From San Miguel de Allende, we headed southward to visit the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. The only thing I knew about the monarchs before was that they migrated between Mexico and the northern United States and Canada each year but little did I know how amazing these feather weight creatures really are.
For starters, it is not the same monarch that makes the annual migration but FOUR GENERATIONS of butterflies. About three generations of these are the “summer monarchs” that are hatched in the warm months. The first generation starts in the southeastern United States, and each generation moves progressively northward. These summer monarchs live only 1-2 months. As the summer ends, the last or the fourth generation know that they need to head south towards warmer climate. These monarchs shut off their reproductive systems and channel all their energy into making a 3000 MILE journey to the Michoacán mountains in central Mexico! Once they arrive, they will find the very same fir trees that their great grandmothers roosted in the year before, and there they will roost for the winter from November to March. As spring approaches, these same monarchs start to mate. The males will die and only the females will then make the reverse migration. They will find milkweeds in southeastern United States to lay eggs in (because monarch caterpillars will only eat milkweeds). And the whole cycle starts again. The last generation of monarchs live between 7-9 months!
The monarch numbers have seriously declined over the years and hit an all time low in 2014. There are many factors but one thing that North Americans can help with is to plant more milkweeds in your gardens. Monarch caterpillars can only eat milkweeds and monarchs will only lay eggs on milkweeds. As these are generally weeds that grow in open spaces, monarchs are losing their breeding grounds to development, and to pesticides.
We visited two reserves – Sierra Chincua and Cerro Pelón. There are two other reserves that we did not visit – El Rosario and Piedra Herrada. It was really strange how difficult it actually was to find information on where to go and how to get there. As all the reserves are within a 1-2 hour drive of each other, you would think the central organization would provide and market information on all of them. But it’s not so and there is a lot of politics involved. In the end we relied on word of mouth to focus on Cerro Pelón which is known as the most pristine and least developed habitat, and also visited Sierra Chincua on the way.
As we walked through the reserves, there were butterflies everywhere – on the ground, in the air, on the trees. In the pictures, anything that’s brown is not leaves, it’s ALL BUTTERFLIES. It was a magical experience.
Butterflies led us to horses. Simon and I just love riding horses. As the monarchs’ roosting sites are over 10,000 feet, horses are offered at all the reserves to help make the trek. And of course we didn’t need any excuse to get on a horse. By word of mouth we found JM Butterfly B&B in Macheros. And there we stayed for 4 days riding horses every day.
Only in Mexico can you put a 1 year old in a baby carrier, share a saddle with a 4 year old, and go riding for four hours up and down rocky mountain trails. Before we left home, we actually theorized whether we would feel comfortable putting our kids on horses. At the time, the idea put rocks in our stomachs. But now, it seems so natural why wouldn’t we? The kids did great and Ty coined a new phrase saying “I want to ride like crazy” when he wanted to trot or even canter. On one return trip he was getting tired and said, “I don’t want to ride like crazy. I want to ride LIKE I MEAN IT.” Guess in toddler speak that meant to walk, not trot. Jamie did great as well and took peaceful bouncy naps in the saddle. The horses were responsive and calm. The guides, who were either Joel, the B&B owner or one of his brothers, were excellent.
The JM Butterfly B&B is a family run operation. We splurged and moved out of our van into a room overlooking the beautiful valley. When we were not riding horses we played with their dogs, visited the sheep and chickens, and ate scrumptious meals at the owner’s mom’s house/restaurant. There were quite a few boys around Ty’s age (nephews of the owner) and one night Ty went all out balloon boxing with the 6 year old Alex.
The whole experience with the monarch butterflies, horses and the mountain towns surrounding Cerro Pelón ended up having a special place in our hearts. It was the most authentic experience we have had with real life in a Mexican village. As idyllic as it looked, the hard reality is that the daily income for some of the families can be less than 100 pesos or $7 a day. Their indoor wood stoves used for cooking are not ventilated and many women have chronic eyes and lung problems from the smoke. Some villagers including children resort to illegal logging as a desperate source of income which is detrimental to the ecology and the monarch butterflies. As much as the mountains are blessed with fertile soil and endless mountain spring water, farming is inefficiently dominated by growing single crops of corn or avocados. But we have high hopes for this area. Local people like the JM Butterfly B&B are doing great things. It would be interesting to return in a few years and see how the story continues to unfold.