Dec 24, 2016

Aerial Musical Chair in Cathedral of Trees

When you are born, you cry, and the world rejoices.
When you die, you rejoice, and the world cries.

Tibetan saying

Barely starting to move in the warming of the day
We had been on the road three long full days before finally arriving at our chosen destination, Cerro Pelon, where we hope to see the well-known Monarch Butterflies wintering from the colder climes of Canada and the USA.  Cerro Pelon is the least touristy and therefore most pristine of the sanctuaries, hence our choice to visit there.
Our host/guide Joel (by Turk Pipkin who was there a few days before us)
We arrived late Saturday not appreciating just how slow the last 110km (68.4m) would be to drive – two hours, twice as long as expected!  The traffic, the speed bumps, the potholes, the farm equipment, and the fact that we didn’t really know which roads to take in the mazes presented before us when crossing small towns, all led to a very slow drive.  Not that we were not warned, we were.  We also hadn’t accounted for time zone change adding another sneaky hour to our planned arrival!  But we made it before complete darkness, our main goal for any new destination.

We arrived too late to visit the small town where we stayed – it would have to wait for morning light but that is ok with us since we are tired.  A good night’s rest is what the doctor ordered.  Thankfully dinner is served next door; we don’t have to shop around for food nor come up with a menu. 

The room is very spacious – especially for Mexican standards.  Calla lilies wait in a sunny corner, cheering an already colorful place.  The king size bed is the largest we have ever seen (larger than a California King!).  Three thick layers of comforters cover it – it must get cold here at night but we will be cozy.  My eyes are particularly attracted to the dark red brick wall, each brick slightly different.  They look like they were made by hand, some display finger prints, others knuckle indentations, and perhaps a few show puppy toes thrown in for good measure.  I love that each brick has a human history rather than a mechanical one…

We quickly drift into dreamland cuddling tightly against the cold of night, hoping tomorrow’s weather will be clement enough for the butterflies to give us a stunning show.  We are ready to stay a second day if necessary.

Sunday starts with a bang, literally! 

Two cannon-like shots ring and echo down a web of small interconnected valleys below.  We are not sure what they mean.  Hunting season?  Someone with an odd sense of humor?  Last night’s party not quite finished?  We later learn that it was to let the villagers know it was time for the 7am mass…  No bell ringing here – just loud fireworks!  They surely got our attention! 
Tiny village church
We walk around town watching our breath dance in a slight breeze, trying to warm up and get acquainted with our surroundings before breakfast at 8am.  The air is fresh and crisp, something we hadn’t experienced for quite a while.  We are surrounded by firs, pines, avocados, mangos, and cedar trees.  Everything is bathed in heavy dew and the remains of last night’s torrential rain.  Inhale – so clean!  It was an unexpected rain, we have supposedly entered the dry season.  Even power and internet were surprised by the event and are on hiatus for several hours.  The sun is quickly warming and drying everything up, a good omen to see butterflies in action.

People from all directions are heading to church.  Good mornings, how-are-yous, and handshakes are shared.  A man pees against the church wall before entering.  A little incongruous to my upbringing but maybe natural here.  I almost shot a photo but it felt too invasive.  I will keep it to memory.

Macheros is a small village of about 300 people with 100 horses.  A little bigger than the one we visited near Puerto Vallarta (Juanacatlan) where there were more cows than horses and more horses than cars!  The elevation is about 2,400 meters (7,875 feet) and we are going to hike an additional 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) to reach the area where the butterflies are wintering.

As in Juanacatlan, the flatter land is reserved to crops.  Houses flank the hillsides.  A much smarter land use than US or Canada.  You are constantly walking up and down wherever you go.  It keeps the blood flowing.
Horses are very sweaty after their trek up the steep mountain side
A hearty breakfast awaits us before we hike the 4.5km (2.8 miles) to one of the overwintering Monarch Butterfly sites.  We forgo using horses.  After driving three solid days, the last thing we want to do is sit.  The guides say it takes about two hours to get up there, we manage a brisk 1 hour and 25 minutes up and 1 hour and 10 minutes down!  It feels good, it keeps us warm and invigorated.

Eventually we slow down and are asked to stay quiet. 


Some dead, some awaiting a tad more warmth before taking flight
As when you enter a cathedral, in awe, you walk slowly and look up.  It is very much the same here in a ‘cathedral’ of tall trees.  The main difference being that cathedrals are dark when you look up, here, the bright sky blinds you for a short while but eventually you start making out details. 

Silhouettes of non-descript trees become sacred firs (called oyamels here), pines, and others.  Slowly needles and branches start to appear, take shape.  Finally, the eyes focus on something never seen before = thousands upon thousands of Monarch Butterflies hanging somewhat upside down in the trees, protected by the branches and needles.  They are so tightly intertwined they seem to be part of the branches, a continuum of color from green to brown and orange.

Surrounded by dew and under the cover of oyamel branches and needles
Many are also on the ground, some just too cold to fly, others dead.  It is very hard to differentiate which is which so we tread lightly, even then, it is very difficult to avoid them all.

We finally stop at a cordoned off area, we cannot go further, we need to appreciate the splendor from here, as in a cathedral, seldom do we make it all the way to the altar.


SUN !
Guides and park rangers ensure we stay within the boundaries.  They seem very proud of what they are doing; educating, protecting, and hopefully helping the Monarch Butterfly population rebound.  It seems very precarious when about ½ way up, we see down-trees, illegally logged.  We are told seven have just been felled in the area, eventually they will be taken out of the forest by horses.  We have lived in logging areas (WA, OR, BC) and in none of these areas would these trees have been considered large or straight enough to mill.  It seems like such a waste, such short sightedness.

The rangers try to keep the thieves at bay but it is a very difficult battle on such a vast and difficult terrain.  We give them a few ideas of what is, at times, done in the US to protect from such destructive behaviors.  At the prospect of trying new things, their only concern was “Will it hurt the trees?”, “No it won’t” is our answer – we now know they truly care. 
Joel warming up a butterfly
Taking flight soon after
Back to our amazing experience…  Why do these butterflies come here from Canada and the US?  Not everything is known about that but some of the details are that this area holds a good temperature range for the butterflies.  Too hot and they use too much energy to cool down and stay hydrated.  Too cold and they die.  It is not too windy and the fog creates enough daily dew to satisfy their thirst. 

They also have access to nectar.  Of course, the large trees they hang from are part of the attraction.  Each butterfly weighs about 2gr (about 2 small paperclips).  One million butterflies on a tree and you have 5,000 pounds (2,267 kilos)!  Our host Joel, has seen a tree full of butterflies fall once.  Can you imagine what that would be like?


Some seem to be attached to each other’s as in a chain, some to branches, some to needles, some to trunks.  Lower lying weeds and soil are covered with the remainder.  These clutches help the butterflies stay a whole 2C (3.6F) warmer than the ambient temperature (butterfly ‘hives’?).  From a distance, they look somewhat like large brownish scalloped fish scales.  As the weather warms, brown turns to orange or drab to bright.  We start seeing the upper side of their wings rather than the underbellies.  They are opening their wings to the warmth and the sun.  Soon they may take flight. 
Just beginning to turn orange...
More warmth, more colors, soon they will take off flying
12.8C (55F) is thought to be the magic number when they take to the skies.  When we arrived in the early morning, it was too cold to see them fly so we were only able to see the numerous tight clutches surrounding the trees.  Little by little as the clouds and fog opened to blue sky and sunlight, more orange dotted the clutches.  Finally, the butterflies were either falling to the ground or taking to the skies in abundance.  What a sight.

And a sound…  just like gentle rain drops.  The beating of so many tiny wings. 
Add caption
Please follow this link to a video for footage by Turk Pipkin of the butterflies.  He had a special permit to film them.

They look a little like small bats fluttering around at dusk, eating insects.  Some seem very coordinated, others still tentative.  They haven’t warmed enough yet.  Soon, the sky is overtaken…  It seems to go in bursts, not sure what makes some go, some stay.  It looks like an aerial musical chair except that in this case, there are always enough chairs for everyone.
The rangers don’t have to remind us to be silent.  The spectacle we are witness of leaves us speechless.  Watch, be inspired, and humbled.
Asleep or another casualty of a long trip or cold?
More and more people start to arrive.  Time for us to give them space and head back down.  We lucked out, blue skies finally showing up to awaken the butterflies just before our departure.  As we descend it starts raining, ending today’s butterfly dance for the people still trekking up the steep slope to see them.  Our timing was perfect.

We thank and pay our guide Martin.  He is 71 and fit as a fiddle – he keeps up with us all the way up, uses the horse on his way down.  Although we did not use horses to go up, he put our backpacks on a horse, lightening our load, hence the good time we made up the hill.  As in many other places we have visited in Mexico, guides are on a rotating list.  Here, there are 40 guides, you get to work every 40th time, when your name comes up.  It seems a fair way to share the tourism money coming to town.
So wet all around.

A few tidbits:

  • Last year there were about 50-55 trees (21% of the butterfly population here in Cerro Pelon, one of four butterfly preserves) covered with butterflies.  This year between 80 and 85, a great increase!
  • Males have two black dots (scent glands) in their lower wing quadrants.
  • Females do not have black dots but have thicker wings.
  • More males show up than females. 
  • Females can mate with many males.
  • No one knows why this particular group of Monarch Butterflies lives 9 months to come overwinter then mate here. All others only live 3-5 weeks. 
  • They mate in February and March for 6-8 hours, remaining attached for 30-60 minutes with each partner.
  • During mating, males do not only pass sperms but also nutrients to the female to help her make the long journey back.
  • The Monarch population covers about 4.01 (9.91 acres) hectares in Mexico. In the past, numbers have been as high as 18 hectares (44.5 acres), but on average about 6 hectares (14.8 acres).
  • This year (2016) the average population of Monarchs is estimated at 200 million. Historically, on average there are 300 million Monarchs.
  • Monarchs obtain moisture and minerals from damp soil and wet gravel, a behavior known as mud-puddling.
  • They can travel up to 8,000km (4,970 miles) per year!  At an average of 250-265 miles/day…
  • It can flap its wings up to 120/times per minute when needing to speed up to avoid a predator.
  • When the Monarch Butterfly is two weeks old, it weighs 3,000 times as much as it did when it was born.
  • Its wing span ranges from 8.9-10.2cm (3½ - 4 in).
  • Monarch Butterflies were sent to the space station in November 2009.  The astronauts said:  "It's always beautiful to see a little bit of Earth up here." when the first butterflies emerged from their pupa.
  • After emerging from the pupa, the Monarch Butterfly must pump fluid into its wings and wait for them to harden before it can fly.
  • It is believed that Monarch Butterflies use the magnetic field of the earth and the position of the sun to find its way.
  • They are one of the few insects capable of making trans-Atlantic crossings.
  • The highest Monarch was recorded at 3,350 meters (11,000 feet) by a glider pilot
  • They smell with their antennas, use their eyes to locate flowers and taste with the bottom of their feet.  These special receptors are called tarsi.
  • They only ingest liquids!


At the end of the day, 7-9-year-old kids bring back horses that were used to bring tourists up the mountain.  It’s part of life here for them (not sure if they do that too on school days?).  One kid tries to show off a little not managing his mount appropriately and he is quickly reprimanded.  If you want to keep that privilege, you act appropriately so as not endanger you, others or the horse. 
The kids all play outdoors until dark, laughter and squeals resonating off the fencing around the church.  None seem to be glued to computer or TV screens. 
Back to our room we overlook the beautiful small sleepy village of Maderas where they also farm trout which we have for dinner before we leave early the next morning.  It is so fresh and delicious.  I ask about the ‘milpas’ (corn fields) below and I am told they are disappearing.  There is not enough money in growing corn so they are being turned into avocado orchards.  Everything here is still mostly grown and gathered by hand, the sugar, the corn, the fruits, and vegetables.  Fields are covered with stacks of corn, something we no longer see at home.
Mother nature is so full of surprises.  We were extremely lucky to see another one of her miracle.
Our car next to the home of our hosts

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