Mexico butterfly country: Monarchs by the million
By MARJORIE MILLER March 1, 2013 5:28PM
Samantha Goldberger shows off her engagement ring next to a Monarch butterfly soon after Jason Skipton proposed to her at El Capulin reserve, near Zitacuaro, Mexico. | AP photo
He found the love of his life 2,000 miles from home in a chance encounter that gave him butterflies, and she moved west to be with him. So of course, Jason Skipton told me, there could be no better place to propose marriage than in a swirl of orange and black butterflies that had migrated thousands of miles to mate.
When Samantha Goldberger set up her camera and darted to Skipton’s side for a Valentine’s Day picture, he dropped to one knee and asked for her hand.
“This place is like a miracle. And it is a miraculous thing that took place with us,” Skipton said. “No one knows why the monarchs travel so far, or come here to find each other. It is inexplicable.”
Indeed, every year, millions of monarchs migrate from the eastern United States and Canada to central Mexico, a journey of 2,000 miles and more into a wooded land under attack by loggers in a region bloodied by drug traffickers. The tiger-striped butterflies arrive in late October and early November to hibernate in fir trees, clinging together like great clusters of fall leaves. Come February, they start to awaken in the warm sun, turn glittering somersaults in search of their mates, and begin to couple.
I had long wanted to see this magical sight, and to hear the delicate music the butterflies make with the fluttering of their wings. As I boarded the bus from Mexico City to Michoacan with my husband and a friend, I wondered what tourists we might encounter in a place both beautiful and beastly. Who had the appetite for travel to central Mexico after the U.S. government warned against non-essential travel to most of the state of Michoacan, where we were headed?
There didn’t appear to be other foreigners making the bus trip, a two-hour ride out the Toluca highway and along winding country roads.
Our hosts and hoteliers, Pablo and Lisette Span, had told us to buy a ticket at the taxi stand in the Zitacuaro bus station for the 10-minute ride to their Rancho San Cayetano. We did, arriving safe and sound.
Pablo Span tried to set us straight on the violence in Michoacan.
“Around the world, Mexico is synonymous with violence. But the violence is between the cartels fighting each other over territory, or between the cartels and the police and military. It’s not against us. Not a single national or foreign tourist has died in the violence,” he said.
We opted to go to the reserve closest to San Cayetano called El Capulin, which is technically across the border from Michoacan in the state of Mexico. It is about half an hour’s car ride from the hotel to the stables, where we rented some pretty scrawny horses and hired guides for the 1½-hour trek uphill to the reserve at a place called Cerro Pelon. It was a rocky, dusty trip and there apparently are easier trails to the Sierra Chincua and the larger El Rosario sanctuaries in Michoacan, but it was well worth the saddle pain.
Most monarchs live only four or five weeks, but the generations that make the long migratory journey to Mexico live four or five months. They breed, the females lay their eggs on the road north, and die along with the males. Then, a year and five butterfly generations later, their descendants rely on some kind of instinctive GPS system to migrate south again, returning to exactly the same forest in central Mexico.
Experts say the numbers of monarchs have been dwindling in recent years thanks to logging, insecticide use and other environmental pressures. We encountered a team of scientists from the World Wildlife Fund of Mexico and the Universities of Georgia and Wisconsin testing butterflies for parasites that attach themselves to the wings like excess baggage and drag the insects down. They found the ophryocystis elektroscirrha parasites on about 10 percent of the butterflies, which only weigh about a half-gram to begin with.
And yet, there are millions of them, flying, diving, sucking nectar from yellow and purple wildflowers, and seeking, like Skipton and Goldberger, the mates of their lives.
Recalling his romantic proposal, Goldberger said she remembers running to Skipton for the picture when “all of the sudden he was down on one knee.” It took her a moment to realize what was happening. “It was incredible,” she said.
And what did she respond?