El Rosario–Sitting in a river of butterflies


IMG_7918I hadn’t planned to go to Angangueo. Or to the nearby El Rosario colony of monarch butterflies.  I had heard that El Rosario was a circus, with mobs of visitors and all the associated lunacy–trinkets, food carts, souvenirs.

I wanted to miss all that.

Fortunately, I met Diane during my stay at the first monarch colony at JM’s B&B in Macheros. She was traveling with Debbie, and both were from Monarch Watch, one of the major organizations working for the survival of the monarchs in the US.

They are passionate about butterflies, to put it mildly, and they are from my home state of Michigan.

Debbie has been fascinated with butterflies since she was 6. “I was out every day with my net, but the only butterfly I couldn’t catch was the monarch. Then I realized I could grow my own!”

Learning to hatch monarchs involved a long period of trial-and-error for Debbie. “Now, everything I needed to know is on one page at monarchwatch.org,” she says.

Diane  is involved with tagging the butterflies. Volunteers tag butterflies in the north, and people in Mexico collect those tags from dead butterflies in the winter. It’s literally taken decades to develop just the right paper and glue to stick to the insects’ delicate wing. Now the tiny tag can be loaded with tons of digital information, like dates and locations. This has helped researchers track the path of the migrating monarch from the northeast US and southern Canada to these wintering grounds here in the mountains of Mexico.

Diane visits the colonies every year, partly to check on things and partly to collect the tags and pay the collectors. “These people lost a good livelihood now that cutting the oyamel pine is illegal. Paying for tags help to offset that loss,” she says.

She recalls one man who found 250 tags last year. The income from those tags allowed him to stay home with his family for the winter instead of taking seasonal work in Morelia, the state capital.

“Good. You can help with the kids,” was his wife’s response.

To me, Diane said: “You must go to El Rosario.”

So, I changed my plans and figured out how to get to Angangueo, the gateway town to the El Rosario colony. Then, you take a bus from the lovely town of Angangueo up the mountain and ride a horse or walk the final few miles. I went with an blonde couple from Australia and a dark couple from Austria. The Aussies were so fair, they seem like  creatures of light themselves.

We walked along a path with huge pines rising like sentinels on either side. The air was crisp, even slightly cold, here at 10,000 feet (3048 meters), and it was fragrant with the scent of pines. The silence muffled our steps and swallowed our whispers.

The golden Aussies had wanted to sleep in, but Prisy, our sweet but determined hostess in the guesthouse El Paso de la Monarca where we are staying and who cooked breakfast for all her guests that morning, shooed them out the door. “You must go now. The butterflies will be all over the mountain if you go later.”

Prisy, the big-hearted and hardworking proprietor of our hotel in Anganueo

Prisy, the big-hearted and hardworking proprietor of our hotel in Anganueo

So out they went, bleary-eyed and bed-headed.

Aussies catching the light on the trail. "This makes me so joyful," said Shelley

The golden Aussies on the trail. “This makes me so joyful,” said Shelley

Unbelievably, there were no crowds. We were the only people on the mountain besides the park rangers or guards or whatever they are. They are here to watch the visitors and protect this largest colony in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Preserve.

A few butterflies were already out, fluttering past us down the mountain, looking for food and water. Then we began seeing  gray-brown clumps hanging from the trees. The sun dappled the mountain; we settled at the end of the path where the main part of the colony hangs from trees and covers their trunks, waiting for the kiss of the strengthening sun. It was like being in a cathedral–vast, silent, and sacred.

Clumps of butterflies hanging on the oyamel pine. The clumps begin to turn orange  as the sun hits them.

Clumps of butterflies hanging on the oyamel pine. The clumps begin to turn orange as the sun hits them.

So, I ended up visiting two colonies in the monarch preserve, and both were different and lovely in their own ways.

At Cerro Pelon in Macheros:

  • Beautiful setting in a small, remote village with very comfortable accommodations (JM’s B&B) run by a local family
  • You walk to the park entrance and either ride a mule or walk to the butterfly colony (it’s a fairly stiff 3 1/2 mile (6 km) walk up the mountain.
  • There are NO crowds. At times you may be the only person there (with your guide. You can’t go into the preserve without a guide)
  • The colony is smaller (I think it had divided into three when I was there as the butterflies prepared to migrate)
  • We were across a small ravine from the trees covered in butterflies

This is what it looked like:

macheros-butterflies IMG_7860 IMG_7904

At El Rosario near Angangeo:

  • Angangeo is designated a pueblo magico (magical town),  which means that it’s interesting and picturesque. It’s also Ground Zero for visitors to the El Rosario colony. There are many hotels at all levels of luxe, but oddly, restaurants seem on the sparse side. The town is delightful, but not overly friendly (in my experience).
  • You’ll have to take a 40-minute bus ride up the mountain. Then, either ride a mule or a walk to the colony.
  • I visited on a weekday morning and for most of the time, I was almost the only one there! (Besides the Australians and Austrians.) Only two food booths were open and all the souvenir tents were closed.
  • Returning to Angangeo was a little more difficult and involved taking a taxi partway. Still, not a big deal, just confusing.
The square in Angangeo, a pueblo magico, near the El Rosario butterfly colony

The square in Angangeo, a pueblo magico, near the El Rosario butterfly colony

I sat in both places for over 3 hours–literally until the guides nudged me back down the mountain. At El Rosario, the sun was warm; the sky was blue. People were few, and most of them were entranced and respectful.

The sun climbed until it reached the clumps hanging on the trees. Gradually, flashes of orange appeared; the clumps came to life with a patina of orange. The stream of butterflies increased until we were sitting in a river of wings that fluttered around us and down the mountain, sometimes sampling our hats and clothes before flitting away.

If you want to see the butterflies, you have to obey the rules. I found the Mexicans very watchful and respectful of their butterflies.

If you want to see the butterflies, you have to obey the rules. The locals were very protective and respectful of their butterflies.

El rosario-butterfly on pantsel rosario-butterfliesel rosario-butterflies on water

Move to a different place, and the scene would shift slightly–the sun would light the mountain differently; butterflies would feed on nearby flowers, but the magic was the same anywhere you went. It was peaceful. It was entrancing. The thought that these beautiful creatures might disappear intensified the experience. I was looking at the smallest numbers ever recorded, and it was still so incredible.

But…what if we lose the butterflies, like so many other creatures that humankind has accidentally or purposefully driven from our world? What if so few people care that the butterflies disappear, as they are projected to in the next decade unless we change the way we do things.

And I wonder at what point the world becomes so gray, so impoverished of variety and vitality, that life itself is gray and  unappealing, like soda that’s gone flat. When we lose the butterflies…?


Next–how to save the butterflies.


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