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Mariposas Monarcas!

Mariposas Monarcas!

February 19, 2013 – February 22, 2013
From Morelia to Zitacuaro (to see my Mariposas Monarcas!)

Mariposa Monarca - Monarch Butterfly
Mariposa Monarca – The Monarchs nectar on the salvia, the white plants shown above (name escapes me) and this stunning, pink thistle.

Today we departed from our comfy hotel room in Morelia, had a simple breakfast at Cathedral Café (beans on tortillas), then rented a car just a block away.  We decided to make our lives easier and drive this coming week instead of bussing it given the variety of destinations we’ve chosen.

The Mapman of Morelia
The Mapman of Morelia

At breakie, sitting outside, two of the buskers from the café last night came to play guitar and sing.  This vocalist, a tenor, had a voice of splendor, the best we’ve heard yet in this city.  Turns out both musicians are students of music at the local university.  The vocalist is studying opera.  One of his songs, a rich ballad, ends with the word contigo.  I really liked this word long before I heard it in a song, but I really like it now.  Contigo.  With you.

Teatro at the Big Plaza in Morelia

Our 2-hour drive to Zitacuro took over 4 hours.  It might have been the mountainous roads, it might’ve been my hubby taking his careful time, it might’ve been because we stopped for a juice and gasoline, it might have because Google lied, but it was probably because most things here take twice as long as they’re supposed to take.  Not to worry.  We are in no hurry.  And how good that feels.

LITTER.  Ugh.  Drives in the Mexican countryside fill me with many emotions.  I go from feeling jubilant upon seeing all the beauty to quite sorrowful when seeing litter.  A real disparity between the noble mountains, the vibrant bougainvillea (bugambilia), and the rich, clay, earth.  Such a sad departure from the Mother-Earthness of the Mayan culture.  Not sure how to reconcile this.  There’s way too much of it here especially along the roadway, not that any litter anywhere is acceptable.  Piles, almost as if people take their weekly rubbish and throw it out the car window.

I’m sure they have a perfectly acceptable reason like – there’s no garbage pickup in the country, or they are personally against burning.  I imagine it’s too costly for many given the poverty in some of these places.  The thing of it that’s most astounding to me is the plastic. So much plastic.  Incomprehensible.  I’m fully aware that Mexico is not the only place in the world that has this particular issue.  I reckon this is a problem in most countries, and certainly all the countries I have visited including the beautiful beaches of Costa Rica, Italy, and Portugal. I recall that even in the mountains of PA, people would dump their trash.  But at least the mountain dumpers had some discretion, quietly and stealthily placing their litter in a place that was away from the public’s eye.  Is discretionary dumping a sign of a higher consciousness?

Anyway, I’m committed to sharing all that I see – the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful.  I will now get off my litter box and share the beautiful.


While we didn’t spend much time in Zitacuaro proper, we enjoyed Rancho San Cayetano, which is on the outskirts of town and is a truly special place.  The Rancho is our luxury stay on this trip and by US standards, it’s fairly priced not to mention every day we were given awesome soaps, shampoos and lotions – all organic.  And each day I hid our current inventory and opted for room cleaning (something we rarely do when traveling) so that we could get more.  The room reminds us of the Trulli Homes in Alberobello, Italy.  Rustic, Charming.  The grounds are vast, green, fragrant, and we’ve fallen in love with the three big old Ranchero labs, Pasha, Choco, y Lata.  We met two guys, Anders from Denmark and Ben from Vancouver who have been bikingfrom Canada and throughout Mexico for the last six months.  We spoke with Lisette (from France) one of the owners – she’s married to Pablo, the other owner.   This place has a comforting feel about it.  Tranquil.  Friendly.

Room #9 Rancho San Cayetano
Room #9 Rancho San Cayetano

Darlin’ Doris at reception suggested we go to Memo’s and Johnni’s for dinner as we opted out of the 4-course (and $35.00 US/plate) meal at Rancho.  Memo’s and Johnni’s, a charming (I almost wrote adorable again but refrained) restaurant and a waitress to match.  She was an older woman, very attentive, hospitable, helpful.  I ordered pasta.  Been having some stomach aches and decided I needed to stay away from spicy food.  There was a beautiful parrot in a cage on the front patio where we ate.  This green and red gem had no name, so I called him Bonito.  It’s a bummer to see these beautiful birds in captivity (there are a lot of parakeet stealers, er sellers, near Sayulita).  I hung out for several minutes talking to him.  I told Scott, “Okay, go start the car and leave the passenger side door open.  I’m going to open the cage door and run back to the car as Bonito frees himself.”  Scott wouldn’t go for it.

Memo's y Johnni's - Bonita is in the back on the left
Memo’s y Johnni’s – Bonita is in the back on the left

After, I needed to get some crema de cacahuete/peanutbutter to make sadwiches for our upcoming hikes.  Goodness.  We drove to five different mercados around busy Zitacauro before finally finding it.  I also bought some locally made tortillas instead of bread.  So tomorrow I’m packing Cacaburritos for our hike.

AND tomorrow Las Mariposas Monarcas!  Can hardly wait.  Fingers crossed my stomach is feeling better.  At the moment, I feel like I may toss my galletas.

Zitacuaro – Santuario Sierra Chincua

We took our time this morning.  Scott is happy that the butterflies sleep in.  They don’t start flying until 55 degrees – sometime after noon.  We had a beautiful breakie (the best fruit I’ve had yet in Mexico) at el Rancho and hung out with our new friends, Anita, and Wouter from Belgium.  I enjoy this environment – a place where folks sit with friends they haven’t met yet during meals. I like the sense of community and meeting others from different parts of the world.

Originally Scott and I were going to go to the Cerro Pelon Sanctuary, but with the advice of Pablo, we decided to go to Sierra Chinque first and Cerro Pelon tomorrow.  SUPPOSEDLY Sierra Chincua would’ve been the easier route.   After a 90-minute drive north of Angangueo, we arrived, paid our 30 pesos to get in, then paid another 70 pesos to get our guia (guide), Francisco. I appreciate the fact that one must have a guide.  This helps protect the butterflies.

On the way to Santuario Sierra Chincua.
On the way to Santuario Sierra Chincua.

According to Pablo, we would’ve had an easy hike, and when I saw an actual road that narrowed to an open trail, I thought, Oh yeah.  I can do this.

But Francisco saw that we were serious about the Monarchs.  After ascending to about 10,000 feet at which point we could really feel the altitude difference, he took us off the main trail, well off the trail, and into the brush.  Outside of one group we saw early on in the hike, we were the only people there.  He took us down, down, down, down a steep mountain, probably another 1000 feet.  The further we descended the more Monarcas we saw.  We got to a clearing and butterflies were EVERYWHERE. I mean everyfrigginwhere. Flying all around us.  The sky was peppered with orange.  It was so fabulous.  Magical.  Amazing.  Sacred.  Several times I thought how lucky I am, how very very lucky, to see these amazing creatures here in Mexico. For years I’ve dreamed about this, and here I was.  Francisco said there were 400,000 Monarchs.  That’s quite a change from the 7000 or so I’m accustomed to in Santa Cruz!  At one point, we were standing on a rock ledge looking straight down about another 1000 feet.

Brilliant orange wings dot the sky.
Brilliant orange wings dot the sky.
Winged bark
Winged bark
400,000 monarchs
Supposedly we saw 400,000 Monarchs. And still, that’s considerably less than the previous year.
Oyamel trees coated with Mariposas Monarcas
Oyamel trees coated with Mariposas Monarcas

Death to the Monarch

All along the way, Scott and I were picking up bits of litter – mostly in the form of candy wrappers – that ignoranuses left behind.  I was perplexed that Francisco so carefully cleaned off the trail  (when we were on a trail)– pushing rocks and sticks out of the way with his walking stick, but he didn’t pick up one piece of litter.  Toward the end, our little bag was full and just as we emerged from the dense forest, we came closer to where the Caballo guys hung out with their horses.  There was a lot more litter here, and Francisco finally chipped in and helped us pick it up. Pollution kills wildlife. Period.

The trees in this forest are mainly Oyamel Fir Trees.  The Monarcas numbers continue to decline due to deforestation among other things.  While legal logging is no longer allowed in the Biosphere (an area designated for the Monarchs as a World Heritage Site by the UN), there is still illegal logging that causes holes in the forest that essentially create cold spots in which the Monarchs freeze to death.  The Monarchs choose these very specific overwintering sites so that they have protection from September to March.  If the protection is gone, the Monarchs also go.  Add to it, the decrease in natural habitat in the US when they fly back north to lay their eggs on milkweed. Pesticides, anyone? We can thank Monsanto and Roundup for destroying biodiversity and eventually the entire planet. It’s time to wake up folks. If change does not happen – and soon- you and definitely your children will never have the opportunity to witness these magical beings in Mexico or anywhere else.

The Monarchs compete with humans for resources.  Many would think, well, the Monarchs are second in line to humans, which, well, okay, of course. Notwithstanding some shortsightedness that Monarchs still need resources.  They’re considered a sort of tracker to the overall health of the environment.  If we let the Monarchs perish, we may very well be expediting our own demise.

Monarch nectaring
Monarch nectaring

And please, please do not buy butterflies to release at your wedding or funeral (okay, not your funeral) or kid’s birthday party or whatever. Not only is that cruel, but it is almost guaranteed that you’re introducing the butterflies to a foreign environment and possibly even creating a non native species threat to that environment. And vicariously teaching others/children to exploit nature. If you need butterflies that badly, make them out of paper. There are a ton of Youtube videos on how to create that.

Francisco was adorable.  A 64-year old local, with a worn face, a sweet semi-toothless smile and a cowboy hat that has seen some years. He knew the mountains well and stopped a couple of times to show us some animal tracks that we would’ve surely missed otherwise.  And he was hardy, taking the mountain with great ease despite the tequila laden breath.  For the climb back up, he took my hand for most of the journey, and I felt complete trust.

He spoke to us the entire time and even when we said, “no entiendo” or “mas despacio” he kept on talking.  He laughed several times, and I regret having missed out on his charming personality.  Unfortunately, we missed a lot of what he had to say in general, and I’m sure it was filled with wisdom and knowledge of the years on that amazing Monarch mountain.  As we neared the end of the journey, we landed at Franciso’s house.  He offered dinner and his daughter-in-law wanted to sell us some of her beautiful baskets at the artisan shop, but we graciously declined because we were dirty, tired, and needing to take the long drive back to Zitacuaro.

Back at the Rancho and into a delicious hot shower before heading to dinner.  Anita and Wouter from breakfast decided to stay an extra night, so we all sat together for two hours during our meal. Lisette prepared a gorgeous salad, a savory rice dish, and delicious beans for me.

Kenda, Scott and Wouter
Kenda, Scott and Wouter

We met Dr. Lincoln Brower after dinner.  How auspicious!  The leading researcher, THE MonarchMan, is staying at Rancho at the very same time as we are! AND he and his co-researchers were planning to go to Cerro Pelon the next day!

Zitacuaro – Cerro Pelon

Where do I begin?  Another magical day.  MAGICAL.  We opted out of breakfast and instead ate bananas with peanut butter.  Save some $$ and eat a bit lighter = win win.  We had to say good-bye to Anita and Wouter today before we headed out to Cerro Pelon.  Our new friends, we shall meet again surely.

Today our drive was easier and shorter to Santuario Cerro Pelon.  BTW: That link has a cool video to see the Monarch “river”.

Anyway, short drive. Bonus.  Pedro, who like his wife, Lisette, is an absolute sweetie, gave us directions that read something like:  turn right at the statue with the lady who has a canasta (basket) on her head, drive over 17 topes, turn left at the sign...  Zitacuaro has some ingenious panhandlers.  This morning while at a stoplight, we were entertained by a boy who looked all of 8 years old juggling naranjas.  I gave him 15 pesos. He was very good.  At another stop light, we were accosted by 4 different peddlers:  a guy selling newspapers, another guy selling pistachios, several guys cleaning windows, and then one guy who offered nothing but wanted us to put money in his bowl.   The dude needs some coaching on better marketing skills.

Street kid juggling oranges
Street kid juggling oranges

Santuario Cerro Pelon cost us 700 pesos, and we’re not exactly sure, because there were about 4 add-on charges ranging from 200 pesos each for the horses (more on this in a moment), 70 pesos each for the guide, 20 pesos for the car, and I’m not even sure of the rest.  Add to it, we had to pay 3 pesos for the banos.  Scott went first and didn’t have any change, so I paid the old guy waiting outside for the both of us.  Unclear as to why we have to pay – there’s no toilet paper, most of the toilets don’t flush, there’s no soap, never any way to dry our hands, and sometimes the faucet doesn’t even turn on.  Nevertheless, I went knowing it would be another 5-6 hours before I had that opportunity again.  But when I emerged, it was a different old guy.  This one wielding a machete.  He told me I owe him 3 pesos.  I tried to explain that I paid 6 pesos to the other guy for me y mi esposo.  This only confused matters.  I have to remember to keep things simple when I’m speaking Spanish – especially to machete-wielding bano protectors – because I’m only at about a preschool level.  It all worked out, and I didn’t have to pay again and all my limbs are still intact.

Stunning view on the trail of Santuario Cerro Pelon
Stunning view on the trail of Santuario Cerro Pelon

Yes, today, we took horses up the mountain.  SOME of us were still recovering from yesterday’s 4-hour 6400 ft. (base camp) to 10,000 ft. hike.  Lonely Planet did very little justice to how steep this mountain really is.  And it’s very very rocky at some parts and total eroded (this is courtesy of the horses) piles of dust at others.  Totally intense.  My guide was Manuel and his horse, Colorado. Manuel was wearing canvas street shoes and took to the mountain with no trouble.  And I in my hardy hiking boots stumbled and slid and stopped to rest.  And believe me, I was conflicted about using (literally) a horse.  That activity doesn’t correlate well with my principles.  Had we created the time, we would’ve given ourselves a day of rest between sanctuaries and then taken the hike up to Cerro Pelon.  Half way up the mountain, I was very grateful for Colorado but feeling so guilty knowing he was working very hard – sweating, huffing, even losing his footing a couple of times.  I couldn’t handle the guilt.  I couldn’t shake the sadness of wanting a better life for Colorado.  Can horses even have that cognition?  Wishing for a better life?  Surely, they know pain.  Colorado was tired, and I was adding to it.   I envisioned a better life for him.  One in which he got all was able to run free and wild in a pasture with his pals.  I got off.

Scott and I managed the rest of the mountain walking instead of riding.  It was indeed hard, harder than the day before for sure and not because our muscles were fatigued but because it was very very steep.  I’m not sure how long it took us, but I speculate 2 hours.  The entire time I was wishing I had some carrots for Colorado.  Anyway, we managed our way to the almost top (the cross, Cerro Pelon, is at the very top) where the Monarchs are overwintering – about 10,000 feet.  High!

I feel so fortunate to have this opportunity – to see Monarchs in these numbers.  And apparently the numbers are way down.  Dr. Brower stopped at our dinner table later that night to share that things are not going well for the Monarchs here in Mexico.  He’s frustrated and is going to be writing an article in the New York Times about it.  Despite the fact that he helped these sanctuaries earn UN World Heritage Sites status, the corruption (mostly in the form of illegal logging) and disorganization is harming the numbers.

Clusters of Monarchs
Clusters of Monarchs
Monarchs blanket the trees
Monarchs blanket the trees
Mariposas Monarcas
Mariposas Monarcas
A sky filled with Monarchs
A sky filled with Monarchs
Clusters! Clusters! Clusters!

Hanging out with the butterflies brings me outrageous joy.  I sat on a rock near a massive cluster on one of the pine trees– it’s the closest I’ve ever been to a cluster.  It was an honor, really, to be in their proximity. It’s as if I could almost touch heaven. Scott was taking photos and a small gust of wind forced a bunch of them to scatter. Brilliant sparks of orange encircled me with one or two using my person as a place to land.

We hiked up a bit higher and found another area with clusters. I took about 350 photos today. The sky was blue, air was fresh, wildflowers in bloom, majestic Monarchs abound, and we had snacks. Perfecto.

I may very well be the happiest person on earth.

One of the happiest days of my life
One of the happiest days of my life
Monarch on yellow flowers
Mid-air pollination

I wasn’t looking forward to taking the horses back down the mountain.  I could tell that Colorado was rested.  His sweat was gone, and he had a little hop in his gait. I still encouraged him the entire time he carried me, “Bueno Colorado”  petting his neck and gently patting him on the cull. Manuel gave me the reins again, but this time I didn’t lead Colorado into the woods – the wrong way – like I did before.  A couple of times on the ascent, Colorado just stopped. He was tired. He didn’t do that on the way down, but still, twice we got off and hiked with the horses. It was super steep, possibly one of the steepest treks I’ve ever hiked – and I once trail raced.  Scott was worried because he thought I was going to hurt my ankle. BUT my ankle was fine!  My ankle rocked!

We arrived back to the base covered in dust, tired, and fulfilled.  We said good-bye to our guias and our horses. Manuel convinced me that Colorado would be well cared for. I hope he meant it. I have a deep well of gratitude for that horse. Back at the ranch, a hot shower and good meal topped off our day.

Manuel and Colorado
Manuel and Colorado

If you’d like to see a short video I took of the Monarchs, click here.  By listening closely, you’ll hear the fluttering of their wings…or maybe that was my heart feeling absolute joy.

Imagine, these beautiful and seemingly fragile creatures fly over 3000 miles to find a place to rest for the Winter.  This group is called the super generation living for several months as opposed to only six or so weeks like their predecessors.  They mate in February and March, the males then die, and the females soon follow after laying their eggs only on Milkweed (which is why it’s SO important folks who have warmer Spring climates have milkweed available for them).  It takes another several generations to return to their original home east of the Rockies and up through Canada. By September, it starts all over again, and much of it is still a mystery to us. How do they know to go back to the same place?

Information on the different Monarch Sanctuaries can be found here.

Leaving Zitacuaro – Patzcuaro

Today we bid farewell to the very special Rancho San Cayetano and its lovely hosts, Lisette y Pablo, for the next leg of our journey to Patzcuaro awaited us.


Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.
~ Nathaniel Hawthorne

Joy arrives on the wings of a butterfly.
~KS Pepper

It’s such a little matter. Why should I care? He asked.

Because this little matter has a soul. The soul of a butterfly is no different in size than that of an elephant. And we cherish all souls. She replied.
~KS Pepper


*Photos and stuff*  Please contact me for permission to use images and text for commercial or private use.

This is Mexico Post #6, to see the other Mexico posts, click click click

Mexico Post #1, Me and My Trimalleolar go to Mexico with my Husband and our Pooch
Mexico Post #2, Dos Americanos y Su Perro en Mexico
Mexico Post #3, Feliz Ano Nuevo 2013
Mexico Post #4, Ballenas, Ballenas Hermosas
Mexico Post #5, Una Visita Morelia
Mexico Post #6, Mariposas Monarcas!
Mexico Post #7, Los Pueblos de Patzcuaro, Paracho, y Tzintzuntzan
Mexico Post #8, La pintoresca ciudad de San Miguel de Allende
Mexico Post #9, Guanajuato, Guanajuato
Mexico Post #10, Back to Sayulita and Jaime Visits!
Mexico Post #11, Semana Santa y Semana Pasqua
Mexico Post #12, Semana de Animales
Mexico Post #13, Semana de Amigos y Amigas
Mexico Post #14, Frida y Diego
Mexico Post #15, Adiós Sayulita
Mexico Post #16, Living and Grinning in San Miguel de Allende
Mexico Post #17, Puddle Jumping in San Miguel de Allende
Mexico Post #18, Guanajuato International Film Festival
Mexico Post #19, Ciudad de Mexico/Mexico City: Colonia Condesa, Colonia Coyoacán, y La Casa Azul
Mexico Post #20, Ciudad de Mexico/Mexico City: Chapultapec y Centro Historico
Mexico Post #21, Ciudad de Mexico/Mexico City: Museo Nacional de Antropologia y Templo Mayor
Mexico Post #22, Living the Dream in San Miguel de Allende
Mexico Post #23,  Viva la Independencia! 
Mexico Post #24,  Adios San Miguel
Mexico Post #25,  Valle de Bravo y Teploztlán
Mexico Post #26,  Ciudad de Oaxaca
Mexico Post #27,  50 Shades of Green: On the road from Oaxaca to Chiapas
Mexico Post #28,  San Cristóbal de las Casas
Mexico Post #29,  Almost Halloween Ed.: Dark Mountains,  Foggy Cliffs, Witches, Jungles & Shamans
Mexico Post #30, Veracruz, Tampico y Estados Unidos

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