Monarch butterflies find sanctuary in Mexico

ANGANGUEO, MICHOACAN, MEXICO — ANGANGUEO, MICHOACAN, MEXICO / / They travel thousands of miles, unerringly, every year between Canada and Mexico. No one knows how they find their way.

Las mariposas -- the butterflies -- come by the millions. They arrive in Mexico's heartland, the Sierra Madre in the state of Michoacan, every November. Five sanctuaries are established to protect them and to let visitors see the miracle of the monarchs.


Guide Andres Orosco and I start the three-hour drive from Morelia to Santuario El Rosario near Angangueo early in the morning.

Rosario is the original butterfly sanctuary in Mexico and the largest. The Mexican government in 1986 established two zones that form a Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve -- protected from logging and development -- although Rosario was considered a sanctuary before that.


The mountains of Michoacan have what the monarchs need: The black-and-orange insects cluster on oyamel pines in the remote mountains, and the microclimate in the area provides just the right temperature and moisture.

Indians in the area before Columbus arrived depicted butterflies in their drawings, according to Mexico: Charming Inns and Itineraries by Karen Brown. The wintering grounds were first noted by scientists in the 1970s, when a Canadian zoologist rediscovered the spot.

In 2001, the government and private sources set aside millions of dollars for a fund called the Monarch Trust to pay local residents to stop cutting down the trees. Today, some of the farmers make their living off tourism, as guides.

Tourists have plenty to see in Michoacan before they get to Angangueo. Just outside Morelia, for example, one town sells fresh, round loaves of Mexican bread so close to the road you could touch them from the car.

In another, San Lucas Pio, outdoor vendors sell baskets woven using ancestral techniques. The town is one of many in the area where artisans create goods made there for centuries. Paracho is a guitar town, and in Santa Clara del Cobre, coppersmiths create jewelry, pots and more.

Road to sanctuary

Between villages, the roadsides are lined with the cornfields of subsistence farmers and "barbacoa" stands.

We stop near Querendaro to eat at one called Borrego Feliz -- Happy Sheep. I'm not so sure about that since we are eating mutton and I'm more than a little worried about the big, greasy-looking chunks of it that are being sliced as we pay for the meal.


But I could have relaxed.

The "barbacoa" -- sprinkled with lime, cilantro and onion and served with chile arbol -- is amazing -- delicate and spicy at once. Nothing like the heavy flavors I expected.

This is a family enterprise. The father is slicing the mutton, which was raised by the family and butchered, then buried for about a day in an underground cooking pit piled with maguey cactus for fuel. Two or three daughters are mixing masa into tortillas they cook on a charcoal-fired griddle.

As we drive on toward the sanctuary, Orosco hits the gas and squeals the tires around every curve, and there are a lot of them. Luckily, his spiel about the monarchs helps distract me from his driving.

The insects leave Canada in September and arrive at their winter homes in Mexico around Nov. 2, the Day of the Dead. They fly about 2,500 miles, resting in trees by night. Some 40 million come to Santuario Rosario alone.

"They come here to die," Orosco says. The males live only 72 hours after mating. The females live to lay eggs in the trunks and branches of oyamel fir trees in the mountains. A monarch butterfly's total life span is nine months at the longest.


In March, their offspring hatch and fly toward Canada. Subsequent generations continue traveling north, reproducing and then dying; the process repeats several times along the way. Several generations later, new offspring make the trip from Canada to Mexico.

One theory is that the butterflies navigate by smell, Orosco says. But no one really knows how they find the way. The route is the same every year.

Mountain haven

Blue-and-white signs showing the way to the santuario start to appear as we get closer. The streets narrow in the towns with their central cathedrals and white-walled buildings. Campesinos, their hats hanging down their backs, trudge down the road, and skinny cows stare out at the cars.

Finally, we are in Angangueo. People are dressed in their best on this Sunday afternoon. Every older woman is wrapped up in a rebozo (shawl) despite the unseasonably warm February weather. At the santuario, the whole enterprise looks a lot more touristy than I expected. There is a charge to use the restroom, for starters. A ticket to enter the sanctuary costs about $2.75.

The path to view the butterflies is steep and lined with food vendors. A little farther up, when I stop to gasp for breath, the selling begins in earnest. Booths are filled with butterfly mugs, butterfly lunch pails, butterfly paperweights, all the kinds of trinkets Americans expect from border Mexico.


The real butterflies have begun to drift down the mountainside, just a few here and there, flapping around the hordes of people marching up to see the colonies.

As the climb grows steeper, the crowd gets thicker, and so do the flocks of butterflies. After we pass the booths, we begin to see hundreds at a time, often resting at places where water has collected.

They alight on bushes right beside us, sometimes brushing our wrists and faces with their wings and thin black legs. Kids are kneeling beside a flock of them on a creek bed, nudging them onto their hands and giggling.

Orosco says the black lines on their wings are the butterflies' thermometers. When they get too cold, they huddle together for warmth.

It takes about an hour to reach the top, where the colonies are easier to see.

They are not what I expect. Still distant, high up in the firs, they hang in clusters. They look like orangey infestations. Well, after all, they are insects.


The migration was viewed by the indigenous peoples of Mexico as a plague, Orosco explains. The Spaniards, he says, thought the butterflies were people's souls.

We are ready to leave, and the butterflies soon will be, too. The monarchs make the long journey back to Canada in early March. They will repeat the cycle again, their internal road map still a mystery to us.