There are some days you never forget. That’s what I tell myself, anyway—and then two months or two years later, the details have disappeared into a fog. “Oh yes, I was there…let me see…” Monday was one of those days, so I’ll try to capture it here in the hopes that the exercise will etch it more firmly in my memory.
We’ve been spending winters in central Mexico for a long time now, but we’ve never found our way to the Monarch butterfly sanctuaries in the mountains of Michoacán. Last week, Jack ran into a man who had just returned and said the butterflies were at their best right now—increasingly active as they prepare for the first leg of their long trek north. So—we hastily made plans with our good friends Antonio and Eloisa and left on Sunday afternoon to drive into the mountains of Michoacán.
We spent Sunday night in the unpronounceable town of Tlapujahua, which should have been a three hour drive but somehow, what with an unreliable GPS and a number of mis-turns, took more like five.
Many small Mexican towns specialize in a single commercial item. In the case of Tlapujahua, it’s Christmas ornaments. They even claim to be the home of Santa Claus, though as a Canadian, I know that claim to be blatantly fraudulent—perhaps worthy of a NAFTA challenge! Look! He’s not even wearing a hat!
Monday morning, with advice culled from various websites and the name of a guide from the lovely lady who owns the hotel in Tlapujahua, we aimed for a 10:00 am arrival at the sanctuary. The butterflies aren’t active until the morning sun warms them, so in this case, earlier is not better.
At just after 10, we were the first car in the lot—the beginning of what turned out to be a series of fortuitous decisions. The best month of the year, the best day of the week, the best hour of the day. So said our guide, Diego, who also fits into the fortuitous classification, as does the best imaginable weather.
You all know about the Monarchs. How they require the milkweed plant to reproduce; how said plant is becoming rarer and rarer in our fields and along our roadsides; how these orange and black beauties fly the great distance south to central Mexico every summer. I knew all this, and a bit more. But I wasn’t sure what to expect when—after much discussion about the horseback option— we headed off on foot with Diego.
We had already reached an altitude of 10,000 feet by car—3,000 feet higher than Guanajuato. From the edge of the parking area, we followed a gently undulating trail around the side of the mountain. The strenuous climb I’d anticipated never materialized. The temperature was pleasantly cool and the walk mostly in shade. We walked for much of an hour through dense pine forest before seeing our first Monarchs— small numbers at first, fluttering in the warm pockets of sunshine where the trail ran close to the edge of a steep drop. The farther we walked, the more butterflies we saw, and as Diego explained their complex life cycle, the more in awe I became of their combination of delicacy and resilience.
These tiny creatures, weighing half a gram each, are now, in late February, nearing the end of their 9-month lives. They left Canada and the northern U.S. last August and arrived here, in this specific segment of pine forest, in November, where they attached themselves to specific trees—the same trees, generation after generation—to hibernate through the winter months. They are now awakening from their winter’s rest and mating.
Most of the males will die here, after mating three times. The remaining males and the females bearing fertilized eggs will soon depart, heading north. When they reach Texas and Florida in March or April, they will lay eggs and die. Within a few weeks, the newly laid eggs will have gone through the larval and pupal stages, and the next generation of butterflies will emerge and continue their journey north. This will happen twice more, once in May or June, and then again—finally—in Canada and the U.S. northeast, in July or August. But unlike the two- to six-week life span of the first three generations, this generation will live nine months—long enough to fly south, overwinter, and begin the trip north again.
Many of the butterflies we saw yesterday were awakening, some were mating, and some continued to cling to the Oyamel fir trees where they have passed the winter months. We did see groups of them flitting against the blue sky, but capturing those images turned out to be a challenge–so camera-man Jack is a bit frustrated with the results.
According to Diego (and I’m a little unsure about the numbers here) this particular reserve is the wintering area for some 11 million Monarchs. That number seems staggering, but in fact it’s a concern. Two decades ago, scientists estimated a total population of one billion. According to a recent report from Texas A & M University, after record lows the last few years, the estimated population this year has rebounded, but is still only an estimated 100 million. And it’s unclear whether this is a real sign of recovery or merely a blip in the downward trend.
Just past a rope marking the end of the trail, designed to keep tourists from agitating the still-resting butterflies, stand a handful of Oyamel firs still dense with butterflies clustered on their leaves and clinging to their trunks. They will have to wake up soon; the date for migration is rapidly approaching.
As we approached the area with the densest population, Diego warned us to be quiet. After months of hibernation, ingesting little more than water, any unnecessary agitation saps the energy they need for the long flight ahead.
We four were the only observers—a magical time. Just how magical became clear when Diego explained that just the day before eighty cars crammed the parking lot, along with several tour buses. On such days, he conducts four tours and each group is hurried along the trail and limited to fifteen minutes at the final observation point. We took our time walking and lingered for at least half an hour at the end point, relaxing, taking photos, and imagining the imminent flight of these tiny creatures.
Monarch tourism has its detractors. In fact, until recently I was one of them. How can it be good for this fragile population to have thousands of admirers traipsing through their territory? And that’s surely a reasonable question. But like all ecotourism, there’s a flip side. The Monarchs depend on this territory. So do local human inhabitants. I don’t know all the ins and outs of the land use issues—and clearly they were not fully resolved by the Mexican government’s designation of this land as a reserve in 1975—but it does seem clear that providing tourism-related employment to local communities reduces pressure to harvest the forest for private use and commercial advantage. And it’s certainly raised awareness of the butterflies’ plight in northern climes, where pressure is growing to plant and preserve the milkweed plants they depend on.
On the walk back—and on horseback for the final stretch—we encountered quite a few groups en route and were doubly glad we’d arrived earlier.
Before driving back to Guanajuato, we ate at one of the several eating establishments on the grounds—this one owed by Diego’s mother, who dished up a traditional plate of meat, rice, beans, and nopales (cactus).