It takes almost 3 hours to get from Morelia, Michoacán to the El Rosario entrance to the Reserva Biosfera de la Mariposa Monarca.
During that three hours of driving, you pass through dry grasslands, lines of nopal and mesquite trees, small square fields of blue agave and the neat rows of peach orchards. You also traverse the agricultural area’s main industrial hub, the gritty village of Maravatio – a name that ironically sounds to me like maravilla (“miracle” in Spanish). But once you’re through that bustling thoroughfare of tire shops, beer drive-thrus, and used clothing stores, you begin to climb into the pine forests that characterize this sector of the state of Michoacán. In Maravatio, you’re already at 6600 feet; you need to ascend another 3400 or so to get anywhere near the butterflies.
There’s plenty of buildup along the way – from butterfly murals on school buildings to butterfly icons on road signs to butterfly paraphernalia in shop windows. As your surroundings quickly become more rural, the pines take over and the roadway gets shadier and cooler. The village of Aporo, with its classic Mexican plaza, meets you first; then you climb further to Ocampo, a town of many topes (speed bumps – not like you could drive very quickly anyway; these curvy, pothole-ridden roads conceal children, dogs, and cattle at every turn). You’re heading for Ejido El Rosario, which is a part of Ocampo – the part that collectively owns the right to run tours of the butterfly reserve.
The Reserva is huge – it covers 140,000 acres in two states and includes government-owned land, ejido land, and private holdings. Since up to a billion monarch butterflies overwinter in the reserve, there are a number of spots where they congregate.
El Rosario is most accessible one, as well as the one with the densest and most reliable concentration of the insects. Three other “sanctuaries,” as they are called, are open to the public between November and March, when the monarchs come from all over the United States (except California – those butterflies overwinter on the coast) and Canada. At the beginning of their migration, they gather in groups of about twenty million to travel through Texas and northern Mexico en masse. They cover about fifty miles per day, stopping to roost overnight in their characteristic clumps.
Not all monarch butterflies migrate. In fact, only one out of every five generations does so. Most monarchs live for only three or four weeks. They hatch from eggs into caterpillars, metamorphose into butterflies, then lay their own eggs on a milkweed plant and die. All of this takes place in North Dakota or New Jersey or Saskatchewan. This cycle occurs two or three more times before late summer.
The insects that are born in August have a completely different life trajectory; they’re the ones who make this epic southward journey. They live for eight or nine months, alternately flying and resting, covering thousands of miles of North America to arrive at their overwintering grounds. There, they spend some time exploring the Mexican pine forest, but more of their days are spent in a metabolic torpor that allows them to be the “Methusalahs” they are often called.
We parked up as high as we could – at about 9500 feet – where the ejido collects entrance fees and attempts to sell you all sorts of butterfly tchotchkes. You can either walk or take a horse up the trail from there. Because my mother has some difficulty hiking, she and our guide and I mounted docile horses to climb into the native oyamel forest.
Oyamel is a type of fir endemic to central Mexico, and it happens to be the kind of tree the monarchs love to roost in. There are also narrow-needled pines in this area, and numerous penstemon-like flowers that bloom in January, serving as a reliable source of nectar. The springs that punctuate the forest provide both the monarchs and the residents of Ocampo with year-round water.
The horseback ride ends in a field; from there, you must walk about a mile uphill to get to the grove. When we started up the trail at about one in the afternoon, there were very few butterflies around us. In fact, I was pointing out each one I saw along the way. That soon changed — dramatically
I have never felt so completely enveloped by life. In the grove itself, I sensed that I was swimming in a sea of butterflies. They were above me, below me, and around me in all directions. I was being dive-bombed left and right, and I worried that my moving hand might hit one.
It was impossible to know where to rest my attention. One moment, I would be looking at a bush on the side of the trail, focusing on three or four individual insects at close range (they appear to have no fear of us whatsoever). A moment later, I would look up towards the electric blue sky and see hundreds of silhouettes fluttering in a chaotic frenzy.
Then I would turn my gaze deeper into the forest, towards the point where they condensed into collective units of thousands. There, they became clouds of orange and brown mixed artistically with the forest green of the oyamel trees. A closer inspection of those clouds revealed clumps, clusters, capullos (cocoons), as the guides called them – so many that it became impossible to find a branch without a clump, and so tightly packed in that the sky was obscured by their density.
Finally, I’d bring my attention back to a puddle or a rivulet of spring water, and I’d see hundreds of butterflies drinking, their wings flapping at high rates of revolution, creating rim of orange activity around the water source.
It sounds so stereotypical – and yet, the only word I can use to describe what I felt in the grove is “awe.” Awe of the butterflies’ sheer quantity, yes, but also of their grace, their color and ease of movement, and the simple fact that they were all there, all in the same place, all at once. I felt an overwhelming sense of wonder too – wonder that the world can contain a phenomenon like this, that the world has the creativity to manifest something this dazzling.
And, it goes without saying that I was overwhelmed by curiosity. Questions flowed like the river of butterflies over my head. Which butterflies hail from which states? Do they recognize the insects they migrated with? Why do some like to drink from certain puddles while others prefer the springs? How do they decide when to fly and when to eat? Why do they fly up above the canopy, and what drives them back down under it? Do they get tired? Do they communicate? Who is responsible for starting a “clump,” and how does each butterfly decide which clump to join for the night? And these were just the basic questions, the entry-level ones that led to the bigger ones – the ones scientists are continuously studying and just beginning to get the answers to.
One such question is: how do they find their way back to these same spots year after year, when the organisms that make the migration are four generations removed from the last overwintering group? Some scientists say they leave a pheromone trail; others contend that they have a of magnetic detection system that guides them. The truth is we’re not really sure. Billions of organisms simultaneously move across our continent without using verbal communication, and we don’t really know how they do it. That, to me, is also a cause for wonder.
There were other people visiting the Reserva when we were there, though apparently not many compared to the throngs that arrive on weekends, when the trail is “like Disneyland,” our guide quipped. Even with few people in the grove, the human sounds were grating to me – grating and inadequate. In that space, words seemed insignificant. In the presence of so much life force, so many animated non-human creatures, so much beauty, there’s just not much to be said. I wanted to absorb, see, feel, listen, gape – not say or do.
Besides, when you’re still and quiet, you can hear the beat of millions of wings. I’m not even going to try to describe that.