Visiting the Mariposas

Last year in mid-February Germán and I took a trip to Macheros in Estado de México to see the monarch butterflies in their winter home in the oyamel fir forests in the mountains of México. The butterflies make the 3,000 mile journey from Canada or the U.S. to México in the fall and spend the winter in warmer temperatures before returning in the Spring (they’re in México from mid-November until mid-March). What blew my mind when learning about the butterfly migration is that they will literally return to the same tree except that it’s not the same butterfly; their lifespans are so short that from one year to the next four generations have passed! Seeing monarch butterflies in México is different from seeing them in the U.S. or Canada because they only come to a few spots in México and even then only to small sections of the forest so the concentration of butterflies is incredible. There are a few different places in México to go see the butterflies, all of which are protected as butterfly reserves:

  • El Rosario
  • Piedra Herrada
  • Sierra Chincua
  • Cerro Pelón

The reserves are mostly in Michoacán although Cerro Pelón, where we decided to go, is over the border in the Estado de México. We chose to go to this reserve because Lonely Planet describes it as the most pristine of all the reserves. As a traveler who doesn’t like being a tourist and a nature enthusiast, I will always choose the most pristine option so we went to Cerro Pelón.

We rented a car and head out on a long weekend to Macheros, about two and a half hours drive from Mexico City. The drive to Zitácuaro is on main highways and easy to navigate, from there to the town of Macheros the drive changes to a paved but bumpy small road. We lost service so had to rely on the printed out directions from the B&B which included pictures of the forks in the road where we should turn. When we got to the town we went first to JM´s Butterfly B&B to check in and drop off the car. No one was there to check us in but we were able to leave our things in the living room and head out to the edge of town to start the climb to the butterflies. The B&B provides English-speaking tours but they are quite expensive for Mexican salaries so we opted to head to the beginning of the trail where a line of local guides are waiting. They probably don’t speak English but that is not a problem for us and they are much cheaper. You also have the option to rent a horse to climb up for you but being young, reasonably in shape people we scoffed at the idea. About halfway up the climb we wondered to ourselves if maybe it would have been better to get the horses as it is quite a steep climb at times and the ground was loose and very dusty, provoking slips and frustration (as well as extreme dirtiness). We marveled at how our guide (wearing dress shoes) was able to scramble up easily and never slipped once. When the terrain finally leveled out at the top the trees opened up as well, showing some pretty incredible views of the forest and mountains. An issue in this area that is threatening the butterflies is illegal logging. The lack of economic opportunities means people take advantage of the forest to make a living for their families but the loss of winter habitat is a problem for the butterflies. Luckily, in this reserve that hasn’t been too big of a problem so the views had trees in every direction.

I didn’t really have an idea of where the butterflies would be but I was slightly confused when our guide led us along a path that went into a dense section of forest and pointed to trees where the butterflies supposedly were. It actually took me a few minutes to figure out that the giant brown beehive shapes hanging off the branches of the trees were masses of monarch butterflies. On a warm day you can see them flying all around but it was chilly the day we went so they were huddled up together in the trees with the dull backside of their wings showing. If their sheer amount of them weren’t so impressive I would have been a little disappointed to find them like this. But it is very impressive, the weight of all those almost weightless creatures making the tree branches sag. A few times we saw brief clouds of butterflies rising out of the trees and that was really incredible to see, it would be amazing to be there on a warm day with them flying all about. After struggling (and ultimately failing) to take a picture that really captured the scene, we headed back out the path to the clearing where our guide was now waiting. All along the sides of the path were dead or dying monarch butterflies (which is how we got the pictures of us holding them), creating little orange mounds. The trip down back into the town was even more slip-inducing than the way up and we arrived in the afternoon to the B&B with our shoes full of dirt and our legs a dark shade of brown.

JM´s Butterly B&B is owned by a couple made up by a Mexican man and an American woman, Macheros being the man’s home town. They came back to this place to run the B&B and try to encourage ecotourism in the area (promoting the preservation of the butterfly habitat and using tourist dollars to spur the local economy and hopefully then preventing illegal logging). Their prices are a little expensive for México but they really make most of their money for the whole year during the butterfly season (they talked to us about trying to set up mushroom tours during the summer rainy season to have more year-round income) and they are being responsible tenants of the reserve. Our room at the B&B was actually a casita (a separate little house) owned by Joel’s parents (the J in JM Butterfly B&B). It was on the other side of town than the B&B (but it being a very small town it was only maybe 5 minutes walking) and on the edge of a ledge that dropped down to a river. It was a a very peaceful spot that had a nice view of the town and surrounding mountains. That evening we went to the restaurant next door to the B&B (where breakfast is served) for dinner and chatted for a bit with the B&B owners. We admired their coffee table made out of a slice of tree trunk with a live edge and they told us that they had bought the slice of wood from someone in Zitácuaro and made it themselves. I had always wanted a table like that and Germán was equally impressed with it so we got the man’s number and they gave him a heads up that we would be calling him the next day once we got service. Once back at the casita we were visited by our tour guide who tried to sell us some homemade fruit liquors that his mother made (made from rubbing alcohol so we declined) and little trinkets that his sisters made (which we bought because we felt bad for refusing the alcohol). The night was quite chilly, being at such high altitude and next to the river. In the morning the sun warmed everything up and we spent some pleasant time on our mini deck overlooking the river.

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the view of the town and the mountain range surrounding it

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After breakfast we set off for Zitácuaro, enjoying the last of the fresh mountain air on the drive there. We were able to get a hold of the man who had sold the wood slices to the B&B owners and we met up with him on a corner in the city. We followed him to a house on the outskirts that didn’t seem to actually be his but where he had stacks of trunk slices piled up. He assured us that he had sustainably sourced this wood (apparently there are rangers who mark the dead trees and check to make sure that those are the ones you’re cutting down). We picked out one that was a good coffee table shape and loaded the very heavy slice into the rental car and headed out.

On our way back to Mexico City we stopped in Toluca to eat lunch and spend a few hours of the afternoon. Toluca has a cute downtown area with nice restaurants and cafés and a central square with a botanical garden called Cosmovitral. It was originally constructed to be a market and the walls are made up entirely of stained glass. The combination of amazing colorful artwork and the different plantscapes make for an incredibly beautiful place to explore. The garden is broken up into different ecosystems, with desert plants together surrounded by sand and ponds filled with aquatic plants that you cross over on cute bridges. It is definitely a great place to visit and relaxing to spend an hour or two wandering around.

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With that we drove the hour and a half to get back to Mexico City and were home by Sunday evening. It was a long weekend so we even had the next day to do all the “adulting” weekend activities but it felt like we had been out of the city for much longer than two days and one night. Overall, this was a great trip, even though the butterflies kept their colorful splendor to themselves it was great to get up in the mountains and to experience being in a rural town for a night. Plus Toluca really was a fun place to visit and now we have a beautiful coffee table which is one of my favorite pieces in our home and a great conversation piece 😉

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