by Renée Huang
Follow the Butterflies to Angangueo, Mexico
head was in a fog and crisp, early morning mountain
air whistled through my hair as we road the back
of a banged-up pickup truck up through winding
switchbacks into the towering forests of Michoacán,
was hard to believe we were even in Mexico, land
of proverbial palm trees, sandy beaches and eternal
sunshine. I was bundled up in two sweaters, long
pants and a jacket and the cool, fresh air reminded
me more of my native Canada than the warm tropics.
we'd come to the tiny mountain village of Angangueo,
a cobblestoned mining town in the central state
of Michoacán, not for the climate but to
witness the amazing winter migration of many millions
of monarch butterflies.
Each year at the first signs of frost, these beautiful
orange and black winged creatures journey thousands
of miles from Canada and the United States seeking
the creaking forest shelters where they spend
the winter months in a state of semi-hibernation
until the warm spring winds call them home.
the perilous trip south, a single butterfly can
travel approximately 50 miles a day and log as
much as 2,000 miles by the time it reaches one
of five official monarch wintering sanctuaries
in Mexico. The spring migration begins in February,
with surviving butterflies mating and laying eggs
along the journey back to the north. The Aztec,
Mexico's ancient indigenous peoples, believed
Monarch butterflies to be the incarnation of their
fallen warriors wearing the colors of battle.
heard that experiencing the monarchs was intoxicating
and incredibly beautiful, but as we neared the
summit of the mountain where El Rosario butterfly
sanctuary lay in the crease of a sunny valley,
I could hardly imagine what it would be like.
an hour-long trip from Angangueo that took us
past corn fields planted in the folds of the steep
mountainside, we pulled into a parking area of
matted down grass. A valley basin at an altitude
of 10,000 feet strewn with wildflowers and overgrown
weeds stretched out before us not far from where
the pines and firs began their gradual ascent.
hired a local guide, a tiny and stocky woman with
Aztec features and a quick, steady gait, and began
our 40-minute hike up through the forest.
Upon entrance into the forest, we scarcely noticed
any butterflies. The tidy path through the trees
was neatly tended and laid with woodchips. All
around us huge oyamel trees soared skyward piercing
the pale blue morning sky. Sunlight cut thin beams
of light through the thickly-spaced forest as
the spicy scent of pine mingled with morning mist
that rose off the trees.
something about the trees looked unusual. Suddenly
it all becomes clear: the thick boughs that drooped
with what appears to be dried, orangey-brown leaves
were actually covered with monarchs. The further
we ascended, the more thickly coated the trees
were with the butterflies. With this realization,
the magic began to envelop us.
sunlight warmed the boughs, the butterflies awoke
and took flight into the hushed forest like great
handfuls of falling leaves. They looked like swarms of fairies going about their daily business.
We closed our eyes and the sound of millions of
tiny wings flapping enveloped us like softly pattering
rain. It was magic. We were experiencing
first-hand one of nature's greatest mysteries.
butterflies' awesome migratory behavior has never
been completely explained. Scientists suggest
the annual migratory cycle (completed over three
generations of monarchs) is triggered by shortening
daylight, chilly nighttime temperatures and the
need to seek out their primary food source, the
milkweed plant, which also follows seasonal climate
continued higher up the mountain, stopping to
admire the monarchs that floated dreamily in the
air and coated leaves, branches and tree trunks
in a glittering, moving mass of orange and black.
We were lost in a sea of fluttering wings as the
monarchs coasted on the cool air and sought out
the warmth of the sun. Others that didn't make
it covered the path in a wash of glimmering earth
tones - we walked gingerly to avoid crushing them.
about 20 minutes of hiking up a gradual incline,
we emerged from the shaded forest into a wide
clearing bathed in sunlight.
It was a stunning sight. Pouring out of the tops
of the trees bordering the glen were waves of monarchs. Legions of them congregated
around shallow puddles of water lapping at the
moisture with their long, siphon-like tongues.
(We later learned this behavior is actually called
marveled at the sight and wandered up further
into the forest where we lay for a moment off
the path on a blanket of fallen leaves. As the
cool mountain air kissed our faces, I closed my
eyes and felt the darkened shadows of butterfly
wings pass across my face and brush my cheeks.
INFORMATION ON MICHOACÁN, MEXICO: click
|IF YOU GO
El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary is located 6 kilometers from the village of Angangueo and is open daily from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. from November through March.
To get there by car, make your way to Zitácuaro via highway 15 from Morelia or Toluca/Mexico City, drive north to the town of Ocampo then to Angangueo and park your car. From there you can take a truck to the sanctuary unless you prefer the pretty tough hike that takes you up a steep, rocky trail and through two river fords at over 8,500 ft. in altitude (approx. three hours).