“Las mariposas?” The butterflies? A man on a horse rides slowly out of the low sunlight on the edge of a heath. “Si,” I call back. Yes, I am looking for the butterflies.
He waves for me to follow him into the forest and points up into the oyamel fir trees. Then I see: the branches are weighed down with thick clusters of triangular grey leaves. I move closer to the trees and an orange shape falls away from the cluster. The forest is filled with resting Monarch butterflies, suspended like tiny bats.
They come here every autumn, to the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in the mountains above the small Mexican town of Angangueo, a four-hour drive west from Mexico City. They congregate first in southern Canada and the northern United States then migrate 3,000 kilometres to the same mountain forests in this same area of Mexico each year to spend the winter.
Scientists believe that the butterflies follow the cycles of the sun to find the same wintering area every year. But this does not explain the fact that the butterflies that come here have never been here before. Their long and dangerous migration, following the same paths as previous generations, is somehow instinctively encoded.
Illegal logging of the oyamel has threatened the habitat of the Monarchs, although the sanctuaries are protected. El Rosario is one of several of these designated sanctuaries in the state of Michoacan where visitors can marvel at the sight of a sky turned orange by flying insects.
The climb through the thin mountain air has left me breathless at around 3,000 metres. I had been first to arrive in the sanctuary and bought a ticket from the woman selling tickets at the entrance who turned fierce when I set off into the sanctuary 30 minutes before its official opening time of 9.00 am. A guide has been dispatched to follow me and stands in my way when I try to get closer to the hanging clusters. “Rápido!” he urges, as I point my camera at the trees. I am not supposed to get this close, it seems.
As the sun rises, sending shafts of light through the trees, a million pairs of wings gradually unfold. The grey clusters turn to orange as the butterflies are aroused by the warmth and take to the air. The forest floor is littered with wings and the gaps between the trees are speckled with insects. In an hour or so, the air is full of the soft fluttering of their wings – the sound of countless butterflies in flight.
The sun starts to fall more sharply across the forest floor, glinting on the small streams and pools. As soon as this happens, an orange carpet gathers over the water as the butterflies start to drink. The guide gestures to me to move away from the streams; the butterflies must be allowed to drink in peace.
Back on the heath the blue sky is now speckled orange. A girl is lying on her back, staring up at the insects, which zoom in the yellow gorse flowers. A group of school children has arrived and they are gathered in a rapt circle as their teacher attempts to explain the phenomenon. I sit on the grass and watch the butterflies for a while. My own attempts to achieve Zen-like butterfly-inspired harmony are short-lived when the guide points at his watch and waves towards the track leading back to the sanctuary entrance.
During the descent to the sanctuary entrance, a small procession passes on the way up: a disabled woman is being carried on a stretcher by four heavily perspiring men, up to the colony at the top of the mountain, a pilgrim being taken to witness the miracle.
By midday the butterflies have invaded the surrounding fields and villages. A boy crouches over a butterfly-encrusted stream, gently scooping handfuls of the creatures, muttering incredulously to himself. A donkey loaded with firewood blinks in the orange mist, and a small impatient line of traffic forms as a deep mat of wings gathers across the mountain track back to Angangueo.
Lonely Planet has details about transport from the nearby town of Angangueo to the sanctuary.
For good basic accommodation with on the edge of town, try Hotel Plaza Don Gabino.
Worth reading while you travel: Flight Behaviour – Barbara Kingsolver’s novel about what might happen if the Monarchs’ pattern were disrupted by the effects of climate change (Faber & Faber).
Rural areas of Mexico can be dangerous, although less so for tourists: if travelling independently, seek the latest travel advice.
About the author – Tim Bird
Tim Bird is a writer and award-winning photographer based in Helsinki, Finland, with special interests in travel-related sustainability issues, wildlife, the Nordic region and India. Visit his website and photo blog. He tweets at @BirdTimothy.