28 February 2016
February 12, 2016 - Part Two of our road trip.
The town of Angangueo sits high in the mountains, in a small canyon, just a thirty-minute drive from the sanctuary at about 8500 feet. It is not very old, founded in the late 18th century after finding a large mineral deposit. Although there is little to no active mining any longer, tourism has been revived by the butterfly reserves in the area.
Our overnight stop was at the Hotel Don Gabino. A small, colorful building located on the main road in town. The outside was painted with orange, blue and some red and bougainvillea flowers decorated the exterior walls. Like most hotels in the smaller towns in Mexico, the rooms are quite spartan, but comfortable. Clean too. All too much, I am afraid as we were overwhelmed - to the point of nausea - with the scent of Pine Sol as we entered our room.
The sun was lowering fast, so after a quick check-in, we went on that walk April promised, up a steep hill, to acclimate our lungs to a higher altitude. We passed several markets and small homes made of adobe with red tile roofs. Bright red Geraniums were neatly arranged in flower pots amongst many of the buildings. It was around 5:30 in the evening and the streets were sparsely populated, due (we would find out later) to the fact that most residents were at church - most likely confessing their sins - as it was Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent.
At the end of the main road lie, not one but two churches. They call this area the Plaza de la Constitucion. One of the churches, The Immaculate Concepcion was built by one family in the image of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Here, there are also several underground tunnels connecting the buildings. Evidently this is not uncommon in mining towns.
We stopped for a cold cerveza. Cute, little Mexican children peaked in at us from the outside. Their very young mother looked at us with pleading eyes.
"They're begging." April said, watching them from afar. After a few more moments she got up from the table, "I'm going over to the store to see what I can find for them." Jay handed her fifty pesos to help out.
"I got a couple of cans of tuna and some hot dogs and bread. They didn't have any lunch meat. That should help anyway." She said as she returned. I turned around to glimpse their fleeting smiles as they ran off, coveting their treasure.
While having our beer, Jay asked April what the name for candle is in Spanish. "Vela." She said. "Why?"
"Oh, that's why they couldn't understand me." Jay had been shopping at various tiendas looking for a candle. He said it would help alleviate the Pine Sol aroma in our room. "I kept asking for candelaria!" We all got a good laugh out of that one. Keeping us to schedule, April checked her watch.
"Okay. Let's go. They're going to have dinner ready for us when we get back."
The sun had set and the air was getting colder. Church had let out so we noticed much more activity in the streets. The girls got ahead of the boys and by the time we got back to the hotel we had two candles. One Jay had bought and one April and I found.
The hotel restaurant was now open and dinner was well under way. There were a few other patrons, but not many. We picked out a couple of good bottles of wine and sat at at table by the fireplace to warm up. In small hotels like this one, it is quite common that they serve only one set course, or maybe a choice of two items. No menu. You eat what you get. Hopefully it is good.
Ours started out with a small salad which consisted of a slice of ham rolled up, a piece of cheese and a slice of tomato and avocado. The main course was either chicken in a peanut sauce or meatballs. Except they were running out of chicken left so two of us had to have the meatballs. I had the chicken only I couldn't taste the peanut. Jay offered to have one of the meatball dishes. Desert was flan. It wasn't a fabulous dinner but it was good. And inexpensive. That always helps.
The following day we rose for another meal and by 9:45 we were finally on our last leg to the butterfly sanctuary. It was a steep, one lane road. It was very precarious at times when we would look straight down off one side or the other. There were no rails, no berms, just straight down. We passed many houses perched on the hills. Angangueo was much larger than I had thought. On the way, we ran into some young men who had put a rope across the road. April stopped and she and the Mexicans had a conversation. After a few minutes, they dropped their rope and we went through.
"What did they want April?" I asked.
"They wanted me to pay a "toll" to go through! Can you believe that? I told them this is a national park road. They can't do that. No way, man, am I going to pay them to drive on this road."
Not much later, we found ourselves at the base of the butterfly sanctuary. We paid our entrance fee and they assigned us a guide. She was a young woman who spoke only Spanish, no problem with that, but offered no local knowledge unless asked. Mostly they are there to make sure we stay on the path and do no harm to the butterflies or their environment. For these Monarch butterflies that travel down here are not just revered because they help with the tourism, they are honored guests who, some believe, are their ancestors returning to bless their crops.
It was quite a walk up the mountain. 620 steps some woman counted, and that was only half the distance. The rest was dirt. It was a very steep climb arriving at 10,000 feet. Having lived at sea level for most of my life made the walk doubly hard. Every so often (more times than I would like to admit) we would stop to catch our breath and slow our hearts down. Meanwhile, April would use this time of rest to interpret the signs and tell us about the sanctuary.
The arrival of the Monarch Butterfly migration begins in October but the mass arrival seemingly coincides with a very important holiday in Mexico; Dia de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead. It is said if one of the butterflies lands in your field, it is good luck.
The forests are populated with Pine, Juniper, Cedar, and Oyamel. Oyamel is a type of fir that only grows at high altitudes. Unfortunately, due to global warming, the oyamels are seemingly headed for extinction.
Like the trees, Monarchs, too, like the cool and moist air that comes with this high altitude. In fact, it is this balance of climate: not too hot, not too cold; not too damp, but not too dry, that draws the butterflies to this particular area.
From time to time, as we walked along the path, we would come upon a dead butterfly. The guide would remove it from the path and, ever so gently, sit it down in the forest. It is disrespectful to step on them and they ask us not to, even if they have already died.
The higher and higher we got, the more butterflies we would see on the ground. Eventually we came to a clearing that was roped off and there were thousands of them lying all over the grass. It was still too cold for them to move, but as the sun got warmer, they started fluttering about.
When we arrived at the top, or designated area, we found about fifty tourists in various states of awe. Some were shooting photos, others pointing out the hive-like bunches that hung from the trees. And others were quietly watching. Signs were placed strategically, encouraging visitors to whisper.
There were millions of Monarch butterflies all around us. Some were lying on the ground, still, waiting for the warmth of the sun to fill their wings with energy or simply taking moisture from the earth. Others began the mating ritual. And others woke slowly and took flight. Yet most were still hibernating, hanging from the trees.
The hive-like bunches were the most amazing. Tens of thousands of butterflies were clumped together to stay warm. This is how they survive during their hibernation period. Some of the bunches were as large as three feet wide, two feet around and five feet long. When you think of the delicacy of each butterfly, this cumbersome cocoon is an awesome visual. I stood there, imagining what it would be like to be present when the sun warmed the hive, or the wind woke them up, en masse. I hear the sound causes quite a stir in the forest.
Monarch Butterflies have four cycles of life in one year. Three generations live from four to six weeks. The fourth generation lives eight months, long enough to fly from Texas to Mexico in October and November, then hibernate until February or March when they wake up and mate. The males will never leave Mexico, but the females return to Texas where they lay their eggs on the milkweeds. It is the cycle of life...and it never ceases to amaze me.
See Gallery for more photos.