Chasing the Monarch Butterflies
while touring Michoacán

For almost thirty years we have watched Monarch butterflies migrate along the shore of Lake Michigan in the fall. Around 1975 North Americans learned that they migrate to a mountain range in the state of Michoacán in Mexico. This winter we decided to take our first trip to Mexico and pay them a visit.

The Monarchs gather in clusters of tens of millions at around 3,000 meters (10 000 feet) in thick forests for the winter. In the spring they mate, and the females head north to the US border where their children are born. Those children then migrate as far north as Canada where a third generation is born which will migrate back to Michoacán in the fall. (See Monarch Watch.)

As we ascended the mountain on horses we were passing through a tunnel of trees when a wave of butterflies appeared, coming down the trail. We found ourselves riding through a sea of butterflies as they flowed around us. Thousands surrounded us as we rode, but it was simply a preview of what lay ahead.

Photographs cannot capture the experience of seeing tens of millions of butterflies obscuring tall pine trees by completely covering the branches and trunks. The branches sag under the weight and have been known to break. There are so many flying around that you can hear them flying—a gentle, whispering fluttering sound. (More Monarch pictures.)

After riding uphill for over an hour we dismounted and were led down a short trail to the grove where the cluster was. It was awe inspiring and we sat and stared in wonder for about an hour—mostly watching, seldom talking, and occasionally taking pictures. It was very peaceful—just the five of us and a couple of guides.

After a while we regained our horses and continued up the trail—now quite steep—for another half hour to a large valley near the summit. The sun was shining, the sky was blue and there were more butterflies, but not the large clusters we saw earlier. We lounged in the sun watching the butterflies flit around. Eventually after an hour or two we headed down.

There are a number of sanctuaries for the Monarchs, but Cerro Pelón was recommended because it has been logged the least providing both a better and more scenic habitat. While the other reserves had 8000 visitors on this peak weekend day, we shared the Monarchs with maybe 50 people—all Mexicans. A guide is required ($10 for the group) and there are fees for entrance ($10) and parking ($5). A horse ($10) is a good idea if you are not used to hiking at this altitude (3000 meters=10 000 feet).

The town of Zitácuaro in Michoacán is near the Monarch migration grounds and has a wonderful little hotel, Rancho San Cayetano (www.ranchosancayetano.com). The hotel is small—9 rooms and three cabins all comfortable, in first-rate shape, and kept spotlessly clean. The owners, Pablo and Lisette Span, are the perfect hosts. They are always present ensuring that everything runs smoothly. They are passionate about their hotel, the region, and, of course, the butterflies. We had no idea of what the local attractions were, but Pablo and Lisette were always available to help out. Their attention and suggestions added a lot to our trip.

On our first day we awoke to a relaxing day on the beautiful grounds of our hotel. The 5-hectares (12-acre) compound is beautifully manicured with many flowers, fruit trees, and shade trees. There are also open fields, a pool, and the property overlooks a river running through a deep gorge. (Check out the hotel’s photo link at www.ranchosancayetano.com)/). Erik rose at dawn to check the birds on the grounds. Since this was his first trip to Mexico the grounds provided many new birds (“lifers”) in the early light. Breakfast was served at 8:30 in their bright dining room with many windows including a beautiful stained-glass window facing south. Each morning the sun flooded the room with colorful light. Breakfast included local fare, first-rate coffee, fresh bakery goods, homemade jams and as much freshly squeezed orange juice as you could drink. The local fare was a very hearty and interesting breakfast making lunch unnecessary. None of us ever bothered with lunch. You could also be boring and have eggs (cereal was available for kids).

Food was an event at the hotel and the small dining room provided a cozy atmosphere encouraged lingering and conversations with other guests. There was always a fire going in the fireplace even though the weather didn’t require a sweater. The dinners had three courses and the chef was first rate. Dining showed the hand of our hostess Lisette who was raised in France.

After breakfast on our first day we took a twenty-minute walk up a narrow, cobble-stone street to visit the church in the small, rustic village of San Pancho (which may be officially known as San Francisco). Much of the lane was walled with overhanging trees. It was quite a picturesque walk: the only traffic came from a couple of cars, a few pedestrians and a farmer with a handful of cows. The church overlooks a tiny town square surrounded by the few buildings. The square was empty of people and cars, but the priest was in the church setting up for a service. Around the year 2000 the former priest made a small attempt to fix up the church that had fallen into disrepair. Under the plaster he discovered that the church was quite old—in fact, it turns out to be one of the oldest Franciscan churches in Mexico dating to only 15 years after the Conquistadors landed, i.e. over 450 years old. It has now been restored to its original simple state with stone walls, wooden benches, and new (small) stained glass windows. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to indicate its age and historical importance. If you are in the area, you don’t want to miss it.

The church is famous for one other thing. The classic Humphrey Bogart movie “Treasure of Sierra Madre” was filmed there in 1948.

That afternoon our birding guide, Robert Straub (straub_robert@yahoo.com), arrived. Robert is an American who lives in Veracruz and works for Pronatura (www.pronaturaveracruz.org), a non-profit conservation organization. While familiar with Mexican birding in general and with experience in Michoacán he had not birded the immediate vicinity of Zitácuaro. Calling Robert a birding guide does not do him justice. He was a lot more than that for us and had just finished leading a butterfly and birding trip for a group who were not all birders. As you will see he led us on a number of adventures whose main purpose was not birding, but had birding as an aside. His presence and experience with Mexican travel was a big contributor to our wonderful trip. In addition, he is an excellent birder and an interesting and enjoyable companion. We spent every minute of three days with him including lodging him in our cabin and enjoyed the whole experience. (Bird pictures.)

Since it was already late in the day and not prime birding time we decided to seek out a local waterfall. Using a hand-drawn map from our host Pablo we drove twenty kilometers down the road, turned onto an unmarked road, and wound our way up a few kilometers on a one-lane road to the tiny town of Enandio. No signs indicated the road, the town name, or the possibility of a waterfall. In town we were to ask for Jesus who it turned out was celebrating the 15th birthday of his niece—a major celebration. Since he was busy we wandered off to check out the local birding. After about an hour we returned to find Jesus. He and a few bystanders decided that our van couldn’t make the trip so we piled into the back of his small pickup for the trek. All this interaction took place in Spanish handled by Robert. A couple of the neighbors joined us in the truck. We headed up a windy and bumpy dirt track for about an hour with a few stops for birds. Our road overlooked well-tended fields which Pablo later told us supplied guava to the world. The mountainous scenery was spectacular and the truck bed provided unimpeded views. However, we did have to hang on tight to be kept from being bounced out. Eventually, we got to the waterfall (named Salto Verde or Salto Enandio, depending on who you asked) and its 100-meter (300 foot) fall was spectacular. Needless to say, we were the only ones there. As you can see in the pictures, we were on an overlook opposite and above the falls. There is a trail to the bottom of the falls, but it is steep and it was too late in the day for the round trip (a couple of hours). However, our view was worth the trip.

On the next morning Erik and Robert rose before dawn and returned to the waterfall to bird the area properly in the active early morning hours. They were not disappointed. After breakfast, that was the day we went to see the Monarchs. Again we used a hand- drawn map from Pablo. However, for the butterflies there was one sign at one of the turns to help us out. At the base there is a small town with a small church. We were the first people of the day so people headed out of their homes to take care of us as we drove in. As we found in many places, the 200 peso bills I had picked up at the airport currency exchange were too much so we had to scramble to come up with correct change.

With the butterflies out of the way we had our final day free for exploring. Again Erik and Robert rose at dawn to bird while the rest of us slept in. They returned to the butterfly sanctuary for another morning of fabulous birding. After a late breakfast we headed first to see pre-Spanish ruins. The nearest were near the town of San Felipe de los Alzati. With the help of Pablo’s directions and Robert’s inquiries along the way we found our way up a deserted dirt road to the ruins. At the ruins there was a small building with an attendant and a small display (all in Spanish). We paid a few pesos for admittance (again correct change was needed). The ruins are small by Mexican standards, but were impressive to us having never seen anything like it. They were situated to have a panoramic view of the entire valley including Zitácuaro and the mountains with the Monarch sanctuaries. We had the ruins to ourselves so we climbed around them for an hour and enjoyed the sun and view. From the exhibit (and Robert’s translation) we learned that the ruins were Otomi who were neither conquered by the Aztecs nor the Spanish. In fact, that native culture and language has survived in pockets.

With a full afternoon ahead of us we decided to take the two-hour drive to Cuitceo Lake near Morelia to find a black-polled yellow-throat warbler that only lives in marshes in Michoacán. Robert knew a couple of spots where he had seen them, but they are rare and did not show (late in the day didn’t help). However, it was a beautiful lake. A million speed bumps later we had visited the lake and returned to Zitácuaro. We were too late for dinner at the hotel so we tried a family restaurant in town. We had a cheap meal in a cheap place—a meal which paled in comparison to the hotel fare.

Zitácuaro is a three-hour drive from the Mexico City airport, and the hotel arranged for someone to pick us up. On our first trip to México we doubted that we could find our way out of the city on our own. There were four of us; my wife and I are about six feet tall and our son is six-five. Our ride was a VW Jetta wagon—a big car for México, but tight for our group. We folded ourselves into the seats, squirmed around to fasten the seat belts, and settled in for the drive. The airport is served by a four-lane highway and a similar highway led out of town. However, the two were not connected so we got a close look at part of Mexico City. Roads in Mexico are interesting: anything smaller than a major highway will have speed bumps to control speeds. The city of Toluca (formally: Toluca de Lerdo) was on our way, but even though it is the capital of México State and has over 1.5 million residents most of the main road to it is a country two-lane. Also, there is no bypass so we got to see the city. Eventually, after 14 hours of traveling from home in Michigan we arrived at the hotel. Fortunately, we were in time for dinner (barely) and what a treat that was after the long day of traveling.

On our final day, we had our final breakfast and then Robert drove us back to the airport since it was on his way home.

More Pictures (click to enlarge)

Wendy, Lenore, and Robert relaxing in the meadow in Cerro Pelón

Riding up to the Monarchs in Cerro Pelón