Home » Articles » The Butterflies and People of Central Mexico: a Travel Journal

The Butterflies and People of Central Mexico: a Travel Journal

During the week of February 26 through March 3, 2017, my wife Shauna and I traveled on a grand adventure to central Mexico to view the overwintering population of Monarch butterflies. Shauna has been passionate about butterflies all of her life, gaining knowledge and interest about them while raising and releasing various species as a child in Denver, Colorado. I too have become concerned about the decline of all pollinators the last few years, and alongside other Nebraska Game and Parks Commission staff; hope to make a difference in creating new habitat on state properties to help these vitally important insects. I must admit that I was a bit nervous about traveling to Mexico, but Shauna spent a ton of time researching our trip and did an outstanding job serving as our travel agent. We enjoyed a wonderful experience viewing the monarchs on three preserves; and in addition, we truly enjoyed the warm, friendly, Mexican people and learned much about their culture.

Our destination and home for the week was Macheros, a village of about 300 people, located in the Sierra Madre Mountains in west central Mexico in the “State of Mexico.” In addition, we did take one tour to a preserve just into the eastern edge of the Mexican State of “Michoacán.” During our visit, we stayed at JM Butterfly Bed and Breakfast, owned and operated by Joel Moreno Rojas and his wife, Dr. Ellen Sharp, who is originally from South Carolina. However, I know that both Joel and Ellen would like me to share that the success of their new business, founded in 2015 is due at least in part to the involvement of many other Moreno Rojas family members. Joel has nine siblings, and several siblings serve as guides, horse handlers, and assist with general operations of the lodging, cafe and guiding business that Joel and Ellen provide. Rosita, Joel’s Mother, operates a small café next to the B&B lodging, where several daughters assist with daily business; there we found the food excellent and not too spicy for our taste. Lodging at J&M B&B is very safe and comfortable with great beds and ample hot water. The fact that Joel, Ellen, Vicente, Rogelio and Ana of the Moreno Rojas family are bilingual was certainly a help as we “no habla Espanola.” But armed with Google Translate App. on our phones we successfully managed our transportation to and from Macheros. With the exception of one slightly frustrated cab driver in Mexico City, we found everyone to be patient and understanding about our lack of their language.

Before I develop a brief overview of the butterfly sanctuaries that we visited, some description of the conditions and progression of the overwintering season may be helpful. We enjoyed perfect weather during our stay with hardly a cloud observed in the sky each day. Daytime temperatures hovered between 60 and 70 F., and I think nights may have dipped to the high 40’s F. The temperatures do dip into the 30’s in mid-winter at the mountain preserves, and many butterflies were killed the winter prior to our visit at Cerro Pelon when it rained and temperatures dipped to 28 F. During the coldest weather, monarchs huddle together in tight colonies, or roosts, in the oyamel firs, Abies religiosa, and fly very little unless it warms up during the day. We probably visited the preserves at an optimal time as the temperatures were warm enough to stimulate flight in search of available water and nectar in preparation for their return migration to the states. The monarchs were also in the midst of mating and we learned they may remain coupled for up to 18 hours; shortly after the males die. However, despite the tremendous activity during mid-day at each preserve, we still observed considerable numbers of monarchs on the roost in colonies at each preserve. Our guides mentioned the monarchs would begin flying north within the next two weeks.

Cerro Pelon Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary Tour

Guided by Vicente and Rogelio we visited Cerro Pelon on Sunday, February 26. The entrance to this sanctuary is a five minute walk from JM B&B and we walked there with Ana and several B&B guests around 10:00 am. Other guests joining us that morning were from Texas, Oregon and Canada. Also Sarah, a brave young woman from Kansas City, Kansas, was a part of our group that day. Sarah was bi-lingual, followed the monarch migration to Canada by bicycle the summer of 2017, and followed their return migration south to Mexico in the fall. Walking into a coral at the preserve entrance, we were greeted by several handlers with an interesting mix of animals. The handlers matched us up with appropriate sized mounts and in no time we were on our way up Cerro Pelon Mountain for the hour long ride to the resident monarch colony. The trail up the mountain was steep, rocky and dusty. Some of our escorts managed two horses, holding on to the tail of the lead horse and holding the halter rope of the trailing horse.

Cerro Pelon is a historic site: it is where scientists first confirmed the butterflies that left Canada every year were the same ones that overwintered in the oyamel fir forests of the Sierra Madres. It is also, according to many butterfly enthusiasts the loveliest and most pristine of Mexico’s butterfly preserves. Cerro Pelon is the least developed and least visited of all of the sanctuaries. The trail to the colony was mostly shady, winding through a mossy forest of fir, pine, cedar, and oak trees.

At this preserve, we did not observe a lot of monarchs until we reached the colony. On a mountain ridge we dismounted and walked about 100 yards to the colony to find several rangers monitoring the colony and pointing to a cordoned area where we could observe the roosted butterflies from about 20 yards away. Our first observation of the colony was breathtaking and we stood in silence enjoying the fluttering clumps in second growth oyamel firs. We enjoyed viewing the butterflies for a couple of hours which included time for a back pack lunch our guides provided as part of our tour.

El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary Tour

On Monday, February 27, we left JM B&B with Joel and other guests around 10:00 in the morning for an hour-long ride to the El Rosario preserve near the village of Angangueo. Guests Barb from Canada, Rose from Minnesota and Sarah from Kansas joined us for the day. In route to the sanctuary, Joel explained to us that the El Rosario Biosphere reserve is the most developed of the monarch sanctuaries and over the years, improvements were possible due to funding from the Mexican government to promote tourism. Fortunately we had the flexibility to visit this preserve on a Monday, as weekends can be extremely crowed with tourists.

Upon arrival, Joel was directed to park near the entrance plaza where we found public restrooms and food vendors eager for our business. Even though Joel is a qualified guide, everyone visiting the El Rosario preserve is required be accompanied by a local guide. Near a small gift shop and interpretative signs we met Priscilla, who would accompany us on our hike to the colony. Priscilla spoke Spanish in a very articulate and beautiful tone, even though I do not understand Spanish; it was a joy to listen when she spoke. Later Sarah, who was bilingual, interpreted from Priscilla that guides are allowed to work at El Rosario for the season on a three-year rotation with other local, available guides.

Unlike the unmarked trail that winds up the mountain on Cerro Pelon, we found the trail to the colony quite developed with concrete steps on steep sections. Other tourists were present, but it was not crowded. Joel mentioned we were wise to visit the preserve on a week day as many, many people visit on weekends, and the cordoned trail is often filled with a solid stream of hikers. The 45-minute hike to the colony was not difficult, but at nearly 7,000 feet of elevation, frequent stops to catch our breath were helpful; however, many monarchs were flying through the trees for our viewing enjoyment during our stops. Rose, a woman in our group, did have some troubles. Before accompanying our tour that morning, she shared that she had been having some gastro intestinal problems, and hesitated to attend the tour, but we encouraged her to come along. Shortly after the start of our trail hike Rose nearly fainted, apparently dehydrated from diarrhea. Shauna and Barb caught her and Joel came to the rescue helping her to sit on a nearby log. Immediately Priscilla ran in search for a clump of herbs from the nearby trail, very quickly she returned with a small bunch of herbs that Joel gently placed under Roses nose. We gave Rose some water and a small granola bar that she nibbled while resting. Joel stayed with Rose, while we continued our hike with Priscilla. Later with Rose holding Joel’s arm, they re-joined our small group near the monarch colony.

As a tree enthusiast, I was duly impressed by the old growth oyamel forest remaining in the public portion of the preserve as most trees growing adjacent to the trail averaged 30 inches in diameter and were probably 150 feet tall. After viewing the trees, I understood why locals often prize and respect the tree at Christmas time. Mexicans often call it “arbol de Navidad,” or Christmas tree, and its cut foliage is often used in religious festivals, notably at Christmas. Soon we exited the forest for a time and stepped in to an expansive meadow with a beautiful vista westward through the Sierra Madre, where thousands (or more) of monarchs swirled in active flight. Huge groups of monarchs congregated to drink at numerous spring seeps trickling through the meadow. We walked leisurely for a quarter mile through the meadow, enjoying the sites and making short video clips of the butterfly activity on our phones.

Soon we re-entered the forest and after a 200-yard walk, arrived at the colony. Here we were allowed to approach within about 50 yards from roost trees. Clumps of roosting monarchs were more impressive here than at Cerro Pelon, but our still photos would have been more impressive had we been equipped with zoom lenses on sophisticated cameras. However, our cell phone cameras captured reasonable still pictures and great video clips reflecting monarch flight around the roosts. As mentioned previously, it seemed we visited the preserves at optimal time to view both roosting and flying monarchs. Our guide allowed us to remain at the cordoned colony for about 45 minutes before the return hike to our van. Joel mentioned during busy days, visitors are requested to rotate out of the colony area after only 20 minutes. Our leisurely, return hike to the entrance plaza was equally enjoyable where we enjoyed a lunch provided by Joel, as a part of our tour fee.

Our evening meal at Rosita’s was very enjoyable, as it was all week. While dining with other guests over the previous two days, we discovered that Laura, originally from Portland, Oregon, shared her Birthday with mine on this day. During our dinner, we shared a tequila shot to celebrate our shared Birthdays. At the end of our meal, Joel, Ellen, Vincente, Ana and other members of Joel’s family arrived at the café. Soon to our surprise, Rosita appeared with two small Birthday cakes and everyone in attendance sang Happy Birthday first in Spanish and then English. I was glad they did not embarrass me by placing 65 candles on the cake, and I easily managed extinguishing the single flame.

A day of relaxation and village culture.

One Birthday tequila shot did not adversely affect my equilibrium on the morning of Tuesday, February 28, but we decided to hang out in Macheros for the day and enjoy the serenity and friendly people of the village. After breakfast, we took a four-mile round trip hike up a nearby mountain, guided by Joel’s Uncle, to view a meadow frequented by hummingbirds and songbirds. It was a beautiful walk through the forest and we enjoyed a beautiful aerial view of Macheros through openings in the trees. We also enjoyed seeing several hummingbirds on our walk. After lunch, with Ana as our interpreter, we visited two families with newborn babies so that Shauna could present them with homemade blankets, as a small gesture of goodwill from the USA. We completed our afternoon by lounging around the trout ponds in the village where trout are produced for sale at Rosita’s café. Another shot of tequila with other visitors at the B&B while viewing the sunset below the Sierra Madre horizon, made for a pleasant end to a relaxing day.

Piedra Herrada Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary Tour

Our guided trip on February 29 to the preserve near Peidra Herrada completed the last day of our visit to central Mexico. The two-hour trip from JM B&B in Macheros to Piedra Herrada took us through the small farming villages of the State of Mexico on a road lined with fields of fruit trees and nopal cactuses, which are cultivated for food. The road descended into Valle de Bravo a cosmopolitan colonial gem and weekend resort town and the butterfly sanctuary was located another half hour away through beautiful white pine forests. As we neared the sanctuary on a narrow asphalt road, we began to a notice a constant stream of monarchs flying out of the nearby forest in multiple locations. Flying out of the forest, the butterflies congregated in a steady stream following the asphalt, mountain road apparently to drink at spring seeps at a lower elevation from the preserve. Joel pulled over and parked so we could get out of the van to view the continual stream of monarchs following the roadway. The flow of monarchs was an amazing site until we noticed that thousands of wasps accompanied the butterflies. However we soon realized the wasps were not aggressive, and even though many landed momentarily on our clothing, no one got stung.

After returning to the van, Joel completed the short, remaining drive to the entrance of the Piedra Herrada preserve. Joel met with horse handlers at the preserve entrance and arranged for a mount for everyone. Both hiking and horseback trails to the butterfly roost were available at the preserve entrance. Our half hour horseback ride although dusty was not as steep as the one at Cerro Pelon. At the trail summit, we dismounted and hiked a short distance on a recently cleared trail to the roost site. Once again the trail near the roost was cordoned to keep us back 30 yards from butterfly-laden trees, but clumps of roosting butterflies and active flight of many others was still quite impressive at this distance. Ample time was allowed for us to mosey along the narrow trail and observe the monarchs. In addition, before hiking out of the roost area to our awaiting horses and guides we enjoyed another lunch, provided by Joel our guide, while taking in one last opportunity to enjoy the roosting colony of monarchs.

On the return trip to Macheros, Joel parked in the market area for an hour-long stopover in Valle de Bravo. Shauna and I enjoyed a quick walk through the central market square where; guess what, she found a pair of shoes she liked. Then we joined the rest of our group for a quick snack and drink at a village cantina (no tequila for me this time) before the return trip to Macheros.

The next day we bid “adios” to our host family at JM Butterfly Bed and Breakfast before beginning our return trip to Lincoln. It was a warm and touching time while sharing not only handshakes but also quick hugs with these friendly people. I felt a genuine kinship with two of Joel’s brothers, Vicente and Rogelio, who spoke great English and served as guides in the family business. Both brothers had each worked several years as Landscapers in New York to learn and polish their language, learn business skills and provide funding for their families back in Macheros. After sharing a “bear hug,” (as in man hug like an animal) with Vicente, I felt a lump in my throat when he asked, “you come back, I see it in your eyes?” After a short pause, I replied, “I hope so.”

Our return journey began that day by cab, bus, and cab again to a beautiful historic hotel on the Historic Central Square in Mexico City. Shauna had reserved a room at the “Hotel Central,” just a block off the square. Safe lodging there provided a great base where we could walk to and around the historic square to view shops, catholic cathedrals and a food and music festival in progress. I felt a bit intimidated by Federal Mexican Police stationed on every corner with machine guns, but apparently, we passed as harmless tourists without incident. A shuttle provided by the hotel provided safe, efficient transportation to the airport the next morning for our return flight to Lincoln.

Will we return to Macheros?

I think it is very possible we will return to Macheros to view the monarch butterflies in their winter habitat. If we go again, we will definitely stay at JM Butterfly B&B, as it is very clean, comfortable and affordable. In addition, the Moreno Rojas family were very friendly and gracious hosts. I would recommend their accommodations and tours to anyone interested in traveling to that part of the world, for more information about their accommodations and tours go to www.jmbutterflybnb.com.

Written by Mike Groenewald

Mike is a horticulturist for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

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Published by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission since 1926, NEBRASKAland Magazine is dedicated to an engaging mix of outstanding photography and informative writing, highlighting Nebraska’s outdoor activities, parks, wildlife, history and people.

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