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Ojo Del Lago - A Trip to See the Monarchs

May 1997 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 13, Number 9

Author: Thurman Alexander

The Monarch butterfly is a familiar sight to most people in the United States. Its bright orange coloring with black and white markings is almost the prototype image that people have of a butterfly. During the summer these wonderful creatures go through several short generations each lasting only a few weeks scattered throughout the U.S. and southern Canada, wherever milkweed is available.

The larvae feed on this plant which contains a toxin that makes the species unpalatable to predators. In August and September the newly hatched butterflies have a delayed sexual maturity and they begin a monumental journey to a place they have never been, to spend the winter. In many cases the migration exceeds more than two thousand miles.

Generally speaking those that are hatched west of the Rockies go to southern California; a few on the very eastern coast go to Florida. The vast majority funnel down through south Texas and by November end up in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, where they spend the winter, high in the mountains in a beautiful fir forest. They remain there until March and then begin the trip northward, breeding along the route. The males die soon after mating and the females die soon after the eggs are laid. The remainder of the journey to the summer grounds is left to the children and grandchildren.

Having lived in south Texas for most of my life I was familiar with the Monarch migration. It was always a thrill to see these beautiful insects come through our area and to think of the journey ahead of them. So it was without any hesitation that I agreed to travel to their wintering site near Zitacuaro, Michocan when a friend suggested it.

Our group of six left Guadalajara by automobile and headed east on the Maxipista. The Maxipista is a wonderful toll road connecting Guadalajara and Mexico City. It takes about six hours to cover the total distance depending, of course, on how fast you wish to drive. Some people apparently wish to drive very fast. You see them blur past you every now and then. Seventy-five miles per hour (120km/h) seems to be about normal. The scenery on both sides of the road is breathtaking. Going toward Mexico City, as we were, Lake Cuitzeo is on the left side for much of the way. (I would estimate that Lake Cuitzeo is about 50 miles long) Off to the right layers of mountains soar off into the distance. The foreground is made up of cultivated land and orchards, rich browns and greens. All of this under brilliant blue skies made all the more interesting by puffy white clouds. You do miss out on the quaint villages with their narrow passageways, ornate churches, bright colored houses and beautiful people and animals but when your time is limited and you need to reach an objective the Maxipista is the way to go.

After exiting the Maxipista at Maravatio de Ocampo and struggling a bit with the confusing route through that town we headed almost due south. Passing through the small village of Irimbo we joined Highway 15 outside of Ciudad Hidalgo and continued on southward to Herbica Zitacuaro. Our hotel, Rancho San Cayetano, was just the other side of Zitacuaro, about a half a mile on the road to Huetamo.

It would not be possible for me to say enough nice things about this hotel. It is owned and operated by Pablo and Lisette Span, and though we did not meet Pablo, as he works in Mexico City and is only at the hotel on weekends, his wife is a gem. A petite, vivacious charmer whose French heritage is evident in the cuisine as well as the nice touches in decor and considerations for the guests¹ comfort. The grounds are beautiful and beautifully groomed. They include extensive blackberry and strawberry patches. Sources for the most delightful preserves, syrups and desserts served in their dining room. Various fruit and nut trees dot the landscape including three macadamia trees loaded with nuts. At one end of the strawberry patch is a nice garden area for fresh salad greens and herbs.

Down past the various rooms and cabins that make up the residential space, the property continues to the edge of a barranca and you look down on (and listen to) a beautiful small stream gurgling past the lush undergrowth on the opposite bank. The owners are environmentally sensitive. Their gardening is all organic and everything seems to belong where it is. The dining room has no menu, when you reserve your room you are asked if you wish them to prepare a dinner for you. We stayed over an extra night primarily because the hotel and staff are so delightful and the food is so unbelievably delicious.

The dining room is a lovely part of the hotel. Along one whole wall there is a beautiful stained glass window, a symbolic representation of the Monarch. To our delight there was also a magnificent fireplace where they lay a blazing fire to ward off the chill of the evening. There are cozy chairs and couches on which to relax and enjoy the blaze, and a game table for Scrabble, chess, checkers, cards, or whatever suits your fancy. The hotel is well booked during the Monarch season. We all have plans to go back during the off-season to enjoy the beautiful scenery and the wonderful hospitality. Lisette said that her favorite time of year there is September, after the rains when everything is green and blooming. Their phone number is (715) 31926.

Tuesday morning at about 8:30 we met in the dining room for a sumptuous breakfast. You do have some choices at breakfast, pancakes or eggs of all types plus the most delicious crusty fresh rolls with homemade btackberry preserves. We were on our way to see the butterflies by 10:00. It is approximately a forty-five minute drive from the hotel, back through Zitcuaro, past the beautiful roadside fruit stands at San Felipe, up through the picturesque mining village of Angangueo and out to the parking space near Chincua.

Chincus is one of three different preserves where visitors are permitted to view the Monarchs. It is the one most recently opened and it is also the only one where you can actually drive your car to within walking distance of the preserve. After parking, for which there is a small fee (25 pesos as 1 recall) you acquire a guide, or a guide will acquire you. The guides, mostly young men, are certified by the government and wear identification badges. Their job is to lead you up the trail, explain the rules, answer your questions and limit your stay at the viewing site to about fifteen minutes. This limit is not rigidly enforced if there are not crowds at the bottom waiting for their turn. They are very knowledgeable about the butterflies and their income, about 100 pesos a day, is dependent on your generosity.

As you begin your trek up the mountain trail you pass a ticket booth on your right where it is necessary to pay a per person fee of 25 pesos. At this booth you can also buy locally made, key chains fashioned from a fir branch slice and hand painted with a Monarch image. The hike from the car park to the butterflies is about forty-five minutes up a fairly steep incline. The altitude is 3200 meters [10,000 feet) so oxygen is a little scarce. Our group seemed to have no problems with it, by taking a short rest every 15 minutes.

The area is beautiful. Looks very much like Colorado or Canada with many different and interesting wildflowers. Lupines almost identical to the Texas bluebonnet but growing as bushes 3 to 4 feet tall. As we neared the butterflies our excitement grew. The morning was fairly cool and a few clouds kept the sun from burning away the chill. The butterflies were mostly still resting on the tree trunks and limbs. I saw them long before I realized what they were.

When at rest, with their wings folded up, they are not the colorful sight that one might expect. With the light filtered through the fir forest the dense clusters of butterflies huddled together up on the trees look much like dead leaves. When you realize what they are you are stunned by the quantity of them. Looking directly overhead at the only clear patch of blue we could also see thousands of them flying at various altitudes. It is so quiet, and the masses so large that you can actually hear their wings beating. The more daring ones began to land on us as if posing to have their pictures taken.

Soon everyone in the group had several butterflies resting on them. We took lots of photos and they turned out very well but like pictures of Niagara Falls and verbal descriptions of Niagara Falls they are not the same as being there. It is not possible to fully describe the awesome pleasure of being in that beautiful forest and seeing those remarkable Monarchs.

If you have a chance to make the trip I am sure you will be glad you did.

Please try to avoid the weekends and holidays as I have heard that the crowds at those times spoil much of the beauty.

Published or Updated on: February 4, 2007
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