Most travelers associate a Mexican vacation with hot sun and a soft, sandy beach. Perhaps. But as any entomologist will happily tell you, the real reason for visiting Mexico during the winter is that December through February is the best time to observe millions of monarch butterflies gathered in their arboreal haven, high on central Mexico’s neo-volcanic plateau.
Just as California’s own resident population of black-and-orange mottled butterflies begins its annual migration to Monterey and half a dozen other well-known wintering sites in December, monarchs from all over North America, east of the Rockies, are busy fluttering south to Mexico. This remarkable journey, while continuing to confound scientists, is one of nature’s most beguiling phenomena.
The best place to see the monarchs is the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, in the mountains just above the town of Angangueo in Michoacan state, about 110 miles west of Mexico City. A stop at the sanctuary is a wonderful departure from the more predictable tourist track followed by most visitors to Mexico. It’s open from November through March.
Millions of brilliantly hued butterflies cloak the sanctuary landscape. They huddle in spruce trees, clinging to one another in long trains that hang from every branch. Hundreds more swirl around you, their wings beating gently on the sweetly resinous air. Heaps of silver, black and orange bodies lie among the pine needles on the forest floor like so many fallen leaves from a New England autumn. The scene is eerily dazzling, utterly unforgettable and enjoyed by a relative few.
Getting to the sanctuary is fairly easy. It’s between Mexico City and Morelia, the capital of Michoacan. Best bet is to rent a car in Mexico City or take the bus and enjoy the scenic three-hour trip along Mexico 15 through the thickly forested volcanic mountain region in the states of Michoacan and Mexico.
The turnoff to get to Angangueo comes at the agricultural, energetic town of Zitacuaro. From there, bus riders transfer to a local jitney for the last 20 miles to Angangueo.
Angangueo is a one-street town. A sulfate mine operates noisily at the road’s junction with the valley floor. Railroad cars wait there to be loaded with processed ore. Rusty water gushes from the mill in a roadside ditch. But Angangueo’s industrial veneer is thin; the din of the mine fades as the road climbs. Simple cottages press in on either side. Window sills are crowded with flowers, red-tipped poinsettias and flamboyant begonias in plain clay pots. The pavement terminates in a cul-de-sac two miles beyond the mine. Bus passengers disembark there, at the town plaza.
The vest-pocket-sized plaza is neat and orderly, green with manicured vegetation and overshadowed by an exquisite 19th-Century church. The plaza is a delightful place from which to observe Angangueo and the surrounding mountain peaks. If you’re hungry, Danny’s Cafe serves simple, hearty meals across the street. Danny’s chief competition is an old woman outside who has prepared delicious quesadillas on a blackened comal for 50 years.
From the plaza, you can walk downhill to a butterfly-adorned sign and the surprisingly plush Albergue Don Bruno, Angangueo’s lone hotel, where the 10 small rooms are set around a garden. Other than the Albergue, tourist facilities are nonexistent--15 years after the discovery of the monarch butterflies’ winter residence.
Dr. Fred Urquhart, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, began his search for the butterflies’ hiding place prior to World War II. With the help of a large group of volunteers, he affixed tiny alar badges to the wings of more than 100,000 monarch butterflies in the Eastern United States and Canada. The flight paths of the recaptured butterflies indicated that their destination was central Mexico. But given the size of the country, and the fact that butterflies roost in groves spreading out over acres, the search stalled.
In subsequent years, Urquhart sought more volunteers through articles that appeared in Mexican periodicals. One of his recruits, Kenneth Bruger, eventually married a native of Michoacan and, with her, toured the region by motorcycle. Their tireless inquiries of primary and secondary school teachers, students and farmers eventually led Urquhart to the forested peaks above Angangueo. There, on Jan. 18, 1976, he came upon a huge grove of his beloved butterflies. But the question remained: Were they the same butterflies that he had tagged within the previous year?
A la Sir Isaac Newton, a branch laden with clinging insects cracked--the professor swears to this--and fell to the ground. Sifting through the stunned creatures, Urquhart found what he was looking for: A shiny tag on the edge of one butterfly’s wing identified it as an insect that had been released in Chaska, Minn., the previous September (the life of a monarch butterfly can extend for up to a year, much longer than the normal butterfly). After four decades of dedicated work, a lifelong riddle was solved.
Visitors are apt to feel the same sense of majesty and awe that greeted Urquhart on their first visit to the butterfly sanctuary.
The easiest way to get there from Angangueo is with one of the enterprising locals who offer rides in their four-wheel-drive trucks. Drivers gather at the plaza and prices are negotiable. Expect to pay about $20 per party, regardless of the number of people. Only the hardy should attempt the steep, four-mile journey, which takes about an hour over a rugged mountain road. Visitors should start out at dawn so they can get to the sanctuary in time to witness the monarchs during their peak activity period.
The trip is gorgeous--a twisting climb through sweetly scented spruce forest and past a handsome patchwork of tilled fields. A dirt parking lot and log cabin administration building mark the entrance to the reserve. Vacationing families snack heartily on tacos, open-face gorditas and cheesy quesadillas from a row of rough-hewn hutches at the sanctuary’s entrance gate.
Admission to El Rosario costs about $2 per person. All visitors are appointed the services of a guide, who range from 12-year-old village youths to adult men who share their knowledge of the monarchs’ life cycle. Few speak English, so it’s a good idea to bring a phrase book.
Our guide led us up a steep foot trail into the heart of the forest. From there we detoured onto the soft dirt of a new path, which are continually blazed to reach the transient groves of bugs. Telltale signs revealed that we were drawing closer--butterflies dancing in the wind, and detached wings lying on the ground. The guide directed our attention to the ground, lest we tread on the insects. Some were dead, but most were just gathering strength before joining the seemingly millions that clung like overripe fruit to the branches above. Boughs gently bent under the tonnage of gossamer wings. Sanctuary is a fitting word--a cathedral-like air permeated the dimly lit grove.
The sanctuary is not a breeding ground. Monarchs are sexually dormant in the over-wintering site, patiently--one assumes--awaiting warmer temperatures before journeying north, then mating along the way.
En route to the United States and Canada, the females deposit eggs on milkweed plants. Four to five days later, they hatch. The larval, or caterpillar, stage lasts two weeks, and the pupal stage--during which the insect hangs suspended and completes its metamorphosis--another two. About a month after hatching from the egg, a new generation of butterflies wings its way north.
Urquhart documents how the first butterflies arrive in his native Ontario in June, with faded colors and tattered wings, having flown the entire distance from Mexico. Their offspring arrive later that summer, more vividly colored and showing less evidence of wear and tear. These are the butterflies that will return to Mexico in the fall.
How they find their way there remains a mystery. Traces of magnetite in their brains may function as a sort of compass for navigation. Some observers have suggested that the butterflies travel by celestial navigation, while Alicia Budris of New York’s Stonybrook University postulates that communication, similar to the kind observed among honeybees, plays a major role. The most perplexing question, however, is posed by Urquhart in his book, “The Monarch Butterfly: International Traveler”: “Why would monarch butterflies travel thousands of miles to spend the winter months on the trees of this cold mountain when only a few miles further on are warm tropical valleys?”
Indeed. The gurgling hot springs of San Jose Purua, overlooking a deep tropical valley, are just an hour’s drive south of El Rosario. Fabulous beaches at Playa Azul and the rugged and spectacular coast of Michoacan are about a day’s drive farther down the road.
Millions of butterflies don’t know what they’re missing.
Mexico Butterfly Sanctuary
Getting there: Mexicana, Aeromexico and Delta offer daily service from LAX to Mexico City. Round-trip fares, with seven-day advance purchase, are $386.
The El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary is in the mountains above the town of Angangueo, about 110 miles west of Mexico City. Autotransportes del Pacifico has frequent daily bus departures from Mexico City’s Terminal Central del Norte to Zitacuaro. Round-trip fare is about $30. Passengers transfer in Zitacuaro for the final 20 miles to Angangueo. Locals in Angangueo offer rides in four-wheel-drive trucks to the sanctuary. Prices are negotiable, but plan to spend about $20.
The sanctuary is open daily, November through March, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is about $2, and guides are provided.
Traveling by rental car gives visitors the option of seeing other attractions in the area. Most of the major U.S. rental car companies have offices in Mexico City. Hertz charges $45 per day for a VW Beetle.
Where to stay: A room with fireplace at the Albergue Don Bruno hotel in Angangueo, Morelos 92, telephone 011-52-725-80026, costs about $24 per night. There is a restaurant on the premises.
Butterfly tour: Betchart Expeditions of Cupertino, Calif., in conjunction with the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, is offering a Mexico Monarch Butterfly Safari, Feb. 1-6, that includes transportation between Mexico City and the El Rosario Monarch Sanctuary, along with admission fees and accommodations. Cost is $975, plus round-trip air fare of $355 for travel from LAX to Mexico City. For more information, call Patti Meda of Betchart at (800) 252-4910 or Karen Hovanitz of the Natural History Museum at (213) 744-3580.
For more information: Contact the Mexican Government Tourism Office, 10100 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 224, Los Angeles 90067, (213) 203-8191.