Subject: Mexico Butterfly travelogue
Hi, Ziners -

I'd like to tell you about a trip we did the weekend of Feb 10-11. But first, some background information....

Every year in November 100 to 150 million Monarch butterflies migrate from Canada to Mexico, specifically to an area in the state of Michoacan. This part of Michoacan, which includes the municipalities of Angangueo, Ocampo and Zitacuaro, offers the most favorable conditions for the Monarch. There are several butterfly sanctuaries, but only 2 or 3 can be visited, the most famious being El Rosario. The butterflies spend the winter in Michoacan and mate, then begin their journey back to Canada in March.

The amazing thing about the migration is that the butterflies that migrate from Canada are not the same as the ones that return to Canada from Mexico, since the Monarch butterflies live only a number of months. The butterflies that return to Canada are descendents of the ones that left the previous spring.

The butterflies reach sexual maturity in a warm spring climate; this is the reason for their migration. In Michoacan you can see butterflies connected together flying in the air, falling gently to the ground as they mate.

The search for the Monarchs' winter home began in 1938, and ended in 1974 when a Canadian zoologist discovered the location.

The Monarch feeds on alkaloid plants which are poisonous to other species. This acts as a protection to the butterflies because potential predators such as birds will not eat them.

The butterflies travel over 2800 kms - flying 110 kms per day, for around 25 days, and have been doing this for 40,000 years. Scientists estimate that approximately 35% of the butterflies that migrate to Mexico die because of unfavourable climatic conditions and predators. More recently, illegal logging has been threatening to destroy the winter refuge of the butterflies, which could force them to change their migratory patterns.

Our Weekend

We were 3 couples from the Canadian Embassy. We rented one of the embassy's vehicles - a Ford Yukon, a 4-wheel drive that comfortably seats 7 people, and were on the road by 9am. We had hotel reservations in a town called Ciudad Hidalgo, which was about 3 1/2 hours from Mexico City. Our hotel - believe it or not - cost us only $21 Cdn for the night (!). Hidalgo was 45 mins. from Angangeo, the village closest to the El Rosario sanctuary. I had tried to reserve our rooms in the Don Bruno hotel in Angangeo, but it was completely booked. No wonder - it was the best and nicest hotel in the whole area. It was also one of the few hotels in all of Angangeo, Ocampo and Zitacuaro that had a telephone!

Ciudad Hidalgo was nothing special, but it wasn't the worst place we've been to, either. There was a market right outside our hotel door which we wandered around (and where we bought delicious strawberries), and there was a very nice restaurant where we went for both lunch and dinner (also because there was no where else to go!). We visited caves that afternoon located 10 km from Hidalgo, and were taken on a guided tour - just the 6 of us - by a local guide. The caves weren't very extensive, but they were quite interesting. Outisde the caves we could see petrified leaves in the rock. The scenery in the whole area was really beautiful.

The next morning we were to drive to Angangeo - 45 mins. - but unfortunately we took the wrong road, and it took us about 1 1/2 hours to get there. Angangeo is located at 3000 meters above sea level. Once we got to Angangeo, there was a narrow, steep dirt road we had to take to get to the sanctuary. We debated on leaving the vehicle parked in Angangeo and getting local transportation (there are lots of vans that can be rented - with the driver - to take you up to the sanctuary, and then the driver waits for you), but in the end, Paul, who was driving, decided to be adventurous and drive all the way up. The only hair-raising moments were when other cars were coming from the other direction, and there was barely enough room for both to pass. One of the 2 vehicles - always the other because the size of our Yukon was rather intimidating - had to back up until it reached a spot where there was enough room for the 2 cars to pass each other. Once we got up to the top, we parked and then it was another 15-minute walk to the sanctuary. But walking up the hill in the sanctuary - that was a grueling, steep climb! I had to stop every couple of minutes to catch my breath, and my temples started hurting and pounding. After all, we were up at 3100 meters above sea level! A few times I almost thought I wasn't going to make it. (We heard that one woman had passed out, and we saw them coming with a stretcher - it looked more like a flat lawn chair - to get her).

There were literally millions of butterflies in the trees. The trees, which were all oyamel trees, were very tall, and the branches were high up, so the hoards of butterflies on the branches looked like clumps of dead leaves from that distance. It was really a sight to see when they started fluttering around, filling the sky. We saw a few butterflies fluttering to the ground as they mated.

You can stay as long as you like in the sanctuary, but since the 6 of us were no longer together, we didn't want to stay too long in case the others had already left the sanctuary, so we headed out (in all we spent almost 1 1/2 hours in the sanctuary).

Just outside the sanctuary, there were loads of market stands, almost all selling exclusively tacky tourist souvenirs, and all with the ubiquitous Monarch butterfly on it. Mingling amongst all the visitors were young girls selling postcards and photographs of the butterflies. There were also a few food stands, but unless you have a cast-iron stomach that is not affected by anything, it's better to avoid food from these kind of stands.

We headed back to Angangeo where we stopped for lunch in a very nice restaurant (just in time, because after we arrived, a group of 20 people arrived, and then the restaurant filled up with other people). The restaurant is next door to the Don Bruno hotel. We all commented on how lovely the hotel looked (we also noted that it was 4-5 times the price of the hotel we had stayed at). We finally headed home around 3:30pm for our 3 1/2 hour drive home.

Laurie in Mexico City