Next stop, Michoacán: A very lovely state in Western Mexico with its southern border on the Pacific. Early in our travel research, I learned about Michoacán as I discovered the Mariposa Monarcha, or Monarch Butterfly Colony, which returns to this same very special place every winter- a natural phenomena high on my list of things to see. Its capital city, Morelia, was also highly reccommended to us for its well-preserved colonial architecture and unique folkart traditions, like the skeleton "sugar skull" iconography associated with Dia de los Muertos- the Day of the Dead.
Fresh berries from a roadside vendor. I dare say these were the sweetest strawberries I have ever tasted! And they came with this cute basket too.
Bliss! And beautiful views spanning the horizon!
We opted to spend a week outside of a very small and tranquil village called Cuitzeo, one of the pueblos magicos, rather than look for camping in the capital city. Here we found a remote campground overlooking a serene mineral lake, surrounded with nearby hot springs and diverse populations of long-legged water birds. The proprietor, Arturo, was an excellent host, giving us personal tours and sharing with us a lot of his personal insights about Mexico, Michoacán and the quaint village of Cuitzeo, a town where not much has changed in the past decades, where food is grown, and fish are caught, and life is simple and slow, yet rich and full of sincerity.
We (Mark) enjoyed watching the sun rise (Victoria almost never sees the sun rise) and set over the lake, sharing meals with other travelers, and here, we celebrated our wedding anniversary (woohoo, three years!) on the night of the wolf moon, in a setting very reminiscent of the day we were married- simple and sweet with new friends from the world over traveling in a distant land.
Indeed, time moves very slow here. Especially if you are driving behind the herd.
One day, we decided to take the bus into the city of Morelia to do some sight-seeing. Jojo loves public transportation. Buses, collectivos, rick shaw rides... anything with wheels and an engine, this kid goes nuts! What fun!
An amazing city indeed! The architecture is incredible. Everything made of brick and stone, all muted colors, a very old and serious, sophisticated elegance juxtaposed with the artsy, young, even a bit radical culture, which is home to many students. Everywhere you go, you see people carrying instruments and eisles, posters advertising concerts and workshops, open galleries, and weekly manifestacions (student-led protests) which interrupt street traffic.
We walked around the city in our typical fashion, hitting the main plazas, taking turns herding our toddler and, of course, tasting things along the way.
We discovered some delightful new street foods: Gazbacho. Not to be confused with the Gazpacho de Espanola. This is one of those Mexico originals: a combination of pineapple, mango, jicama, and onion, swimming in fresh squeezed mandarin juice, topped with cheese and a drizzle of hot sauce. Sounds weird and it is. But strangely delicious. And it really does taste like gazpacho.
This raw jicama wedge Marco is feasting on is another fabulous little treat, with fresh lime squeezed over the top, sea salt, hot sauce, cotija, and tejin (dried chili) sprinkles- making an interestingly crunchy, somewhat healthy, snack.
Personally, I am a huge supporter of putting hot sauce on fruit. I resisted it for as long as I could! But alas, I have succumbed. Here, all food is just a delivery system for more hot sauce. Amo Mexico!
One afternoon, we departed our cozy spot in Cuitzeo to make the drive to the chilly, high-elevation mountains of the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. I had no idea what I was in for! What a jaw-dropping surpise- these mountains are truly magical. Located in what is called the Trans-Mexican-Volcanic-Belt Pine-Oak forest (is that a mouthful or what?), these peaks are some of the highest in all of Mexico. The panoramic views from the top were awe-inspiring.
We were so excited to see the butterflies! The hike to the top is long and steep, so we decided we had better catch some dream time and turn in early. We were able to camp overnight in the parking lot so that we could wake with the sunrise for the morning trek.
The next day we awoke to the smell of the wood-fired stoves already preparing breakfast for the myriad of tour busses and collectivos arriving in the parking lot. Roosters were crowing and cows were mooing in harmony. Women in the traditional indigenous-style skirts and floral aprons were climbing the steep mountainside with jugs of water and heavy pots and pans. Young women were selling over-flowing cups of blackberries and strawberries. There were textiles with butterfly patterns on display, and hand-crocheted hats and scarves for sale. Children were handing out walking sticks to hikers on the trail.
We were a little bit concerned about the hike, having been told it was very steep, and not knowing if it would be too much for Joey, being that he is only two-and-a-half (almost). There was an option to rent a horse, but we decided against it, figuring that we could always carry him if necessary. Most of the way, there were cement steps leading to the top, with a handrail, so it looked doable, at least for Mark and me. Someone told us it was around 650 steps to the top. Hmmm... that sounds like a lot for my little one. Well, let's give it a try.
Up, up, and away. The hike was easier than anticipated and surprisingly, Joey made it the whole way up without any problems! He must have been pretty excited to see the butterflies we kept telling him about! Interestingly, there are almost no butterflies in sight during the hike. I think we counted like 3. Once at the top, we all rested for a few minutes. I could tell he was very proud of himself- he even asked me to take his picture!
What awaited us beyond was nothing short of pure magic! One of the most whimsical, pure, playful experiences to behold! As we got closer to the colony, more and more butterflies appeared.
Mark took some nice shots.
We had to be very quiet as we appraoched the colonies. As we got closer, we could make out millions, literally millions, of butterflies all fluttering on the branches of a tight circle of trees, all together, as if they were leaves shivering in the breeze. It was miraculous!
These unbelievable butterflies migrate thousands of miles every year from all over Canada and the USA to come right here. What an incredible feat for such a tiny, tiny being. And yet, in the past 15 years, along with the honey bees and many other animal species on earth, the butterfly populations are also threatened. Only about half of the colonies (there were once 12) return every winter. Life is precious. We are all connected in a delicate balance.
And yet, the butterfly spirit is all about embracing transformation, moving through the cycles of life, renewal, and re-birth. Witnessing this tremendous splendor of nature was such a profoundly memorable experience. We are all very grateful to have been able to see this in our lifetime.
We hope to return one day to spend more time in Michoacán.