I was on my hands and knees digging in the damp dirt outside my patio. My knees were wet, my hands were dirty up to my elbows. Victor watched me from the window, his brow furrowed. Sometimes even a short international trip can have lasting consequences.
But let’s start at the beginning, about four months prior. As with most journeys, this began with unexpectedly finding cheap airfare online.
“Mexico City!” I yelled. “$125 round trip! But only in February!”
“Mariposas! Butterflies!” Victor shouted from another room.
I abruptly had no idea what was going on.
“Monarch butterflies!” Victor clarified, walking through the doorway, “Why are you staring at me? Buy the tickets!”
And this is how I accidentally stumbled into a bucket list-worthy adventure. Somehow, I managed to spend 40-plus years on this Earth without knowing that monarch butterflies travel from their summer breeding grounds all over the northeastern USA and Canada up to 3,000 miles to overwintering locations in the same dozen mountain areas in Mexico, every year from October to late March. That’s all the butterflies from the entire USA and Canada crammed in a relatively small area, only a few hours' drive from Mexico City. This was an arduous journey for any butterfly, but also a somewhat burdensome trip for any tourist keen on seeing thousands of butterflies.
Considering that we only had one weekend and wanted to see butterflies every day, our initial itinerary went like this:
- Overnight flight to Mexico City landing at 5:30 am.
- Mad rush through customs to get to the bus station for a 7 am bus to the city of Zitacuaro in the state of Michoacan.
- 2-hour drive to the center of Zitacuaro, while praying not to get stuck in Mexico City's morning rush hour.
- A 30-minute taxi ride from Zitacuaro to the guesthouse providing butterflies tours in time for their departure at 9:30 am.
- Tour minibus to the mountain.
- Ride a horse to the mountain top.
Just reading this itinerary over and over left us feeling anxious and stressed. As much as I hate renting cars in Mexico (one day I will write an angry manifesto disguised as an informational blog post about car rentals all over the world), we quickly realized that in this particular instance, we needed personal transportation. The bus would only take us to Zitacuaro and we would be relying on our guesthouse to provide daily tours to various butterfly locations and the chances of us missing the first day’s tour were too great. A rental car would allow us to go on a self-guided tour to a less touristy location on the first day, then the guesthouse tour on the second day, and left the third day open for either another guesthouse tour or choosing our own adventure.
Begrudgingly, I clicked “reserve” on the car rental website while murmuring, “$130 my ass… They’ll try charging double that at the counter…” In over 20 years of travel, there might have only been a handful of times when the final car rental bill matched the reservation price. And this, my friends, incredibly was one of those times. I don’t know what stars aligned in the universe, but we were very happy to get into our very reasonably priced car rental after a sleepless night on the plane.
Our first stop after an hour's drive was to grab breakfast in Metepec, a charming Mexican town, and then another hour or so until we got to the Piedra Herrada sanctuary. Victor read the reviews for this sanctuary and one thing was brought up over and over – rent a horse, do not try to walk up the mountain. I was relieved to find out that I didn’t have to singlehandedly convince a horse to take me to the top of the mountain, and that each horse had a handler that led it to the top. Which of course, brought up more questions – why didn’t more tourists just walk up the mountain themselves? Well, turns out that: 1) not all tourists are in the physical condition to brave such a long and steep climb and 2) the path is incredibly dusty, and all handlers were covered in a thick layer of dirt by the time we got to the top.
At the end of the horse trail, we walked a few dozen feet and stood silently on the narrow path between trees. Butterflies were all around us. Glittering orange wings in the sky, fluttering above the grass, covering tree branches, moving with every breath of wind, it seemed at times that the whole forest was made of butterflies. We lucked out with the weather – it was sunny and breezy and the perfect temperature to watch the butterflies take flight, rather than hide in trees. Every few minutes, another seemingly large fluffy tree with pale orange leaves would suddenly explode in a flurry of activity, and thousands of butterflies would rise into the sky, leaving a thin tree with very green leaves remaining. I tried taking pictures and recording videos, but nothing came even close to what I was seeing around me. Exasperated, I finally gave up, threw my gear back in the backpack, and just… watched.
We finally tore ourselves away from this beautiful sight when the horse handlers motioned to us that it was time to descend. But the butterflies were not done with us yet. As we drove out of the parking lot, we saw multiple cars stopped on the shoulder and people running out into the road. From a small clearing in the forest at the foot of the mountain, thousands of butterflies were pouring out into the road, as if blown out of a leaf blower. They streamed down the road, wings fluttering, zigzagging up and down, filling the entire space above the road, past the parked cars and astonished bystanders. For a second, it looked like a ticker-tape parade with orange and black confetti, as if the Cincinnati Bengals and not the L.A. Rams won the Super Bowl.
The next day, we took a tour from our guesthouse to the top of Pelon Mountain with about 20 tourists from the USA, Canada, and Europe, including several biologists and amateur butterfly enthusiasts. While waiting for our minibusses, we had a short orientation during which I learned that basically everyone else in the group has been planning to make this trek for years, know everything about butterflies there is to know, and were giddily excited for this once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Meanwhile, I accidentally found some cheap tickets online and Victor stumbled on information about monarch butterfly sanctuaries in his previous Mexico research. The entire excursion, while we were driving to the sanctuary and riding horses to the top, and standing breathlessly in a forest clearing while surrounded by thousands of butterflies, I felt like an atheist who infiltrated a pilgrimage to a holy site.
This is who accompanied us on this tour:
A young woman helping her elderly mom up the muddy path while murmuring, “Look, mom! This is what you waited your entire life to see!”
A family from New York who have never been to Mexico and were absolutely terrified at the news coverage of Mexico’s “cartel violence” but braved it for a chance to see the butterflies.
A biologist specializing in mountain lions who took extensive notes and casually announced to the group that our chances of being eaten by a mountain lion in this area were “not low”. I then asked him if my house cats could possibly be classified as “mountain lions” and after extensive 15-minute questioning concerning my cats’ body shapes, characteristics, personalities, and violent tendencies, he declared that if I built a small hill nearby, they could definitely be considered “mountain lions”.
And finally, an enthusiastic young woman who seemed to know more about the butterflies than the local guides themselves quickly converted me into a true butterfly believer. I finally felt like I was part of this “butterfly fanatics” group when she got incredibly excited to hear that I was from the Great Lakes region and insisted that I plant milkweed everywhere around my house.
“You must plant milkweed! Monarch butterflies need it! That’s what the young ones feed on! You can help the butterflies!” she went on breathlessly.
I took it to heart and months later, after germinating the seeds in my fridge, planted my first milkweed all around my patio. Maybe one day my patio will look like a monarch butterfly sanctuary. Or maybe one day, a single butterfly will visit. Either way, it would have been worth it.