From Manzanillo to Morelia and the Monarch Butterflies

2020 John Chalmers June 2020

By John Chalmers on the June 2020 Edition

On a tour to see the city of Morelia and Monarch butterflies, the
twin volcanoes near Colima are a great sight, visible for several miles of travel.

Among the many wonders of Mexico are the Monarch butterflies which, like Canadian and American snowbirds, spend the winter in México. But the Monarchs don’t fly to the resort towns and cities or locate themselves close to a beautiful golden beach to enjoy the ocean.

Instead, they fly 3,000 miles each year from southeast Canada and the northeast United States to reproduce at their home, over 9,000 feet above sea level in the Mexican state of Michoacán and adjacent areas, in the forests of the Sierra Madre mountains.

In February, a five-day/four-night tour took our group to see the butterflies at their winter quarters. It was a spectacle that lived up to expectations, but the Monarchs were only part of the tour. In travelling through several hundred kilometers of great scenery, the itinerary included seeing colonial towns and cities, great architecture, monuments, an ancient archeological site and markets where it is impossible to resist buying the colorful products of Mexican art and culture.

However, it is the butterflies that are the feature attraction and the incentive to take the trip! Our journey from the Manzanillo area was in a luxury coach equipped with tv and a baño.

About an hour after leaving the coast, we drove past the twin volcanoes near the city of Colima, then continued on to Morelia for our first night on the road.

As well as a walking tour led by our guide, Ofelia, we had time on our own to browse the historic downtown area before meeting up for a fine dinner.

Prior to that, I wandered through the park right across the street from the hotel and had to marvel at the Catedral de Morelia, a massive cathedral with twin towers in a structure that took 84 years to build, from 1660-1744. The size and construction of the cathedral is similar to many I have seen in Europe.

The next morning, we eagerly boarded the bus for the four hour drive in the very capable hands of our driver, Omar, to see the butterflies at the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary, the most popular of the sanctuaries in the state of Michoacán, two of which are open to the public.

Comfort stops along the way provided opportunity to get out of the bus, stretch our legs and buy a drink or snack at the convenience stores. From 6,400 feet above sea level at Morelia, a city of just under 700,000, the capital and largest city of Michoacán, we continued the climb through mountain scenery to our destination some 3,000 feet higher.

The beauty of the butterflies and the sight of millions of them are not the only amazing things that impress the visitor. I was amazed to learn that three generations of the Monarchs with a life span of about four weeks, and reproducing en route, are needed to fly from Mexico back to their northern habitats. That means that the Monarchs are born with the instinctive knowledge of the route, where and when to fly.

But then, on the return trip back to Mexico, arriving about the end of October, the long route is flown by only one generation of butterflies, with a lifespan about four times as long until it reproduces!

The mystery of how the butterflies know how to migrate has yet to be solved. My own unproven theory is that they hold dual Canadian-American citizenship and are born with Mexican passports. Or maybe they carry tiny maps! Studies have shown that when some butterflies are captured in the north and relocated away from the normal route, they still find their way to home in Mexico. Could they possibly be flying with miniature GPS units?

Upon arrival at the El Rosario Sanctuary, visitors have the option of either hiking for about an hour up the trail to see the butterflies or they can take a horse for 100 pesos on a 20-minute ride led or followed by its owner. An option is to hike one way and ride another. I hadn’t been on a horse for more years than I can remember and get in lots of hiking around Manzanillo, so I rode both ways. Obviously, the horsemen on foot get plenty of hiking exercise in making multiple trips each day. They earn their tips!

The Monarchs have to be seen to be believed! They were everywhere in the air, on the flowers, on the ground and clustered by the thousands in the fir trees. We had a perfect sunny day for this wonderful experience and great opportunities for photography. As the day warms up, the butterflies become active and we were fortunate in seeing them airborne all around us.

Visitors are told to be quiet and not do anything to disturb those amazing insects. Mostly, we just watched in awe at some-thing we had never seen before.

After spending time to enjoy the Monarchs, we returned by foot or horseback to the plaza at the sanctuary entrance where we had time to sit and enjoy a meal prepared for us at one of the little restaurants there. Shops in the plaza, as well as vendors on foot, offered diversion in selling butterfly-themed products. I knew about that in advance and brought a backpack so I would be sure to have something to carry anything I bought!

On the walk back to our bus, we passed several shops offering merchandise that ranged from hand-made items to manufactured products to take home as mementoes. My purchases included shawls of a butterfly theme for gifts, hand-painted coffee mugs and, of course, I had to have a spectacular Monarch butterfly T-shirt. Prices were all very reasonable and there is no need or reason to haggle over the cost. I was happy to pay the asking price.

During the tour, Ofelia kept us well informed and, as we drove from Morelia to see the butterflies, an excellent video was shown to help prepare us for the visit. Several companies offer tours to see the butterflies. If you plan on making your own trip by bus or car, you can brief yourself and help prepare by visiting a number of good sites on the internet. Recommendations for travel and accommodation, as well as tips to help you enjoy the experience, are easy to find.

In the Manzanillo area, two companies that offer very similar tours and itineraries are Mex-Eco Tours, with which I took the tour, and Flip Flop Nomad Tours, both with offices located in Melaque. My experience with operators of both has been totally satisfactory. Each company offers several tours to help you enjoy this fascinating country.
Our rewarding day of sight-seeing concluded with a return drive to Morelia, another evening to dine out, to walk the streets and to enjoy the sights. The next day, we would continue our tour of this beautiful, charming and amazing country. But that’s another story! Meanwhile, you can see my 90-second video on YouTube about the butterflies when you click here.

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