Monarch Butterflies, Mexico

Liz Duncan travelled on our 'Mexico's Monarchs, Humpbacks and Birds' holiday and submitted this entry to our writing competition.

Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve

Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve

We set out from our hotel, which was half way down a Mexican canyon, to climb the 7,000 feet up to the Rosario reserve where wintering Monarch butterflies congregate en masse every winter. The reserves are at 11,000 feet, so it was two hours of continual UP. Firstly in our van, then sitting on the back of a truck, then onto a horse, and finally a short walk on foot. The day was perfect: sunny and warm, even at that altitude. It meant that the Monarchs would be flying!

Butterfly people are generally an amiable bunch, being somewhat less driven than birders. So we were in good spirits, the variables of weather and timing were positive, and we were determined to get there, one way or another. We ranged in age and fitness, so there was a bit of slightly nervous banter, especially concerning the horseback riding. At 11,000 feet altitude can be an issue, and we had no time to acclimatise, so even those who would rather have walked were taking the advice to ride up the steep track. It also offers the local community an opportunity to take visitors up. Several of the group had never been on a horse, but what distinguishes people on a Naturetrek holiday is that they really want to see the wildlife and they will do what it takes.

We saw the first Monarchs as we drove through the villages on the way up, just one or two, a flash or orange and black, beside the gaudy displays of purple and white bougainvillaea. They are big butterflies, bigger than any British butterfly, and strong, pulsing fliers. And then, as we bumped up the track on the truck, there were more, already more numerous than any other butterflies we have seen anywhere. We know that there is something special ahead, one of the greatest wildlife spectacles anywhere … but we can’t help thinking about those horses!

Our guide is smart. He knows not to give us time for second thoughts, so we are hustled straight to where the horses await, allocated our nags according to weight and height, and with a quick slap to the hindquarters, we shoot up the steep, stony track, each horse following the one in front. Thankfully, they seem to want the experience to be over as quickly as possible too. Clinging on, we enter the pine forest. The butterflies are now around us and beside us, fluttering effortlessly, apparently aimlessly. It had felt like a gallop up, but technically, it was much nearer a slow trot, and with aching buttocks after half an hour we dismount with varying degrees of indignity and relief. Momentary discomfort was rewarded by clouds of Monarchs everywhere, and once our eyes acclimatised to the bright sunlight and shade, we could see that the trees were dripping resting Monarchs, in long strands like orange and black garlands. On the ground they rested, puddling, drinking at damp spots, or along a trickle of water.

We gradually settled in to the experience, trying to capture the phenomenon that is millions of butterflies, silently flying, resting, drinking, nectaring and also dying all round us and at our feet, in the air, on the trees and on the ground, everywhere. A quiet descends on the group. Around us are the local villagers who stay and protect the Monarchs, sitting unnoticed among the pine trees. It is like being surrounded by tiny shards of stained glass, flickering as the sunlight catches the orange and black. We looked up at the sky and it is punctuated by the fluttering of a million wings. Mostly they do not notice or react to us, just occasionally landing on a backpack or shirt sleeve.

We watch for a couple of hours, trying as ever to capture the experience with our cameras, but there is a calming of the excitement that we brought here, a quieting of our voices, just amazement at a spectacle that has no equivalent in the natural world. In a world full of diminishing wildlife, to see such profusion, so many of one species, and to learn the astonishing life cycle of these amazing creatures, is a rare privilege. As adults we lose the wonder that children bring to experience the natural world. Visit the Monarchs and you can reclaim it.

Read more about our 'Mexico's Monarchs, Humpbacks & Birds' holiday.