Mexico’s Michoacán region is known as ‘Land of the Fishermen’, but once a year millions of butterflies add a splash of colour to local life. Isabella Tree witnesses nature’s biggest miracle
Every year on the first of November, something miraculous happens in the state of Michoacán in central Mexico. From the north, travelling in over mountains and lakes and vast tracts of desert, come a quarter of a billion butterflies. In pulses of palpitating orange, the migration flutters down between the great ranges of the Sierra Madre Occidental and Oriental, heading for a small region of high-altitude forest on Michoacán’s eastern border. These are Monarch butterflies and their appearance here, at the same time every year, is one of the most astonishing occurrences in the natural world.
“You can’t even dream it until you’ve seen it with your own eyes,” says Pablo Span, owner of Rancho San Cayetano, a hacienda-style inn near the town of Zitacuaro and a favourite with Monarch butterfly spotters. “We get some guests so moved they tell us ‘I saw God’.”
The Monarchs come here to spend the winter, escaping the cold of Canada and the northern US to hibernate in this ancient oak and pine forest. They form around a dozen colonies with up to 20 million butterflies in each, roosting in the tall, indigenous oyamel trees, where the weight of the insects, densely huddled together to conserve body heat, can break the branches. Their arrival, in swarms of luminescent life, coincides with celebrations for Mexico’s legendary Day of the Dead.
In the medieval town of Patzcuaro, normally a sleepy little backwater, the market is heaving. Under the arched portals of the Plaza Grande, local Indians are selling trays of candy skulls and sugared skeleton bread, long candles and perfect little corn-pith figures in tiny wooden coffins. On the nearby lake, fishermen are working overtime, casting for pescado blanco with their distinctive nets shaped like butterfly wings.
Tourists, too, are descending on Michoacán, the ‘Land of the Fishermen’, in their thousands. The Tarascans – or Purepecha, as they call themselves – are famous for their ‘Noche de los Muertos’ rooted in an ancient pre-Columbian cult of the dead. In the cemeteries around Patzcuaro and on the islands of the lake itself, they hold graveside vigils, enticing the souls of their loved ones back to earth with the scent of wild marigolds and bowls of smoking incense made from the resin of the oyamel tree. As night descends, the celebrants light a pathway for the spirits with candles, laying tablecloths over their graves and fêting them with a feast of their favourite food and drink.
In the days before the Spanish Conquest, when the Kingdom of Michoacán covered a few hundred square kilometres, the Purepecha celebration for the dead lasted for two months. When Franciscan missionaries began mass conversions of the Purepecha in the 16th century, however, they absorbed the ‘pagan’ festival into the Christian calendar, squeezing two months into the two days of All Saints and All Souls. The timing brought the two beliefs together in a way the Christians could never have envisaged. The Catholic ‘Day of All Saints’, known in Mexico as the ‘Dia de los Inocentes’, honouring those who had led a blameless life or who had died as children, fell on November 1 – the day the Monarchs reappeared every year in Michoacán. It was a day the Purepecha had always considered sacred, believing the butterflies to be the souls of their departed children returning home.
Luis Miguel Lopez Alanis, a tour guide from Michoacán, was born in a village close to the forest that is now designated the Monarch Butterfly Reserve. “Every time I come to the forest to see the Monarchs, my spirit sings,” he says. “It fills me with hope. Suddenly you feel anything is possible.” He brings tourists here almost every week in the winter season. “People come from all over the world to see them. Even if they’ve read about it, or seen it on TV, they’re amazed by the real thing.”
In their densely packed colonies, the insects, with their wings clamped tightly together, blanket the trees in a thick fur of charcoal grey. Around mid-morning, when the winter sun begins to penetrate the branches, the butterflies open their wings and the trees suddenly burst into blossom. Millions of tiny bodies stir as the Monarchs shake off their nocturnal torpor, lifting into the air like tornados of leaves in an autumn wind. Their wings, fluttering together, make an almost imperceptible rustle – scientists call it a ‘susurrus’ – like a distant waterfall or falling snow.
As the Monarchs swirl through clearings, pouring down the mountain paths in search of their daily moisture, visitors are enveloped in a kaleidoscope of orange. Sometimes the butterflies, seeking body warmth, will settle on people’s clothes, dressing them in a fabulous fabric of living gossamer, adorning their fingers with extravagant but weightless rings.
“The Aztecs called them ‘Eternal Sun Dancers’,” says Luis. “That’s how they make you feel – like dancing. I never tire of seeing people’s expressions when they come here. It’s like watching the sun come out on their faces.”
Until recently, no one knew where the butterflies came from. But by March 21, the spring equinox – another sacred day for the Purepecha – they all disappear again, flooding the streets of nearby villages in a final goodbye before heading north. An extensive tagging programme in the 1970s finally solved the riddle but its findings were startling. The Monarchs come from the furthest reaches of North America, some from as far north as the Great Lakes in Canada – over 4,500 kilometres away. They endure two months of starvation and exhaustion, negotiating highways and cities, mountains, rivers and deserts, battling rain and wind and blazing heat. How and why they do this, however, remains one of nature’s most enduring and wonderful mysteries.
Scientists believe the Monarch migration has been happening for some 40 million years. The enormous distances the butterflies travel may be a result of the lengthening of the North American continent over this time. They travel at around 10 kph, but can cover over 300 kilometres in a day with prevailing winds.
Monarchs begin mating in February, towards the end of hibernation, but only the females ever leave Michoacán. The males die after mating, and their bodies litter the forest floor like fallen leaves.
The pregnant females fly north in March and lay their eggs somewhere in northern Mexico or Texas, where they also die, leaving it to the next generation to continue the arduous flight north. Three months later, this second generation will also lay its eggs and die. Only their offspring, the third generation, will make it to Canada. It is the fourth generation that makes the epic journey back to Mexico, somehow doubling its natural lifespan to eight months – making it the longest living butterfly in the world – in order to make the journey in one go, flying back to a place that only its great-grandparents have ever been. The distance – around 5,000 kilometres – is about the equivalent of a human making two return journeys to the sun.
Mexico fact file
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines operates one direct daily flight to Mexico City’s Juarez International Airport from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol.
WHEN & WHERE TO GO
This year, Mexico is celebrating the 200th anniversary of its independence and many special events are planned throughout 2010.
The Monarch butterflies start arriving in the Santuario Mariposa Monarca butterfly reserve in early November and leave around March 21. The best time to see them is in January and February, when numbers peak and colonies are densest. The butterflies congregate at several regular sites, the most popular of which is El Rosario, about 12 kilometres from the village of Ocampo, and a 45-minute drive from the scenic old mining town of Angangueo. Sierra Chincua is an epicentre eight kilometres beyond Anguangueo. Cerro Pellon is the newest sanctuary open to the public. However, since the terrain is not as open as El Rosario, you see only a small portion of the epicentre.
Expect to pay around $10 for the guide and $10 for a horse, as well as a fee for entering the reserve and for parking your car. This is money well spent, as it gives locals a vested interest in protecting the reserve. Opposite the church in the village of Donato Guerra at the base of Cerro Pellon, is a simple restaurant with wonderful mole negro, fresh trout and corn tortillas.
WHERE TO STAY
The best place near the butterflies is Rancho San Cayetano (left), a couple of kilometres south of Zitacuaro, run by butterfly aficionados Pablo and Lisette Span (+52 715 153 1926; www.. ranchosancayetano.com). They have an excellent library and can recommend good local guides. They serve wonderful Mexican and French food, much of it home-grown. Villa Montana (www.. villamontana.com.mx) is a lovely hacienda-style hotel in Morelia, the elegant colonial city and capital of Michoacán, two-and-a-half hours’ drive from the butterflies.