Let me start off with a confession – I don’t really like butterflies. I mean, they’re pretty and all, but they’re still just flying bugs right? I’ve lived in the jungle, I’m not the kind of guy that screeches and leaps onto a chair at the first site of a spider (anymore) and I’ve dealt with my fair share of scorpions and other creepy crawlers (well, Deidre has). That said, the idea of driving a couple of hours to see a bunch of moths that fly around in the daytime isn’t one that particularly appeals to me. So, when Deidre suggested a trip to the Sierra Chincua Butterfly Sanctuary to see the annual migration of the monarchs I was a bit lukewarm to the idea, to put it mildly.
However, upon hearing that we were moving to Michoacan dozens of people asked us if we would be “close to the butterflies” because “you’ve got to see the butterflies.” Enough people expressed that sentiment that I figured that there had to be something to it. In fact, it reminded me a bit of the people asking us about the whale sharks in Isla Mujeres and that turned out well. After all, I had half expected the whale sharks to be a tourist trap but in the end it was one of the most fantastic experiences of my life. We started this whole adventure and lifestyle so we could see and experience new things and one of the largest migrations of butterflies in the world certainly qualifies. So off into the mountains a few hours east of Patzcuaro we went. And boy am I glad we did!
The monarchs are in a large protected area of Mexico known as the butterfly sanctuary and there are several different points you can enter the area from. We ended up at the Sierra Chincua sanctuary which is at about 11,500 feet of elevation in an amazing pine forest and pretty flying bugs or no, I knew I was going to like it the second we got there.
I may not be the biggest butterfly fan, but I am a big fan of hikes through the woods so my expectations for the day were definitely going up at this point. After paying 45 pesos ($3US) apiece we entered the sanctuary and were assigned a guide, Paty. Paty was necessary because we’re not talking about a park with paved roads here, we’re talking about an expanse of wooded mountains cut by a few trails and one could easily get lost.
There’s also the issue of finding the butterflies. These things are in the midst of a 2,500 mile migration so they don’t exactly hold still for you to look at them. Each morning the workers (rangers? butterfly wranglers?) at the sanctuary must head out into the woods to track down the main body of the monarchs so that they can later guide visitors to them. The day that we visited, the monarchs were in the upper ranges of the sanctuary and we were given two choices – about an hour hike up the mountain or we could rent horses to take us to the top. We were super tempted to go the horse route but since we’d already been in the car a few hours we decided to stretch our legs a bit and hike. Plus, I figured a couple of hundred million butterflies was going to be adventure enough without adding in some horses.
An hour-long stroll through the woods originally sounded great but when Paty took off like a sherpa up Mt. Everest I began to think that the horses might have been a good idea. I mean, we were at over 11,000 feet (higher than Steamboat, Colorado) and this lady was fast! But soon something happened to take our thoughts off our aching lungs and burning legs – we began to see butterflies. First in ones and twos and then in larger groups.
As we continued to go further up and into the sanctuary we saw more and more butterflies and I began to stop Paty to ask a few questions. Honestly first so I could catch my breath, but eventually because I was genuinely interested. Up to a billion of these monarch butterflies congregate here each winter to hibernate before waking up, mating and flying as far north as Canada to lay their eggs. Once hatched these butterflies help to pollinate plants all over the United States and southern Canada. I looked around but didn’t see anyone I recognized from Kansas City.
So far we’d seen thousands of butterflies but they were just the appetizer, the main course was yet to come (in hindsight that’s probably a bad analogy). We rounded a bend in the trail and Paty pointed into the valley below where I could see quite a few monarchs flying around, flitting from flowering tree to flowering tree. At first I wasn’t sure why she pointed these particular butterflies out but then it hit me. She wasn’t pointing at the butterflies, she was pointing at the trees. And the trees weren’t flowering, they were absolutely covered in monarchs. It took several seconds for my brain to comprehend what my eyes were telling it, the scale and scope of the number of butterflies was staggering. Everywhere we looked we saw more butterflies, they were dripping from branches, piled up on tree trunks and filling the sky everywhere in between.
In order to protect the migrating butterflies, visitors are kept well back from them so our pictures don’t do the monarchs justice. In addition to the countless butterflies in the sky, our entire field of vision was full of these guys draping every available tree and branch. It was a really cool site to see and I appreciate these guys coming thousands of miles just to see us.
We were certainly impressed with the amount of butterflies we saw, but I think it’s because we had no frame of reference. We had heard stories about people visiting years ago and not being able to take a step because the butterflies coated the floor of the forest and tree branches so heavy with the monarchs that they sagged under the weight. We didn’t see anything like that, primarily because there has been a tremendous decline in the number of butterflies from year to year. I won’t go into a long preachy sermon here about why that is happening (hint – humans) but I will say that in the last 25 years it is estimated that 1 billion butterflies have disappeared. You can learn more about the decline and what you can do to help reverse it here.
I’m still not the biggest butterfly fan in the world, but they’re growing on me and visiting Sierra Chincua certainly made me a fan of butterfly migrations. And next time I see a monarch in the garden? I think I’ll ask him to say hello to everyone in Kansas City for me on his way by.