When it comes to butterflies, everyone learns the life cycle in elementary school. The butterfly egg becomes a (very hungry) caterpillar, then it forms a chrysalis and finally an adult butterfly.
Each year, in late February and March, the first generation of monarchs begin their life in the high altitude pine forests of Mexico and begin to migrate north. Two subsequent generations are born and continue the migration, but each of the three generations live no more than six weeks. The fourth generation, which is born in September and October, is a special generation that does not die off in six weeks. Instead, this generation will fly up to 2,500 miles south to the same forests in Mexico that their great grandparents came from, even though it has never been there. During this journey they will be faced with predators, storms and other challenges along their route. This marvel of mother nature occurs every year and defies normal explanation.
Our Journey to the Rosario Sanctuary in Mexico has little in common with the butterflies other than the distance traveled and that we eventually got there. There is not a lot written about the different sanctuaries, or the best way to get there, so we had a journey of our own.
Step 1: Getting to Mexico City: Usually we would take the direct flight, but due to a schedule change on United, we had to connect in Houston. One thing that worked out in our favor was that we had the chance to fly on a brand new (2 day old) Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Elliot was impressed mostly with the movie selection on the personal TV and the windows which darken electronically instead of the usual pull-down shades. Other features such as more oxygen in the cabin really didn't impress him that much.
Since we had some time between flights we waited for everyone to deplane and approached the flight deck to take a peek. Elliot was invited in by the first officer who even let him wear his hat and sit in his seat for a few minutes while he checked out the new equipment.
Step 2: Getting to Morelia: Our ultimate destination was the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary which is in the middle of nowhere. It is also in the middle of the map between Morelia and Mexico City. Since we had plenty of time we decided to split up our trip so we could visit both places.
Getting to Morelia was easy. After a taxi ride to the Poniente Bus Terminal at the north end of the city, we bought bus tickets and fifteen minutes later we were on our way. Thoughts of a long distance bus through Mexico may conjure up images of Greyhound buses or even worse, but traveling by bus in Mexico is a first class way to travel. Tickets for the three of us were 1037 Pesos one way (About $80 using ETN bus lines).
Our bus was super plush with extra wide recliner seats, an entertainment system and snacks. Even with the luxury and beautiful scenery outside we couldn't wait to get there.
Morelia is a beautiful colonial city in central Mexico. It's historical center dates back to the 17th century and is absolutely wonderful to stroll around. We spent our time there drinking Mexican hot chocolate at cafes, exploring the magnificent cathedrals and snacking in the markets.
Step 3: Getting to El Rosario: Prior to our arrival in Morelia we arranged for a small group tour to take us to the sanctuary. Carlos, our guide picked us up promptly at 8:30a.m. In our planning we didn't ask a lot of questions and as already mentioned, there is not a lot of information. Our first surprise was that the trip would take three hours. We were a little surprised because it didn't look that far on the Google map, but as we learned there are a lot of speed bumps and bumpy roads on the way. Also the entrance to the sanctuary was a hand laid bumpy stone road that took 30 minutes to get up the first part of the mountain.
After three exhausting hours we finally arrived! We were still pretty clueless and we didn't see any butterflies around.
From the parking lot there was about a half mile walk before we arrived at the official entrance to the sanctuary. Along the way local residents sold handicrafts, snacks, hats and blankets.
The horses took us straight up the mountain and saved us a lot of time and effort. Elliot had a blast! I think if we turned around at this point the trip would have been worth it for the horseback ride up the mountain alone.
...still no butterflies in site but we were optimistic.
After hiking another half mile up the hill we finally got to see what we came here for. Hundreds of thousands (140 million according to our guide) of monarch butterflies huddled in clusters in the pine trees surrounding us. They were on the ground, flying around us and if you stayed still for a little while one (or more) were sure to land on you.
We made it to the top and we were not disappointed.
On the way down we stopped back in the small village for some local cooking. Our guide recommended the huaraches with cesina (dried beef) which were delicious.
Step 4: Back to Morelia: This was the worst part of the trip. We were all exhausted and light headed from the altitude. There is no way to spin this into a fun part of the trip other than the gratification that we saw some of mother natures miracles.
Next stop: Mexico City
...to be continued