An unexpected joy for us in Mexico was to spend a few days in the tiny village of Macheros, home to around 400 folk, and gateway to the Cerro Pelon Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary.
Each year, around October, millions of Monarch butterflies leave the cold of North American Fall to make a 5000 kilometer southerly migration, arriving by 1st November, to their wintering grounds in the high altitude forests of central Mexico. They stay in this region until the Spring equinox in March when they start making their way north.
Joel and Ellen are a dynamic couple, dedicated to sharing their vast knowledge and passion about all things Monarch, while at the same time offering comfortable and thoughtful hospitality.
Ellen offered us one of their brand new rooms on the recently completed top floor of their home and the views from the expansive windows were breathtaking.
We also managed to take a peek into some of their other rooms and they’re all equally beautifully appointed.
It was an epic and occasionally treacherous uphill trek, where we gained over a thousand meters in height.
Honestly, sometimes I have to dig deep to find my courage and as this was only the second time I’d ever been on a horse I wondered how I would cope riding an unknown steed, up a remote mountain track, in a foreign country.
Ha, no problema.
Our guides were the strong confident types, and I could tell straight away they knew what they were doing. Mind you, there were a couple of moments along a very narrow muddy ledge where I wondered if Palomo would lose his footing and take us both down the steep ravine.
After around 90 minutes of clomping and climbing up that rocky, wet and slippery mountain our horses finally delivered us safely to a clearing where we then hiked a bit higher up the mountain to finally reach the resting place of the butterflies.
Well, those butterflies were also wet and cold so they were doing the sensible thing and just sticking to their pods in the trees. We all stood quietly looking up to where we could see hundreds and hundreds of brownish clumps in the trees, that looked a bit like giant pine cones but were in fact the packs of millions of dormant butterflies.
If you look really closely into the middle of this pic, you might see the clumps of the butterflies.
Many of the butterflies had fallen or drifted to the ground and our guides showed us that by gently holding them in cupped hands and puffing in our warm breathe the butterflies could then fly off back into the trees.
We stayed on for a while enjoying the tranquility of our quiet space but soon enough we decided it was time to head back.
The ride down the mountain seemed to take half the time as going up and although disappointed to see only a few butterflies close up, we felt really exhilarated by seeing butterflies clumped in the trees, and of course the invigorating challenge of the ride.
Our guide Antonio’s enthusiasm created the perfect setting for a wonderful day, as of course did our trusty horses, Polomo and Colorado.
Refreshed and relaxed later on at the B&B we were happy to be in the company of interesting fellow trekkers, 2 Canadian couples, over several expertly crafted margaritas.
Together with Joel and Ellen, we all sat around for hours in the cosy sitting room sharing laughs and tales. Unfortunately the Canadians had to leave the next morning just as we we all warming to each other. We have plans to keep in touch.
We’re glad we made the decision to stay 2 full days (3 nights) just in case the weather was lousy because glory be, the next morning the skies were clear and the air was warm so we dragged our aching bodies over to join fresh horses and guides, and away we went again with expectations of seeing flocks of the Monarchs.
It was hard to believe we were on the same trail as the previous day, the ground seemed firmer and less rocky. Certainly a more comfortable ride, and my horse Blanco had an easier time than poor ole Palomo the day before.
As we approached the mountain top, we were thrilled to see the occasional butterfly flutter by, but nothing could prepare us for the overwhelming rush, standing in thick forest as explosion after massive explosion of orange and black almost blocked the blue of the sky.
And then they were gone as they headed to the comfort of their cluster pods in the tall fir trees. Then pow, another burst of orange snowfall as we felt the vibration and heard the sound of millions of flapping wings around us.
We stayed for hours up there on that magical mountain, quietly in awe.
Our troupe on that second day included a young American couple with 5 kids ranging in age from 8 years to 10 months. If I had any doubts about my abilities on the horse they were quickly thwarted as I watched the 2 older girls ride their own horses while the parents took the 3 younger ones. Not a single complaint the whole time, only their sheer joy in being in moment, and our admiration of such a lovely family.
In each group on both days we had folk approaching 80 years, so apart from a reasonable level of fitness, there really are no restrictions to taking the tour. In fact Joel and Ellen told us they’ve taken people with various illnesses and mobility difficulties and they’re able to adjust to the needs of just about anyone. Also, their thorough orientation meant that each participant was aware of what to expect on the tour, so there really were no surprises.
Just in case anyone is worried about the welfare of the horses, we were assured that they are rotated from a group of around 100 that live with their carers in the village. The guiding and the horses are shared around equally to enable all villagers to benefit from the money paid by visitors and for the horses to rest up.
Also, the incoming funds benefit just about everyone in some way; from Joel’s mum Rosa and his sisters cooking our meals in the nearby restaurant to others working in the B&B as housekeepers etc and of course those hardy guides (men, women and even the kids) climbing up and down that mountain.
I’ve had some pretty epic “0” birthday events over the decades and yet in the weeks leading up to my 60th birthday we’d made no plans for any special kind of celebration (apart from actually being in Mexico, and that in itself is very cool).
Our last minute decision to share my significant milestone with millions of Monarchs in the wilds of Central Mexico was simply the perfect start to me entering my 60’s.
There’s a heap of information about the Monarch Butterflies on JM’s website, and I suggest you take the time to have a look around.
Here are some random pics from our time there.
Please feel welcome to ask questions or leave comments. If you’re thinking of making the trip yourself, we’ll be very happy to share even more stories. The transits to and from Macheros were quite epic and are big stories as well.