“Well, since there are fewer butterflies and more violence in Michoacán, maybe you shouldn’t go there.”
This wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but the advice was coming from Luis, my gentle Spanish teacher, whose family lives in Michoacán, and whose judgement I trusted.
He explained that the violence I’d been hearing about was muy complicado–a face-off among homegrown vigilante forces fed up with the shenanigans of the drug cartels, the federal police (federales), who pull shenanigans of their own, and the drug cartels themselves.
Everyone else I asked pretty much said the same thing–better not go.
I thought about it.
Before traveling to Mexico, I had crossed my heart on a stack of Bibles that I would not take chances. I would be very careful. I would be prudent. I wouldn’t push my limits (not that risk-taking is a big part of my MO to begin with.)
But this wasn’t some whimsical junket I was being advised against. Seeing the Monarch butterflies in their wintering ground in the north of Michoacán was one of the major destinations of this trip. If I didn’t go now, I probably wouldn’t be back. And, given the alarming decline of the butterflies wintering in Mexico these days, they probably wouldn’t wait for me.
You see, I have a special connection to these butterflies. I come from Michigan–one of the places where the massive migration of these creatures begins. During most of the summer, the monarchs go about their business, feeding, laying eggs, making cocoons. The lifespan of an adult is usually about 30 days.
Then, in August or September, a special batch of butterflies hatch–and they are programmed differently. These guys don’t mate or lay eggs. They focus on gaining weight and preparing for their odyssey.
Early in the autumn, monarchs begin gathering at places like Point Pelee on the Ontario side of Lake Erie–feeding during the day and clustering in clumps in the trees at night. For years there has been an annual butterfly count in this Canadian national park just before the monarchs begin their epic migration.
Then one day, they take off, flying or floating on air currents and feeding along the way. They fly up to 3,000 miles (5,000 km) to winter in the Sierra Madre mountains of Michoacán, only about 2 hours from Mexico City.
Monarch butterflies are the only winged insect in the world to make such a migration. And even though the generation that migrates does it only once, the colonies will often cluster in the same trees year after year.
How these fragile creatures manage such an odyssey given the hazards along the way is mind-boggling. And the sad fact is, the hazards seem to be winning. At first, habitat loss in Mexico was blamed. So, a protected spot was carved out–the El Rosario Monarch Biosphere Reserve–where it is forbidden to cut down the oyamel fir trees that the monarchs roost in.
Now, all the fingers point to farming practices in the US–too much pesticide use, too many Roundup-ready GMO plants, too few food plants, such as milkweed, left to grow in hedgerow. Too much rigorous mowing along highways. These practices aren’t good for us, and they aren’t good for the monarchs.
As a result, monarch numbers are plummeting. Last fall (2013), I’d heard that the annual monarch count at Point Pelee had been canceled because the butterflies didn’t show up.
This makes my heart hurt.
And the crazy thing is that, until 1975 scientists didn’t even know about the migration. Of course, the people living in the mountains in Mexico did, and they celebrated the return of the monarchs each year. Since the monarchs come back during the first days of November, local people think of them as the souls of their dead returning.
I had to go.
It ended up being no big deal–I changed buses in Morelia, the capital of Michoacan, and went to Zitacuaro–a dreary gateway town, and from there to Macheros, a tiny village (400 people; 100 horses) in the mountains. This is the entry point to the Cerro Pelon reserve–one of the places where the butterflies roost.
There is one place to stay in town–JM’s B&B–a light, airy guesthouse newly built by Joel, the son of the lone park ranger whose job was to protect this part of the butterfly preserve. The mother and daughters ran the restaurant. From the guesthouse, t’s a 31/2-mile (6 km) walk up the mountain to the roosting site.
It was a beautiful way to begin.
I have an album of Macheros and the Cerro Pelon colony of butterflies on my Facebook page: wanderingnotlost.org.