I gaze in wonder at the child in front of me, his back straight, moving instinctively as his sure-footed pony carries him up the steep mountain pass. Who is that? Surely not my little city-boy?
“Primera vez!” I answer when I’m asked how long he has been riding. It is his first time on a horse, but he looks like he was born in the saddle. I was so sure he would be scared, terrified he would fall, but I have underestimated him (again) and he has taught me (yet another) lesson.
The horses carry us confidently upwards along a precipitous, stony path in the thickly wooded Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. Their seasoned handlers stride effortlessly alongside them. Two human legs keeping pace with four equine ones seems impossible, especially at 3000m of altitude, but these mountain men make it look like a Sunday stroll.
Somewhere ahead of us is a patch of forest where a holy trinity of altitude, climate and flora align, making conditions perfect for one of earth’s greatest spectacles. We are in the Cerro Pelon reserve; the overwintering ground for Dannus plexippus, AKA mariposa monarcha, AKA the Monarch Butterfly. Each year, these frail and delicate creatures, each weighing less than a paperclip, perform an incredible feat of endurance and fly as far as 4000km, mysteriously navigating their way to a place that their ancestors left five or six generations before.
This phenomenon is inexplicable. No, truly. Really clever people still don’t know how they do it. It’s incomprehensible, it’s awe inspiring, it’s magical and it’s absolutely spectacular.
In the chill of the morning they cloak the trees. Oyamel Firs appear transformed into giant candles, dripping with the ‘wax’ of a million butterflies.
As we ascend, the sun’s winter rays begin to warm the valley. I catch a first glimpse of golden wings, pumping erratically to flit across the path unharmed by hooves. Thomas sees it too, and another, and another. “I’ve seen three!” He calls from his mount. We slip off our horses and continue on foot. A visiting official has recently roped off an area keeping us well back from the roost trees, but the butterflies know of no such impediment and bounce over the rope to greet us. “Seventeen, eighteen.” Thomas is still counting and I laugh at the implausibility of his pursuit.
We reach the limit of the cordon and a silence falls over us. Butterflies, set in motion by the warmth of the mid-day sun, are beginning to leave their dense roosts in search of sustenance. At first there are 10’s, then 20’s, but soon 100’s and 1000’s of butterflies fill the air in delicate swarms. They bounce drunkenly in the breeze, stopping momentarily to alight on flowers and sip at nectar. They rain like confetti from the sky and carpet moist patches of earth.
It is a wonder, a miracle. I watch a big, tough Mexican in a 10 gallon hat stop dead in his tracks, mouth agape at the sight. Thomas too, is in awe but soon becomes preoccupied. He has found a stick and is desperately willing a co-operative butterfly to land on it long enough to be closely examined. He has definitely stopped counting! Me? I cannot wipe the smile off my face.
The experience of being surrounded by thousands of butterflies is impossible to describe in words, and my photos don’t do it justice. I encourage you to spend a couple of minutes and watch the video. Click on ‘HD’ if you can spare the bandwidth. It’s better.
Completely inadequate photos follow.
Disclaimer: All photos and videos were taken by me, but some of the pictures you see here are from a previous trip I made, when it was possible to get closer to roosting butterflies.