March 17 – 22 Los Mochis, Monarch Butterfly Migration & Mexico City
February 17 Monday: Los Mochis – Mexico City by Air, Drive to Valle de Bravo
Today we flew back to Mexico City to begin our journey to see over-wintering Monarch butterflies. As our flight scheduled to depart at midday was delayed. We therefore spent an hour at the Botanical Garden in Los Mochis before taking a taxi at midday to the airport (200 MXN).
Around 4 pm, we landed in Mexico City. We changed money at the airport which gave us a better rate. Then we booked and picked up a VW Polo from Hertz. It was almost 6 pm when we began our 4-day driving trip.
Mexico City is notorious for its horrific traffic. We had no choice but to brave the traffic at the peak of the rush hours. Mexican drivers are very aggressive and the roads are like racing tracks. Being a poor navigator in urban streets, I was not of much help to Kylie who had a nerve-racking time on the jam-packed roads. It took us two hours to get out of Mexico City!
It was better once we took the toll road heading to Valle de Bravo. Poor Kylie, who does not like driving at night, had to stay awake and drive. I felt very bad as the burden fell solely on her. We got through seven sections of toll road and were relieved when we finally arrived at Hotel Mision Grande shortly after 10 pm.
Unfortunately, the twin room provided to us had repellent smell of paint. Kylie is allergic. The second room offered to us was a work-unit and Kylie who saw dirty linen lying around refused to take it. After much discussion, the hotel finally assigned us Unit 407, a decent one-bedroom unit off the main building.
It was well after 11 pm when we moved in. I took the sofa bed in the sitting room. We had porridge for dinner and washed all the dirty clothes before going to bed around 1 am. I was tired and slept like a log.
February 18 Tuesday: Butterfly Sanctuary at Piedra Herrada
Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site
One of the world’s most unique and amazing phenomena is the annual migration of millions (up to a billion) North America’s monarch butterfly to spend the winter in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt pine-oak forests region. The monarch is the only butterfly known to make a two-way migration as birds do. Some fly as far as 3,000 miles to reach their winter home.
Monarchs roost for the winter in evergreen forests at an elevation of 2,400 to 3,600 metres above sea level. The mountain hillside of the oyamel forest provide an ideal microclimate for the monarchs which cluster together to stay warm. Tens of thousands may cluster on a single tree. They stay here from October to March.
It is amazing that these monarchs know the way to the overwintering sites even though this migrating generation has never before been to Mexico. These butterflies finish the development they halted prior to their migration. Here they become productive, breed and lay the eggs of the new generation. This starts the northern journey back to North America. Unlike the generation before them, who made a one-generation journey south, successive generations make the journey north and it will take 3-4 generations to reach the northern US and Canada.
The colonies proper cover only 4.7 hectares while the reserve as a whole has an area of 56,000 hectares. There are 14 major butterfly colonies in the reserve but only five colonies are open to visitors. They are Sierra Chincua and El Rosario in Michoacán and La Mesa, Piedra Herrada and El Capulin in the State of Mexico. El Rosario is the largest sanctuary where the butterflies cover about 1,500 trees.
In recent years, tourists both local and overseas, have flocked to see this nature wonder. Local authorities have begun taking some measures to conserve the environment. On the way to the reserve, we already found many monarchs by the road. This reserve is not large. The hotel receptionist has recommended us to take the 40-minute walk instead of taking a horse. We followed his advice.
Part of the path has been paved with stone. After the paved section, we walked through the forest. Given the high altitude (around 3000m), Kylie was out of breath and walked slowly. It was no problem at all as we had plenty of time.
There were few tourists at this reserve. I enjoyed the peace and tranquillity. I stopped every now and then to watch the monarchs suckling nectar from flowers.
When I reached a hill top, I saw for the first time in my life several large clusters of monarchs hanging down from trees which took on an orange hue. What a miracle!
Rangers are stationed along the trail and at the end of the trail to prevent visitors astray beyond the limit. All visitors have to keep quiet too.
We spent over an hour to watch the monarchs in the forest. By the time we left the reserve, it was after 3:30 pm. We gave a lift to a couple from Columbia with a baby. After dropping them off in the town of Valle de Bravo, a pretty and popular weekend destination located on the shore of Lake Avándaroabout 160 km southwest of Mexico City.
The main road by the lake front are lined with colourful houses. There is also an imposing church. As it was not easy to find parking space, we drove through the town.
We made our way to the Mirador la Pena, a lookout with superb views of the town, the lake and the whole area. We had to hike for some 15 minutes to reach the top.
We began to head back to the hotel after sunset. My battery was dead and we had no Google Map to guide us. I thought I could recognise the route to the hotel. Unfortunately, I was overconfident. Somehow, I missed the right turn and we were driving around for half an hour in the dark before we managed to arrive safely at the hotel. It’s my fault!
The hotel restaurant offers nice and reasonably priced food. We shared a fish and steak! A wonderful and relaxing day!
February 19 Wednesday: El Capulin – Cerro Pelon
The receptionist told me that the La Mesa sanctuary is not far from the hotel. I therefore would like to visit it. We left the hotel at 10 am after having a good breakfast. The receptionist showed me the route to take on a map. As I could not locate it on Google Map, I just relied on his instructions and asked a couple of people for over an hour. At the end, I gave up.
Then we drove straight to Zitácuaro to check in Hotel San Cayetano, a boutique hotel with a dozen rooms set in a beautifully landscaped garden with a heated outdoor swimming pool. We arrived around 1 pm and were met warmly by Paoble, owner of the hotel. The room is nicely furnished, cozy and comfortable.
Nearby the hotel is another sanctuary Cerro Pelon, El Capulin. With an excellent sketch map provided by Paoble, we found the sanctuary which is over 15 km from the hotel without problem. Paoble had told us to take a horse ride.
It was 3 pm when we arrived at the carpark. We paid a total of 900MXN for the entrance and guide fee and the horse ride which lasted an hour. We had to climb some 1500m to reach the hill top. It’s an uncomfortable ride: the slope is steep and rugged. Once we got off the horse, we still had to walk 5 minutes through a dense forest to find the monarchs.
The sun was setting. The trees were against the light. At first, I did not really know what to look for. Then I remembered Paoble had told me to lie on the ground to look up. I put a plastic bag on the ground and laid my head down. Then I saw huge clusters of monarchs on a few fir trees in the distance. It’s awesome owing to the unique setting, the sunset and atmosphere of the forest.
Our guides were very patient and let us stay for an hour. We were the only visitors at this late hour. We mounted our horse and went down the steep slope.
I found the downhill ride even more uncomfortable. About 3 km from the car park, I could not bear the discomfort and decided to walk. As a result, I arrived at the car park around 6:30pm. Kylie who rode the horse all the way down was at the carpark about 15 minutes before me. We gave our guides a tip of 100 MXN each as we fully appreciated their patience with us.
It was 7:15 pm when we got back to the hotel. Tonight, we had a delicious five-course dinner for 550MXN with starter, soup, salad, chicken/beef and dessert. What a wonderful day!
February 20 Thursday: El Rosario
Today, we would visit the largest sanctuary at El Rosario. We set off after 9 am and arrived at the entrance of the sanctuary just before 11 am.
Paoble has suggested us take the walk instead of having a horse ride. He was right. The staircase and walking path are well- signed and maintained.
El Rosario is the largest and most popular sanctuary. On weekends and holidays, it may have some 5000 visitors a day.
Time passed very quickly. I could not believe I had spent three hours watching the monarchs mainly at three spots.
Spot 1– I stood with dozens of visitors on a main footpath which was closed because thousands of butterflies were lying in the middle of the path while millions were roosting on the trees. From time to time, the monarchs would fly off the trees. What a dazzling and beautiful sight!
Spot 2– I sat on a patch of grass by a stream to watch thousands of butterflies lying on top of the grass or the pool of water. They were drinking. Behind the pool is a large open space with trees and bushes with flowers etc. Thousands of monarchs were flying around. It looked like paradise with blue sky and decorated with colourful and dream-like butterflies.
Spot 3 -This is the best spot to see the forest with oyamel fir trees with countless clusters of butterflies and millions of monarchs roosting on the trees. The trees were orange in colour. When thousands of monarchs flied off the branches, they stirred up so much excitement amongst the spectators.
Dozens of photographers gathered here shooting photos with their expensive cameras. Unfortunately, there were too many noisy school kids and young children. I only stayed a short while before moving back to Spot 1.
But I returned to Spot 3 after 2 pm when most people had gone. The light had improved and I tried to take photos of the amazing butterfly clusters (but without much success owing to my poor skill).
We began our descent around 3 pm. The light was great and we stopped dozen times to take photos of butterflies on the way down.
We were hungry and had a late lunch at the carpark before heading back to the hotel. Paoble had suggested us take a short-cut to visit Angangueo, a mining town on the way back. Alas, it is a dirt road and we had to turn back after driving for 20 minutes.
Poor Kylie wasted a lot of time again today owing to my poor navigation. For some reason, the Google Map had suddenly set La Mesa as its destination without my notice. We followed its direction for a while before realising that we were on the wrong track. As a result, we wasted almost an hour and were not back to the hotel till 7 pm. We did not have dinner at the restaurant as we were not hungry.
February 21 Friday: Mexico City
Before leaving, we had a quick tour of a colonial village opposite the hotel. But the 16th century Church of San Francisco was closed.
We set off before 11 am. The traffic was better till we get to the capital. As it was still early, we decided to drop our luggage at the Hotel Umbral Curio near the Zocalo before returning the car. It was about 4 pm when we dropped the car off at the airport. We roughly paid over 6000 MXN for renting the car (about US$220), the petrol (950 MXN) and toll fee (about 1000 MXN).
We decided to take the bus to town (30 MXN pp). It turned out to be an educational experience. Passengers have to buy a card from the machine. But the machine at Terminal 1 was not working. We tried to explain to the driver. But he insisted we had to sort it out ourselves. A staff of the bus company offered to help us by topping up his card which was used to pay for our fare, we paid him 60 MXN. By the time, we paid him to top up his car and return to the bus stop, the bus had just gone and we had to wait another 30 minutes.
I was frustrating and believed the bus company management must do something. While we were waiting, we had a wonderful conversation with the guy who had tried to help us. He told us about his work and his drink with friends after work in town. He suggested a popular restaurant ‘Azul’ for our dinner.
We had a pleasant ride and got off at the bus stop ‘Chile’. It was nice to stroll along the narrow streets in the old town. We stopped at Azul and had a lovely dinner in the covered courtyard with a bustling and somewhat bohemian atmosphere. We spent some 600 MXN on two main dishes with beef and pork.
It was still early and we decided to take a leisure stroll around the Zocalo. I was a bit worried when seeing a dozen of police vehicles parked outside and near our hotel. Later on, we found out that there had been some demonstrations in the area.
Anyway, we spent a while on window-shopping and watched a large group of locals dancing next to the cathedral.
February 22 Saturday: Travel Day Mexico City – San Diego by Air
My trip with Kylie would come to an end soon. I would fly to San Diego around 3 pm to join the whale watching trip while Kylie would depart for Hong Kong at midnight.
As Kylie is a member of the Hilton Hotel group, we had a good rate for our stay at this boutique hotel which is superb and most comfortable. I got up late, had a light breakfast on the roof before taking a stroll in the Zocalo where a travel fair was taking place. I popped in the cathedral and did some shopping before taking a taxi around 12:30 pm to the airport. The driver asked 150 MXN and I paid him 200 MXN as he was nice and honest.
My AA flight to Phoenix was delayed and I worried I would miss the connecting flight to San Diego. I was therefore totally surprised at the efficiency of the small Phoenix airport. I took me less than an hour to get on my connecting flight.
I had booked a night at Vagabond Inn which is close to the Shelter Island I had to go the following day. It is a short ride of less than ten minutes. The taxi driver was rude and demanded a tip. Perhaps he was upset that I would take a short ride. The metre showed a price tag under $12. He said there was an airport tax as well. I calculated the total price was under $15. The hotel receptionist told me not to give him anything if I was not happy with his service and attitude.
Tipping is a problem: I think it is like an American disease! I reluctantly gave him $17 ($2 dollar tip). He looked pissed off and left disgruntled. As a matter of fact, he has done nothing to deserve a tip which is an expression of appreciation of a good service.