Monarch butterflies migrate south in excess of 2,500 miles each year to escape cold northern winters and to hibernate in Mexico; they are the only butterfly known to make a two-way migration as birds do. This in itself is impressive. But what impressed me even more, on our excursion to the Reserva de la Biosfera, was the sheer numbers of butterflies we saw arriving. There must have been hundreds of thousands of them, maybe even millions.
From the moment we arrived at the Reserva de la Biosfera, we saw the butterflies. They danced and swept low in front of our vehicle, leading the way up the windy rough track to the huge carpark. There were only three other vehicles parked, seemingly huddled together from the colder higher-altitude temperatures, and nearly all the wooden market stalls were closed. At first I worried this would mean that the butterflies hadn’t properly arrived yet: perhaps the few we had seen on the way to the car park would be the only ones we would find all day. Traditionally, the butterflies start arriving on the Day of the Dead, with local custom believing that they carry the souls of those recently passed; it was only two weeks later than this day after all, and the unusually chilly weather had not exactly been butterfly-friendly.
I took a pony called Curly to the top of the mountain. He was hairy and short-paced; he looked around at me in surprise when I took the reins from his handler and told him I could ride. We half-jogged, half-walked; the handler grasping onto Curly’s suitably curly tail to pull himself up also. At the first sunny clearing, I gasped out loud. There were butterflies, everywhere – balancing on puddles on the track ahead, circling in the sky, weaving between the trees. They were like orange confetti, or like silhouetted snowflakes that never quite settled. We stopped for photos, but the butterflies were too quick to be caught properly for posterity. Instead, I would have to remember the fullness of this spectacle in my mind.
Near the top of the mountain, I left charismatic Curly and joined the rest of our group. Together, we walked to the top. I noticed the shortness of my breath, and was relieved when Max said we were nearly 4,000 meters above sea level. When we got to the final, cordoned-off viewpoint, the folded-up butterflies looked like thousands of autumn leaves clinging to the trees, they were so numerous in places that they dragged the branches down with their weight. I wondered what it must look like when they all departed in the morning – like a tree sending all of its leaves out into to the day in one spectacular hooray to the sun.
On the walk back down, we were quiet. For some time there were still butterflies far above, circling as swarms. We spotted small white orchids on the side of the path too, as delicate and beautiful as the butterflies. Slowly, we talked, explaining to each other how the day had been a magical experience, truly special and unique. We knew we might never get to see anything like it again.
On the car ride back to the Rancho, I thought about how none of the thousands of butterflies I’d seen would live long enough to return to Mexico. Instead, nearly all of them would die on their route back to America and Canada. Theirs would be a lifetime spent travelling. It sounded like my own life! But unlike the butterflies, I at least, could return to Mexico. I lay my head against the juddering vehicle window and watched villages and sheep herders and Tortillerias go by, and counted myself lucky for this.
The best time to see the monarchs is between October and April. Contact us at the Rancho today to make plans to see this magical phenomenon before the butterflies fly north in the Spring.