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.

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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!

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Tacos al la carte
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A bowl of Pozole sopa 😋

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

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Time to chow down
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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

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Town square where all the action takes place
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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.

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

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Catching butterflies
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Guess they like the turquoise colour of my jacket.
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Female with a broad band of black on her wings
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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!!!

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

Morelia es el Alma de México!(Morelia it’s the soul of México)

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The sign says it all

We were looking for butterflies, Monarch butterflies to be exact. I had read about this marvellous feat of nature where millions of butterflies make their long journey from eastern Canada and the US to winter over in Mexico. Setting out on our journey this year little did we realize we would actually be seeing this marvel up close and personal.

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Making our way from Guadalajara, on our sojourn to experience the butterflies, we travelled into the heartland of Mexico, and stayed in lovely under the radar towns; what treasures they turned out to be. Pre-Hispanic traditions and colonial style architecture meet up in Michoacán state. Now for those of you who read the travel advisories, Michoacán is a region of Mexico that has gotten a particularly bad rap. For the past several years, whenever Michoacán has made headlines, it’s been related to drug cartels and narco insurgencies, and as a result the travel advisories have warned visitors to stay away. Yes, there are definitely areas to be avoided, primarily deep into the countryside, areas tourists are not likely to find themselves in. We did our due diligence, made several inquiries regarding safety in this area and were reassured that a lot of the problem are now in the past and we would have no problems with the towns we planned to visit.

Now this is authentic Mexico, no habla the English from the folks in these towns and often it seemed like we were the only gringos in town. Curious stares often confirmed the same and those who did know a bit of English were curious to know where we were from. What we do know is that the people are very kind, friendly and always anxious to help when needed.

Morelia, the state capital, was our first stop and such a delightful surprise, actually exceeding expectations. A UNESCO World Heritage site it is a beautiful, well-preserved colonial city with too many historic buildings to count. The focal point is huge cathedral that is absolutely spectacular, especially when illuminated at night. This city is blessed with gorgeous churches, museums, a perfectly preserved aqueduct, gardens with bougainvillea overflowing the high pink quarry-stone walls and perfectly trimmed lush ficus trees. This all makes the city a picture-perfect historic center that would put many a European capital city to shame. This is also a college/university town and at night the sidewalk cafes are buzzing, music fills the air and the zocalo oozes with the locals out and about eating, drinking, watching the street buskers or just hanging out. We were fortunate to be there over a weekend and enjoyed the weekly Saturday night fireworks in front of the cathedral. On Sunday morning the main streets are again closed and bicyclists are out gliding their way along the pathways.

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Supporting the cause
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Park with cafes
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Friday night and the cafes are jammed
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The masses were out enjoying the show
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Street vendors were everywhere
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Interesting fresco in a very old library (thought you’d like this Martha)
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Portion of the huge aqueduct in Morelia
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Street scene

Sunday morning biking.
IMG_5780One morning while out exploring we came upon a church square, away from the main cathedral, with a huge police presence, riot gear neatly laid out on the ground. The ever present shoeshine guys were conducting their daily business while others sat docilely in the square chatting and kids were running around. Curious I wandered over to a police officer enquiring que pasa? We found out that the striking teachers were in the capital protesting wages and benefits. Guess this is a common thread wherever you go!

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We decided to take a side trip one day to a nearby Pueblos Mágicos town. With a few enquiries we figured out the connections, hopped on a collectivo, (a van that picks up passengers along designated routes) then a local bus and an hour later we found ourselves in the beautiful city/historic town of Pátzcuaro. This quaint town is known as the arts and culture center for the State of Michoacán. Smaller villages bringing in their specialized crafts such as copperware, black pottery, musical instruments, and baskets. The adobe and wood houses have red-tiled roofs and cobblestone streets dominate the center of town. Unlike all the other towns and cities in Mexico we have visited the main church, Basilica of Nuestra Señora de la Salud, does not face the main plaza. This church is built on a pre-Hispanic ceremonial hilltop overlooking the town. The church is grand and behind the altar is a statue of Nuestra Señora de la Salud, “Our Lady of Health” made in the 16th century out of corncob and honey paste called “tatzingue” by the Tarascan people. Pilgrims come from all over Mexico seeking healing and miracles have been cited. Small pictures of loves ones and amulets are pinned to the mystical Virgin Mary’s skirt.

We also stumbled upon a wedding while visiting the church and stayed to observe the ceremony, definitely different from North American weddings, very modest and not a lot of frills.IMG_5827

This is an exhibit of the masks made throughout the different states in Mexico, some are quite antique. We had fun figuring out which mask best suits our personality. Guess it could also depend on the day and how we are feeling!!!? 🤡

It was a Saturday and the markets were ready and waiting! There was actually a lot of holistic type of herbs available and we purchased some marijuana cream, but since pot is illegal in Mexico I doubt it is the real thing.  Oh well what do you expect for 40 pesos!

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Mexicans love their sweetsIMG_5842 One of my favourite pictures – quintessential Mexico!IMG_5819IMG_5818IMG_5814IMG_5812IMG_5798IMG_5796

We could have stayed longer in Morelia and the surrounding area but a bus ticket had been purchased and we were headed to Zitacuera to chase the butterflies.

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Busing it from Morelia to Zitacuera

Note – click on the individual picture to get a full screen view of each