The country's most visited
protected area showcases a natural marvel and mark your calendar
-- butterfly season lasts from November to March.
Sanctuaries in the states of Mexico and Michoacan
open their tourist services to the public from November to March.
These protected aeas include l Rosario, Chincua, Cerro Pelon in
Donata Guerra, Herradura and La Mesa. The first two are in the state
and the last three are located in the State
of Mexico. Check ahead of time for reservations.
The easiest sanctuary to visit is El Rosario. Transportation
is arranged from the towns of Ocampo and Angangueo, the latter an
old mining town with an interesting history.
Angangueo is a great place for hiking and biking,
regardless of whether it is the Monarch butterfly season.
Angangueo has an old train station recently restored
as the beginning of the newly-installed Monarch Green Way, a four-kilometer
trail conecting two stations, this might be the beginning of a national
rails to trails network in Mexico. Any one can bike it but there
is no bike rental. One great trip is bike downhill to Zitacuaro.
The price of silver bottomed out in the early 1980s,
forcing many residents of Angangueo to look for work elsewhere.
The town currently has 5,000 residents, down from 18,000 in 1987.
Tourism hasn't been enough to restore the town's former
glory, but each weekend from November to March, the town is full
of tourists who come to see the monarchs.
In the sanctuary, you will find a place to purchase
tickets and contract a local guide. The hike uphill is strenuous
and will take anywhere from two to three hours. You will likely
find dead monarchs on the ground before you spot the main colonies.
On overcast days the butterflies cling to oyamel trees. At times,
branches break under the weight of hundreds of thousands of butterflies.
The sight of butterflies blanketing the trees is beautiful
, but not as majestic as when they glide through the forest. When
the sun comes out and the temperature warms, the butterflies drop
from the trees to fly and drink nectar from flowers and dew collected
on the ground. In Spring, as the days get longer and the temperatures
rise, the monarchs begin their northward flight, deserting the forests
until the following autumn.
The best time to visit is between February and early
March, but the butterflies can be seen anytime after December. The
park receives a flood of visitors -- 150,000 to 250,000 each year.
To relieve the pressure on the park as well as to introduce economic
benefits to other communities, officials have opened additional
areas to the public, such as Chincua, also accessible from Angangueo.
If you go to El Rosario, travel during midweek when the human traffic
Toward the end of butterfly season, end of February,
early March, the towns of Angangueo, Ocampo, Zitácuaro and
others host a regional festival, with music, dance and recitals.
HISTORY OF TOURISM
The Central Mexican valleys where the monarch butterflies
winter were 'discovered' in 1974 when researchers traced the butterfly's
flight path from Canada.
The news made the covers of National Geographic and Scientific American,
which ran startling photographs of great trees veiled with thousands
of monarchs. Of course, local residents of Angangueo knew of the
monarchs, which at times would blanket the town. Now that the world
was clued in, the town of Angangueo would begin its own metamorphosis.
The park, one of Mexico's most prominent environmental
attractions, is also one of its least understood. It seems incredible
that few services exist for the eco traveler interested in conservation.
Worse, the tours that do exist are aimed at day-trippers who generally
pack their own lunches. In other words, the flood of tourists visiting
the park provides few economic benefits to the community. So if
you'd like to contribute to the conservation of the region, spend
a night or more.
Who visits? The vast majority of tourists are Mexican.
Foreign tourists account for less than five percent of total visitors.
LIFE CYCLE OF A MONARCH
Monarchs go through four separate life stages. They
begin as an egg, hatch as larva or caterpillar, become pupa (chrysalis),
and mature into adult butterflies. The eggs hatch in small batches
of five to ten, depending on the ambient temperature. The caterpillars
devour their eggshells and begin the quest for food, feeding exclusively
on the milkweed family. Each time they outgrow their exterior skin
(called a cuticle), they molt, eat the skin, and continue growing.
After four cycles of molting, they attach themselves to the underside
of a leaf and form a delicate and beautiful chrysalis. Inside the
chrysalis, a developing butterfly matures for several weeks. When
it's time to break loose, the insect pushes its legs downward, splits
the chrysalis and sets itself free. The newly hatched butterfly
pumps the fluid concentrated in its body into its wings, which then
harden, allowing it to fly.
The butterflies then begin a migration north to spend
their summers in Canada
and the United States.
They mate several times and live from two to six weeks.
Then, new, non-reproductive butterflies hatch. The reproductive
butterflies remain in the north, and the migratory ones head south,
averaging 150 to 200 kilometers (90 to 125 miles) a day. Their life
span is considerably longer-- 9 months longer-- than their
counterparts'. The trip takes 1/2 month, two if winds or rain slow
the butterflies' journey. This is considered one of the longest,
greatest migrations in the natural world.
Why the butterflies, several generations removed from
the ancestors that once wintered in the valley, migrate to the same
place is a mystery. It has been suggested that regional magnetism
stemming from nearby mountains (remember, this is a former mining
town) emits what in essence is a homing beacon for the monarchs.
NORTH AMERICAN BUG
In one of the most spectacular migrations in the world,
the butterflies migrate from forests in the United States and Canada
to this area of Central Mexico. Hence, they are considered a symbol
of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
They are also a symbol of a lackluster commitment
to the environment. While Mexico's 1986 presidential decree set
aside five protected areas, two have been mostly, or completely,
deforested. The other reserves are showing signs of stress due to
clandestine logging. As the reserve expanded from 45,000 acres to
more than 132,000 acres, the government has offered farmers who
live in extreme poverty few economic incentives to save the trees.
What's surprising about the lack of commitment is
that the reserve is located in the principal watershed supplying
water to two of the country's largest cities, Mexico
City and Guadalajara,
as well as Chapala
THREATS TO THE MONARCHS
In early 1997, an extended freeze killed many of the
wintering monarch butterflies. Initialreports of a 33-percent death
rate shocked the nation and the world, but the actual death rate,
according to scientists, was less than 7 percent, well within the
normal range of variability.
Ever-present threats to the monarchs include continued
destruction of forest habitats and environmental changes along their
migration paths throughout Mexico, the United States, and Canada.
Farmers in the United States and Canada have declared milkweed (the
plant that nourishes monarchs) a noxious weed and use herbicides
to control it, resulting in reduced availability of the butterflies'
major food source and place to lay their eggs. While the monarchs
may not be endangered now, their survival depends on the cooperation
of all three countries in North America.