A couple of weeks ago, a group of us went to see the amazing sight of millions of Monarch butterflies wintering in the high-altitude forests near Valle de Bravo. These tiny fragile creatures are about to set off again on their long journey back up to the USA and Canada. They usually fly down in the fall, arriving in the mountain ranges near Mexico City at the beginning of November and stay until March. So impressive is this feat of nature that in 2008 UNESCO designated a mountainous area in the states of Michoacán and Estado de México as a World Heritage Site to protect the butterflies and their migration. We wanted to see them before they flew off again.
Our trip to the Valle de Bravo took a bit longer than expected with severe difficulties extracting ourselves from the traffic on the way out of DF, adding an extra one and a half hours to our anticipated journey time. We finally arrived at the Piedra Herrada Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary near Valle de Bravo, relishing the thought of getting out of the microbus and being in the fresh mountain air, far from the 3 big "Cs" of the city - concrete, congestion and contamination.
The volcano Nevado de Toluca, Mexico's fourth highest mountain
Countryside near Valle de Bravo
The Piedra Herrada Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary is part of UNESCO's World Heritage Site
The entrance fee helps conserve the butterfly sanctuary and gives work to local people
Horses waiting to carry people up the mountain
Some small huts at the site
Five of us decided to sweat our way along the steep dusty path making its way up the mountainside, while the rest borrowed an extra four legs to help them up, riding horseback. Our legs and lungs were stretched by the climb and the rarefied air and we found ourselves surrounded by thick vegetation and trees soaring high into the sky around us. Red, blue, yellow and white flowers dotted the path and as we climbed up, we began to see our first Monarchs resting on bushes at the side or in the tree branches overhead. Near the top, Jaime, our guide, led us to a small clearing at the edge of the steep hillside and there behind him, was a mass of orangey-coloured trees. Hundreds of thousands of butterflies had congregated in huge clumps on the branches while thousands more were flitting around in the clear mountain sky above us.
It's more fun when there are two of you!
A group of schoolchildren coming down singing
Looking up at the tall trees
Hiking up the mountainside
Lots of moss covering the tree trunks
Some of the wildflowers we saw along the way
The horses wait near the top to bring the people down again
Beautiful chestnut-coloured horse
A lone butterfly soaking up the sun's warmth
We began to see more and more butterflies as we climbed higher
Jaime picked up two dead butterflies, one male and the other female, to show us the differences and told us their story, how they navigate their way down to Mexico and return. This is one of nature's most spectacular feats, a journey of thousands of kilometers, in which special butterflies four generations later are able to make their way to the very trees in Mexico where their great-grandparents had spent the winter the year before. We sat in silence, watching the mariposas monarca and listening to the wings of thousands, maybe millions, of butterflies beating together. It was an awesome moment.
Looking towards the trees in the distance covered in butterflies
The trees turn an orangey colour
Huge clumps of butterflies
Jaime, our guide, explaining the differences between the male and female butterflies
The air was full of monarchs fluttering around in the sunshine
Sunbathing on a branch
Not orange flowers, but butterflies
Me with the heavily-laden trees behind
I had visited the Butterfly Sanctuary in Angangueo, Michoacán, in December 2010 (see my blog post "The long way down - an epic journey" of 9th December 2011) at the beginning of their wintering season and now here I was mesmerised by the hundreds of beautiful orangey-black creatures flitting around in the warm spring sunshine over my head. They were fattening themselves up ready for the long journey back. It was time to say goodbye to them... and wish them well on their way. The next lot of Monarchs will be arriving here around the beginning of November, when Mexicans celebraet the Dia de Muertos or Day of the Dead. According to a traditional belief, the monarchs are the souls of ancestors who are returning to earth for their annual visit. They must be welcomed and treated with great care.
The air was thick with orange smudges
Observing a monarch flying overhead
How many butterflies on these branches, I wonder?
Enjoying the sunshine
It was far easier coming down the mountain on foot than on horseback judging by the sound of some of the riders' voices and we all met at the bottom for lunch and to buy a few souvenirs handmade by Mazahua ladies, an essential and much-needed source of income for these poor communities. Stray dogs with cute faces waited patiently for the crumbs of our sandwiches and then it was time to leave these beautiful forests and fresh mountain air and get back home. Back to city life.
Going back to get the horses
Walking down through the trees
All the guides are trained and know all about the butterflies
Monarch butterfly fridge magnets
A Mazahua lady embroidering
This little dog was hoping to get some crumbs from us
Blue skies behind the truck
On our way back, we passed a field of nopales or edible cactus plants
One of the many churches we passed along the way
Big fluffy clouds over the mountains