Saturday, February 19, 2011

Sierra Chincua, Monarch Butterfly Reserve

(This is a follow-on post to the previous one on our two-day trip to Tlalpujahua and the Monarch Butterfly Reserves in the pine-fir forests of eastern Michoacán state, in southwest México.  The mountainous reserves vary in elevation from 9,500 to over 11,000 feet, and are the wintering location for all the Monarchs east of the Rockies in the U.S. and Canada.)

There are several small reserves in the area accessed from different towns, so we opted for Sierra Chincua, the closest to Tlalpujahua. We had a good breakfast in the Hotel Los Arcos dining room and arrived at the reserve parking area about 10:15. We paid our 30 peso car and 35 pesos per person entry fees, were assigned a guide, and started walking at 10:45.  According to Mark's GPS, the parking area was at 10,700 feet, and we walked gradually uphill to about 11,000 feet before descending to 9,800 feet where the colony was currently encamped.

The government recently built a modern visitor's center with restrooms, food stalls and craft shops, and solar panels on the roofs to supply electricity to that remote region. I don't know whether the other reserves in the area are also so well equipped, but I'm sure they're equally cut off from electricity.

Georgia and Arcelia, our guide
 The reserve is managed by the local ejido (communally-owned property) and there are 30 guides, 5 of whom are women. Our guide, Arcelia, was a tiny but sturdy young woman who told us that today was her birthday and that she was 28. On the way back we sang both the American and Spanish versions of the birthday song, though only Georgia, who lives here, knew the words to "Las Mañanitas."

That's Mark bringing up the rear, and our guide in front
We walked for about an hour and a half, partly on an access road and then on a indistinct path through the woods that only the guides can find. As we got close to where the butterflies were on that day (they move around) we saw first one butterfly puttering around in the trees, then four or five, then a dozen, and then the air was filled with butterflies. They were clustered on the branches of the oyamel firs where they are so numerous they weigh down the branches and give the tree a brownish, dead-needle appearance.

It's hard to estimate the number of butterflies, but there are certainly many millions. The research biologists estimate population in terms of number of acres occupied by the colonies across all four reserves. This year's estimate is 10 acres of colonies total. Ponder that for a moment--all of the Monarchs east of the Rockies in North America are concentrated in 10 acres here during the winter. Now you see why this is such a vulnerable area and why it's a designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site.

The total count is down from previous years, partly because of devastating rain and cold temperatures in the area last winter that killed millions of butterflies, and partly because of a loss of habitat in the north. Monarchs feed on milkweed, and increased development and herbicide use has eliminated a lot of their food source. Illegal logging in the reserves also contributes to their decline, though the ejidos, who depend on income from visitors and receive no funding from either the state or national governments, are doing their best to control it. The terrain is rugged, however, and inforcement is difficult. The Monarchs are starting to recover from last year's rains, but they aren't back to previous numbers, and may never be.

Monarchs crowded around a stream to drink

A major difficulty for the species is that these reserves are not contiguous, and as we know many species depend on a large range for optimum habitat. It forces the butterflies into relatively small areas, which may also contribute to a decline in numbers.

One of the most remarkable things about this migration is that no one butterfly makes the entire journey in either direction. Adult butterfly live from two to six weeks. It takes three to four generations of butterflies to complete the northward migration from Mexico. Then in late summer, they hatch a "Methuselah generation" that lives seven months before sexually maturing. It's this generation that makes the entire southward journey, overwinters, and heads north around the Spring equinox. They reproduce and die partway north to start the cycle over again. I believe they're the only species of butterfly that migrates like birds; others overwinter as larvae, pupae or hibernating adults. What enables the needed four or five generations to navigate the roundtrip to a place none have ever been before is one of the great natural mysteries.

We spent over two hours, amazed and delighted, photographing the scene and laughing as the butterflies landed on heads and hats and sleeves, before making the long uphill trek back to the car. There were very few other people there, though on weekends the place is pretty crowded with visitors from México City and other nearby areas. On the return trip we hauled out 3 bags of trash, left by people who obviously don't comprehend that the rest of us aren't there to see their empty candy wrapper or plastic water bottle.

Mere words can never describe the experience. To stand in the middle of a shower of orange and black butterflies fluttering around you, and to see in the distance even more, is magical. We've put together some videos, which you can watch on YouTube, to see what I mean. 

Other short videos are at these links:

On the way home we drove through Angangueo, where massive landslides and flooding during last year's rains wiped out about 30% of the town. The government is lining the stream with concrete walls to avoid a repeat of the undercutting and collapse of the stream banks. The town is functioning, but the surrounding hills have large gashes where the soil was over-saturated and released. There now is a large sign listing potential levels of threat, with color codes like our former Homeland Security threat levels.
Warning sign in Angangueo
It took four hours to get back "the long way" from Sierra Chincua through Angangueo, but we saw new parts of Michoacán, high fertile agricultural valleys rimmed by the tree-covered remnants of extinct volcanos. A missed turn at the periferico coming into Morelia put us through bustling, colonial Centro at 8 pm, but as beauifully as the old cantara stone buildings are lit at night, we didn't mind.

For further information on the Monarch migration, the precarious status of the colonies, and current conservation efforts, here are links to some references:

Creating a feeding station for Monarchs by planting milkweed is one of the small things we can do to compensate for loss of habitat in the U.S. and Canada. Information on propagating milkweed, as well as many other facets of Monarch life and conservation can be found here:

On a lighter note, our visit to the reserve was on Feb. 14th, Valentine's Day.  Driving back through the town of Aporo, we got behind a car flapping with colored Post-It notes.  We stopped when one fluttered off and read "Te Amo" -- "I Love You."  A car covered in Te Amos.  We saw them later by a park, and a few others later in Morelia, so this sweet automotive-adaptation of Valentine's Day seems to be a feature of Méxican life here.

Te Amo encrusted car on Valentine's Day

We were dazzled by our butterfly experience and our new knowledge of the Monarchs' life cycle. We hope you enjoy this information too.

M & N


  1. What an amazing journey--the monarchs' migration and your hike into the reserve at Sierra Chincua! Thank you for taking your readers along, and for the charming love-note car photos too. Enjoy the rest of your time in Angangueo...

  2. Thanks for reminding me of the joy of being in a cloud of Monarchs, and for the tenderness of feeling them land on me. I put a link to your great blog on