The Monarchs of Macheros, Mexico

Every year, beginining in November, the entire North American monarch butterfly population, east of the rockies, migrates to one specific forest in the Mexican state of Michoacán until mid-March. Here is where they will spend winter until it becomes warm enough to return to northern Mexico, United States, and Canada.

There are four sanctuaries open to the public. My mom and I chose to visit the less touristic and harder to get to sanctuary, Cerro Pelón. Since we opted for the more rustic experience, we booked our hotel and butterfly tour through J&M's Butterly B&B in the tiny village of Macheros. J&M is the main and best way for you to  experience the millions of monarch butterflies at the Cerro Pelón sanctuary.  When you go on one of their tours you are supporting both the conservation of the butterflies and their environment as well as the economic development of the local people in a sustainable way.

J&M Butterfly B&B is the only form of accommodation in Macheros. Before the B&B was built tourists would have to take day trips from Mexico City or elsewhere, making for an exhausting day. With the establishment of a bed and breakfast, local villagers were given an additional source of income through ecotourism.

One restaurant has opened in the village to feed hungry tourists after a day's adventure in the mountains. Local farmers' horses are for hire to take tourists up the mountain a couple days a week as part of J&M's butterfly tour. During high season, J&M employs up to twenty people to help run the B&B and is able to compensate employees year round for their nonprofit thanks to the business the tours generate. With these sources of income locals now resort less to the illegal logging that was once a more common way to generate revenue, meaning that the monarch's habitat is now more protected from harmful deforestation. Even Internet connection didn't exist until the establishment of the B&B. Now J&M are able to subsidize Internet to the local school. The efforts of a few individuals to help foreigners experience the wonder of the monarch migration has led to countless benefits for their community and their neighboring monarch butterflies. 

The tour begins at 10am and lasts roughly until 3 or 4pm. You start by meeting your horse and handler a few minutes walk from the B&B. From there it's about an hour and a half ride up the mountain. The first hour I'm on my horse, very relaxed, taking in the beautiful surroundings. I admire the glimpses of towering peaks through the dense forest. The air has that crisp distinct mountain quality to it. After about an hour I'm brought to full alert as we start ascending the steep, narrow, and rocky path. And I'm thinking, "If this horse slips up once we are going to come crashing down and either I am going to be crushed by its massive body or my head is just going to crack open on one of these rocks." If my horse could read my mind she would have scoffed at my doubts in her ability because she could read the path like you and I read a children's book. The horses maneuvered expertly up the steepest last thirty minutes of the trail, avoiding boulders and keeping steady on loose rocks. One minute I was holding on for dear life and the next I felt my entire body exhale at the site of the open meadow with thousands of butterflies fluttering about. 

We dismounted our horses and they spent the next couple of hours bareback and grazing in the meadow as we too enjoyed the meadow and hiked up to see the butterfly colony. Besides the six tourists that came in our group, there were only three other tourists with their guides. It was the warmest part of the day so the butterflies left their trees to stretch their wings and search for water. In the wide open space of the meadow you can really get a feel for just how many monarchs there are. Thousands flying about, most flying in the wind streams by the thousands. It's so serene you can hear the flapping of their delicate wings, like tissue paper blowing in the wind.

After admiring a sky full of butterflies we take the forty minute hike to the butterfly colony situated at 3,000 meters (roughly 10,000ft). This elevation is the elevation that all of the monarch colonies across the reserve are located. Nobody is certain why they have chosen these trees or how they are able to navigate back to them year after year. Millions of them are clustered on the tree limbs. At first it appears that they are just dead leaves but after a closer look you will see millions of monarchs in the surrounding trees weighing the limbs down by their sheer numbers. We sat in silence marveling at this biological phenomenon taking place right before our eyes. 

I devoured my packed lunch after reaching the meadow via maybe the steepest descent I've encountered. And it wasn't the last. We came up on horseback meaning we had to go back down. I was gripping onto the horn of the saddle, all of my muscles fully engaged the whole way down. I had a stupid grin on my face which was partly from the excitement and partly from sheer terror. Once again, my horse was a master navigator and thoughtfully maneuvered us down the precarious path. 

Once we returned to our starting point our horses were free to go home where they rolled around in the grass like a couple of puppies. As for us, we went back to the B&B and relaxed in a pair of adirondack chairs on the lawn until sunset. 

Road Tripping Mexico with Mom

Mexico often receives a bad reputation, especially if what you hear is coming from the U.S. When I decided to travel here by myself the majority of people were immediately concerned for my safety and did not quite understand the appeal of this wonderful country. Luckily I have an openminded and adventurous mother who encouraged me to visit Mexico and gave me plenty of ideas of where to go. It's been seven weeks since I've embarked on my travel adventures and my mom, who inspired the beginning of my travels in Mexico City, has now joined me for ten days traveling through Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, and the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve!

 


Mexico City

Before grabbing our rental car and hitting the road, we spent one night in Mexico City at the outstanding Red Tree House B&B in Condesa. I saw for myself the appeal of this hotel and why it is so highly praised. The staff is exceptionally friendly and are often interacting with guests. The inclusive evening happy hour encourages interactions between guests, creating a friendly and engaging atmosphere. I found my self seated by the fireplace with a glass of wine talking to several other guests throughout the evening as I waited for my mom to arrive. I was even invited to dinner by a very kind Canadian couple. A hotel that encourages this type of interaction between guests is rare but extremely special. I had the greatest time meeting other travelers and enjoying the marvelous space. It felt like luxury after being in a hostel for 7 weeks. If the atmosphere wasn't incredible enough, the breakfast was absolutely splendid, as you can see above.


Guanajuato

Our first full day in Guanajuato happened to also be my birthday. We had a large breakfast on our apartment's rooftop terrace in the morning sun. We spent at least an hour enjoying the space before exploring town. Guanajuato is a colorful colonial town with a notable silver mining history and today is a vibrant university town. The brightly colored buildings appear to be built almost on top of one another as they are situated one above another, climbing up the mountainsides. It is an extremely walkable town where you can see the highlights (Plaza de San Fernando, San Roque Square, Basilica de Nuestra Señora, and The University of Guanajuato ) in one full day. After seeing the sights we grabbed a bottle of wine to enjoy on the terrace only to discover our wine opener was a faulty one. After a half hour trying about ten different techniques we were able to open the bottle and enjoy a well deserved glass. We had the dinner at the highly rated Los Campos where my mom and I shared corn and jalapeño fritters to start and I had an ancho chile stuffed with braised pork in ancho salsa on a bed of creamy pearl barley with huitlacoche topped with grilled corn and nopal. I would recommend this place for its creative preparation of traditional Mexican ingredients. It was a great day and an excellent birthday that I was lucky enough to share with my mom.


Guanajuato

 

Our second full day was spent strolling through the city and relaxing in the Reforma Garden surrounded by mature, full trees. We waited until closer to sunset to take the funicular up for a gorgeous panoramic view of the city when the light was just right.


San Miguel de Allende

We decided to stay only one night in San Miguel knowing that it was much more touristic than Guanajuato. However, before we could leave Guanajuato we had to the task of retrieving our license plate from the police. We received a parking ticket and to ensure you pay the fine the police remove your license plate which you then have to retrieve at the station. It wasn't immediately obvious that we were missing our plate. We saw that we had a ticket but it wasn't until later that we noticed the took the plate! Knowing the police station was difficult to find we took a cab to pay our ticket and retrieve our license plate. We got our plate back but then we had another problem...we didn't have our car for them to screw back on our license plate. We decided that at the first service station we saw we'd stop and see if they had a screw driver to reinstall the plate. Luckily we didn't have to even go that far, as soon as we drove the rental car out of the garage there was a young boy on the sidewalk, with a screw driver in hand, removing rims from tires. We stopped in the middle of the road, asked him if he could help us, and one minute later he had a few extra bucks and we had our license plate back on our car! 

 After and hour and a half drive through arid farmland dotted with cattle and cacti, we made it to San Miguel. There is a large number of retired Americans and Canadians who own property here so it feels less like an authentic Mexican town but the architecture is beautiful nonetheless. The uniformly warm toned buildings and their well kept state means just simply strolling the streets makes for an enjoyable afternoon. As the sun began to set, people came by the hundreds to gather by the Jardín Principal, in front of La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, for a live orchestra performance honoring the revolutionist Ignacio Allende. The present moon hung overhead and 500 people seated in chairs and throughout the garden proudly listened to the music, often excitedly singing along if a Mexican favorite was played. It was a very special moment to witness Mexican patriotism and pride for their down as they celebrated their town's revolutionary hero that helped Mexico gain their independence. 


Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve

From San Miguel we left for the butterfly reserve in the western state of Michoacan. Here is where the millions of monarch butterflies from all of North America migrate every winter. This is the world's largest monarch migration and the monarchs all come to this and only this location to spend winter. I didn't really know what I signed us up for when I decided we'd go to the lesser known part of the reserve, but it turned out to be one of the most adventurous experiences of my trip so far. It was not an experience for your average traveler. My mom braved conditions that people my age would not have. It started off with us almost getting lost at dark in the Sierra Madre mountains and in my head I was already planning the worse case scenario where we'd have to sleep in our car until the sun came up. Luckily it didn't come to that and the next morning we dove in to the next part of the adventure which included riding horseback for an hour and a half up the incredibly rough and steep mountain side to reach a meadow where thousands of butterflies fluttered past in waves. We stayed in a tiny town with only one restaurant and one B&B which organized the tour and is doing some incredible things for both the butterflies and the people that call these mountains home. I'll be writing about this beautiful and exhilarating experience in more detail because it really needs its own post to fully share just how enriching of a time it was. 


Teotihuacán

After two weeks in Mexico City, we finally made it to the Aztec site of Teotihuacán, one of the largest premodern cities to have existed. We spent the afternoon roving up and down temples and soaking in cherished sun rays.

A visit to Teotihuacán makes for a perfect day trip from Mexico City. Getting there is only a one hour bus ride from Mexico City's Terminal Central de Autobuses del Norte. To purchase your bus tickets head towards Sala (Gate) 8 where you can get a round trip ticket for 100 pesos at the counter advertising destination Teotihuacán. Bring snacks because lunch options are scarce.

Exploring Eastern Canada

Three thousand miles, two weeks, one brother. This was our trip through New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Québec at the end of October, 2017. We started from Jeremy's place in Bar Harbor, Maine and made our way to Canada's Bay of Fundy where we got our first glimpse of the amazing fall foliage that was to come. We camped in the national park for two nights where we stayed up playing cards and talking to other travelers around the campfire. We drove several hours to our next destination, Cape Breton National Park, Nova Scotia. Here is where the fall colors were truly breathtaking. We had an amazing breakfast at a local bakery, The Dancing Goat, before heading to Cape Breton National Park. Cape Breton had an incredible variety of trails and we were lucky enough to see the park in all sorts of light. We made our way to Québec city after just over a week's worth of rambling through national parks.

We strolled around the old city of Québec, tried the local poutine, and ate our weight in pastries. From Québec we continued our road trip down south stopping to see great friends in PA and NC before arriving home in SC. After it was all said and done this trip had it all, family, friends, and loads of adventure.