It took us about an hour and a half of steady uphill walking to get there. Apart from a couple of rather steep sections, it wasn't particularly challenging. Certainly not as challenging as our guide had let on at the outset, where he recommended we hire a couple of horses. A half-dozen guajeros, standing in the dusty shade at the entrance to the trail, waited hopefully. Their horses were neaby, loosely tethered in groups of two or three, saddled and ready to go. But after weeks of Mexican tortillas, rice and beans, and very little exercise, we felt in need of a good walk.
“Gracias, pero preferamos caminar,” we said, as we ran the gauntlet of expectant cowboys. They kept smiling (still hopeful), but their eyes betrayed disbelief, as well as disappointment. “Es muy lejos; mejor con caballo.” (It's very far; better by horse.) By our standards an hour and a half's hike, even up hill, is not 'very far. But by Mexican standards it's well beyond contemplating: fitness hasn't caught on here yet.
Our guide grabbed his horse by the reins and started walking along with us. “You're not going to ride?” I asked. “I'll walk for a while,” he said. As the horse was coming with us in any event, I asked him to tie our day-pack, heavy with water, oranges and camera, onto the saddle. That done, the three of us started off up the trail. The cowboys called out in a last desperate chorus: 'horse, horse, horse!' Our guide shrugged and smiled to his comrades: he was indulging us; they all knew we'd want horses a few hundred yards up the trail.
With that in mind, two of them swung up into their saddles and fell in behind us. The worst of the trail wasn't the steepness, but the dust. The trail was thick with fine powdery dust, and the horses' hooves kicked up at least as high as our nostrils. The cowboys were keen to stay right with us so they could continue to make their pitch: “horse, horse, horse!?” We asked them to stay well back, pointing at the horse's feet and saying “dust, dust, dust!” It was rather like a roundelay: 'horse, horse, horse; dust, dust, dust; horse, horse, horse!; dust, dust, dust!' accompanied by the tatto of hooves.
Our tag-alongs reminded us of our hike, not so long ago, in Tiger Leaping Gorge in China. For most of the first day, which involved some very steep stretches, made more challenging by high altitude and big boulders, we were followed by a determined horseman, leading a small horse with a beautifully coloured woven blanket. Every time we stopped to catch our breath he'd point to his horse and nod. We'd smile and shake our heads: “no thanks!” At the end of the day he finally gave up. The next day's trail was much easier going – almost level. He knew he'd missed his chance.
We wondered if it would be the same story here. And sure enough, around three-quarters of an hour into our hike, the two cowboys gave up and headed back down the trail. Within fifteen minutes, our uphill slog in the dust became an easy stroll through a cool, mixed deciduous forest.
Just before we reached our destination we started seeing what we'd come for: dozens of black and orange mariposas monarcas – monarch butterflies – fluttered above us, and dozens more rested, sunning their wings, on bushes and trees by the side of the trail. But this was just a taste of what was to come... .
Fifteen minutes later, after another uphill climb, we emerged onto a high, wide plain. It was partly grassed, but largely mud: in the rainy season it becomes a shallow pond. At the far edge we could see a few groups of saddled horses. As it turned out,we were the only ones who made the hike on foot that day. The rest of the visitors had – very wisely if you were to believe the cowboys – hired horses.
Walking to the edge of the clearing we looked out over a small valley thick with vegetation. It didn't look like much, and certainly we didn't see the number of monarchs we'd expected. Were we going to be disappointed? A few tourists were straggling up from the valley, and we recognized one of them. He was a Canadian who we'd met the night before in the plaza at Ziticuaro. We'd come to Ziticuaro from Morelia, in southwestern Mexico, just to see the butterflies. But we didn't know which of the various reserve areas we should go to, or how exactly we were going to get there (bus? combi? Taxi?). When we saw him, in a group with a few other gringos, we decided to take a chance and ask them. Perhaps they'd already been to the reserve and could give us some information. As luck would have it, we'd picked the right guy: for eight years he and his son have been leading 'Butterfly Tours' in this area. He was an expert.
As it happens, not only had we lucked out in meeting someone who knew exactly where we ought to go and how to get there, but he told us that we had also lucked out in terms of our timing. “The next couple of days will be absolutely THE best days to see the butterflies. Maybe the best days in a few years. Their numbers were down last year by at least 50%. But there are more of them this year, and tomorrow there should be lots. You couldn't have come at a better time.” (The next day the local newspaper headline read: 'monarch numbers up by 100%'). We couldn't believe our good fortune!
As we stood talking he pointed out something we'd missed: a tall cedar growing up from the bottom of the valley with thick orange branches: the branches were laden with butterflies. “Head down into the valley, and you'll see lots. There's a river down there so they go down for the water. It is a spectacular day for them. You aren not going to believe it.”
As we started down the path we saw more and more butterflies. The trail was thick with butterfly bodies, some alive, some dead. Butterflies flapped around our faces, landed on our hands, heads and hats, mated on our pant-legs. We'd come during mating season, and the males die after they mate. The females hang around another week or two, and then, en masse, begin their migration north. But now they were hanging out, feeding, and flying in massive swarms in the valley. The sky was thick with them. There were millions of them. Millions upon millions. Had the insects been anything other than butterflies, the sight of so many of them would have been alarming (do they bite?).
But as I witnessed this bonanza of butterflies, this muchness of monarchs, I experienced that wonderful sensation of complete and utter awe – and deep humility – at the power, beauty, and abundance of nature. At the wonder of one of her many miracles. Like being in a remote area at night, and seeing millions of bright bright stars twinkling in the infinite universe. Or sitting on the beach of a wild open coast, watching the relentless pounding of giant waves, grinding rocks into sand, forever.
What I like best about the monarchs is that we still don't know why or how they do what they do. Theirs is one of the most complex migrations on earth. Here's what we do know: the females will fly north from here in southwestern Mexico up to the Great Lakes region of the USA and Canada – a distance of almost 5000 kilometres. They fly at about 12 km per hour – you can do the math. They will lay their eggs there, and die. The eggs will hatch into caterpillars and will feed exclusively on milk weed. They will pupate and emerge as butterflies in the Great Lakes region. They stay there to breed, and it is their young, who have never been to Mexico, who somehow make their way back to their ancestors' home.
How do they know where to go? What instinct guides their fluttering wings? An extraordinary sense of smell? A kind of radar or magnetic force? A butterfly goddess? (Madame Butterfly?) I am moved by the mysteries of the mariposa monarca. My world view is jiggled, just a little, thanks to a very beatiful, very small, and very fragile insect.
If you want to go see the monarchs
The best time is mid-February to mid-March. Early March is absolutely the best. Head for either Mexico City or Morelia. From there, take a bus to Ziticuaro. You can either overnight in Ziticuaro (which has a complete range of hotels and is a quintessential Mexican town), or just go there early on the day you plan to go to the reserve.
From Ziticuaro you can hire a taxi to take you to the Cerro Pallon butterfly reserve. You want to go to the Macheros access point. It is the best one – the one involving the least amount of hiking – for getting to the valley of the monarchs. Or... you can do the whole thing as part of a tour – with our Canadian friend.
Although the monarchs are not in immediate danger of extinction, their habitat is slowly being destroyed. Milkweed is considered an invasive species, and is being sprayed. The forest in Mexico, although protected, is being logged by farmers and ranchers desperate for a cheap source of wood. Tourism, by keeping a focus on the butterflies and by contributing to the local economy, actually helps the monarchs. Just remember to remain silent and tread lightly so as not to disturb these lovely little miracles.
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