through increasing tourism, which in turn supports and protects the monarchs. She also gave a brief talk about the eastern monarch butterflies, the miraculous life cycle and the super generation, and the migration from as far as Canada to this spot in Mexico. She also explained where we were going and gave us the update on the recent colony relocation.

The annual monarch life cycle and migration begins at the monarchs’ overwintering grounds in Mexico for the eastern population. Around late March, the overwintering monarchs begin their journey north. Once migration begins, monarchs become sexually mature and mate. Most adult monarchs only live for a few weeks, searching for food in the form of flower nectar, for mates, and for milkweed on which to lay their eggs. After mating and egg-laying, the adult butterflies die and the northward migration is continued by their offspring. It takes three to five generations to repopulate the rest of the United States and southern Canada until the final generation of the year hatches and does the return journey to the overwintering grounds. The last generation, the special “super-generation”, that hatches in late summer delays sexual maturity and undertakes a spectacular fall migration, one of the few insects to do so. This migratory generation can live upward of eight months.

– National Wildlife Federation
Entrance to Cerro Pelón and being met by horses and their handlers

The walk to the entrance of Cerro Pelón takes under 10 minutes. There we are met by local handlers with their horses. I’ve read that you can make it up by foot (as the handler’s did), but the horse ride was part of this tour. In a sense, this is good as it provides employment and income (through tips) to the locals of this marginalized community.

That’s hubs and his handler in front. I’m pretty sure his handler was a young kid, no more than 10 years old.
Bringing up the rear – that’s Ana coming up from behind

I was a little apprehensive about riding a horse, but that faded quickly. The horse I was matched up with was calm. I’m not sure this did anything, but I spent a lot of time gently petting my horse during the ride. Its handler did a great job of ensuring the horse stayed on course and kept up with the group. Unfortunately hubs didn’t have as positive of an experience. He had a slow horse, his saddle/stirrups were not quite the right fit, and the handler was a kid. But he made it up and down the trail and lives to talk about it! He just had really sore sits bones and knees.

This is the dry season in Macheros, so it was a very dusty ride. Luckily I had my bandanna. JM provided hubs (and all guests) with a scarf to cover his nose and mouth.

The ride up take around 1 hour 10 minutes. The terrain is dusty and rocky, which made me sometimes worry about the horses. My horse would sometimes feel quite warm, especially on the steeper sections. The saving grace is that we are in a dense forest, so at least there’s sun protection for the horses.

Just a mild taste of what’s to come
Filming hubs filming the mariposas. What does he see?
This is what hubs captured. Can you hear the wings?

There were parts of the forest where we would see butterflies fluttering around. It was pretty cool, but it got a lot cooler than that! As we reached the clearing, I saw an expansive meadow. My horse was near the back of the group, so I was one of the last ones to arrive. My handler helped me dismount and then I gasped. There were so many monarchs flying around. My heart was racing with excitement as I started unpacking my camera from my backpack. My hands were shaking. I had no idea where to look because there were butterflies everywhere. My senses felt overloaded and I hardly moved from the spot that I had dismounted. Heading further into the meadow took ages because I was walking so slow, both to just watch the butterflies, and to ensure I didn’t step on any. Thousands of butterflies were in the air and there were many on the ground. One of the guides pointed out their tongues flicking – the monarchs on the ground were taking in the minerals from the soil.

This isn’t in the expansive meadow. This is pretty much where my handler helped me to dismount. These butterflies, right at the top of the trail from the forest, stopped me in my tracks.
I think hubs was just as amazed as I was. Our videos are very similar!
Still making my way to the open clearing. You can see why it took me so long!
Butterflies on the ground taking up minerals and nutrients from the soil
So cool to see this in action

Of course some of the butterflies on the ground were dead. A guide allowed me to pick one up and she explained to me that it’s abdomen had been eaten, likely by a grosbeak (a bird). The grosbeaks figured out that even though the butterfly wings are poisonous, if they rip open the abdomen, they could eat that without getting sick. Sadly, 15% of the monarchs that have flown so far to be here, will be killed by the birds.

We really lucked out with the good weather, which I didn’t even know about until I was here, on this beautiful sunny day. These hundreds of thousands of flying butterflies wouldn’t be flying if the sun hadn’t been out. The scene was like something out of a dream or movie. We are required to whisper and be as quiet as possible so we don’t disturb the butterflies, but with the silence, I was able to hear the delicate wings flapping. I had a butterfly wing rub my cheek. It was incredible!

Finally getting to the open meadow!

I don’t know why, but I had expected lots of tourists. It was the opposite. It actually felt like we were the only ones among all the butterflies. I think there may have been one other small group, but the point is, there were hardly any people here. We were allowed a lot of time to be with the butterflies. At some point, our guides gently encouraged us to follow a trail to see the colonies formed in the oyamel fir trees. My jaw dropped as I came to the viewing spot, a small area among the clusters of oyamel firs.

After a short walk from the meadow through the forest of oyamel fir trees, we see the colonies.
See that tree behind the lady in the burgundy leggings? That’s a colony of butterflies weighing down the branches
Sunny weather is great for activity, but harder for getting great photographs

The mariposa guardians were stationed around the area, but otherwise it was just me and the monarchs. I’ve never seen anything like it before, with butterflies covering the trunks and branches, all huddled together to keep warm, with the weight of all of them causing branches to sag. When you first look, you think it’s just lots of moldy leaves, as the butterflies have the wings closed up and the undersides of their orange and black wings are grey. I’m so glad I had my binoculars with me as it allowed me to see all the finer details of these colonies. There really are no words to describe how magnificent this moment was. Again, we were never rushed. We stayed for as long as we needed to before making our way back to the meadow where our guides distributed our pre-ordered boxed lunches.

handlers, guides, and butterfly guardians wait for us in the meadow
In the sun, the orange really shines!

I loved eating in the meadow, with the horses and cows and butterflies (yeah, cows). By this point, I had felt that a camera was useless for me because it seemed impossible to capture all of this moving magic. I put my camera away and just sat there and watched. I took everything in with my eyes, wanting to keep the memory of all of it as clear as possible. Shortly after lunch, our horse handlers approached us, we got back onto our horses, and headed back down.

I’m told that there is a road that leads up to this meadow from the other side of the mountain. Sometimes farmers with little land bring their cows up here to graze.
Lunch in the meadow

This was the most incredible experience. I’d love to return again, but if it doesn’t happen, I’m so happy that I got to see it once. I will never look at monarchs the same – these are amazingly fascinating insects. How does the super generation know how to get to Mexico; to this very place in Mexico, without ever having been here before? Wow.

Hundreds of thousands of monarchs!
Traveling back down – what an amazing day!
Post mariposas – going through our photos/videos and cleaning our cameras

Sierra Chincua

Our original plan was to take public transit to El Rosario sanctuary on our own. This is the most popular butterfly sanctuary of the four reserves. Many Mexicans and tourists do day tours out of Mexico City and visit El Rosario. Apparently on weekends, the reserve can have upwards of 2,500 visitors a day! But after seeing the towns, and the collectivos (their form of public transport – think VW camper van turned into a bus with bench seating), we asked Mark at our hotel to hire a driver/guide for us. We also decided to visit Sierra Chincua on the recommendation of Ellen and Joel of J.M.

Who turns up to pick us up? None other than Vicente, the brother of Ana (one of our guides at JM) that introduced himself to me at the meadow of Cerro Pelón! I remember him only because out of nowhere, as I was staring in wonderment at all the butterflies with Ana, he pops right in front of me with this massive smile on his face and his hand outstretched to shake my hand. Ana had laughed and said it was her brother. He was leading a different private tour that day. She said he’s the happiest and friendliest guy. Ain’t that the truth! When he came to pick us up, he immediately recognized us and greeted us with that same big smile. He also votes Sierra Chincua to be second best after Cerro Pelón because it’s less crowded, and he said that at El Rosario, you only have 10 minutes to view before you have to come back down.

Gift shops and places to get food at Sierra Chincua

Sierra Chincua was about 1.5 hours away from our hotel (Cerro Pelón was about 40 minutes away). The set up of Sierra Chincua is quite different and it’s immediately apparent that this reserve was set up with tourism in mind. The first main difference is that you climb most of the mountain by car. Shops, ‘restaurants’, and washrooms have been built on the grounds for your convenience. Some of the signs seemed to imply that you could even mountain bike here. There was a guy with a guitar performing on the grounds. They also have horses and handlers for hire at the base and near the colonies, but one of the reasons we chose Sierra Chincua is because Ellen and Joel assured us we didn’t need to take a horse. I’m not even sure a guide is required to take you up at this reserve (a guide is mandatory at El Rosario, which you can hire on site). The hike was short and easy. We followed Vicente along the marked trail. There’s no meadow. When we finally got to the colony viewing spot, I was again in awe. The colony looked even larger than at Cerro Pelón!

This is part of the viewing area. You do get a good view of the mountains. The colonies are all to the right.

Setting the stage: there were lots of people and the space was smaller, so it felt crowded. It was overcast. Without the sun, it felt much colder than the previous day. I hadn’t anticipated how much colder it would feel today at those altitudes, so I hadn’t brought my sweater since yesterday was so warm. Thankfully hubs had brought an extra long-sleeve tee. I’m glad I had my mittens with me. Everyone was mulling around, admiring the colonies, but mostly we were all waiting for the sun to come out. There were a couple of moments where it looked like the clouds were blowing over, but it never happened. Finally I was too cold to wait around any longer. I was blessed that I got to experience the magic of the flying butterflies the day before. It would’ve been really cool if the sun came out and all of a sudden many of the butterflies in the colonies took flight – but let’s be honest, the probably wouldn’t have happened that way even if the sun broke through. We finally went to Vicente, who was chatting with another guide, and told him we were ready to head back. We walked to the area where the horses were waiting, and sat on the bench and Vicente handed us our large sandwiches. A bit chilled, and with a full belly, I fell asleep during the ride back to our hotel.

Oyamel fir trees covered by hibernating butterflies
With no sun, photos of the colonies photograph better

Although we didn’t see flying butterflies today, I still loved seeing the colonies. Mark said we had been very lucky to have one sunny day here because the weather forecast was showing cloud cover for the next few days. We were flying out tomorrow.

All cozy and warm under the covers while hubs keeps the fire going

One of the things I loved about our cabin was the fireplace. Hubs got really good at starting a roaring fire. I heard some other guests at dinner complain about how cold it was at night. One of the guests was saying he was up all night stoking the fire because it was so cold. The fireplace is the only source of heat, but with the duvet and the TWO woolen blankets on the bed, it actually got pretty hot. I enjoyed the stay. Too bad others couldn’t make it work and find the joy in rustic living. Maybe the regular rooms are different, but Casa Adobe (our cabin) was cozy and romantic, even though the shower had very low water pressure and very little hot water. I still enjoyed it. I loved sitting on our porch with our percolated coffee, with hubs trying to find a strong wifi signal while my eyes were glued to my binoculars. Rural life can really recharge you, physically and emotionally. Maybe not so much the barking dogs. There seemed to be a lot of barking dogs in that whole area. There were a number of dogs on the hotel grounds, which never barked once around me. They definitely liked following us around though.

And now we’re back at home, with all the wonderful memories!

Thinking of going?

There isn’t any right or wrong reserves to visit, but I did love Cerro Pelón. It’s important to note that we had the optimal conditions for butterfly viewing on the day that we went, which obviously plays a huge factor on the experience. I can imagine how spectacular the experience could be at Sierra Chincua on a sunny day. The path through the forest to the colony we visited cuts through a less dense area, providing an opportunity to clearly see lots of butterflies in flight. The colonies at Sierra Chincua are huge, or at least seem that way. This could be that they are spread out across more trees? At Cerro Pelón the colonies went deep into the forest, which may have tricked my eyes into thinking it wasn’t as big as at Sierra Chincua.

There are many different tour companies for the monarchs. If you just want to see the magic, I’m sure any company could be fine, but if you want something a little more educational, JM Butterfly is a really good company to book with.

Bring layers! The area is cooler at this time of year, and the colonies are at even higher altitudes, so it it’s cool in the city, be prepared for cooler on the tours. I would say a windproof jacket would’ve done wonders for me at Sierra Chincua, along with a toque. Mitts were a life saver. I don’t think I actually would have benefited from a winter parka – that would’ve been overkill. Sturdy (hiking) shoes is perfect, and some type of bandanna is useful. Sunglasses and a sunhat are also useful, and I definitely recommend sunscreen.

There were no biting insects when I was there. Yes, we did see some wasps, but no mosquitoes.

Bring your camera/video camera. If you have binoculars, you won’t regret having it (unless you have a really long camera lens). Yes, binoculars are just something else you have to carry, but for me, it was worth it to be able to see the colonies that close up.

If you’re going by horseback, keep your camera out, especially if it’s a sunny day, but ensure you have a wrist strap or something to prevent it from falling out of your hands. The horse ride can be a bit bumpy. Also know that it’s dusty, so you’ll need to clean your lenses afterwards. I had my binoculars around my neck during the ride up and it was covered in dust. Hubs spent quite a bit of time cleaning it and our cameras that evening.

EDIT: Hubs says that cameras that are not “weather sealed” should not be out during the horse ride as the amount of dust would destroy your camera. However, he does feel that phones are ok to use during the ride because they have no moving parts.

Make sure you have water, though if you are on a tour, I think they typically offer a boxed lunch and water.

Try to stay in the area for a few days. This gives you a chance to get at least one sunny day. Don’t get me wrong. Seeing the colonies is already amazing, but catching the mariposas flying is an additional level of awesome. Know that the upside of a cloudy day is that your photos of the colonies will be less blown out, so don’t be disappointed if the sun isn’t out during the visits. But remember to layer up.

Vicente mentioned that some people arrive and immediately go up to the colonies without taking into account that the altitude change can be extreme if you’re accustomed to being a sea level. Know your body! And this could be another reason for planning to stay for a few days. I didn’t really feel any effects of the higher altitude as we went by horse back on our second day, but I did feel it a little on the third day when we hiked to the colony at Sierra Chincua. But this is probably because on horse, I am not exerting myself.

It’s ok to visit one place more than once! There are currently four reserves open to the public: El Rosario, Sierra Chincua, Cerro Pelón, and Piedra Herrada. El Rosario is the most popular as I think it’s the easiest one to get to from Mexico City. Research recommends you avoid visiting on weekends, and from what I’ve read, there is a time cap on how long you can stay, likely because of the amount of visitors.

Headlines

I wasn’t sure I wanted to mention this as it may discourage people from making the trip to experience this. I too wasn’t aware of the conflicts that exist until Ellen touched upon it at the start of the Cerro Pelón tour. Shortly after my return home, my news feed alerted me of two butterfly defenders that had been murdered. One of the murders occurred while we were in Michoacán, however, both men were associated with El Rosario, the reserve we did not end up visiting.

Homero Gómez González was the manager of El Rosario and Raúl Hernández Romero was a guide at that reserve. RIP.

“There are increasing pressures on the forest from both the illegal loggers and the avocado growers and possibly the gangs that extort protection from various parties in the region,” Taylor said. “This dynamic is widely known, but how to deal with these threats to the forests, residents and monarchs will be a challenge for the (Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve), its residents and local and regional authorities.

– Mark Stevenson, https://time.com/5775034/mexico-butterfly-activist/

Even after learning this, I would still return to see the butterflies. The communities around the reserves are marginalized. Tourism injects income into these communities. Tourism isn’t a year-long source of income, as I think most tourists only come for the monarchs, and that’s a short season lasting only about 5 months. I can’t say for sure, but I don’t feel that tourists are at risk. These murders did not happen during operating hours, nor did they happen in front of tourists. Obviously as tourists (anywhere, not just in Michoacán, Mexico), you need to be vigilant and do what feels right for you so that you feel safe.

We knew the late Homero Gomez by reputation only–a reputation that had a lot to do with promoting El Rosario and not much to do with promoting monarch conservation. There are many suspects in the case–and among them illegal loggers, a desperately poor, socially powerless group, are the least plausible. Mexicans are in danger in Mexico. Visitors to the sanctuaries are not.

– JM Butterfly B&B/Butterflies & Their People in response to the murder of Sr. Gomez

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