• Sylvie Novotny

Monarch Migration in Mexico

Sometime in my younger years, my dad took me to an IMAX about migration. I knew mammals migrated, I knew birds migrated, but I never knew insects migrated. I was awestruck by the colossal immensity of millions of orange and black wings filling a screen six stories tall, and it planted a seed of wonder in me.

I knew that I wanted to witness the migration in Mexico myself, and I was getting restless in waiting for a perfect time or feeling like sigma round traveling to Mexico would change. I was determined, regardless. I invited a friend to go with me and we boarded a bus to Zitácuaro, a small town that was 30 minutes to Macheros, where we would be staying. My experience of Mexico before this was limited. I knew the beaches and resorts of Mexico, but the interior landscape was a mystery to me. I had not expected the mountains or the smell of pine trees as we pulled up to JM’s Butterfly B & B. That night as we sipped our hot chocolate on the open porch, the air was crisp and our views of the mountains pristine.

Migration Misinformation

Joel and Ellen, who own JM’s B&B, are passionate about butterfly tourism and work closely with the rangers. While it’s the butterflies that attract visitors to the parks and nature reserves, it is the people- sometimes referred to as “guardians”- who make experiences possible. The tourism brings investments and money to parts of Mexico often shunned by traveler, but there is a lot of negative press about events that happen in Mexico. When I Googled “Macheros Mexico” I found a Vice article- which I later learned was poorly researched and written- about a tourist who our B & B and was later killed in a different Mexican state. Even as I write this, two guardians at the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary have recently been murdered. None of these events are happening at the reserves themselves and tourists have never been targets of any attacks. Articles such as these, however, create anxiety in travelers who are probably already trying to convince family members that their travels will be safe.

If you tell a friend or family member you are traveling within Mexico, you can expect to have a conversation about safety. In my particular case, I was told not to put my information on my luggage tags because my family would not be paying ransom to my eventual kidnappers. While my friend and I were certainly out of place as two white American girls, we never actually felt unsafe. In fact, I would argue that the locals went out of their way to make sure we safely got where we wanted to go. Employees at the bus terminals made sure we got on our bus, and locals walked us to destinations when we stopped them to inquire about a location. Throughout the trip, there was a feeling of hospitality and kindness that does not fall within the narrative a dangerous Mexico.

My Experience

The morning after our arrival, we saddled up some horses and made our way up into Cerro Pelon Sanctuary. The terrain can be steep and the butterflies don’t stay in the same place so guides rely on reports from local rangers. As we got closer, small groups of butterflies flew past us, almost as if guiding us to the main roost. When we stopped, the pine trees in front of us which were dark and heavy and you could actually hear the rustling of butterfly wings moving. When air gets warm, in unison they open their wings in a storm of orange and bask in the sun for a brief moment of jubilation before they make the trees heavy again. Even with reports of declining numbers, there are so many butterflies that tree branches can break under the weight of a butterfly. Think about a time you may have held a butterfly in your hand and then imagine how many butterflies you would need to break the branches of a mature tree.

I have visited Cerro Pelon and the Piedra Herrada Sanctuary, in Valle de Bravo, twice. Both times, I would be overwhelmed by the number of beating wings and spirits that made a journey for thousands of miles and who would not live to make the journey back home. Almost all animals that migrate will make their trek several times in their lives, but just one round of migration may take several generations for Monarch butterflies. How do they know where to go if they have never been there? What guides them to the same areas year after year?

Something bigger exists that connects millions of living creatures and guides them to just a few areas of Mexico annually. If you are fortunate enough to experience that personally, you’ll feel that power yourself and I hope that you are moved. Standing in the middle of the reserves, I would cry with joy every time.

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