Oaxaco: Finding Shangri-la

From Playa del Carmen we flew to the beautiful state of Oaxaca (wha-HAH-Kah) starting our sojourn in the city with the same name. Earlier in our travels we entertained ideas of perhaps heading to Belize and Guatemala but as they say, “all the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”. So we came up with Plan B, better to err on the side of caution, slow down, and head back to the Pacific Coast. Bob was marginally better so we decided not to push our luck.

Just when you think it couldn’t get any better, you come across yet another absolutely beautiful place and you fall in love all over again!! The state of Oaxaco has everything one could dream of: a beautiful colonial city, indigenous towns, rolling mountain ranges, lush valleys, unbelievable weather, and gorgeous beaches. IMG_2900Oaxaco City- beautiful buildings, zocalos bursting with people, art galleries, gorgeous  woven blankets, hand embroidered shirts, musicians, so much talent. It truly is a cultural and culinary epicentre where trying to choose a restaurant, bar or coffee shop is nigh on impossible. Mole, a traditional sauces that comes in 7-distinctive flavours are a Oaxacan signature. We only tried the mole negra on pollo (chicken); rich, smokey, spices and flavoured with chocolate.

In the beverage department, aside from the ever popular mezcal (another agave based liquor), Oaxacan favorites include chocolate con leche (steaming hot chocolate spiced with cinnamon), jamaica agua fresca (hibiscus flower drink), and aqua horchata, (cinnamon rice drink). I will definitely be making these when we get home and have stocked up on the ingredients to do so. For my Kombucha making compadres, the hibiscus flowers are sure to make a wonderful tasting brew. 🌺

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Balloon vendors in the zocolo
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Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, at one time a monastery
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Colourful buildings
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We crossed paths with these guys a few times as they hauled their wares uphill

We spent several days enjoying Oaxaco City before heading to the Oaxacan coast opting to fly on a small 12-seater plane. We had read the alternative, busing it for nine gruelling hours on a narrow switch-back mountain highway is terrifying! Life is too short to be whiteknucking it for that length of time. Bob got to sit up front in the right seat and was in his glory chatting with the pilot as we flew between the mountains during our 40-minute flight.IMG_2462

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Part of the long & winding road we passed up!
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El Captain & 1st Officer Bob

Bahias de Huatulco, or just Huatulco (wah-TOOL-coh), was our first and ultimately last stop and is actually an area, not a town per se. It is Mexico’s youngest planned resort and is made up of a series of 9 bays and 36 pristine white sandy beaches along a 26km jagged coastline. The main areas include the marina/port area of Santa Cruz where the cruise ships pull in about 4-times per month, the all-inclusive resort area of Tangolunda, the Marina and smaller hotel/condo Bahia Chahue with its “Blue Flag” beach designation, and the small town of La Crucecita with restaurants, numerous shops, markets, etc.

The weather here is outstanding, nothing but sunshine and blue skies. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Eco-friendly, safe, very clean, no building is higher than 4-stories, (aside from the all-inclusive resorts), and has a very laid-back vibe; definitely a haven for Canadians, especially from the western provinces. It maintains its Mexican culture and has avoided all the big North American franchises. Pssst, now the word is now out!!

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Great map showing the bays
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Bahia Maguey
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La Crucecita zocalo with Virgin of Guadalupe church in the background

Renting a car we headed further up the coast to the towns of Puerto Angel, Zipolete, San Agustinillio, Mazunte and Puerto Escondito. We met up with my gym buddy and friend Joanne and her husband Fred in the San Agustinillio/Mazunte area and enjoyed a laid-back, fun-filled week. These are small ocean-side beach towns where you can enjoy watching hump-back whales, dolphins, and sea turtles. Puerto Ángel, a small fishing town and naval port, wasn’t too impressive, Zipolite is known for its nude beaches, San Agustinillio for its tranquility, and Mazunte named a Pueblo Mágicos in 2015.

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Road that passes through Mazunte. Truck taxi in background.

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Mazunte, considered the bigger town of the four, is especially interesting, lots of new-gen hippies, yoga enthusiasts attending a world famous yoga instruction facility, backpackers, and options for those who enjoy….well let’s just say other diversions! What happens in Mazunte stays in Mazunte (right Joanne?).😇

The Santuario de las Tortugas is also in Mazunte and was developed over concern with the declining number of sea turtles. Up and down the coast, but especially in the Mazunte area, marine and some freshwater turtles come to lay their eggs each year. The major income for the families at one time was hunting turtles for their meat. All that changed in 1970 with a ban on turtle meat and eggs and was replaced by ecotourism based on the conservation of turtles and a cooperative natural cosmetics industry was developed. Interesting fact, the Body Shop founder visited Mazunte in the early 1990s and impressed with the sustainability efforts agreed to distribute cosmetics made here with local ingredients.

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Open air bar and Kombucha!
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What about Bob? As close as he got to the 2018 Zipolite Nudist Festival!
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Enjoying the gorgeous sunset with Joanne, Fred & Bob

Bob has always been interested in visiting Puerto Escondido to have the experience of watching surfers ride the “Mexican Pipeline”. Being so close, (~67km), it only made sense to head up the coast to Playa Zicatela. A very wide 3km long beach, we watched as surfers hit the big, very scary waves as the sun was setting. Again there are several bays to dip your toes into.

While walking the beach late one afternoon we were fortunate enough to join in on a turtle release. The baby turtles hatched earlier in the day and after a short educational overview we watched and cheered them on as they scurried into the surf, some tumbling back as the waves crashed down on them and finally sweeping them into the big, vast ocean waters. This is a common practice up and down the coast and one can only hope they survive.

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Surfers-Playa Zicatela, Puerto Escondido

On one of our last days in Huatulco we treated ourselves with a day pass to the adults-only/all-inclusive Secrets Resort and Spa.  Such a nice treat!!

Other than meeting up with our kids and friends in Playa, we certainly didn’t plan a beach vacation this year. But life had other plans for us and we wouldn’t change a thing. I am a firm believer that life unfolds the way it should, and yes Bob is back to normal (whatever that is!). Tincture of time is a wonderful thing.

Hands down, the best location we visited this year was the state of Oaxaco and we would definitely come back in a heartbeat.

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Our hotel pool, just perfect for cooling off 🌊

Marvellous Mérida

Pastel buildings, some faded and peeling, traditional Spanish colonial architecture, deserted streets with little traffic was the scene that greeted us as we made our way to our Airbnb in Mérida. Having an eagle eye view as our plane descended we could see the city sprawling below, not such a small place after all! We took a local bus from the airport and somehow found our way on the grid-like streets, not an easy task for Bob in particular. Somewhere between the horse-back ride to see the Mariposa Monarcha and the miles of walking in Mexico City the dull ache of sciatica blossomed full scale and was taking its toll on mi esposo! Perhaps it was the sudden change in altitude; we left CDMX at 2,200m (7,200 ft) above sea level to Mérida a mere 10m (30 ft) above sea level. Walking any distance was very difficult, so we hunkered down in our comfortable little apartment taking taxis and short walks, as the pain permitted, to explore this lovely city.

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Built on the Mayan city of T’hó, Spanish conquistadors, lead by Francisco de Montejo, renamed Mérida after the Spanish town of the same name. Carved Maya stones from ancient T’hó were widely used to build the many Spanish colonial buildings in the centro histórico area and are visible, for instance, in the walls of the main cathedral.

Much of the architecture in the city, reflects the opulent European influence of the time, with Spanish courtyards, French doors and Italian-tiled floors.

IMG_0450  The capital of the Yucatán State, the once thriving sisal industry made this area very prosperous and a center of commerce, not to mention culture. Agave plant fibre was harvested to make henequén, (rope), and many maquiladoras, (manufacturing plants), opened. However, with the invention of artificial fibres the plants closed, commerce suffered, the wealth of the city declined leaving behind remnants of a more affluent time. This is evidenced by the grand mansions along the imposing Paseo de Montejo. This wide boulevard, built during Mérida’s prime at the end of the 19th century, was the attempt of city planners to emulate the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City or the Champs Elysées in Paris.

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Paseo de Montejo

The Plaza Grande in Mérida is very typical of Spanish colonial towns: a wide green square or zocalo where people come to meet, hang out, and enjoy the shade of huge laurel trees. As with other cities and towns, the zocalo is framed on one side by a cathedral with the other three sides housing government buildings, banks, cafes, and restaurants.

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Cathedral de Ildefonso
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Plaza Grande & Cathedral de Ildefonso
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Polished marble tiled floors of Palacio Municipal
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Palacio Municipal exterior
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Roaming vendors in the square

One of the buildings framing the Plaza is La Casa de Montejo built in 1549. It originally housed soldiers but was soon converted into a mansion where members of the Montejo family lived until 1970. Nowadays it houses a museum and bank. The outside facade is remarkably well preserved and shows triumphant conquistadors with halberds standing on heads of the barbarians who are depicted much smaller than the victors.

 

As with any city, a visit to the market is a must especially after reading a brilliant account of the Merida markets. This sentence aptly summed up most Mexican markets we have visited: “It was chaos. Mérida had taken the jigsaw puzzle called “Shopping”, hacked up the pieces with scissors, stuffed them into a piñata, and then hit it with a rocket launcher.”

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Mérida gave us time to regroup and come up with a plan to try and deal with Bob’s back and subsequent leg issue. He needed a prescription for the same medication, (no, not THAT wonder drug), he took when dealing with a previous bout of sciatica. An American style private hospital with English speaking physicians was recommended by our Airbnb host, so off we went to the emergency department. Despite our initial reservations, we were pleasantly surprised by the efficiency and professionalism of everyone we came in contact with not to mention the ridiculously low cost of seeking such care.

Reflecting back we saw most of the recommended sights and feel we did the city justice. We did miss some of the evening activities as there seems to be something going on almost every night and our typical long walks were also shelved for the time being. Definitely not fun being laid up while travelling, but must say Bob is a trooper and made the best of this unfortunate situation.

Looking forward to connecting with our adult children and our long time best friends, we headed off to Playa del Carmen. Sun, sand, surf and hot weather might just be the right antidote for Roberto!!

Where Have We Been????🌞☀️💫

It’s been quite a while since our last post! Apparently ‘Mexico life’ has gotten in the way, but hey we’re not complaining, it could always be worse!! Where to begin, well lots has happened, saddle sores have healed, sciatica abated, reunions have been had, new friends made, and overall life goes on and we feel blessed and are thankful for every single day.  So we shall begin the update, picking up from where we last left off, (small chewable chunks as Bob likes to say), on our travel saga with all its twists and turns. 😎

The last you saw we were heading out on a bus to yet another Pueblo Mágico, a small town called Valle de Bravo. This town is about 160km from Mexico City and is a very popular location for weekend visits, especially for the more affluent residents of Mexico City and nearby Toluca. We thought we had purchased direct tickets to the town, but this apparently was NOT the case. When the bus pulled over along the side of the highway at an unmarked stop and the bus driver told us unceremoniously to get off,  in our Spanglish we asked “is this Valle de Bravo?” He just shook his head, pointed to the right, hopped back into the bus and headed down the highway. Looking around we didn’t quite know where we were BUT a friendly cab driver, (hummm, wonder why), told us that Valle was about another 40km in a different direction. Full bore into negotiations we finally agreed on a fare and off we went on the winding road at top-notch speed. What we have learned, there are two speeds for cab drivers here in Mexico, stop and go like hell!!

IMG_6059Valle de Bravo, another gorgeous little town, sits on Lago Avándaro, a man-made lake, the result of building a hydroelectric plant that was completed in 1947. The lake, ringed by thickly wooded, mist-clad mountains is a center for water sports and paragliding. The town’s steep cobbled streets are lined with well-preserved red-tiled colonial buildings and anchor the Plaza de la Independencia and the 17th-century San Francisco de Asis Church. It is like eternal spring here, green foliage, lovely flowers, warm days, cool evenings

The main street is a jumble of shops and restaurants with the one road leading into the town continuously gridlocked. The day we arrived school must have just been dismissed, parents and kids swarmed the streets making walking difficult, especially while trying to drag our bags and find our hotel in the hot afternoon sun.

Making our way down the hill to the waterfront we weren’t overly impressed, the area looked seedy and a bit rundown. There were many speedboats and sailboats docked in the water but there seemed to be a lack of docks.  Hawkers tried to entice us to take the half-circle tour boat trip around the lake that apparently provides a great view of the waterfront and the sky-scraping rock called La Peña,  the precipice where paragliders take their flight. We quickly decided we weren’t particularly interested in enduring the booming disco music for the hour-long trip, guess we are just spoiled with our beautiful Kingston waterfront and vistas.

Next stop, Cuiadid de Mexico or as we know it Mexico City.

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Gorgeous, colourful poinsettia bushes
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Walking down one of the streets in Valle de Bravo
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Breakfast time near the zocalo
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Breakfast & Spanish lessons in our garden
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Angel meets 😇
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Time to stop & smell the flowers 🌺
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Making fresh tacos  🌮 

 

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Time to move on
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The gathering
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Adios Valle

 

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