travelog 118

And the Butterflies Lure Eternally

Many years ago we wrote a travlog about the Monarch butterflies. Many things have since changed up in those mountains, and that's what we'd like to tell you about in this travelog. Our friends Gertrud and Ad from El Paso, Texas, had a short vacation planned just before Christmas and wanted to go see the butterflies. Juan Miguel, a mutual friend from San Luis Potosi had promised to take them there. Fitz, another friend from San Luis Potosi who has appeared in our travelogs before, was alone at home and so we invited him to join the party too. At the end Juan Miguel also brought his current girlfriend Valerie along. The whole thing had developed into a real Mexican adventure and the house was completely full. There would be no room for so many people in Juan Miguel's car, so we left at home, Martin, who had seen the butterflies at various times before, and Fitz, who thought he might not be capable anymore to do a long hike at high altitude at the tender age of 89 years.

Our short trip led us first to Tlalpujahua, a "pueblo magico", one of the typical Mexican magic towns. The streets and alleys are cobblestone, the houses decorated with a lot of wood, and the roofs covered with red sheet metal. A typical mining village in central Mexico. Just before Christmas you could buy souvenirs and handycrafts around the main square. Or buy bags of oversweet candied fruits or jars of fruits pickled in a sugary syrup. But above all Tlalpujahua is famous for the production of Christmas spheres, producing 38 million yearly of which 26 millions are exported. There's no shortage of stores selling glitter balls in all imaginable colors and forms. A huge Christmas tree stood on the square in front of the church, a tree as big as the ancient small church that is not in use anymore. At a restaurant on a roof terrace we enjoyed a light snack with the view over the red roofs. Then it was already late afternoon and time for us to move on to Angangueo where we stayed at the hotel "La Margarita". In February of 2010 Angangueo had suffered a tragedy from several days of continuous rain. Entire hillsides had come down and many inhabitants were swept to their deaths in their improvised wooden shacks. A trail of devastation led through the small village which is built into a narrow valley. Most of the houses were flooded by mudslides, cars were carried away, and gardens and patios destroyed. More than two years later there was nothing to be seen of that catastrophe anymore. The houses were painted in bright colors with many pots and plants on the balconies, and most of them decorated with the usual kitschy Christmas decorations. A deep concrete ditch now divided the village where before the untamed creek had flowed through. The ditch was the only evidence of the 2010 destruction. It was obviously built with the hope that it would be possible to contain the rushing water in case of a similar event.

In the upper part of Angangueo there are a few small hotels better suited for backpack tourists. Further down is the hotel La Margarita, named for its owner Margarita, with more or less reasonable prices and clean rooms. Further down follows the hotel "Don Bruno", the most expensive lodging in town. There's normally no restaurant service at Margarita's place but because we had booked everything in advance she had organized somebody to cook for us. In a huge, extremely cold dining room we had almost frozen beer, followed by a delicious carrot soup, chiles rellenos with beans, and a homemade flan as a sweet dessert. The men had two servings and for the following meals we all received huge portions because the cook thought we were all very big eaters.

The next day was dedicated entirely to the butterflies. Because it was relatively cold and the butterflies only get active with enough warmth from the sun, we didn't have a very early breakfast. In front of the hotel we were promptly approached by some guides who wanted to sell a tour up to El Rosario to us. The automatic gears of our car would burn out driving up the steep road, they explained, that's why we should better come with them, though their car looked even less confidence inspiring than Juan Miguel's truck. And besides, we knew anyway where we wanted to go. Slowly we drove up the many curves to the entrance to the Sierra Chincua. Many things had changed up here. There were still boys and young men offering their services as guides at the entrance along the main highway. After a short two kilometers of dirt road we reached the entrance to the protected area. The parking was still on the meadow but the parking spaces were now neatly separated by small rocks. We were one of the first visitors and Juan Miguel had to fight off a bunch of kids who all wanted to watch over his car. Then we reached the real entrance with a ticket booth and posters showing paths and view points. The improvised souvenir shops and small food stalls had been replaced by nice, bright wooden structures equipped with solar panels. Our guide Luis was a quiet boy giving the impression that he didn't have a clue about the butterflies nor was he interested in any of this. On a nice hiking trail we now walked over a meadow up into the forest. Thistles, sage and other flowers were blooming along the trail. At intervals there were panels along the path explaining the vegetation, the migration of the butterflies, the daily life of the people native to the area, and much more in English and Spanish.

For those of you who don't know what makes the monarch butterflies so special, a short description follows. The monarch butterflies start their incredible migration in November. Butterflies west of the Rocky Mountains migrate to a few places on the coast of California, the ones east of the Rockies however fly far to the south into the mountains of the states of Michoacan and Mexico. It is the only butterfly (and the only insect) in the world migrating up to 4'750 kms (3'000 miles) to reach its overwintering place. In huge masses the butterflies always reach the same area and the same fir trees, called Oyamel (Abies religiosa). Something like that would more likely be expected from birds or whales, but compared to these it is only the third or fourth generation of butterflies bred in the north that undertakes the long journey south and back north, mind you without ever having been there. How they find their way is still an unsolved mystery. In spring when it gets suffficiently warm in the mountains of Michoacan, the butterflies set off for the journey north. This generation flies all the way back to the US and Canada where they die. Their offspring have a much shorter lifespan and three to four generations pass in the summer until the butterflies hatch that will undertake the long journey to Mexico in the fall. Monarch butterflies feed on milkweed plants (genus Asclepia) and absorb poisonous substances (cardenolides) which make them unpalatable for frogs, lizards, mice, and birds. The poison actually doesn't do the butterfly any good if it's already bitten to death but the insects also protect themselves by their warning colors orange, black, and white, imitated also by a much smaller butterfly. Scientists have found out that birds, after eating a monarch butterfly, have to vomit violently and that they birds avoid the butterflies from their acceptable menu.

Along the trail are two view points from where you have spectacular views over the many small mountains, all ancient volcanic cones. At one of the view points we took pictures of Echeveria secunda in the moss and Sedum goldmanii was flowering. An occasional butterfly was fluttering by. After about 40 minutes we reached the trees to which the butterflies were clinging in millions. Everything was fenced in with yellow tape and we all stood at a suitable distance as not to disturb the insects. Thousands of butterflies were fluttering, floating and soaring in the air. There were many dead ones on the ground and others tried to warm themselves in the sun while fluttering their wings. The warmer the air got the more butterflies took off from the trees. They came in swathes and the blue sky was sprinkled with orange dots. They landed on the sunny side of the fir trees to warm up some more, or were clinging to large rocks and sitting on yellow flowering bushes. Most of them hung in dark clusters on the tree branches though. The weight of these millions of butterflies made the branches hang way down. The most impressive of all was the rustle of the butterflies' wings that you were able to hear in the forest. Slowly more visitors arrived but most of them respected the rule of silence. If you're here for the first time you're overwhelmed by the amount of orange butterflies. But if you ask the guides what month is best to visit, they will tell you February, which we can confirm from our own experience. In February the air is warmer and the butterflies don't hang in the trees in huge clusters anymore, but float, flutter, fly, and soar in the sun.

Back at the entrance we strolled along the row of new small restaurants. Of course the cooks and their helping hands were loudly selling their menus. You enter the still traditional kitchen with a wood fire from the back, seeing at once what the selection is. Then you get out on the front and south side onto a wide wooden terrace where you can sit on long tables and benches and enjoy the warming afternoon sun. We ordered quesadillas with huitlacoche, corn smut, but to our disappointment there wasn't enough huitlacoche stuffing in them, although the tortillas were hand made from blue corn. Back at the car we had to fight off the bunch of kids again. They did not only want to collect their money for watching the car but also tried to brush and clean our dusty shoes with improvised leaf brooms, of course again for a few coins.

In Angangueo the cold beer in Margarita's freezing dining room was already waiting. Today we had huge chicken thighs in black mole sauce and of course beans. Dessert was a delicious coffee flan.

The trip back took us to Ciudad Hidalgo and on along the old road to Morelia which goes over the mountains and Mil Cumbres. The air was too hazy at the view point at Mil Cumbres and it was impossible to see down to the Pacific over the thousands of hills. Instead we took pictures of flowering Echeveria fulgens along the road. Hardly had we driven another few miles when somebody wanted to stop again to take more pictures of even more beautiful plants. Not long ago the roadside had been mowed and we picked many cut echeveria inflorescences to make a nice flower bouquet which looked good in a vase without any water until after New Year's. Late in the afternoon we were back home in Jalisco where we finished a successful trip with a Swiss Raclette on the terrace.

Gertrud and Ad flew home to El Paso too early to spend Christmas with their daughter. Juan Miguel and Valerie were driving on to Cuernavaca to spend the Holidays with his brothers. Only Fitz stayed with us for Christmas. We enjoyed a few leiserly days without any Christmas fuss and bother but with good food and a bottle of wine at night. Then it was time for everybody to get on a diet, but that's always on the list of the New Year's resolutions.

December 2012

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen