The Monarchs of Mexico

I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man? (Zhuangzi)

As I sit here watching my little girl on our baby monitor all cocooned up in her sleep sack, I’m reminiscing about our trip to Mexico City this past December. Since we traveled there to celebrate our anniversary, Matt and I surprised each other with special experiences in or around the city. I took him on a walking street food tour. He booked the excursion of a lifetime: visiting one of the winter stomping grounds for the migrating Monarch butterflies. The food tour was awesome, but I think Matt won this round.

Our tour was privately booked with Mexcity Tours, so we were picked up early in the morning from our hotel. Our original driver, Leo (the company owner), threw his back out, so he sent one of his other guides instead. Our guide, Luis, was a sweet and funny guy and we immediately knew we’d enjoy spending the day with him.

He drove us out of the city, beating most of the morning rush hour traffic, and up to Toluca. Toluca is the state capital of the State of Mexico (the state in which Mexico City is located). It’s also the highest city in Mexico and has one of the fastest-growing populations in the country.

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Toluca’s nickname is “La Bella” (the beautiful) and it has some gorgeous 19th century colonial architecture downtown. We didn’t have long to explore, but we were able to take a stroll through the Cosmovitral Botanical Garden.

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Gorgeous stained glass windows cover the ceiling and wrap around the building, lending a surreal feeling to the football field-sized greenhouse. Though just one long room, the more than 500 plant species growing there are arranged in delightful little gardens that showcase many of the native plants in Mexico.

After a leisurely stroll through the gardens, we hopped back in the car and continued on our journey up to the Piedra Herrada Sanctuary. Unfortunately our guide got a bit lost on the way, so we ended up taking a little detour through the Pueblo Magico of Valle de Bravo. Tucked away in lush, green mountains, this picturesque little town looks is the perfect place to get away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. It perches above Lake Avándaro and would have been a lovely place to enjoy for a day or two if we weren’t on a mission to see the butterflies.

Eventually we got back on track and arrived at the sanctuary. Pulling up, we were greeted by a green pasture climbing up a hill to the edges of a thick forest. A barn with horses that are available to help you make the climb up the mountain sits at the foot of the hill. A little further up was a cluster of food stands selling traditional food. The smell of the cook fires dancing in the air was mouthwatering (and it didn’t help that we were extremely hungry by this point).

We opted to fuel up with a quick bite before beginning the hike up to see the butterflies on foot.

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Nopal and cheese quesadilla

Since we had baby girl with us, riding horseback was not an option. So, she hitched a ride in her carrier on mommy’s chest and pretty much slept the whole way up.

The butterflies nest in trees at the top of the mountain, so the approximately 4km hike is pretty much straight up. You should definitely be in decent shape if you decide to make the trip on foot. We were pretty much drenched in sweat by the time we reached the top, but the climb was worth it.

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The face of a man lugging a camera bag and diaper bag up the side of a mountain.

The butterflies nesting here have traveled nearly 2000 miles from the Eastern U.S. and Southern Canada. They arrive in November and stay through March. How they actually make it to Mexico is a mystery because those that leave the country in the spring are at least three generations removed from the ones that will come back in the fall.

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The yellowish-gold clusters on the trees are all butterflies!

The butterfly area was quiet and peaceful. We were instructed to talk only in hushed tones and to be as quiet as possible. Though a bit early in the season and later in the day, there were still a lot of butterflies floating through the air. The sound of their wings flapping was like a soft whisper of wind. We stood quietly in awe watching the majestic insects flutter around. Even baby girl woke up and was able to see some of the butterflies that landed on leaves near us.

Though they certainly don’t do justice to the experience, I’m going to let some of my pictures do the talking for a moment.

The experience of so much peace and beauty in the middle of the forest felt akin to taking a hot soak in a tub or drinking a great glass of wine; a moment of pure Zen in a crazy world. If you ever get a chance to visit one of the Monarch sanctuaries in Mexico, don’t pass it up.

Quick travel note: If you do go, be sure to tip your guide and food servers generously. There are about 75 guides that work at the sanctuary and they are paid about 100 pesos (or about 5 USD) per round-trip. If they are lucky, they will get in two round-trips in a day—so they work hard for the tips.

We tipped both our guide and the woman who served our food. The woman who served our food couldn’t believe we had given her a tip and told us she wished we could come every day. She and the others working at the food stands operate as a co-op, so they split any money that comes in each day. On the day we were there, it was us and one other couple, so you know they weren’t making much that day.

I don’t know what had us counting our blessings more that day; seeing one of the great wonders of nature or knowing we made the day of a hardworking woman at the sanctuary.

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