Mexico: Las mariposas Monarcas de Mexico (butterflies!)

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The annual Monarch butterfly migration is something I’ve admired on various nature TV programmes over the years so when Dean told me we could go and see it I was super excited! Each year, millions of butterflies journey more than 2,500 miles, escaping the Canadian winter in favour of the forests of Mexico. They arrive in late October, bunching together on the evergreen and oak branches in their thousands to conserve heat and survive the cold nights. By February they’re beginning to mate and at the end of March the females start their long journey back north to lay their eggs. It takes four generations to complete the cycle.

Here are some diagrams for all you visual learners:

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Getting to the highlands was a bit of a mission. We’ve spent our first Mexican days in Michoacan state (if you’ve been following the news, that’s where they shot a drug lord on Sunday but it was a few hundred km from us). Our first destinations were Morelia and Patzcuaro where we wandered around the historical old town areas. They felt quite Spanish with their cobbled streets, white washed buildings and grand churches dominating their central plazas.

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(Above is a Morelia street followed by an Angangueo street; below are photographs from Patzcuaro.)

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(Morelia church.)

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(Above is Patzcuaro’s library and Angangueo’s church; below is part of a huge retired bell from Patzcuaro’s church and the little metal representations of boday parts which locals leave at the church with their prayers.)

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From Patzcuaro, we travelled across the pine tree covered countryside for about 7.5 hours (colectivo (local minibus), bus, another bus and another bus) to get to Angangueo. Here we stayed the night then rose early, walked uphill (completely unprepared for the extreme cold) into the colourful village centre, and rode the rickety yellow school bus for 45 minutes high up into the mountains. We paid our entry fee (about £2) and were assigned a ‘guide’ who led us on an extremely steep 30 minute walk up through the reserve. The altitude (10,000 feet) meant this was hard going but at least it warmed us up! Another option was to ride a horse up!

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This was what we saw first:

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As the sun began to break through the trees, what had looked like clusters of dead leaves, sleepily opened their wings, flashing vibrant orange, and gradually began to take flight.

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We were there a few hours, split between three different areas, but were prevented by ropes from approaching the actual trees. The warmer it got, the more active the butterflies became, carpeting the ground, decorating branches like leaves and flitting from flower to flower.

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Every now and again a gust of wind blew through the tree tops causing the butterflies to simultaneously take to the sky.

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It was an amazing feeling to walk through a small clearing, making hundreds of the creatures take flight and flutter around you. Comparing our photographs to those online, I think it’s safe to say we didn’t see them at their most active/numerous, but it was still a magical once in a lifetime spectacle.

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Now we’ve moved east to the city of Oaxaca (pronounced something like wa-ha-ka). More marvellous Mexico next time.

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