How to Find Magic in Mexico (Hint: It Involves Butterflies)

Share

From November to March, the oyamel fir forests near Valle de Bravo in central Mexico are a seasonal sanctuary for millions of migratory monarchs.

Every autumn, an incredible journey begins. The brisk northern wind tells tens of millions of monarch butterflies that it’s time to leave their feeding grounds in southern Ontario and Quebec, and the northeast U.S. The delicate insects follow the sun, tracing their way down North America. And then they funnel into Texas, bursting across the Hill Country and over Mexico’s Sierra Madre Oriental range, to land for the winter in the country’s lush oyamel fir forests. On wings made from scales as thin as tissue paper and softer than a scrap of silk, they fly nearly 5,000 kilometres – one of the longest migrations in the insect world. With only a sensory map to guide them, they arrive in this place they’ve never been and will never be again.

Their destination is the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in central Mexico, which spans 56,259 hectares across the states of Michoacán and Mexico. Here, oyamel fir trees create a protective microclimate for the monarchs (mariposas monarcas in Spanish), the canopy acting as a blanket so the temperature doesn’t rise too high or drop too low. Much of the reserve – a protected area since 1986 and UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008 – is closed to the public for conservation. But six sanctuaries, three in each state, give monarch chasers a window into this wondrous journey.

It’s an hour past sunrise, and I’m in a van heading out of Valle de Bravo, a resort town on the shores of Lake Avándaro, two hours west of Mexico City. Both Mexican and international tourists flock here for its paragliding, waterfall hikes, colonial architecture and the large swath of North America’s eastern population of monarchs that overwinters in the Piedra Herrada Sanctuary, just 45 minutes east. We wind our way through verdant forest, past houses tucked into the green mountains high above the lake. Cascades of purple and orange flowered vines tumble from curled iron gates. In the dust from the road and the morning sun, everything seems to glow and even the leaves on some of the trees look like butterfly wings in the right light.

November 27, 2020
An illustration of a roost of monarch butterflies at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in central Mexico

At Piedra Herrada, I climb onto a chestnut horse named Slipia. Some travellers choose to hike, but at an elevation of more than 3,000 metres, my lungs are grateful to my mount for taking me part of the way. Eusebio Domínguez, who has worked as a guide at the reserve for more than 20 years, takes Slipia’s rope in his wizened hands and leads our group into the forest, along a stone path lined with pine and fir trees so tall I can’t see their tops. The sanctuary is quiet this morning. It’s been closed for the last two weeks because of weather – monarchs can’t fly with wet wings, so the early November rain means the mariposas’ arrival is delayed. We climb higher, and the stands of trees begin to thin. After half an hour, Domínguez guides Slipia to a halt and I dismount. We’ve nearly entered the quiet zone of the sanctuary, where light chatter gives way to silence, necessary so the monarchs aren’t disturbed. We walk the rest of the way, a half‑hour hike up a steep, rocky trail. As the ground beneath our feet levels out, springy from cascades of needles, the air feels cool against my face. I scan the branches of the nearby trees, unable to tell if I’m seeing clusters of leaves or insects crowding for warmth. And then, suddenly, a slight flicker of orange, a pair of soft wings opening for the briefest moment and then closing tight again. There are bends in the branches near where the monarch unfurled, butterflies huddled by the hundreds high in the treetops. In the streams of sunlight above the canopy, some of them are warm enough now to leave their resting spots. As my eyes track upward, they are specks of orange twirling against the sky.

There are legends about the butterflies, like there are for so many of nature’s enduring mysteries. To some Mexicans, they represent the souls of the dead, come to offer solace to the living  – their arrival coincides with Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, at the beginning of November. Like other wonders in the natural world, the mariposas are also at risk, as climate change disrupts their migration season and milkweed, a primary food source, disappears from their migratory corridors. While the forests here are protected by the Mexican government, it doesn’t stop illegal logging, and the flutters of hibernating butterflies have dwindled in number from a billion to just 93 million over the last 20 years. Still, Domínguez says he’s seeing more and more monarchs return, thanks to conservation efforts, like milkweed planting, across North America.

As we wander away, back to Slipia, I catch a glimpse of a flutter, two monarchs playfully hiding‑and‑seeking among the firs, and I am struck by the science of their movements, the way they look like chaos as they carefully catch the breeze. We live in a world where millions of butterflies can dance their way down a continent, and I realize just then that magic isn’t something we need to go looking for. It’s already here.

Make sure to review government entry requirements prior to travel.

Valle de Bravo

An illustration of clocktowers in Valle de Bravo, Mexico

This lakeside town of 65,000 residents has long been the place where Mexico City’s elite come to play on Lake Avándaro – on yachts, sailboats, water skis and floating restaurants. In the city, trendy bars and modern hotels contrast with the preserved colonial architecture and windy cobblestone streets. Spend a day strolling them and you’ll pass art galleries, espresso bars and the Mercado des Artesanías, an enormous building that sells wares, like woven pine‑needle baskets, brightly coloured rugs and wood furniture, from artisans across the country. The San Francisco de Asís cathedral towers above town and, next to it, street vendors line the Plaza de la Independencia selling delicious esquites (roasted corn with queso fresco, chili powder and lime). Despite its increasing gentrification, the town square still fills each night with children carrying balloons, friends drinking micheladas – a spicy cerveza – and abuelas (grandmothers) shooting the breeze.

The outdoor pool at La Casa Rodavento at dusk
Photo: La Casa Rodavento

Stay

  • La Casa Rodavento —

    Originally a family residence built in the early 20th century, this stunning villa was restored and converted into a seven‑suite hotel by a trio of architects in 2017. The opportunities for relaxation are endless: soak in the rooftop hot tub, swing in the hanging nesting chairs, lounge by the courtyard pool surrounded by greenery or simply linger in your king‑size bed and marble bathroom. While those are guaranteed in every room, each has its own unique features: Suite 4 has an outdoor shower; Suite 2 spans two storeys and opens up to a private courtyard; and Suite 3 is built right around the property’s oldest tree – you can’t go wrong.

La Michoacana's specialty salsa topped with lettuce and radishes
Photo: Restaurante La Michoacana

Dine

  • La Michoacana —

    Come for the vegetarian quesadillas, fried maguey worms and mango margaritas, stay for the sprawling view of terra cotta rooftops and glistening Lake Avándaro. This traditional Mexican spot is tucked just a few steps away from the town’s central plaza; the terrace sits under string lights and indoors, a live piano player complements your meal. Order the impossibly tender steak topped with the restaurant’s specialty salsa, paired with a craft beer from the local selection.

Three cocktails from La Mezca de Valle lined up in a row at the bar
Photo: La Mezca de Valle

Drink

  • La Mezca de Valle —

    Follow the twinkling lights up a stone staircase, complete with hanging vines, and you’ll arrive at the coolest mezcal bar in Valle. Locals and tourists alike come here for the 20+ varieties, along with beer, cocktails, snacks and bohemian vibes (clusters of candles and Día de los Muertos skeletons, included). The covered patio is a perfect spot for a chill after‑dinner drink, while inside is the place for live music and mingling.

Paragliding over Valle de Bravo with Alas del Hombre
Photo: Alas del Hombre

Do

  • Alas del Hombre —

    Make like a monarch and fly: Valle de Bravo is one of the world’s most popular paragliding destinations, thanks to a moderate climate that offers up to 300 flying days a year. Fly tandem with one of Alas del Hombre’s seasoned instructors or, if you’re feeling extra adventurous, sign up for one of the intensive flight‑school courses.