travelog 64

Mariposa Monarca

Meadows and woods are covered with a powdery white layer of frost. Sheds smoke from every pore where breakfast is being prepared inside. Even the police are already on the road with their Unimogs, trying to stop the illegal cutting of timber. We are the first to arrive at the Sierra Chincua and promptly miss the parking lot because there's no sign. Diego Gonzales Vidal, a guard in this small place, runs after us and leads us into his hut where we first warm ourselves with steaming "cafe de olla", coffee brewed in a pot and flavored differently from household to household with cinnamon, vanilla and lots of sugar. We also get some quesadillas with spicy salsa to fortify ourselves. At 9 am the sun reaches this corner of the Sierra Chincua and soon the frost melts away. It turns out that Diego is no guide but only a guard. Nonetheless, because there's nobody else around, we can convince him to guide us today to see the Monarch butterflies. Wrapped up we wander over the meadows toward the woods. From time to time a dead orange-black butterfly lies in the wet grass. We hike along the southern side of the mountain on a small trail, enjoying the magnificent vistas of the valleys far below us. Rocks along the trail are always interesting for us and at 3300m (10'800 feet) we unexpectedly find one of our special plants, an Echeveria! The locals call this plant "magueyito del cerro", the little century plant from the mountain. The plants form pretty blue cushions in the shady cliffs. Next to it we stumble over a Sedum, a plant called "chisme", the thing. Thistles and a red flowering sage are still in bloom. Diego also points to other medicinal plants that have multiple uses.

Soon we reach the place where the horses have to be "parked". Tourists who are bad walkers at such altitudes, and are in generally bad shape, can hire guides with horses and ride to this place. Still they have to walk the last part of the way and this can drag on depending on where the butterflies settled. The Monarch butterflies spend the winter in such altitudes clinging to a special fir species, the oyamel fir. During their stay they sometimes change places, often when they're disturbed by noisy or careless onlookers. To prevent this from happening the local Indian population put up rules and tourists are only allowed to visit the area with an official guide. Besides, as soon as it gets warmer the butterlies move to lower altitudes.

Now the path is very wide and well trampled. We see more and more of the black-orange butterlies floating in the air. They gather on leaves and flowers in really sunny clearings. Soon they buzz and flutter around us and there are more and more. Below the path are some trees that look unreal, thick and grayish-black. They're completely covered with butterflies waiting for the warmth of the day. With Diego we get a lot closer to some of these trees that are covered over and over with butterflies. The branches hang low because of the weight of millions of butterflies. It often happens that branches break under this enormous weight. It gets warmer slowly and the butterflies are more active now. If you're standing very still, you can hear an unreal rustling around you. It's not from the wind, it's the countless butterflies fluttering through the air. Many dead butterflies lie in the moss and grass. The long migration was probably too strenuous. Soon we're not alone anymore, other visitors appear on the scene and it's over with the wonderful peace and quiet in the woods. But then there are also more and more butterflies hovering all around and over us. A colorful dance takes place over our heads and we could spend hours sitting on a tree trunk just watching. But here everything is fully planned and we're actually out here with our guide for too long, the "allowed" 20 minutes having long passed.

Monarch butterflies migrate to different places to overwinter. Butterflies west of the Rocky Mountains migrate to a few places along the coast of California. On the other hand, the ones east of the Rockies migrate in November far south into the mountains of Michoacan. No other butterfly in the world covers such distances, up to 4500km (2800 miles), to reach its overwintering place. In huge masses the butterflies always fly into the same area, often even to the same trees. One would expect such behaviour from birds or whales, but with the Monarchs, only the third or fourth generation completes the migration, without ever having been there before. How they find their way is still an unsolved mystery. In the spring, around the second week of March in Michoacan, when the temperatures are warm enough, the butterflies leave for their journey north. On the way they lay their eggs on plants of the genus Asclepia. This generation of butterflies flies all the way back to the US and Canada where they die. Their offspring have a much shorter lifespan and 3 to 4 generations will pass in the same summer until those butterflies hatch that will set out in fall on the long journey to Mexico. Monarch butterflies feed on Asclepia plants from which they take in poisonous substances (cardiac glycosides). These substances make them inedible for vertebrates such as frogs, lizards, mice and birds, etc. Admittedly, this doesn't help the butterfly if it is already bitten to death, but it also protects itself through warning colors such as orange, black and white. Besides, studies showed that birds, after once eating a Monarch butterfly, vomit violently and from then on they eliminate the butterfly from their menu.

The way back to the car goes on and on. Despite the 3400m (11'200 feet) above sea level, it gets pretty warm once the sun burns down. This time we take the normal route where we meet many horses around noon. It's unpleasantly dusty with every step and we much prefer the other little path to this one. The only interesting thing here is to watch how people are dressed for their trip to the butterflies. Returning we see the most amazing figures riding by on horses; fat men and women, the heaviest was apparently a man with about 140kg (over 300 pounds) (poor horse!). They rock past us and especially the women impress us again and again with their clothes. One pretty Mexican lady wears a relatively short black skirt that of course rode up when she mounted the horse, black stockings and black leather boots with high heels. Another woman comes along with fancy sandals with high heels as well. Back at the village of stalls and huts, there's a lot going on. At every corner somebody wants to sell us photos or handmade monarch butterflies or crochet work. Now all the little restaurants are open too and again we eat at our guide's wife's place. This time we try "atole" with our meal, a thick beverage made of masa (corn dough), water, sugar, and blackberries that is served very hot and tastes delicious.

We spend the rest of the day in Angangueo, a former mining town. The entire village stretches over a few kilometers because it's built into a narrow canyon. In front of the local police station we see a Unimog parked on the street. Of course this arouses our interest. The few guarding policemen are suspicious in the beginning. But after we explain to them that we also have such a vehicle and show them a photo of it, they're much friendlier and we can even take pictures. They explain that the Mexican state police has about 100 such vehicles to move troops around, to sort things out in hard to reach areas, or as mentioned in the beginning, to stop illegal timber trade.

There are many steep and narrow streets, without exception the houses are painted in bright colors, with the Christmas decoration still up at end of January. Balconies and gardens are a magnificent display of flowers and inbetween we can sometimes spot one or another crassulacee. Chickens and turkeys peck in the dirt, next to them some dogs doze in the sun, and a few sheep and goats are tethered outside of the gardens. Around the market tortilla presses screech and the flies swarm around the meat hanging outside the butcher shops. Down here one only notices that he's near a tourist attraction because of the few souvenir shops, otherwise Angangueo is a little sleepy Mexican village.

After a night in one of the usual Mexican beds, nailed together planks with a mattress on top, we set off to our next destination with hurting limbs.

November-February 2005

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen