Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni is easily the country’s most popular attraction. Tourists come from all over to see the otherworldly landscapes: from immense salt flats to colorful mountains and lakes to Dali-reminiscent deserts. When I was in Cochabamba for my Master’s internship I knew I had to make the trip there. My journey there was an adventure in and of itself, I had gone first to Sucre but the road from there to Uyuni was blocked by protestors so I made a really roundabout trip that lasted about 24 hours which involved some harrowing driving, chickens and construction materials as carry-ons, a driver that didn’t know where he was going on the overnight bus trip and bathroom breaks without bathrooms.
Once I finally got to Uyuni and picked the company for the tour I was put together with five other explorers who became my constant companions and friends for the next few days. Our driver was grumpy and our car was not in the best of shape but the scenery was unparalleled.
There is already so much information about this destination online so I’ve decided to just share my favorite photos from this trip to let them do the talking. Enjoy!
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about la Isla del Sol as it seems that many friends are planning trips to Peru and Machu Picchu and I’ve been telling them something I’ll tell you now: I liked Isla del Sol better than Machu Picchu. Nothing against Machu Picchu, it was amazing and beautiful and I loved it, but the energy and experience of Isla del Sol topped it in my book. Isla del Sol is an island on Lake Titicaca, an enormously large and profoundly deep lake on the border of Peru and Bolivia. The two popular islands are la Isla de la Luna and la Isla del Sol on the Bolivian side where the Incan god of the sun was born. One of the reasons I love Isla del Sol so much is because of this feeling of spiritual energy I had when I was there, the ruins are not as impressive as other sites (like Machu Picchu) but I felt something really profound when I was there and left feeling cleansed in a way. Another reason I loved this place so much is that there is a fraction of the amount of tourists as other Inca ruins (like Machu Picchu) and the people that live on the island still make their living from farming or herding cattle. I don’t love feeling like a tourist when I travel so I loved coming to a place where you share the road with donkeys and sheep.
My Isla del Sol experience started in Copacabana, a larger town on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. I stayed the night there because I had arrived around mid-day and thought it’d be better to wait till morning to head out to give me a chance to see the town. Looking back, I think I maybe would have enjoyed more going straight to Isla del Sol because Copacabana doesn’t have too much to do as a solo traveler although I was able to climb up to a good viewpoint of the lake where lots of Bolivians were making offerings to Pachamama, mother earth, and see the sunset.
So first thing in the morning I got a boat to Yumani, on the southern side of Isla del Sol. Once you arrive you are greeted with a long and steep climb up some rocky stairs and winding paths before you reach the top. Along the way and at the top are small hostels where you can get a room for the night. I made a reservation at one that was almost to the top and ditched the things I wouldn’t need for the day since I planned to walk all around the island. There are paths that lead from Yumani to Ch’allapampa on the northern side and pass by the majority of the ruins on the way. You have to pay for an entrance ticket which gives you access to the route and goes to the indigenous community there who maintains the area. I took the upper trail on the map below in the morning and saw most of the ruins along the way.
I had met up with some fellow female solo travelers on the trail so we walked along checking out the sites and taking pictures. I hadn’t done prior research on the meaning of the sites so I was left to mostly guess what they were supposed to be though my guide book did give short descriptions – there’s one stone reminiscent of Chronicles of Narnia supposedly used for human sacrifice. There are small booths along the way run by the community where they sell snacks and water but I didn’t eat too much along the way until I got to Ch’allapampa. You hike down to get into the community which is right on the open beach with little hostels and restaurants all around. The boat from Copacabana also stops by Ch’allapampa and many people make the trek one way along the island and stay in the north for the night to get the boat back in the morning. I had decided to make the full loop however so when I finished lunch I left my companions for the day behind and started walking at a quicker pace to make it back to Yumani before nightfall. There are not really any ruins on this other trail but the landscape is beautiful, occasionally dipping into wooded areas before coming out to open expanses where you can look out over the lake the the mountains beyond. I really loved walking along this section by myself and it’s where I really felt something powerful. I made it back to Yumani just in time to watch the sunset as I ate dinner outside.
My hostel was very basic and the night was quite chilly but I woke up in the morning to the sight of the sun rising over the mountains beyond Lake Titicaca. That view and that moment really encapsulated my experience at Isla del Sol: clean crisp air, incredibly blue water and sky and a feeling of being born again with the sun.
While the rest of this quote talks about how harsh it is sometimes to be in the woods with the thorny branches that seem to be fighting against your entrance, going to Parque Nacional El Chico really embodied for me the comfort and easiness that going into the woods can inspire in your mind and soul. Besides, the smell of pine and the rugged rocky peaks jutting up from the forest brought my spirit back to where I grew up in New England.
We decided to go to El Chico for Semana Santa because it’s been a place that I’ve always been interested in and it seemed like maybe it wouldn’t get the same crowds for vacation as say the Sierra Gorda. Uncharacteristically, I only researched a small amount, maybe I was already channeling the spirit of John Muir who said that “people ought to saunter in the mountains.” Either way, we did plan enough to borrow Germán’s dad’s car and get everything ready on Wednesday night so that we could get out early on Thursday and hopefully beat the traffic. Luckily we only hit a bit of traffic and made it to El Chico (in the state of Hidalgo to the north of Mexico City) in about three hours. Before entering the park we passed through a small town where we stocked up on firewood, beer, snacks, fresh tortillas and homemade salsa. We were promised that from there to Dos Aguas, the campground we were planning on checking out first, there were no more stores. After our supply stop we entered the park through Presa el Cedral (a damed up lake), which seemed like a lovely spot to camp among the trees next to the water but it looked like it was already quite full and as the first campsite that most people get to, likely to fill up even more. So we kept going along the road which went climbing up with every twist and turn (and was surprisingly, actually as isolated as promised with not a chela for sale in sight). Because we had followed the road for Dos Aguas Campground, we didn’t pass another campsite along the way so when we arrived and saw the campsites nestled in private woodsy corners and listened to the camp manager warning of the possibility of it filling up if we left to check out another place we paid the $121 pesos for the campsite and set up camp.
Dos Aguas has about 5 cabins with space for four people each and probably 10 campsites, each offering a fair level of privacy from other campers. The bathrooms are very rustic pit latrines and the lack of lighting meant I had to hope no one came by while I was in the bathroom since I left the door open in order to not fall in. Supposedly there are showers but we only saw one water spout which was used to wash dishes and hands. Each cabin has a dedicated grill in addition to a firepit inside the cabin but the campsites just have firepits (we ended up buying a comal, a metal grill/pan for 20 pesos to cook on). Overall, I found it a very pleasant place to camp and despite the camp manager’s warnings, it never filled up. Because of Germán’s insistence on leaving early due to traffic I was a little sleepy by the time we set up the tent so I took advantage of our shady shelter to take a nice nap. I always relish camping trips that are more relaxing in nature as a lot of the camping I’ve done in my life has been during long-distance hiking trips or while working on trail crew. So we lazily enjoyed the rest of the day, heading into Mineral del Chico, a small old mining town right outside the park to eat lunch and get the rest of the food we would grill that night.
Although the park seemed fairly calm for the vacation season, the town was quite crowded, with all the food stands that are normally in the mercado set up in the center of the main street. Even with the crowds, Mineral del Chico is an adorable town, with cute houses scattered up and down the steep hills and cobblestone streets leading you from place to place. The center has a pretty church with a fountain right in front and apparently the clock in the church was made at the same factory as Big Ben’s clock. Such a tiny town was able to afford such a fancy clock thanks to the (now defunct) lucrative mining business. As we walked around we noticed the quantity of hotels and cabins available in town, it didn’t seem like there’s any shortage of options on where to stay whether in town or in the park. On our way out Germán decided to stop at a carnicería (meat shop) to get some bistek (which means steak but is definitely not what we would think of as steak, its actually really thin slices of beef) to grill that night. I declined eating the meat after I saw the whole animal laying out behind the butcher and how he was touching the meat and the money with his same bare hands (apparently it was delicious though).
After we had our fill of town we head out and I thought it would be great to drive around the park and see the other areas that we hadn’t seen on the way in. So we took a different road into the park and followed what started out as a nicely paved road through the park. After a turn though, the road immediately changed to a dirt path with large rocks scattered around. I was a little disappointed that Google Maps showed the same thickness for both the nicely paved road and the steep almost unnavigable path (normally the thickness tells you a little bit about the quality of the road) but it was indeed a lower-quality road and with the sun starting to set and a thick fog setting in we decided to abort our driving loop mission and return to camp. After a nice dinner of quesadillas (with bistek for Germán) we hung out around the campfire and tucked in early, probably getting around 12 hours of sleep that night.
We had a busier day planned for Friday so decided to get a big breakfast in town and then skip lunch to leave time for hiking and river/mine exploring. We had breakfast on a patio overlooking the main street which offered a breakfast paquete (which literally means package but it means that your breakfast comes with bread, fruit or juice or coffee) which I always love since I feel a little healthier having fruit even if I order chilaquiles.
Despite our best intentions for getting an early start to our hike we made it to the trailhead, which is inside Dos Aguas, at around 1:00pm. Our plan was to hike up to a mirador (viewpoint), which was supposed to be very close. At the first intersection in the trail, I opened up a picture I had taken of the trail map at the base to see which way we should go.After many such turns, we were passing through beautiful forests full of flowers hanging off of trees but had hiked longer than we should have without reaching the mirador. We contemplated turning towards where we thought the mirador was but instead kept following the map and eventually ended up on a dirt road similar to the one we had driven on the night before.
We saw by the signs that we were near the Los Conejos campground and at a place called Cruz de los Negros but that did not appear in our basic map. After chatting with a few other hikers passing by we learned that the most visited viewpoint, Peña del Cuervo was back down the road in the direction we had came from but that there was a better and higher viewpoint on the trail that went to Los Conejos if you kept to the left at a fork. I’m always interested in off the beaten path places and after having hiked for hours with no view yet I wanted to try the better one. So we set off down the trail and after I started getting suspicious that this supposed left fork didn’t exist and we had resigned ourselves to just checking out the campsite, the fork in the trail appeared. Very soon after the fork the trail opened up and changed to a scramble over rock formations. After a bit of climbing we reached the peak, called Peña La Cercada (which seems to be labeled as Peña Cruz del Negro en Google Maps), where we found an old tower and supply shed and no other people, our “sauntering” had paid off! Sure enough, we could see Peña del Cuervo far below us and the town of Mineral del Chico a little beyond that. We seemed to be at the same level as Las Monjas (The Nuns), a distinctive rock formation that according to local legend were nuns that were changed into rocks due to bad behavior. El Chico is known for being a rock climber’s paradise and seeing all the rocks faces poking through the trees really made me see all the opportunities there are for climbing there.
the fork in the trail looking from beyond (we came from the trail on the left here and then took a left to the trail pictured on the right)
looking back on the trail we came down from, it’s barely visible from the road
After hanging out for a bit at our superior viewpoint we turned back around and took a chance on another trail that seemed to lead more directly to the road that would take us down to the other viewpoint and then back to camp. Luckily, it did indeed lead down to the road though it seemed like it was definitely a social trail, not a formal one. When we got to Peña del Cuervo we chatted with the man checking entrance tickets ($36 to get into the entire park) who told us that to get back down to Dos Aguas we should follow the trail that starts at the sign with a cat (they have signs every so often describing the local wildlife). After checking out the view at this lower viewpoint (still nice but quite crowded) we turned back towards camp. We realized on the way down that our mistake climbing up was taking a trail that had a sign for Cruz de los Negros instead of an unmarked trail.
we went right towards Cruz de los Negros, left takes you to Peña del Cuervo
Back in camp, we quickly got changed in the hopes of being able to stop by Río de los Milagros before dinner. The river is a little beyond town but there are signs pointing the way. We parked near a sign for the river but to get to the waterfall we had to walk down the steep road for about 10 minutes which would normally be fine but my knee was starting to bother me after so much downhill hiking and I was wishing we had driven down the road which, though steep, was paved. The river was pretty but I felt it didn’t quite live up to its name, the River of Miracles, I was imagining a wilder and wider body of water though apparently the name comes from the fact that it flows year-round, even through the dry season.
After passing by the waterfall we saw signs for the mines which Germán had wanted to check out so we kept going down until we got to an area with food stands and music and painted signs over entrances into the mountains. It was around 7pm but there were still tours available for any groups that arrived so we joined up with a family of 6 to see the Mina de San Antonio. We were given hard hats and flashlights at the entrance and taken through various tunnels which were originally built by the Spanish but later expanded by the English who settled in the area due to the mining potential. I probably wouldn’t have done the mine tour if not for Germán but the guide was nice and told us about the history and at one point had us walk with our flashlights off to experience total darkness. I was impressed mostly by the slippery wooden ladders that they had us climb up and down to get to the different levels of the mine – this tour is definitely not for the mobility-challenged. We emerged from the mine into more darkness as the sun had set at this point and we luckily got a ride up the road from our guide’s boss. We tried to find a trout restaurant since Germán wanted to take advantage of being next to fresh water (I would have eaten enchiladas or something as I am not a fan of fish) but we didn’t see the restaurant open on the dark road leading farther away from town. So we turned back and since I was quickly slipping into a hangry mood, we entered the first restaurant that caught our attention.
Right next to the church to looker’s right, the restaurant was a super hipster bar with a mountain feel that served some basic food and it turned out that it was literally opening day. We got some craft beer from Cervecería Hacienda and ordered our food. Of course since I was the hungry one Germán got his first and he actually finished most of his food before my pasta came out. They still have to iron out some kinks but it seems like this place has good potential and the owner is a young, super-friendly guy who was very apologetic about my tardy meal. Since we were very hungry and our meals weren’t very big we went after dinner to get some pastes, the typical food of the area that’s like an empanada filled with potatoes or meat or beans. They say it was brought over by the English and was a preferred food of the miners because they would hold onto the curled crust with their dirty hands and then just toss that part after they had eaten the filled center. At this point our hands were also quite dirty but we ate our whole pastes and returned to camp to enjoy another bonfire and a peaceful night under the stars.
Our plan for Saturday was to break camp then drive over to Mineral del Monte (also known as Real del Monte), a bigger old mining town, then beyond to Los Prismas Balsáticos, a super unique volcanic formation and then over to an old hacienda nearby. So we bid farewell to our campsite and drove out through a part of the park we had yet to go through. We passed by Las Ventanas which is the most popular spot for rock climbing and although we didn’t go in because they wanted to charge us per person and per vehicle it seemed like there were some pretty easy routes to try there. We passed a few more campgrounds spread out over grassy fields which would have been nice if they hadn’t been lacking in shade and full of families blasting music from their parked cars. Finally, we passed by a visitor’s center which had a nice bathroom and a detailed and seemingly accurate map (though not available in print). The landscape changed in this short distance to more arid surroundings though the pine forests continued even beyond the park.
We finally hit the dreaded Semana Santa traffic in a big way as we were passing through Mineral del Monte and then on the road to the prismas. When we finally got there, we discovered that the almost untouched geological formation that Germán remembered going to 20 years ago had changed into a tourist mecca, complete with a pool and horse rides around the giant parking lot surrounded by food and artesanía stands. It was also quite costly for Mexican standards at $100 per person. But after driving all this way we paid to enter and walked down to the edge of the cliff which the river had cut out, showing the basalt prisms on either side. It would have been very nice to walk along if it hadn’t been full of families drinking micheladas and people ziplining across the gorge. After being in such a chill place for the last few days it was exactly the opposite vibe that I was looking for so we didn’t even get all the way down before turning around and heading out. We thought the hacienda turned hotel Santa María Regla, which is where they filmed Zorro, would be equally as crowded so we called it a day and set our GPS to Mexico City. On the way back we stocked up on pastes to eat that week as they are such a tasty portable snack. We made great time on the way back and returned home grateful for our flushing toilet and shower.
back into civilization and roadside micheladas
Parque Nacional El Chico has been one of my favorite trips in México so far. There are many places in México where I wouldn’t go hiking without someone who knew the way but in El Chico, despite getting a little lost, the trails are quite clear and if you had an accurate map they would be easy to follow. Basically the outdoor tourism infrastructure is a little more built up here than in other areas so that it feels friendly and approachable while the landscape is still dramatic enough to impress. It’s the perfect place to go to reset your circadian clock and slow down your fast-paced mindset, even if you decide to go hike and explore in addition to relaxing at camp. I hope I get back soon!
A downside to working in Mexico is that when holidays fall on the weekend you don’t get the next Monday off in celebration. What makes up for that though is that Semana Santa, the week before Easter, is pretty much a national vacation. You’re guaranteed to have Thursday and Friday off and a lot of workplaces will give their employees the whole week off (this also happens around Christmas-time for a week or two so I guess I can’t really complain about working the random holiday). In my current job I only get off Thursday and Friday and we’re planning this year on going to Parque Nacional El Chico, I’ll definitely write about that once we go. But last year we both had the week off so we set out early in the week to beat the crowds to the Sierra Gorda de Querétaro. For those who do not know any Spanish, sierra means mountain range and gorda means fat. Querétaro is a state whose capital is about three hours to the north of Mexico City with the Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra Gorda in the northeastern tip, taking up about a third of the state’s landmass. I had been living in Mexico for about six months at this point and had yet to go camping so I was ready for an outdoor adventure. So Germán called up his outdoorsy cousin and asked for some recommendations. His dad’s side of the family lives in Querétaro so this cousin is very familiar with the Sierra Gorda and was so excited that the normally urban-minded Germaán was interested in camping that he and his girlfriend came along.
Despite having a local expert as our guide, I nevertheless made an immensely detailed itinerary, complete with GoogleMaps of the route for each day. We ended up modifying the itinerary a fair amount to accommodate our travel partners but we made it to all the major spots I had been excited about. First we went to Querétaro on the bus to meet up with Germán’s cousin and the next morning we drove off towards the Park. After a few stops for gas and cash at the ATM we finally got on the road. We stopped for lunch on the way at Bernal, a small adorable town known for the rocky peak rising up behind it, called the Peña de Bernal. Fully fueled in every sense, we set back out and approached the park. An amazing quality of this place is that there are at least three different ecosystems that you pass through. If you approach heading toward Pinal de Amoles it starts off as dry hills covered with brush. As you continue ascending the mountain range the landscape becomes a green lush forest prone to cloud cover and in other areas the forest varies from almost tropical to high and dry. With all these changes, it’s amazing to just stare out the window and notice the differences in the landscape in each twist and turn.
Due to our slow start that morning we made the decision to camp that night at the Cerro de la Media Luna (also known as Mirador de Cuatro Palos). The road to get here was a little rough and since we were not traveling in anything resembling a 4WD vehicle we had a little difficulty getting in an out. At the base is a tiny town, we parked right in front of the trailhead (a very open and visible ascent), grabbed our gear and hiked up the short but occasionally steep path. When we got up we were unable to see the view of the mountains in the shape of a half moon (hence the name) due to some low cloud cover but there was an area with firepits and some latrines and a fair amount of street dogs (can you call them street dogs though if they live on a mountain?). There was a family up there selling firewood and the woman even offered to bring up breakfast for us in the morning, which we declined. We ventured back down to the little town in search for some beer, eventually finding someone who sold us some warm cans and we watched a pack of teenagers walking around trying to look cool with music blasting from the boom box they carried. Once back up to the Cerro the clouds cleared out for a moment and we had a fun night around the fire with our warm beers. The night, however, was not quite as pleasant as the wind ripped across the unprotected peak and for the first time in my life I was fearful of my tent breaking. We woke up in the morning to find that the stray dogs wandering around had taken advantage of the noisy wind and had gotten into our food which was right next to but not in our tents, strewing whatever they hadn’t eaten all around the campground. They had even chewed through the tent of a fellow camper to get at their pan dulce. It made sense then why so many of them had decided to live upon this open hill.
After packing up and heading back down to the car we set out for Pinal de Amoles, where we found a little roadside restaurant that served a delicious breakfast. Pinal de Amoles is a cute town, seemingly clustered all along the ledge of the road that runs through it so as not to fall down into the valley below. We passed by a sign for homemade liqueur and thinking of our warm beer predicament the night before we decided it was better to be prepared and stopped by to stock up for the night. We walked down the steps and into a house which had the front area set up as a tasting room. An older friendly man appeared and offered us tastings of whatever flavors we wanted. He had a wide varieties of fruit and other flavors like coffee which we also quite delicious. We got a few bottles for around $7 each and continued on our way. We kept twisting and turning on the mountain pass until we started to descend a bit as we got to Puente de Dios, a natural rock formation dripping in stalactites that bridges over the River Escalera. You can park your car at a tourist-friendly area complete with restaurants and stands selling beer and quesadillas. From there you need to hire a guide since it is a protected area to go with you on the trail along the river to get to the Puente. Our guide had his dog with him, who was so accustomed to this hike that he could climb up and down the primitive ladder by himself. It’s not a particularly difficult or long hike but you definitely need to be able to climb up and down ladders and be comfortable on uneven rock. When we got to the Puente we were quite warm so left our things with the guide and got into the water to walk under the rocks. It is a pretty amazing phenomenon but I think I just loved being in a river with lots to explore. The others thought the water was too chilly so got out and ventured up the river on the rocks but I forged upriver half swimming through pools and scrambling on submerged rocks. I really really love exploring rivers in this way so I was in my glory and by the time we returned back to our guide I felt physically and emotionally refreshed. We took advantage of the food stand next to our car to grab some quesadillas and drove back up out of the valley towards Jalpan de Sierra. We didn’t stop on our way through since we were trying to get to Las Adjuntas that night to camp. We got to Campamiento Los Sauces after night had fallen and chose the campsite that seemed as far away from the action as we could get, right next to the Ayutla River. In true Mexican fashion, the campground had a restaurant so we had dinner there and then retreated to our isolated campsite to try the liquor we had gotten in Pinal.
The next morning we lazed around our campsite, enjoying the sun and the water. In the afternoon we got out to explore the actual junction where the rivers meet, seen best from the bridge up above. The two different colored rivers coming together is really a sight to be seen though I was disappointed in the carnival-like atmosphere down on the banks of the rivers here. I feel like the outdoor culture here hasn’t gotten to the point where families want to truly escape into nature but rather appreciate having entertainment and convenience when they get away. We kept going north until we arrived at Concá, another small town with one of the Franciscan missions which are scattered all throughout the Sierra Gorda. We parked in town and went to the church, where an outdoor mass was being held. This mission is the most mestizo of all, incorporating artistic compromises to the indigenous people in an effort to get them to worship there. After we had our fill of the mission, Germán’s cousin Hector told us that he knew someone that lived a little outside of town and that he had an amazingly beautiful piece of land along the river. After walking for awhile, Hector realized he didn’t completely remember how to get to this friend’s house but we didn’t really mind because we had arrived upon a stunningly beautiful view from a bridge overlooking the river with the mountain ridge behind. The water looked amazinngly turquoise and clear so we scrambled down a little path to the river where Hector and I took a dip. This was definitely the most isolated and maybe the most beautiful spot of the whole trip, I’m so glad we agreed to go find this mysterious friend.
When we got back to our campsite that night we found we had new neighbors filling in every spot along the river on both sides. At this point it was Thursday night so all the people who only had Thursday and Friday off were arriving for their vacation. It’s really a positive and a negative in that sense that the Sierra Gorda is so accessible, it’s easy to get to but in popular vacation times (like the end of Semana Santa) you may want to find a more isolated area if you don’t like crowds. The next morning we packed up early and went back to Jalpan, this time stopping to see the Jalpan Mission. Both of the missions I saw were of similar style, their orange hues and elaborate carvings a sharp contrast to the green mountainous backdrops. We kept going along our return drive, this time stopping at El Chuvejé Waterfall. It’s a very short hike to get there and again in true Mexican fashion, entrepreneurs have set up food and coffee stands in the woods along the way in case you are seized by the need for food and drink. I always laugh about the fact that in Mexico you don’t really need to be prepared when you set off somewhere as there will always be someone on the side of the road, or in this case the forest, selling you whatever food or beverage you might need. The waterfall is impressively tall and narrow but like our campsite, it was filled up with families swimming and even trying to camp in the middle of the trail. On our way back through Pinal de Amoles we stopped in again at the liqueur place to get our only souvenirs from the trip, a few more bottles of the flavors we had particularly enjoyed (we later dropped one in the parking lot of the bus station in Mexico City, I was so sad). Feeling content with our trip and filled up with fresh mountain air we went back to Querétaro, where we took the bus back to Mexico City. Overall, I really loved the Sierra Gorda. Mexico is not really a country known for its mountains but the Sierra Gorda offers amazing high altitude views all within reach with a semi-decent car. If you’re more interested in culture, there’s the missions and all the history that goes along with the Franciscans converting the indigenous people, though the indigenous culture is still maintained in some areas here. In this trip we only explored about half of the Park, there’s much more I want to see like the Swallow cave and Las Pozas, a surrealist garden nestled in the forest. I’ll definitely be back, hopefully soon rather than later.
And since I had trouble identifying places on GoogleMaps as I was planning this trip, here’s an itinerary of my trip with the destinations marked, feel free to use it!
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:
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.
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.
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 😉