Chasing Butterflies at the Reserva Mariposa Monarca

Located in the easternmost corner of of Michoacán and bordering Mexico State lies the 563sq km of the Reserva de Biosfersa de la Mariposa Monarca (The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve). The reserve was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site in 2008 and is now protected to preserve this sanctuary for its most precious annual visitors. There are three areas in the reserve to best to view this marvellous feat of nature, El Rosario, Sierra Chincua, and Cerro Pelón, all high up in the mountains. The first is the most popular, with up to 8,000 visitors a day, is apparently very commercialized and the area ruined by illegal logging – we weren’t particularly interested in joining the hoards! The second is located at a higher elevation, which means cooler (cold) nights. Apparently many of the hotels in the area aren’t heated and since cuddling can only go so far, it was a no brainer – a hotel with no heat was definitely not for us. So the third, and closest to the town of Zitácuaro seemed to fit the bill. It had descent hotels and was only a 45-minute taxi ride away from the reserve entrance. Actually this latter is in Mexico State, is the newest and best preserved reserve and was recommended to be the best choice, albeit we would need to endure a very, very steep climb. So needless to say we were all in for Cerro Pelón (aka Bald Hill).

Every autumn monarch butterflies from the US and Great Lakes area of Canada make the 4,500km journey to hibernate in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico. And … we finally found them, not without acquiring some major saddle sores and a bit of sciatica (Bob’s other side) mind you! We did this trip just over two weeks ago, (a bit behind on our blog), and although this is too much info, our butts have just healed, Bob’s back, well let’s just say he is still struggling, but I guess better to lay low at 30C rather than the alternative.

Monarch laden fir trees

Arriving in Zitácuaro on a late Sunday afternoon we were quickly able to make the necessary plans at our hotel, (in Spanglish mind you), and hired a taxi for the next morning, to take and wait for us at the entrance. So excited, the weather looked promising and the prediction was for sunny skies. Apparently if the weather is cool, cloudy or raining the butterflies may not leave their roost and subsequently be less active.

Although Lonely Planet isn’t overly complementary of Zitácuaro, Michoacán’s third largest city, we quite enjoyed it, typically Mexican. We came across and numerous food carts selling tacos, sopa (soup), enchiladas, etc. near the zocalo, Bob was in his glory. We chowed down at various carts the two nights we were there, cheap eats and oh sooo good!

Tacos al la carte
A bowl of Pozole sopa 😋

The street eats in Zitácuaro are so good, especially the Pozole soup – a new recipe for you dad!

Time to chow down
Decisions, decisions!

The town is also known for its bread and trout farms, strange combination; we can attest to the bread as the buns purchased on the street corner for a mere 4 pesos each were absolutely delicious. Maybe be something in the water??image

Town square where all the action takes place
This little guy was 8-months old & getting his first haircut

We arrived at the reserve around 9:30 a.m., hired our guides, mounted our horses and began the 1.5 hour very steep and rocky ride up the mountain side. About a half hour in we were both in agony, straddling a horse and bouncing in the saddle was taking its toll!! Who’s idea was this anyway???

The smiles can’t hide the pain! 🐎

Monarch butterflies like basking at higher altitudes so we needed to make our assent to about 3,000m. We passed through the serene and abundantly lush forest of oxyamel firs, white cedars and wild flowers. It wasn’t until we were almost to a plateau that we caught our first glimpse of the butterfly-laden branches of the oxyamel trees and started to hear a slight flapping sound. We were in total awe.  Photographs do not adequately capture the density of the colony that surrounded us. Our guide pointed out the butterflies clinging to the tree branches and trunks in order to keep their bodies warm. The tree branches were so heavily laden with butterflies they looked like they could snap at any given moment. The trail then opened up to a wide open meadow where thousands upon thousands of butterflies were assembled on the ground, gathering moisture across the grassy area. When the sun rises and the forest floor warms they take flight in magnificent gold and orange swarms to descend on the warm, humid forest floor for the hotter part of the day. Interesting fact, Monarch butterflies cannot fly if their body temperature is less than 30C and will sit in the sun or “shiver” their wings to warm up. Once at the meadow, we dismounted and continued our hike on foot further up into the forest; I believe our timing was absolutely perfect. Watching in wonder and as the temperatures warmed, the butterflies left the warmth of their colonies and began to flirt and dance magically around us, stopping to enjoy the nectar on the wild flowers and land on outstretched arms and hands.

Clinging to the oxyamel fir trees higher up in the mountains
Taking flight
Perfect peace and solitude with only the gentle flapping of wings
Catching butterflies
Magic is in the air
Our horses basking in the meadow
Enjoying the sunshine and the rest
Male sucking nectar from the wildflowers

The monarchs in our area start to head south in late September/October when the temperatures begin to cool and their journey can take up to 2-months. They cannot survive in temperatures below 10C as the cold makes makes it impossible for them to fly and when the mercury dips below 5C, they become paralyzed and end up dying. These migrating Monarch butterflies travel between 80 to 120 nautical miles a day, depending on the wind and other weather conditions, in colonies of about 20 million insects. The butterflies travel only by day and will roost overnight, usually on the branches and trunks of trees.

By the time the monarchs reach Mexico four generation of butterflies have been through their lifecycle. The ones that do fly south instinctively know where to fly as it’s believed that their sense of direction is passed on to them genetically from their ancestors. Latest research also suggests that the butterflies possess an “inner clock” which enables them to navigate by means of the sun’s position in the sky and perhaps by the magnetic pull of the earth. In March the monarchs mate and the females begin their migration back north and lay their eggs on milkweed plants, and once more the cycle begins. How the monarchs homing system works continues to be a mystery and is another of the many unanswered questions in the butterfly world.

Catching butterflies
Guess they like the turquoise colour of my jacket.
Female with a broad band of black on her wings
We were surrounded by dense forest and monarchs, of course!

So to say we witnessed one of the most spectacular natural phenomena in the world goes without saying. Magic surrounded us that day and continued to follow, flirt, and play with us as we made our long bumpy way back down down the mountain side.

Once back at the pickup area, Bob was heard muttering, “if anyone ever suggests horseback riding again SHOOT ME”! Guess the magic of the moment was meant to be broken!!!

The long and dusted road….
“DO NOT ever suggest horseback riding EVER AGAIN!”