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On the Wings of a Butterfly

Dec. 18, 2022

by Ms. Dale Brous

I did it! I actually did it!! This gray-haired old lady, not in the greatest physical condition, rode a horse for the very first time, and up that steep, boulder-strewn mountain creek bed; all to see the migrating Monarch Butterflies in Michoacan.

According to popular Mexican belief, on Nov. 2nd of each year, the wings of the butterfly carry the spirits of their dead to the Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration. After learning of their 1975 discovery in the cloud-smothered Sierra Madre mountains by the Canadian zoologist Fred Urquhart, I have dreamt of this experience.

This massive movement of butterflies is considered one of the most spectacular natural phenomena in the world. Unlike the salmon, who return to their same spawning grounds, these butterflies are the great-great grandchildren of their ancestors who spent the previous winter in the very same area of Michoacan. Each autumn, as the weather cools, these butterflies begin their virgin 2800-mile journey back to where it all started.

By car from San Miguel, this area, Zitacuaro, is about 3.5 hours. We had reserved rooms at the fashionable hacienda, Rancho San Cayetano, where I had a great meal, prepared by a French chef, and spent a very pleasant evening in front of the warm stone fireplace, gossiping with the other guests.

Next morning, I considered taking the easier route in the back of a truck with several other tourists to the well-known UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. Feeling braver than smart, I chose instead the more difficult Cerro Pelon Sanctuary. I wanted a more personal experience in the remote and almost inaccessible 10,000-foot elevation with those secretive fairy-tale creatures.

We rented sway-back horses and hired young guides for the up-hill trek to the reserve. My scrawny horse must have been over ten feet tall because it looked a dangerously long way down from where I precariously perched. My friends had no problem, but my sweaty hands had blisters upon blisters from grasping the horse for dear life. The other nearby spots, the Sierra Chincua Sanctuary and the more commercial/tourist friendly Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve do have easier trails.

I was thinking that perhaps I should have tried one of those other trails, until I was greeted at the top by millions upon millions of frolicking butterflies dancing in the soft mountain air. Many others were still stacked one on top of the other; hanging like sheets out to dry, smothering the fir trees in their orange and black finery. The constant motion of the fluttering wings reverberated around the forest clearing and the piney warm scent filled my nostrils. Occasionally a limb might break from the sheer weight of the butterflies; yet they felt as light as a whisper on my arm.

That night my diary said it best: "Oh my dear God…I hurt so bad. I never knew I could feel so much pain; even after that long, steamy-hot shower. And now as I lie in my bed, with the covers pulled up tight, I am too exhausted and sore to maneuver the short distance to the restaurant. The idea of sitting on a hard, wooden chair does not sound exciting. Not like the excitement I have had today. But you know what? ...I'm still smiling!"

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In an area where nice hotels are limited, the Rancho San Cayetano is incredible. Located on 12 park-like acres, the Mexican-styled hacienda and cottages are made of rough stone walls and old beamed ceilings. There is a massive wood-burning fireplace, private historical chapel, lots of hiking and a large swimming pool. It's one of my favorite places to stay in Mexico, a real rarity. I highly recommend it to anyone. If the French chef isn't still there, I feel confident that someone quite good has taken her place.

Rancho San Cayetano

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Dale Brous has been sharing adventures with her husband throughout their 54 year marriage: "Together we spent our lives seeking new diversions, new discoveries and new destinations. We have been fortunate to live in some of the most beautiful areas of the world, including: Orcas Island and Maui. We lovingly restored a 400 year-old stone cottage in a remote village on Corfu (another UNESCO World Heritage site)." She and her husband moved to San Miguel several years ago, "I hesitate to say how many as we have not yet learned their lovely Spanish."

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