I have wanted to visit the monarch butterflies in Mexico as long as I’ve known about them. When I was a teenager my best friend, Crystal, had two older sisters who were attending college in Santa Cruz CA. I was lucky enough to get to tag along on a ton of their family trips. In fact, for a number of years, I’m not sure I let them go anywhere without me… Anyhow, one time the family was visiting Santa Cruz to check in on one sister or another when we stopped in at Natural Bridges State Beach to see the butterflies hanging from the eucalyptus trees.
The day was gray, as so many winter days can be. The butterflies were not especially active, but I was impressed by their numbers. The tree branches hung heavily with the combined weight of thousands of insects. I remember hearing about how there were so many more monarchs that migrated to Mexico than California. That sealed it. A visit to Mexico to stand among the monarchs was deeply engraved in my future. Fast forward over half of my life and I finally make that dream come true.
Our drive to the butterflies was exceptionally smooth. Having been warned about the dangers of driving around all willy-nilly in Michoacán with so much stuff (deemed Level 4 “Do Not Travel” by the US State Dept.) by two different concerned locals we decided to play it safe and take the toll road to visit the butterflies. We drove so fast! We have not been able to drive at highway speeds since we were back in California. The toll road (Cuota) doesn’t have any of the topes (speed bumps) or potholes or awesome food stands that tend to slow us down on a typical drive. It cost us over $17 USD to drive the approximately 120 miles of toll road. It also took us about as long to drive the remaining 60 miles of free roads as those first 120 on the Cuota. We made one pit-stop to fill up our propane tank and another to buy some road snacks at one of the ubiquitous OXXO markets along the way. Other than that, we drove like the wind all the way out of Michoacán and into the State of Mexico.
We chose to go see the monarchs in the small town of Macheros. Actually, the monarchs are near the top a mountain called Cerro Pelón which is accessed from the small town of Macheros. At last count, Macheros had a population of 315 people. It is my estimation that there are at least as many roosters living there as well. We chose to go to Macheros because that area is reported to provide a more natural butterfly experience. The mountains in this area of Mexico suffer from deforestation. The community of Macheros has taken steps to make amends for previous overzealous forest harvest. They have prohibited logging within the butterfly sanctuary and have replanted many of the areas that were previously logged. The butterflies of Cerro Pelón are found amidst mature pine and fir forests. Also, Macheros provides a less touristy experience. I read that on a peak visitation day these butterflies will receive about 80 visitors. At El Rosario, a reserve about 20 miles away, on that same day there would be about 8000 visitors. One of the reasons could be that the access to this butterfly area is not easy. It involves climbing to an elevation over 10,000 ft. The sanctuary headquarters where we camped was at around 7500ft. Most people visiting will cover the majority of the trail sitting on the back of a horse but in the end, everyone has to make the final push on foot. I lack the appropriate disposition for horse riding so we climbed the mountain under our own steam. We followed a guide named Daniel. Guides are required and the trail is not well marked. He was not the most enthusiastic about guiding and seemed to be racing up the hill. Maybe it just felt that way because of the elevation. We were determined to keep up, huffing and puffing, we did our best to stay on his heels. He graciously stopped from time to time to point out a butterfly or bird. We sucked in as much thin air as possible during those moments.
As we climbed higher, we were seeing smatterings of butterflies alongside the trail. One or two in a bush, another just chilling on the ground. We reached the meadow where we would have left the horses, had we brought any, and the frequency of butterfly sightings was really beginning to pick up. Sunny spots on the ground were beginning to fill up with monarchs. Not much later, we came to the first of the trees filled with butterflies. The clumps of butterflies are called roosts or bivouacs. We had made it to the top in about an hour and a half. I think we went faster than we would have with horses. I’d like to think that we impressed Daniel. They had roped off sections of the forest so that we would be less inclined to disturb the butterflies’ peace. Beyond the ropes were the heavy boughs laden with butterflies. When the butterflies are at rest on the tree branches they often have their wings closed masking the vibrant orange color we know and love. Large pendulums of buff and black are camouflaged by the shadows of the forest. When the sun reaches through the treetops and warms these roosts the monarchs become more active. They do their warm-up calisthenics of opening and closing their wings for a while until they are warm enough to take to the skies. We stared at these first trees in wonder for a while. If my butterfly experience had ended there I would be completely satisfied. It was awesome in the true sense of that word.
As we stood there watching the butterflies the day continued to warm. The air around us was coming to life with monarch butterflies. It seemed that everywhere the sun reached into the forest butterflies would be fluttering their wings. We walked further up the trail pulled by the magnetism of increasing butterfly concentration. There was a clearing at the top where more areas were roped off. Behind the ropes were more butterfly-filled trees. Pools of sunshine on the forest floor were pulsating with orange and black wings. For about a half an hour, Scott and I were the only tourists there. Daniel had met up with a sanctuary arborist friend and seemed content to let us wander about and bask in the riot of color.
The monarchs were becoming more active the longer we lingered. Rivers of butterflies were flowing through the air around our heads. The collective sound of their wings beating was like breeze rustled aspen leaves. Daniel had fallen asleep leaning on a tree. Soon we were joined by a group of eight or ten tourists. No one spoke above a whisper, afraid to break the spell of wonder that had taken hold of us on that mountain. Scott and I could do no more than giggle at the absurdity of being surrounded by beautiful butterflies. I whispered to him that I felt like Snow White and wished that a butterfly would land on me to complete the illusion. Moments after I voiced the desire, a butterfly landed on my vest. Magic. It was less magical when a couple fluttered into my face. Glorious as they are, they are still insects and I don’t want them in my mouth.
Eventually, we had to leave the mountain. The day had become quite warm and where we had seen one or two butterflies on the way up in the morning we were seeing dozens on the way down. We passed sweaty little horses laboring to bring more people up the mountain. They didn’t look too happy about their job for the day and I did not regret passing on the horse ride, though I do understand the economics of it all. If the option of renting an afternoon of peace and quiet for the horse with a bucket of oats in the shade were available I would choose that. I digress. When we made it back to the Sanctuary Headquarters there was still a steady flow of butterflies in the air. It was now midafternoon and we were running on coffee and one shared granola bar. We wandered into town and located the one and only restaurant. We were famished. We shared a pot of hot lemongrass tea and a fabulous order of guacamole with
When we returned to camp, the river of butterflies had diminished to a trickle. Soon it was just one every half hour or so as the temperatures began to drop. I braved the bone-chillin, ice cream headache inducing shower at the camp. I did my best to channel my inner Wim Hoff but the reception wasn’t very good so I just froze my butt off instead. I crawled into my sleeping bag to shiver away the chill. When I closed my eyes, succumbing to the lullaby that is a belly full of tortilla chips, I could see butterflies swirling inside my eyelids.
It should be known that monarch butterflies are in peril. Their populations have dropped drastically in the last few years. When my teenaged self was marveling at the overwintering butterflies in California there were collectively over 40 acres of mountaintops piled high with roosting butterflies in the highlands of central Mexico. There is now less than 2 acres. In California, the populations have dropped to 0.6% of what they were when scientists began monitoring populations in the 1980s.
Monarch butterfly migration is still not fully understood. No butterfly makes the full migration. The butterflies we saw on Cerro Pelón were the great-great grandchildren of the butterflies that left last year. Maybe it is the angle of the sun, or the condition of the milkweed or the falling temperatures that signal these insects that it is time to fly south. Science has yet to come to an agreement. I like mysteries in nature. They remind me of my place in this world. There is no mystery to why the butterfly populations are falling. It comes down to habitat. Monarchs need milkweed. It is the only plant they will lay eggs on and it is the only plant that monarch caterpillars will eat. Without milkweed there can be no monarchs. The migration route of the monarchs in Mexico spans the middle of the USA and into Canada. Vast tracts of land are planted fencerow to fencerow in monocultures of corn and soy. Most of it treated with herbicides. There is no milkweed in those fields. The adults feed on nectar of a variety of flowers. There is not much nectar available to a hungry butterfly in America’s corn belt. Urban sprawl has added to the displacement of milkweed and nectar sources for the generations of monarchs that live and die between visits to their ancestral roosting grounds each winter in Mexico. Climate change is a factor as well but it is going to take longer to turn that ship around than it will to enhance butterfly habitat. Plant milkweed. Plant the right species. Native to your area is best. Mother nature already did the work for you selecting the species that grows where you live. All you have to do is google and plant (probably water too J). Consider incorporating milkweeds in your home landscaping, community gardens, schools, libraries, and any random open spaces that may come to mind. Support farmers who support wildlife. Look to sources like the NRCS and Xerces Society for professional guidance on how you can help.
I hope to return to Cerro Pelón when I am in my golden years. I hope to hike my well-muscled, yet slightly sagging butt up to the top of the hill and marvel at how many more butterflies there are than when I first went. It is not an unrealistic dream.