Bold splashes of orange speckle the blue sky as countless Monarch butterflies fill the air and land on branches, logs, the ground and even on our heads and shoulders.
The sound is unlike anything we have heard before: a gentle, whispering-like whir like a million pieces of confetti thrown in the air.
Awestruck visitors speak in hushed tones while witnessing one of nature’s breathtaking spectacles.
We’re in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site high in the mountains of Michoacan, west of Mexico City.
Migrating Monarchs from east of the Rockies throughout North America overwinter in this mountaintop forest of oyamel fir trees.
Arriving around late November and staying until March, they number in the millions.
Our journey starts with a three-hour bus ride from Mexico City to Zitacuaro, where we transfer to a smaller local bus that winds slowly up the mountains, past cornfields and small villages to Angangueo. Two parts of the reserve, El Rosario and Sierra Chincua, sit even higher up the mountains outside this valley town.
Finding someone to drive us to the reserves is easy. New faces in this small town don’t go unnoticed for long.
At the entrance to Sierra Chincua, we can either walk or hire horses to get farther uphill to the viewing area. With altitudes near 10,000 feet, we allow ourselves the luxury of riding up the dusty path.
Leaving the horses, our guide Arturo leads us along the heavily forested path to a ridge that slopes into the valley below.
Before long, we come to a clump of trees thick with butterflies, many of which are already flying around as the mid-morning sun warms the forest. We stare at the spectacular sight, content to stay there and watch, but Arturo assures us that ahead it gets even better.
By this time, we shed jackets and sweaters because it feels more like summer than January.
The Monarchs react to the warmth as well. Branches dripping with semi-dormant butterflies come to life as Monarchs take to the air by the tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands. They are everywhere so we move slowly and carefully.
No other butterfly in the world migrates this far and in such large numbers. Their travels are more like bird migrations, but with a twist. Those arriving next year might be the grandkids or great-grandkids of this year’s migrants.
How they find their way is still a mystery.
We leave with a feeling of exhilaration, tempered with the realization that this marvel of nature is threatened.
Key parts of the forest are set aside as wildlife reserves, but there is constant pressure from logging interests and illegal logging.
Altering habitats in Canada and the United States, especially the loss of milkweed favoured by Monarch caterpillars, add to the concerns.
On a positive note, Monarchs help the local Mexican economy, long dependent on mining and subsistence farming.
Locals run most tourist services from guides in the reserves to transport and lodging.
If you go:
- You can travel on your own to Angangueo, but it’s helpful if you know some Spanish.
- Guided excursions run from Mexico City or Morelia and travel agents can arrange trips from other places as well.
- February is generally considered prime time but be prepared for cool mountain air.
- Try to avoid weekends.
Arlene and Robin Karpan are well-travelled writers based in Saskatoon. Contact: email@example.com.