A Travellerspoint blog

What millions of Monarch butterflies look like...

...140 million, more or less

sunny 24 °C

I wish I could show you, but there's just no way to capture on film our real-life experience of being surrounded by millions of butterflies. The good news is the Monarch butterflies are rebounding, after a number of years of decline. Illegal logging in Mexico was destroying habitat, and pesticide use in Canada and the U.S. was destroying milkweed (upon which the butterflies feed), so serious combined efforts in all three countries appears to be paying off. This year, the butterflies have spread over 10 hectares, leading experts to believe their numbers are at about 140 million. Here is what a typical tree branch looks like:


Seeing the Monarch butterflies in their Mexican sanctuary has been a dream for years, and as natural wonders go, this was without a doubt a highlight. We drove three and a half hours from Queretero (where we're currently staying), arriving around 10:30, just as the day was warming up. If the day is overcast or too cold, the butterflies will simply cling to the trees for warmth. Yesterday was bright, sunny and about 20 degrees - perfect.

Getting to the El Rosario sanctuary is no small feat - after navigating through several small towns, you must drive up a hill for about 20 minutes, pay for parking, then drive for another 20 minutes up an ancient road that is a combination of paving stones and rock. We were waved in to one of two huge parking lots, and a gentleman madly waving a red rag instructed us where to park (a common sight in Mexico - can usually be interpreted to mean a tip is expected). We were early, so we were forming the second line of cars, and a tiny warning bell went off in my head about our ease in getting out (more on that later). As with every other tourist attraction, we knew we would run the gauntlet of souvenirs, cold drinks, food, maps, brochures, and offers to guide. A young boy appeared, offering to "watch" our car. Another young girl appeared to offer her services as a "guide." We told the boy we would pay later, but nothing we said to the girl would shake her. She followed us all the way up to the entrance. (another 20 minute walk past food vendors and souvenir stalls).


When we finally got to the entrance gate, we gave her a few pesos - a small price for the entertainment value of these little extortionists.

Then...the real climb began. The Monarch sanctuary is about a 2 km. climb, from the entrance gate - a steady, uphill climb that is easy enough because of the steps, but challenging because of the altitude. We kept a slow, steady pace,
and then...our very first butterfly appeared.


Another several minutes of walking, with the numbers of butterflies steadily increasing, we reached a flat meadow and
saw our first big concentration. They were in the air, on the bushes and on the ground - impressive, but not in the millions, as we had been promised.


Just past the meadow, the path continued, and so we trudged, for another rocky and root-strewn 10 minutes uphill -
and discovered why this sanctuary is such a draw. Monarch butterflies - everywhere - packed onto branches, filling the sky, flying in swarms and landing on a number of lucky visitors - including me!




The sanctuary is filled with guardians, who keep a careful eye on the butterflies to protect them from their visitors. This gentleman never stopped picking up butterflies from the ground and putting them beyond the ropes, to prevent them from being stepped on.


Signs like this one were posted everywhere at the top - asking visitors to maintain silence while observing the butterflies. Mexicans are the least rules-based people I've ever met, but they all respected the signs and spoke in very soft whispers, or not at all - a collective religious experience.


We sat and watched them for a half hour or so, then began our descent. At the base of the path, there were seedlings for sale - a regrowth and replanting scheme is in place to help replace some of the trees that were illegally logged.


Then...back in the parking lot - now filled to the brim with cars parked in these crazy, uneven rows with little or no room to back out. Luckily for us, we have a small car, and there was one empty space behind us. With a great deal of manoeuvering, Steve managed to squeeze out of there - a bigger car would have been stuck.


And back to Queretero we drove, to our lovely hotel Quinta Lucca, right in the historic district. There are four things we hope to find with our hotels - comfortable bed, showers with both hot water and good pressure, decent wifi, and parking. This one had all that, plus breakfast included - served in this pretty courtyard. Our room is on the second floor, in the corner, behind the potted plants.


Queretero was not originally on our list - it is just an hour from San Miguel de Allende, (where we head tomorrow), and we had no interest in visiting any more churches, museums, monuments or squares. But... we needed some city comfort and good food, and decided to make this our base for a few days. We're so happy we did - the compact historical centre is beautiful and full of life, and our time here has been a tonic.


We began with a double-decker bus tour - not that informative, but it gave us an overview and a chance to make faces at this little boy,
who couldn't take his eyes off Stephen the whole time.


We spent a fair bit of time in the many squares and pedestrian-only streets, watching life unfold. There is never a dull moment in any Mexican zocalo, and Queretero has several.

Many Mexican towns and cities have "el danzon", where couples dance to a big orchestra. We watched couples like this in Oaxaca, and again here. The couples were mostly older, dressed up and obviously very much enjoying themselves.


Another convincing argument for having a strong core.


We were having lunch, and suddenly a pretty couple and their "people" arrived just a few tables down. It became obvious that a shoot of some kind was going on, so we gawked shamelessly. Sure enough, it was a commercial for a watch, shot beside an older gent who was quite indifferent to the whole thing.


Stephen, who as you all know, can't help himself.


We watched this young woman being gently pushed by her friend...and then, away she went. Around and around the square, as pleased as punch. Proving to us and herself that it is never too late to try anything.


The restaurant scene in Queretero is great - we've eaten very well since we've been here, and been entertained at the same time.

A unique merchandising effort to attract diners.


We had quite a delicious lunch here, and while we are probably not the target market of this bohemian cafe, we had to admire his je ne sais quoi approach to service.


Okay - this is a really long blog, even for me. I'll leave you with a few street images of Queretero. We're in San Miguel for three weeks - just relaxing and living like locals. This should cut down on the length of the blogs - but you know there'll be stories.





Posted by millerburr 16:07 Archived in Mexico

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So happy to hear that the Monarchs are back on the rise. How wonderful it must have been to see them at the sanctuary! I hope you enjoy San Miguel. I'm wondering how it's changed (was last there probably 20 + years ago). Will be anticipating your next blog to see!

by Marilyn Horn

Fascinating stuff and great photos! I just finished reading a really good book by Barbara Kingsolver, 'Flight Behavior', about Monarch butterflies and how their habitat was being destroyed. It's a novel, but it's based on research from that area of Mexico.
Love reading your blogs, Ginny :)

by Donna Deacon

Wow - how magical those monarchs must have been (I too thought of Kingsolver's 'Flight Behaviour' - great read).
I love the notion of observing in respectful silence alongside guardians. Thanks for sharing the experience xo

by Alexandra

WOW!What a wonderful sight to see. It is one thing to see on TV but very different seeing up close and personal.

by Hawkson

Thanks for sharing such a magical adventure, love hearing from you.

by Annie

Loved seeing the pictures of the butterflies! What an amazing sight that must have been! We look forward to each and every one of your blogs to give us a taste of a land we know very little about so don't apologize for the length of your blogs (unless, of course, you'd like to take a very deserved break from writing and just chill out!)

by Heather

Fabulous pics you two. We actually had a tree alive with monarchs in port credit many years ago. It is very humbling.. Gotta love ma nature!!!

by Nanc

I have always loved the beautiful Monarch and after reading Flight Behaviour I was saddened by their decline. It is heartwarming to hear the efforts being made by the countries involved in their return and the difference it has made. MCL

by Mary Lefebvre

What an experience!

by Carol Martin

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