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Entries about mountains

Mazamitla, in the mountains of Jalisco

The closest thing to a Mexican alpine village

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Tucked away somewhere in the pine-clad mountains in the Mexican state of Jalisco, a 2-hour drive from Guadalajara and not too far from Lake Chapala, is the pueblo mágico called Mazamitla. It's probably the closest thing Mexico has to an alpine village... I say "alpine" and not "Swiss" because it lacks the squeaky-clean, orderly Swissness. In other words, it still has its Mexican feel to it. But with its stone streets and houses with red-tiled roofs and wooden balconies, many lined with geraniums in pots, it has a real mountain town feel to it. Its altitude (2200 m - 7200 ft) and cool climate help reinforce that sensation.

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We first stumbled across Mazamitla three years ago when we went to pay a visit on Christmas Eve to some friends who had moved there more than a decade earlier. This year we decided to repeat the experience, attracted by the thought of escaping from the concrete and traffic of the big city and spending Christmas among the pine trees, warmed by a real log fire. Due to the prolonged rainy season this year, the whole area was even greener than usual. Three years ago, it was quite a different story. Driving to the town from Zamora, we looked expectantly for the sight of what we had read was Mexico's little Switzerland. "Switerland? This looks more like Africa!", Cristina commented. And it did look rather yellow and dry. That is until we were almost in sight of Mazamitla. Then the Sierra del Tigre, the local mountains, appeared clad in pine trees and wooden cabañas or log cabins began to peep out from the greenery. This year, we were not disappointed and spent a relaxing 3 days there.

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As this was our second visit and we were staying in the same hotel, we breezed up to what I think is the town's only traffic light and patiently waited for our turn for the green light. After our daily battles to get anywhere in Mexico City without spending half the day at red lights and stuck in traffic, this was a willing wait. We were in no hurry, we were on holiday. A few pick-ups ambled down the street, and an old man of 103 and a long white beard crossed the street at a pace that was consistent with his age. The fresh air and outdoor life must stretch the life expectancy here. We remembered the way to avoid the "busy" town centre and took a small stone-clad road which led up the mountainside.... we fondly call it the Periférico in honour of DF's congested ring road. We met two other cars and a man and his donkey.

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After settling into the rustic hotel and re-acquainting ourselves with the view from the balcony, we sauntered down the hilly street straight into the central square of Mazamitla. Lined by small two-storey buildings with red and white walls, chunky roof tiles and wooden balconies, it seemed sleepy enough even though there was a wedding event going on at the church. A shiny red pick-up with a wedding bouquet on the front waited to take the newly-wed couple off. At least 70% of the vehicles here seem to be either ancient or massive pick-ups so I suppose it was a natural choice. When it rained the following day and turned the nearby mountain tracks into sticky red trails, we understood why these vehicles were so necessary. But today was clear and sunny and surprisingly warm. Our thick jumpers were relegated to our waists.

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The Hotel Huerta Real in Mazamitla

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The church is rather intriguing and certainly not the usual colonial-style building we have become accustomed to in Mexico. Freshly painted white with red trim, it conjures up vague images of a Chinese pagoda which seems to have mistakenly turned up in a Mexican dream. The bells rang and the bridal party emerged, one or two of the ladies tottering on heels that were totally out-of-keeping with this hilly town.

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It doesn't take long before you notice lots of references to venado (deer) and arrows. The name Mazamitla in the Náhuatl language can mean any of a number of variations on the same theme: "the place where deer-hunting arrows are made". I'm sure that in earlier times, the surrounding forests were teeming with deer just waiting to be hunted. And wood... lots of it. It is obviously one of the main raw materials here... wooden balconies, wooden furniture, wooden souvenirs, wooden cabañas, wooden doors.... I was surprised to see that the benches in the main square were made of iron.

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Perhaps the busiest place in this town was the small indoor market area a couple of streets away from the central plaza. Apart from that, small shops had their tiny interiors crammed full of just about everything, including the locally-made sweets such as cajeta de nuez, a kind of caramel with nuts in it and rompope, a sweet eggnog-like liquor which must do wonders in this cool climate. No-one was frantically buzzing around doing late shopping for Christmas presents. In fact, I was beginning to wonder whether Christmas had come and gone in this town, or if they only celebrated Los Reyes on the 6th of January. Except for a couple of piñatas, a few strings of lights and one or two paper lanterns, you wouldn't have guessed it was the 21st of December.

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Early the next morning though, when I slipped into town before everyone else was up, I was relieved to find that the plaza was being hosed down by a group of four people, outnumbered by the pigeons by 200:1, while a familiar sound was being piped into the crisp morning air. It was the Spanish Christmas carol, Los Peces en el Rio. "Aha", I thought to myself, "they've remembered it's Christmas after all!" My hasty conclusion came to an abrupt end when the next song began. It was "Fame" ("I'm gonna live forever, I'm gonna learn how to fly.."). Actually, the local Moustache Contest seemed to have made a greater dent in the calendar than Navidad. I think I saw who won the competition but didn't want to ask him if I could take his photo. The notoriety might have disturbed his peaceful existence. But when he wasn't looking, I snapped a shot from behind... his moustache was still more than visible from this angle.

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That first evening, we set off for the restaurant La Troje, its walls literally covered in photographs and posters, in search of some real food after a meagre sandwich for lunch on our journey here. When we arrived, it was just closing. "So early?" we chorused. We were directed across the road to the pizza place, a small rustic cabaña. It was cold and dark outside but as we opened the door, we were greeted by wooden walls, simple wooden tables and chairs on a gravel floor and a brick oven from where the smell of freshly-baked pizzas wafted. It all looked warm and inviting. No luxuries here but pure mountain refuge style. Our stomachs asked for home-made burgers and salad and baked potatoes and even a small pizza. The owner of the restaurant, a Belgian man, was a survivor. He had started off selling clothes but when times were hard, changed to selling crêpes out of a trailer. At our comments about the delicious pizza, he replied, "Well, I'd never made a pizza before but one day I thought, hey, I'm going to start making pizzas too!"

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The Christmas feeling arrived in Mazamitla on Christmas Eve, after a very heavy early morning rainstorm. The outdoor market began to set up in the centre and large tents of plastic sheet were pulled over the stands. As we made our way among the stalls, mingling with a growing number of locals who had appeared from somewhere, I knew what presents the people of Mazamitla would be getting. For the children, there were colourful plastic balls and toys, for the adults woolly jumpers and hats. And maybe a few bottles of rompope. Yes, now Christmas really had come.

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I hadn't imagined a wet Christmas Eve but fortunately the weather cleared up by the afternoon and when we set off in search of our friends' restaurant, lost among pine trees, we found a roaring fire and an international group around the table. Several courses later, with one of the little dogs clearly delighting in the warmest place in the house right in front of the chimney, we were ready to make our way back to the hotel, light our own fire and hang Marc's stocking up by the chimney. Who knows? Father Christmas must surely be able to find this place... he would feel at home here in this Alpine village!

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Restaurante Gigi's near Mazamitla: http://mazamitlapueblomagico.gob.mx/detalleAnunciante/ver/82

Posted by margaretm 04:56 Archived in Mexico Tagged mountains mexico christmas outdoor mazamitla Comments (0)

Mazamitla, in the mountains of Jalisco

The closest thing to a Mexican alpine village

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Tucked away somewhere in the pine-clad mountains in the Mexican state of Jalisco, a 2-hour drive from Guadalajara and not too far from Lake Chapala, is the pueblo mágico called Mazamitla. It's probably the closest thing Mexico has to an alpine village... I say "alpine" and not "Swiss" because it lacks the squeaky-clean, orderly Swissness. In other words, it still has its Mexican feel to it. But with its stone streets and houses with red-tiled roofs and wooden balconies, many lined with geraniums in pots, it has a real mountain town feel to it. Its altitude (2200 m - (7200 ft) and cool climate help reinforce that sensation.

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We first stumbled across Mazamitla three years ago when we went to pay a visit on Christmas Eve to some friends who had moved there more than a decade earlier. This year we decided to repeat the experience, attracted by the thought of escaping from the concrete and traffic of the big city and spending Christmas among the pine trees, warmed by a real log fire. Due to the prolonged rainy season this year, the whole area was even greener than usual. Three years ago, it was quite a different story. Driving to the town from Zamora, we looked expectantly for the sight of what we had read was Mexico's little Switzerland. "Switerland? This looks more like Africa!", Cristina commented. And it did look rather yellow and dry. That is until we were almost in sight of Mazamitla. Then the Sierra del Tigre, the local mountains, appeared clad in pine trees and wooden cabañas or log cabins began to peep out from the greenery. This year, we were not disappointed and spent a relaxing 3 days there.

IMG_5671m.jpgB75A764B2219AC6817F66BEC009F596C.jpg

As this was our second visit and we were staying in the same hotel, we breezed up to what I think is the town's only traffic light and patiently waited for our turn for the green light. After our daily battles to get anywhere in Mexico City without spending half the day at red lights and stuck in traffic, this was a willing wait. We were in no hurry, we were on holiday. A few pick-ups ambled down the street, and an old man of 103 and a long white beard crossed the street at a pace that was consistent with his age. The fresh air and outdoor life must stretch the life expectancy here. We remembered the way to avoid the "busy" town centre and took a small stone-clad road which led up the mountainside.... we fondly call it the Periférico in honour of DF's congested ring road. We met two other cars and a man and his donkey.

IMG_6056m.jpg

After settling into the rustic hotel and re-acquainting ourselves with the view from the balcony, we sauntered down the hilly street straight into the central square of Mazamitla. Lined by small two--storey buildings with red and white walls, chunky roof tiles and wooden balconies, it seemed sleepy enough even though there was a wedding event going on at the church. A shiny red pick-up with a wedding bouquet on the front waited to take the newly-wed couple off. At least 70% of the vehicles here seem to be either ancient or massive pick-ups so I suppose it was a natural choice. When it rained the following day and turned the nearby mountain tracks into sticky red trails, we understood why these vehicles were so necessary. But today was clear and sunny and surprisingly warm. Our thick jumpers were relegated to our waists.

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The church is rather intriguing and certainly not the usual stone colonial-style building we have become accustomed to in Mexico. Freshly painted white with red trim, it conjures up vague images of a Chinese pagoda which seems to have mistakenly turned up in a Mexican dream. The bells rang and the bridal party emerged, one or two of the ladies tottering on heels that were totally out-of-keeping with this hilly town.

IMG_5548m.jpg

IMG_5349m.jpg
IMG_5973m.jpg

It doesn't take long before you notice lots of references to venado (deer) and arrows. The name Mazamitla in the Náhuatl language can mean any of a number of variations on the same theme: "the place where deer-hunting arrows are made". I'm sure that in earlier times, the surrounding forests were teeming with deer just waiting to be hunted. And wood... lots of it. It is obviously one of the main raw materials here... wooden balconies, wooden furniture, wooden souvenirs, wooden cabañas, wooden doors.... I was surprised to see that the benches in the main square were made of iron.

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IMG_6139m.jpg
IMG_5555m.jpg

Perhaps the busiest place in this town was the small indoor market area a couple of streets away from the central plaza. Apart from that, small shops had their tiny interiors crammed full of just about everything, including the locally-made sweets such as cajeta de nuez, a kind of caramel with nuts in it and rompope, a sweet eggnog-like liquor which must do wonders in this cool climate. No-one was frantically buzzing around doing late shopping for Christmas presents. In fact, I was beginning to wonder whether Christmas had come and gone in this town, or if they only celebrated Los Reyes on the 6th of January. Except for a couple of piñatas, a few strings of lights and one or two paper lanterns, you wouldn't have guessed it was the 21st of December.

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Early the next morning though, when I slipped into town before everyone else was up, I was relieved to find that the plaza was being hosed down by a group of four people, outnumbered by the pigeons by 200:1, while a familiar sound was being piped into the crisp morning air. It was the Spanish Christmas carol, Los Peces en el Rio. "Aha", I thought to myself, "they've remembered it's Christmas after all!" My hasty conclusion came to an abrupt end when the next song began. It was "Fame" ("I'm gonna live forever, I'm gonna learn how to fly.."). Actually, the local Moustache Contest seemed to have made a greater dent in the calendar than Navidad. I think I saw who won the competition but didn't want to ask him if I could take his photo. The notoriety might have disturbed his peaceful existence. But when he wasn't looking, I snapped a shot from behind... his moustache was still more than visible from this angle.

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IMG_5576m.jpg
B69F1DFB2219AC68172A3850073684FB.jpg

That first evening, we set off for the restaurant La Troje, its walls literally covered in photographs and posters, in search of some real food after a meagre sandwich for lunch on our journey here. When we arrived, it was just closing. "So early?" we chorused. We were directed across the road to the pizza place, a small rustic cabaña. It was cold and dark outside but as we opened the door, we were greeted by wooden walls, simple wooden tables and chairs on a gravel floor and a brick oven from where the smell of freshly-baked pizzas wafted. It all looked warm and inviting. No luxuries here but pure mountain refuge style. Our stomachs asked for home-made burgers and salad and baked potatoes and even a small pizza. The owner of the restaurant, a Belgian man, was a survivor. He had started off selling clothes but when times were hard, changed to selling crêpes out of a trailer. At our comments about the delicious pizza, he replied, "Well, I'd never made a pizza before but one day I thought, hey, I'm going to start making pizzas too!"

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The Christmas feeling arrived in Mazamitla on Christmas Eve, after a very heavy early morning rainstorm: The outdoor market began to set up in the centre and large tents of plastic sheet were pulled over the stands. As we made our way among the stalls, mingling with a growing number of locals who had appeared from somewhere, I knew what presents the people of Mazamitla would be getting. For the children, there were colourful plastic balls and toys, for the adults woolly jumpers and hats. And maybe a few bottles of rompope. Yes, now Christmas really had come.

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IMG_6125m.jpg
IMG_6151m.jpg

I hadn't imagined a wet Christmas Eve but fortunately the weather cleared up by the afternoon and when we set off in search of our friends' restaurant, lost among pine trees, we found a roaring fire and an international group around the table. Several courses later, with one of the little dogs clearly delighting in the warmest place in the house right in front of the chimney, we were ready to make our way back to the hotel, light our own fire and hang Marc's stocking up by the chimney. Who knows? Father Christmas must surely be able to find this place... he would feel at home here in this Alpine village!

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Posted by margaretm 04:56 Archived in Mexico Tagged mountains mexico christmas outdoor mazamitla Comments (2)

Hiking up to see the Monarch butterflies

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Monarch butterfly

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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.

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The volcano Nevado de Toluca, Mexico's fourth highest mountain

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Countryside near Valle de Bravo

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The Piedra Herrada Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary is part of UNESCO's World Heritage Site

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The entrance fee helps conserve the butterfly sanctuary and gives work to local people

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Horses waiting to carry people up the mountain

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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.

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It's more fun when there are two of you!

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A group of schoolchildren coming down singing

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Looking up at the tall trees

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Hiking up the mountainside

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Lots of moss covering the tree trunks

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Some of the wildflowers we saw along the way

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The horses wait near the top to bring the people down again

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Beautiful chestnut-coloured horse

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A lone butterfly soaking up the sun's warmth

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Thick vegetation

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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.

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Looking towards the trees in the distance covered in butterflies

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The trees turn an orangey colour

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Huge clumps of butterflies

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Jaime, our guide, explaining the differences between the male and female butterflies

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The air was full of monarchs fluttering around in the sunshine

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Sunbathing on a branch

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Not orange flowers, but butterflies

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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.

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The air was thick with orange smudges

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Observing a monarch flying overhead

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How many butterflies on these branches, I wonder?

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Enjoying the sunshine

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Thick vegetation

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.

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Going back to get the horses

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Walking down through the trees

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All the guides are trained and know all about the butterflies

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Pottery souvenirs

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Monarch butterfly fridge magnets

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A Mazahua lady embroidering

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This little dog was hoping to get some crumbs from us

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Blue skies behind the truck

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On our way back, we passed a field of nopales or edible cactus plants

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One of the many churches we passed along the way

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Big fluffy clouds over the mountains

Posted by margaretm 05:28 Archived in Mexico Tagged mountains nature hiking mexico_city outdoors butterflies Comments (5)

The long way down - an epic journey

Monarch butterflies

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Around this time last year, at the beginning of December, we drove out to the mountains in the state of Michoacán to see some special travellers. They had flown down from Canada and the United States, not on a plane, but amazingly using their tiny fragile wings. An incredible 4500 km which takes them about 2 months. This astounding long-distance journey by the Monarch butterfly (mariposa monarca) is one of nature's truly spectacular feats and defies the imagination. Every year, millions of these beautiful orange and black butterflies fly south down to Mexico, arriving in November, where they spend the winter and reproduce in the oyamel forests of Michoacán and Estado de México, before setting off back to the north in February.

The first time we saw these butterflies fluttering in the woods of Mexico was in February 2009. We had come over to Mexico City to find a place to live and get a general idea of life here. One day we hired a car and set off to Valle de Bravo and as we wound our way through the mountains, we suddenly came across a road sign with a speed limit of 15 kmph. We didn't know it back then but this was mariposa land, and the air was aflutter with delicate orangey smudges glinting where the sun's rays filtered through the thick woods. It was an amazing sight, but perhaps equally incredible was the fact that many of the cars and trucks which minutes earlier had raced past us down the road, recklesssly overtaking on blind corners, suddenly came to an almost complete standstill and crawled solemnly along these protected kilometers. I mean, they took this seriously.

Last year, we decided to go and see where the mariposas monarca spend the winter in their millions, turning trees a dull orange colour. El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary near Angangueo, about 100 km from Mexico City, looked within driving distance so off we set. As always in Mexico, distances which look so close on a map always turn out to be much further, and trips take much longer than planned because other vehicles on the road move much slower than anticipated and roads can be much more hole-pocked than imagined. Three hours? It seemed more like three days. Finally we arrived at Zitácuaro, and turned up into the mountains. Here the hills and valleys turned greener and more wooded, while the lower slopes had become fiery red with hundreds of thousands of poinsettia plants, known here as nochebuenas, ready to be taken to the cities for Christmas. It was beautiful country. Up we chugged until we almost reached Angangueo, and then followed the signs to El Rosario. This was one trip which seemed to go ON and ON and UP and UP. Passing small poor-looking, wooden houses topped with tin roofs, our car finally came to a halt in a large open space which served as a car park. We got out and stretched our cramped bodies. At last we'd arrived. Or so we thought. Taking to our legs, we climbed up the path squeezed between a long line of simple huts where the local people sold souvenirs and crafts to visitors like us. Since a few years ago when a ban on all logging and slash and burn activity was established, the butterflies are the main source of income for the nearby villages and tourists only visit during a few months. For this poor, quite remote area, it is a godsend to have visitors buy their handiwork.

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The Monarch butterfly is a symbol of the state of Michoacán

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On our way to Zitácuaro - the roads were excellent along the first part

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We drove through beautiful wooded countryside

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Small church on the mountainside near the Butterfly Sanctuary

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The paved path went between lots of small wooden huts

Just when we thought we should surely be seeing some butterflies, the Sanctuary itself appeared, a small area with an information centre, toilets, a ticket office, and hand-painted murals depicting the life cycle of the monarch butterfly. We were at about 3000m (10,000 ft). A local man was assigned to accompany us up the mountain and off we set. "How long will it take?" we asked. "Hay que caminar media hora o cuarenta minutos", he replied. A thirty or forty minute climb? So we still had a long way to go up. It turned out to be a steep climb straight up the mountainside which challenged our legs and left us gasping for breath. What we didn't know then was that the top of the mountain lies at an altitude of 3400m (11,000 ft). Thankfully, the trail was very well-kept and we had plenty of time to digest the interesting signs giving information about the butterflies. Nature had done its best for us too. We found ourselves immersed in a thick forest of pines and oyomel fir trees, tall and slender, soaring up above us. We couldn't even see their crowns. Light filtered through in patches. It seemed like we were the only ones here. No butterflies either. I was puzzled.

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Entrance to El Rosario

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Hand-painted mural of the life cycle of the butterfly

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A well-kept trail took us up the mountainside

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Oyamel firs soaring upwards

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One of the first butterflies we saw

Then suddenly I saw a bright orange flash above me. Sure enough it was a monarch butterfly. So we WERE on course, after all. I was beginning to think we'd come too early, that the butterflies hadn't arrived yet. As we emerged into a sunny clearing on the shoulder of the mountain, the sky was aflutter with these beautiful mariposas. The warmth of the sun had woken them up. About 100 metres below us were a group of people who had just got off some horses. They'd paid for four legs to get them up the steep hill, not a bad idea for those who are not acclimatised to the high altitude. Our guide motioned for us to follow him. "Up again?" Yes, another 10 minutes. We plunged into the forests again and this was when we saw what it was all about. Here at the very top of the mountain was the Mexican destination for millions of monarch butterflies. They were resting on bushes and tree branches, congregating around little trickles of water, fluttering their wings where the sun reached down through the trees. And just where another group of people were whispering excitedly, we could see whole tree trunks and branches looking more like gigantic orangey plumeros or feather dusters as masses of butterflies clung to them. You couldn't even see the leaves and the branches were bending down with the weight. No-one was allowed to go near them and visitors had to keep silent so as not to disturb them. I gasped for breath, but wasn't sure whether it was the effect of the steep climb, the high altitude or because I was overwhelmed by so much natural beauty. Maybe it was a combination of all three. It was definitely one of those magical moments.

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Out in the sunshine

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A Monarch butterfly warming up in the sunshine

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A bush full of monarcas

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Many people ride up on horses instead of walking - easier on the lungs and legs!

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Masses of butterflies congregated near some water

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Jostling for a good position near the water!

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One of the trees laden with butterflies at the top of the mountain

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Not orange flowers, butterflies!

I found myself trying to imagine those small frail creatures, winging their way down from Canada, against the wind, through storms, dodging predators. Fluttering unseen over vast expanses of wilderness, or cultivated fields, through woods. Maybe they passed over the Grand Canyon, or the Rocky Mountains. What a feat! I had read that the average lifespan of Monarch butterflies was about 4 weeks but that the generation which is born at the end of August, also known as the "Methusela Generation", survive for almost 8 months, long enough for them to fly south to Mexico and escape the harsh northern winters. 4500 kms later, they arrive in the oyamel forests where we were standing right then, where their great-great-great grandparents migrated a year earlier. Scientists are still trying to understand how they can find their way down to the same forests, several generations apart. It was all mind-boggling.

I stood in the silence, impressed by the respect shown to these tiny creatures. Keeping quiet, preserving their habitat, driving slowly in areas where the butterflies were flying through. There is a traditional belief in Michoacán that these are the souls of people who have died, coming back home. I tried to imagine what it was like for people living here hundreds of years ago, without all the knowledge we have nowadays and more or less confined to their small villages and mountain valleys, to see millions of these butterflies arriving here every year in the autumn and fluttering off in February. No wonder they gave them a mystical meaning. Yet, even knowing what we do now, that they fly over 4500 kms from Canada and the USA, using a special sophisticated navigation system to help direct them to these forests in Mexico which is transmitted genetically from generation to generation, leaves us equally in awe.

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The air was aflutter with the butterflies

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Side view of the Monarch butterfly

It was time to go back down. We skipped down the steep hillside and stopped to buy a few craft items from the women at the bottom. Two young boys ran after us as we looked for our car, singing a couple of songs. They too were trying to earn a few pesos for their families.

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Time to go back down

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Two butterflies seen on the way down

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Simple wooden huts, with plenty of ventilation!

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Even the toilets had butterfly motifs on them!

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A few souvenir stalls

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Mugs to remind you of your visit

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Looking back up at the top of the mountain where we had been

We arrived back in Mexico City, tired, but glad we went. The long hours on the road, the never-ending climbing up, the gasping of our lungs.. it had all been worth it. Definitely a sight not to miss. In fact, this natural phenomenon is so spectacular and important that in 2008 UNESCO declared the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Central Mexico a World Heritage Site and helps protect the overwintering site of these tiny travellers.

Cristina hadn't come with us since she was staying overnight with a friend and we tried to tell her what she missed. It was lost on her since she views butterflies in the same category as wasps and spiders, and shuddered at the thought of being so close to millions of insects. Still, for most people it is a visit to make at least once in their lifetime, if the opportunity arises. You won't be disappointed.

Posted by margaretm 04:56 Archived in Mexico Tagged mountains nature trips butterflies michoacán Comments (0)

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