Just over a year ago, after heeding the sage advice of the great American novel “1,000 Places to See Before You Die”, my brother and I found ourselves high in the mountains of central Mexico, hiking through an ancient pine forest on the outskirts of a town called Angangueo, population just over 10,000. The town is small, quiet, in the middle of nowhere, and somehow charming, in a colorful, but dusty kind of way. Despite its obscurity and remoteness, it harbors one of the most fascinating, mysterious, and beautiful natural phenomena in the world. Within the forests surrounding the town are the main overwintering sites of the Monarch Butterfly, where a large portion of North America’s Monarch population comes to spend the winter months, roosting by the millions in the massive pine trees within the El Rosario Butterfly Preserve.
Whenever I reveal the purpose of my Mexican excursion, to see these overwintering sites, the reaction is generally a baffled “But…Why?” Yes, this may seem like the kind of trip only an entomologist or true nature-nerd could enjoy, but I can promise you that is not the case. Rather, seeing these butterflies in their innumerous masses was one of the most surreal, incredible, and awe-inspiring sights I have ever seen, or ever will see, and I’m willing to bet that would go for just about anyone who laid eyes on them, regardless of interests, background, age, whatever.
Although the forest itself is beautiful, the trek along the winding dirt paths between the towering trees began with disappointment. After a difficult trip just to get to the preserve, we had walked for what seemed like miles without seeing a single butterfly. However, finally, we stumbled across a bittersweet sign of hope laying dead in the path in front of us, a single Monarch Butterfly. Spirits suddenly lifted, we pressed onwards, only to find another dead Monarch, then two more, then ten more, then hundreds more. Suddenly, we saw them, gathered in huge, brown, motionless masses, clinging to the trees so densely you couldn’t see the bark or the pine needles, their numbers so great they bent and even snapped branches as thick as my arm. It reminded me of the way snow bends and breaks tree limbs after a huge snow storm.
As the morning sun began to break through the trees and fall upon the roosting masses, the Monarchs, one by one, opened their wings to the warmth, until, eventually, the tree branches had erupted into bright orange, pulsating carpets of butterflies. They enveloped the trees, filled the sky, and covered the ground. They ran into our faces and landed on our hands. Their numbers were so vast, we could even hear their delicate wings beating all around us. It was truly indescribable, an experience I will never forget for as long as I live. I really can’t do it justice here.
Unfortunately, this natural miracle is considered what is known as an endangered phenomenon, because the trees in the El Rosario Butterfly Preserve and surrounding areas are threatened by illegal logging. Angangueo is a town stricken with poverty and, for some residents, logging is the only means of satisfactory income. Thanks to the establishment of a preserve, logging is also illegal, but it hasn’t stopped the loggers who, willing to do whatever it takes to support their families, do most of their work at night and are frequently armed. Even though government-appointed guards patrol the forests with guns and bulletproof vests, protecting the trees has become a dangerous and difficult business.
Fortunately, we don’t need to don vigilante masks and stalk the Mexican forests for gun-toting tree poachers in order to help save the Monarch migration. How do we help? Go see it!Tourism can be a major source of income for the residents of Angangeuo, and the more money we can pump into the town through tourism, the less the residents will have to depend on logging, and the more they will make an effort to protect the Monarchs on their own. If you go, you’ll not only help preserve the migration, you’ll also get to see one of the most incredible things you’ll ever see in your life. It’s freaking awesome, I promise you.
If you do eventually make your way to the butterflies, however, be sure to stay on the designated paths to reduce habitat wear and tear.