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Where The Butterflies Are

Larry Landwehr

Our two friends from AmSoc told Mary and me about going to see the Monarch butterflies. Every year the Monarchs migrate from Canada and the US to their winter home in central Mexico. As they migrate, successive generations of Monarchs continue the migration that they will never live to see the end of ­ kind of how Moses never got to see the Promised Land. Scientists say this migration pattern has been going on for at least 40,000 years.

Our AmSoc friends told us of their trip ­ how they rented a hotel room in the town of Morelia, then drove three hours east to a small village where they paid for transportation into the butterfly sanctuary ­ a seven kilometer trip where they paid extra to ride in the cab of the truck instead of sitting on wooden benches in the back. Then they had to walk or ride a horse. They finally had to walk to where the butterflies actually were. Our friends assured us that the trip was well worthwhile, so Mary booked us into a hotel in Morelia that she found using the Internet.

We got on the road one Monday morning by 10:00 am and took the cuota to Morelia. It was an uneventful drive except for a stop at one of the restaurants that are located next to the tollbooths. We had goat stew, which was very tasty. The background music consisted of heavily orchestrated show tunes with English language vocals. I suspected that the restaurant was attempting to portray itself as being an upper crust eatery. Either that or someone had really bad taste in music.

We arrived in Morelia at 1:00 pm after paying $25 in tolls for a journey of about 150 miles. The tollbooth personnel should be made to wear masks.

Morelia was to be our base camp because there were no hotels where we were going. Morelia itself is an old colonial town dripping with history. The Mexican revolution against Spain started there.

Being an old colonial town, the streets were narrow which, of course, leads to traffic problems. Actually, the word “problems” doesn’t begin to describe the traffic in Morelia. “Nightmare” is more like it. Then add in the constant demonstrations for more pay by various groups - which really snarls up traffic.

Sprinkle in people constantly being stopped in the middle of intersections by traffic lights. Blend in screaming car horns, drivers who refuse to line up, drivers who cut each other off, and buses spewing vast clouds of black smoke from their exhausts. Morelia sucks.

We finally found our hotel, but missed the turnoff to the entrance. Fifteen minutes later, after managing to circle around four blocks, we parked the car. One of the hotel employees took our bags and said that the hotel had valet parking a block and a half away, so I handed over the car keys as Mary signed us in.

One of the bellhops, a man named Daniel, showed us to our room in a newer section of the hotel, as far from the constant traffic noise as possible. The walk to the room was breathtaking, as we passed through several plant-filled multistory atriums. The room was nice. The foot-thick walls completely blocked out the traffic noise. The room had two stone or cement columns ­ one on each side of the bed. The shower was a walk-in one, not like the combination bathtub/shower stalls in the US. In addition, the shower had an aluminum rack where one could sit as they washed themselves. I could see how this would be very useful for an old person or someone confined to a wheelchair. Bathroom manufacturers please take note.

When Daniel learned of our desire to see the Monarchs, he told us that there were group tours scheduled to leave at 10:00 in the morning. It was a three-hour drive in a minivan, or, he suggested, we could hire him for a private tour for $120. I balked at paying a whole month’s wages at Mexico’s minimum wage rate. Then Daniel said he would lower his price to $90 if we used our car. We still hemmed and hawed at this high rate until Mary finally got him down to $80. The deal was struck, and from the way he delayed accepting our offer, I suspected we had done all right.

Mary and I have learned that to get the most out of exploring a new territory, hiring a local guide is the way to go. This immediately paid off as Daniel told us of a new Monarch sanctuary that had been discovered only four years earlier. The trip there was less arduous, and it did not include a ride featuring wooden benches. We agreed to meet at 7:00 the next morning as Daniel told us that the butterflies disbanded as the day heats up. We would be at the sanctuary long before the group tours showed up, and thus avoid the peak hours as well.

While we were bargaining, all the lights in the room kept turning off every five minutes. The front desk had given us a card, which functioned as our door key. One had to stick the card into a card reader near the door to turn on the lights. So every five minutes we had to jiggle the card to get the lights back on. Daniel left to get someone to fix the lights. Mary and I decided to go shopping. She had read about craft market, “El Mercado de Artesanias”, located close by.

Even on foot, navigating the streets of Morelia was an uphill fight. We constantly had to walk in the streets, mixing in with the cars, because of the number of people and the telephone poles planted in the middle of the sidewalks.

We finally found the mercado. It was located in a former monastery that was surrounded by the usual Mexican open-air market. We went inside and walked through rooms stuffed with beautiful handicrafts. I mentally picked out several items that I would buy when we were ready to leave. That moment came a lot sooner than we thought when one of the employees told us that the mercado was closing in five minutes. Instead of the traditional lunch hour of from 2:00 to 4:00, the mercado closes from 3:00 to 5:00.

I raced back to the rooms we had visited, grabbing the things I had already mentally tagged. I bought a blue and white ceramic jug which Mary immediately declared to be a spice jar, as well as a jet black goblet that somehow managed to sparkle in the light, and a little tableau that featured a black devil with a vivid red tongue who held a balance scale with a small creature sitting on each pan.

After paying with a credit card, we were ushered outside to wait while an employee boxed up my purchases. A few minutes later a smiling employee came out and handed me a cardboard box expertly tied up with twine. I grabbed one of the cords and Mary and I started walking back through the open-air market toward our hotel. We spotted a small food stall, and being thirsty and just a little hungry, we sat down at a table.

Mary asked one of the women working there for two sodas. The woman ignored Mary and went to wash off one of the empty tables. Then another woman came up behind Mary and asked what we wanted. Mary turned and asked for two sodas. “What else” asked the woman?

Mary studied the menu. Nothing on it really appealed to us, so Mary replied, “Just the sodas please”.

“You have to buy some food. We don’t sell just sodas,” the woman said. Mary and I were dumb struck at such rudeness.

“Screw them” I said in English, and we immediately stood up. As we walked away, I said, in Spanish, to Mary, “ pinche pendejos”, which translates to “damn jerks”, not the most cultured walk-away line, but one that I was sure they had heard before.

Such rudeness by a Mexican is almost unheard of. I think the culture of Morelia is to blame. It seems much like New York or New Jersey, which are both famed for their rudeness. Their AQ, which I think you can figure out, is very high.

Mary and I continued back toward the hotel, making our way through hordes of cops wearing bullet proof vests and baseball caps with the letters “GEO” printed on them. Mary had no idea what GEO stood for, but we figured they were there because of the demonstration.

We stopped at a pleasant sidewalk café with yellow plastic chairs that looked like they were from the fifties. The chairs were comfortable, though, and they pleasantly contrasted with the purple table clothes that covered the tables.

I ordered a soda. Mary ordered a coke with a scoop of limon flavored sherbet. She gave me a taste and it was great. It was just the thing to cool off an overheated, thirsty shopper. Mexicans know how to live.

We continued on to a “ casa de cambio” (money changing house) right across from our hotel, where Mary changed some dollars into pesos. We went upstairs to our room and found the lights still weren’t working. Mary called the front desk, and they sent someone up who simply jammed some paper into the card reader. It seems that the door card wasn’t thick enough to push two contacts together. This is very Mexican. Don’t take the time to do a proper fix, just patch something together so that it works for now, and, since it ain’t broke, why fix it later? But the lights did stay on.

We had intended to return to the mercado for more shopping at 5:00, but Mary had developed a blister on one foot, so instead, we decided to have dinner at a restaurant across the street that Mary had spotted.

The restaurant was a one-of-a-kind. As we walked to our table, we saw side rooms packed with antiques and just plain weird stuff. We picked a table next to an open window and ordered our meals. Two waiters served us drinks with both pouring our drinks simultaneously. I had ordered Indio brand beer, and the waiter poured it ever so slowly so as not to generate too much foam.

Mary and I sat staring out the window as the sun slowly set. Our view overlooked the plaza. We watched the cars and the people scurry below us. Across the plaza was the palace of justice. Behind it mountains slowly faded into the background as the light dimmed. We talked about our friends and relatives back in the US, wondering what they were doing, surely nothing as interesting as we were doing every day of our lives. Mary especially enjoyed thinking of her good friend, Barbara, who made a living standing behind the counter of a department store, trying to convince people to buy cologne, a job she hated with a passion. Mary and Barbara had traveled in Mexico and South America years ago, but Barbara gave up and went back to the straight life. Mary’s trying to revive Barbara’s wanderlust, though. Maybe reading this will accomplish that, right Barb?

After finishing my meal, I went off to inspect the side rooms while Mary ate her desert. I wandered from one room to another, inspecting the Victorian looking antiques. Lots of the stuff had religious connotations, like the icon of a caped young boy standing on a globe of the world. Everything in the rooms was for sale. They wanted $4,000 US dollars for the boy.

I wandered into a room where jewelry was for sale. There was a young woman behind the counter to keep an eye on the merchandise. I looked in a couple of the display cabinets, but saw nothing interesting, so I wandered into the next room. In it there was a folding screen of the type people hide behind while changing clothes. Behind that there seemed to be a bathroom. There wasn’t much to see, so I left the room to go into the main hallway. There was a piece of paper taped to the doorframe. In Spanish it said, “For women only”. I did a double take as it dawned on me that I had just toured the women’s restroom!

After seeing everything I went back to Mary and said, “Let’s go, but first you have to see this.” We went to the door to the men’s restroom. Mary didn’t want to enter, but I told her that it was just a hallway leading to the actual men’s room, and that there were women employees eating in the back, so she came in a couple of steps.

“Look” I said and pointed to a picture with a heavy frame. It was a picture of the back of a Matador. His skintight pants left nothing to the imagination as to the sculpture of his gluteal muscles. Mary’s only comment was, “Barbara would like that,” and I am sure she would.

We returned to our room and settled down for some television and reading. One of the light bulbs started flickering. The florescent bulb was weird - shaped partly into a corkscrew. I was trying to read, and the flickering was driving me crazy. I tried screwing the bulb tighter, but that didn’t work. I tried tapping the bulb in case the filament was loose, but that didn’t work. Finally, in frustration, I gave the bulb a good whack with my book. That did it. The bulb went dark. I had broken it. Oh well, less light, but no flickering ­ fair enough. I went back to my book.

Suddenly the light lit up again. I made a joke about Jesus not being the only one to come back from the dead. Best of all, the light wasn’t flickering! I settled back to my reading. Mary was lying on her bed watching television. Suddenly the light exploded. Sparks flew through the air and showered down on Mary. She scrunched away in fear. A cloud of smoke blossomed forth while the bulb hissed and spit out more sparks.

Then, as suddenly as it started, the lightshow was over. Mary was scared and I was laughing. Mary called the front desk and told them a light bulb had exploded. Sure, it happens every day.

After sending someone up with a new bulb - a conventional, incandescent one - two waiters came to the door with complimentary glasses of champagne. In fact, all the rooms got treated. It was a really nice hotel.

The next morning Daniel knocked on our door promptly at 7:00. Our car, freshly washed, was waiting for us in front of the hotel. Daniel advised us that we would be better off taking the free roads instead of the cuota even though they ran roughly parallel to each other, so we headed out of town on highway 126.

When we reached a little town named Querendaro, Mary spotted a vendor selling bread, cookies, and candy from a sidewalk stand. We had to stop there while she stocked up on fresh loaves of bread with brown crusts. She also bought me a bottle of Charanda El Tarasco, a regional sugar cane liquor produced in the heart of the Mexican state of Michoacan. Tarasco was an ancient civilization that reached its peak in the fifteenth century and their sanctuary was the lake of Patzcuaro. The vendor told Mary that charanda was what Mexicans drank before Tequila was invented. Having a good story helps make the sale.

We continued on our way looking for some soda to wash the bread down. Somebody should tell Pemex, the state gas monopoly that every gas station in the US sells soda to thirsty travelers. We finally found a little mom and pop store where we bought three sodas. The Oxxo chain of stores is gradually replacing these little stores.

Mexico is ripe for franchises of all kinds. Some of the big players like KFC, McDonalds, and Burger King are already here, but there is still a lot of room. A good chain of motels is especially needed.

Franchises would be great for the Mexican government. Franchises tend to play by the rules and pay their taxes. They have too much at risk to cheat too heavily. I’m sure people are being bribed, but I do think that overall the government makes out better than if they have to deal with thousands of small independent vendors who conduct their business strictly in cash. For another thing, investors in a publicly traded company would scream bloody murder at a huge government fine. And lots of franchises are owned by US companies, which are heavily scrutinized by the IRS.

As we drove along, we came across a toilet mounted 10 feet up in the air atop an iron post. I immediately pulled the car to the side of the road so Mary could take a picture. I think Daniel, sitting in the back seat, was kind of puzzled. After all, it was located in front of a store selling toilets. Mary and I thought it was hilarious.

We passed through the town of Maravatio, and then the town of Aporo. If you can find a decent map of Mexico, you can trace our route and find that it was not the most efficient route to our final destination, the town of Angangueo. It’s probably the route that Daniel learned from someone else and he stuck to it, which is very Mexican.

As you near Angangueo by the route we followed, you come upon a huge mound of what appears to be sandstone. The mound has clearly been sculpted by humans to give it a terraced effect so that it looks like a pyramid. Daniel told us that the mound had been built by Indians. He said there was no point in climbing it because there was nothing at the top. The mound is really huge though. I don’t know if it has any archeological treasures waiting inside.

We finally reached Angangueo 3 hours after starting our journey.

The town of Angangueo is an old mining town. Daniel told us that copper and silver had been the main products. He said the mines had shut down, but were now starting to come back to life. We could see where train tracks had formerly been.

Angangueo is laid out as a long strip stretching along the paved highway that runs through it. The highway rapidly gains altitude with every foot. It runs alongside a small deep ravine that has running water from the mountain above. The town reminded me of the town of Guanajuato in that everything was squeezed together by the terrain. There were no side streets ­ the highway was it.

People had built on both sides of the ravine. Consequently they often had to build homemade sidewalks over the ravine. These consisted of two fairly narrow logs placed side by side. Slabs of wood still containing bark stretched from one log to the other, kind of like a ladder, forming the actual walking surface. What was really amusing was that some enterprising souls had built a sidewalk out to the middle of the ravine, and then placed outhouses on the logs. The idea was that the water would wash the waste away down through the lower parts of the town. I could just picture someone walking to one of these little houses to perform their bodily functions so publicly. Even worse, there were no hand railings. Moonless nights must have been very chancy.

We climbed and climbed as we passed through Angangueo. Men along the road tried to sell their services as guides, but we just pointed at Daniel in the back seat and kept on moving.

When the town finally ended, the road got even steeper, winding back and forth as we gained even more altitude. Daniel advised me to go slow as cars coming down were moving pretty fast and did not always stay on their side of the road.

As we neared the top of the mountain, over two miles above sea level, we spotted the sign of the Sierra Chincua butterfly sanctuary. We turned off onto a dirt road covered with some of the finest grained dirt I have ever seen. Big clouds blew up with every turn of the car’s wheels. After a few hundred feet of trail, we came upon a bored gatekeeper who charged us 15 pesos per person to enter the park.

A couple of kilometers further in we came upon a line of wooden shacks and a bunch of kids who came running when they spotted our car. Each kid was leading a horse, and of course each kid started clamoring for us to rent their horse.

The three of us walked uphill to where the restrooms were. A trip into the restroom costs two pesos. We negotiated with an adult named Javier to rent two horses for $4 US for each one. The park rules dictate that you have to have a guide (probably to keep you from getting lost). Javier would be our guide.

Mary climbed up onto the cement platform that the restrooms were located on. The kids brought a horse up next to the platform. Even with the height of the platform, Mary, who is a large woman, had a difficult time getting into the saddle. She was terrified of falling off the horse. She would have been even more terrified if she had known that her horse’s name was Lightening Bolt. I took at least 6 pictures as she and Javier struggled to get her on top of the horse. It made the whole trip worthwhile!

I mounted a smaller horse named Old Salt. I don’t trust anything without a steering wheel, so I was glad to see that each horse would be led by a small boy. Daniel elected to walk.

We started out on the trail to the butterflies. This mostly involved going down hill since the butterflies had started moving down the mountain, as the days got warmer. Javier explained that the Monarchs eat from a special tree so that they taste bad to birds. In the US, Monarchs eat milkweed, which also gives them a bad taste. Javier told us that when Monarchs were first discovered in Mexico, it was thought that it was an infestation. Meanwhile, Mary was gripping her horse so hard with her knees that she had to use Bengay the next day for muscle pain.

We were moving through a heavily forested area. Mary’s horse walked faster than mine. Every few minutes the kid leading my horse would force him into a gallop or a canter, or whatever to catch up.

Whatever the name of that style of running is called, it caused my butt to repeatedly crash down against the saddle.

Every once in a while Old Salt would come to a stop and refuse to move. I soon learned this happened whenever he needed to evacuate his bowels, and this happened a lot. That beast shit going down the trail, and he shit coming back up. I told Mary the horse’s real name was Ex Lax.

We went through the woods for a considerable distance. I was constantly expecting us to break out of the woods into a meadow. Somehow I had developed this mental picture of a sunlit meadow carpeted with millions of beautiful butterflies. We were starting to see a few Monarchs, but not all that many when the guide signaled us to stop. We had gone as far as the horses could take us.

Mary’s kid guided her horse next to a small mound of dirt and told her to dismount. Mary took one look at the setup and refused. She was scared that she would be unable to mount again and she was absolutely convinced that she wouldn’t be able to walk back up the mountain. Since we were over two miles up and she has a tendency to asthma, she was probably right to stay on the horse.

I followed Javier and Daniel further down the path taking my own sweet time. The air was indeed thin. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. Fortunately, it was just a very short distance until we came upon the Monarchs.

They were nesting, or, even more accurately, roosting in large dark clumps high in the trees. They kind of looked like black bee hives. I had expected more orange, but the clumps were dark.

A few butterflies flew around in the air. When I put my head back and looked straight up at the sky, I could see the Monarchs flapping away, looking very much like small bats. There were wings and whole butterfly bodies all over the ground. I didn’t know if they were just the remains of old butterflies or if predators had gotten them. The concentrated butterflies represented a big food source to any predator that could manage to choke them down. A contagious virus would have had a field day.

Javier and Daniel found two Monarchs on the ground locked together. Daniel tried to explain to me what was happening, but it was pretty obvious what the two were up to ­ the age-old dance of sex.

I took a few pictures, but figured a few photographs from a National Geographic would look much better. To tell you the truth, I was not all that impressed. It was ok, but I had been expecting the Sound of Music.

We headed back toward the cars with Old Salt evacuating his bowels every few minutes. Mary told me he had urinated while I was away. What a horse.

We finally got back an hour after we left the cars. Everybody - the two kids, Javier, Daniel, and I - helped Mary off the horse onto the cement platform. I had to grab her leg and swing it over the saddle. She said it was numb.

We paid $10 for each horse, more than usual because we had had to go so far down the mountain. I tipped each of the kids $2 even though I was pretty sure they would get some of the $10. Then we bought seven professionally taken pictures of Monarchs.

We decided we just had to have some lunch, so we sat down at the lone small eatery there. A woman cooked us some food over a small wood fire. Since we hadn’t eaten all day the food tasted great. There was even some soda with the picture of a horse on it. I avoided it like the plague. Mary and I vowed to never get on a horse again.

The enterprising locals had set up tables with souvenirs on them. The souvenirs, of course, all prominently featured Monarchs in one form or another. We were careful to buy something from each table. These people lived off our small change.

We drove back to Morelia to drop off Daniel. Because of a “stomach ailment” I had to stop at three Pemex’s along the way. I started thinking of Old Salt much more kindly. In Morelia we shook hands with Daniel and wished him well.

The drive back to Guadalajara via the quota was long and boring. We couldn’t wait to get home. We hit Guadalajara at 6:30 just in time for rush hour. We came upon some road construction and everything slowed to a crawl. After 30 minutes we got near the end of the blockage and realized that all six lanes of traffic was being squeezed down into just one lane.

Everybody was merging like mad. Some drivers were refusing to let other drivers in ahead of them. Fortunately holes opened just as I needed them and we managed to squeeze through. We finally got home at a quarter to seven. It had been quite a road trip, but the best part was crawling into our own bed.

Published or Updated on: December 19, 2008 by Larry Landwehr © 2008
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