The Monarch Butterflies of El Rosario, Mexico

This was the day! The one I’d been excitedly waiting for since I first heard about the trip to Mexico. It was time to visit the monarch butterflies at their winter home near Ocampo, Mexico, in the state of Michoacán. We had ridden for several hours from Mexico City the afternoon before, and arrived at the Villa Monarca Hotel in Zitacuaro. A simple dinner was waiting for us, beginning with lentil soup. It was late and the soup was hot, delicious, and only the first course in this meal.

The red drink that I have in this picture is made by steeping hibiscus flowers, very refreshing.

Alert readers might know that the state of Michoacán is on the US State Department watch list. Our hotel was in a resort compound (which sounds fancier than it was) which was bricked all the way around. The entrance was gated, and we were locked in safe and sound for the night.

It was another hour-long ride to this place, close to the Butterfly Sanctuary. I didn’t realize at the time that this would later be our lunch stop. Here, we got a view of the valley below and the surrounding countryside. Like the light showers that sometimes come before a heavy rain, we started seeing the butterflies in the air. This was a little rest stop and also a loading place for half of our group to get an express ride in a small van to the sanctuary. These were the folks who felt like they needed a bit of a head start for the steep hike up the mountainside.

The van was waiting for the rest of us at the parking lot to save us the half mile hike up to the sanctuary. Butterflies in flight were in heavier numbers now. We came to the entrance:

A beautiful mural on a little building greeted us.

“When there is sun, the butterflies fly.”

And then, up, up, up. There were so many stairs. Butterflies were dancing everywhere. Any orange spot that you may see in this picture is not a falling leaf, but a butterfly!

We were very lucky to be here for this year of migration. The monarchs are a littler farther down in elevation, not as far from the entrance, and there are more of them. Wonderful for the butterflies, and wonderful for us! We were lucky on this day, too, because this mountain is also often heavily clouded and rainy. Despite the elevation of about 10,000 feet, we experienced warm sunshine.

I had never even pondered what monarchs did during the winter until I saw an IMax movie at the Science Center in St. Louis about them several years ago. Our guide, Juan, told us much of the same story after breakfast that morning. By the 1930’s, scientists had figured out that monarchs migrate. Fred Urquhart, a Toronto entomologist, and his wife Nora began tagging the wings of the monarchs when they arrived in Canada during late summer. After much trial and error, they developed tags that would stay on the butterflies, and enlisted a network of 3,000 enthusiasts across the United States to let him know where they found them. Fred traced them all the way down to the Hill Country of Texas and the trail stopped cold.

This is where Kenneth Brugger, an American businessman, comes into the picture. Very interested in the migration, he and his Mexican wife searched for two years and finally found them in Mexico on January 2, 1975. Happily, Fred and Nora were able to visit the very next year.

Once we were finally finished with the steps, there was more trail, always going up. We passed some members of our tour who had been in the first van.

The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is now a World Heritage Site, established to protect the monarchs’ habitat. UNESCO calls it “a superlative natural phenomenon”. The space set aside is approximately 216 miles large and the butterflies occupy only a tiny portion of it. El Rosario is but one colony of several, but it is the best set up for visitors. Of course, no one knows exactly in what spot they will want to set up colonies for the winter, so it’s all available for them.

Signs admonished everyone to be silent. When we finally arrived at the butterflies’ home, it was a sight that defies all description. Breathtaking is one word that comes to mind. Blessed is another, to be here on this day to be witnessing these tiny creatures going about their important lives. It’s like visiting a cathedral of nature.

The oyamel fir trees are loaded with butterflies. All of the clumps that you see in these trees, and any speck of orange, are butterflies.

I’m pretty sure that Juan told us that 225 monarchs make up a pound of weight. I looked it up, and I got varying numbers. You wouldn’t think so, but the butterflies are very heavy on the trees, but the trees are still able to support them. The limbs bend with their weight.

Here in Mexico, the butterflies are very busy. They arrive in late October to early November. The males mate as much as they can. On our hike, butterflies were mating everywhere – even on the steps when we were climbing them.

I caught the shadow of a flying butterfly over this mating pair.

When the females are able to get some private time, they are busy eating. They are using their stored fat from the milkweed they consumed on the trip to Mexico. They add to that with the nectar they drink from flowers here in Mexico.

We were here on the very last day of February. By the end of March, the butterflies are gone. The males die off. The females head for the Hill Country of Texas, lay their eggs, and they will die too. It is the next generation that begins to make the journey north to Canada for the summer. But they won’t make it either; there will be another generation, or two, that arrives in Canada. They lay eggs, die, and a new “Super Generation” is born. This generation of monarchs have thicker and stronger wings and are well equipped for the journey all the way back to Mexico.

The butterflies clump together in the fir trees to conserve energy when it is cold. When a sunbeam hits them, off they fly in a beautiful cascade.

We stood for the longest time gazing in awe, taking in the beautiful sight. The admonition to be silent was taken seriously by everyone there, adding to the feeling of being in a holy space.

In the years following my viewing of the IMax movie, I read two books that further piqued my interest. Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver, is excellent fiction. The other book, by Sara Dykman, is Bicycling with Butterflies. Sara tells the non-fiction story of her 10,201-mile bicycle journey following the butterfly migration for one season in 2017. She started here, at El Rosario, and followed the trail of the butterflies all the way up to Canada. She camped in hidden spots along the way (yes, including in Mexico) or visited friends or family. It was the raw aloneness of her journey, her strong desire for the butterflies to succeed, and her almost militant wish that the ecosystem along their journey would be a safer place that struck me. She not only went to Canada but returned to Mexico to complete the full cycle of migration.

The trail north is fraught with danger for the butterflies. Pesticide use and mowing of the green spaces along the highways are but two of the hazards. I find it amazing that the females make it to Texas, let alone their children and grandchildren making it to Canada.

On the trail down, my mind purely on butterflies, I saw a woman wearing a t-shirt that had butterflies riding bicycles on it. Her face was slightly familiar. Could it be….? I asked her if she was Sara Dykman, and yes, it was she!

She is very friendly and we chatted for a short while. She had ridden her motorcycle down this year and not her bicycle. She was part of a group of women who had been counting butterflies, and as a consequence of staring up at the sky for hours, her lips were burned, she said. They counted 400 per minute which was a banner year for the monarchs. Meeting her was a huge bonus in an already magnificent day.

All too soon, it was time to say goodbye to the butterflies. It was almost strange and sad to walk down through the little village–

and back to the bus (no van lift on the way back), and see them thinning out. Like Sarah, I would have loved to have followed them, but I don’t think I’d make more than a few miles on the journey!

Next time – the last Mexico post – San Miguel de Allende