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getting lost chasing butterflies

Despite a reasonable amount of research and preparation I don’t actually know exactly where I am going in my pursuit of the Monarch butterflies.

The Monarch butterfly migration, a phenomena where an estimated 160 million Monarch butterflies annually make their way from as far north as Canada to winter in Central Mexico, is something I knew nothing of until very recently but I am determined to witness it now that I have learned of its existence. There are, apparently, five different sites where it is possible to view the butterfly colonies but El Rosario, the sanctuary which is best known and best publicised, has been totally devastated by recent bad weather.

Not only has the butterfly population been affected by heavy rain, hail and cold temperatures but Angangueo, the town that provides the infrastructure for the sanctuary, suffered serious damage and loss of life. Information about the other butterfly sanctuaries is hard to come by so I am, armed with my SCT maps, simply heading in the direction of Angangueo and hoping to pick up additional information on the way.

I leave Queretaro by way of a small national park next to the city where I camp for the night and then weave my way south towards Maravatio across increasingly hilly terrain on bumpy dirt tracks linked by stretches of highway. Towns are frequent and so there is no need to stock pile large quantities of food on this stretch of the journey.

More cobbled roads.

A snack of green chickpeas steamed in their pods served with chili and lime from the Sunday market in Coroneo. Super yummy!

In a pattern that is becoming too familiar, I reach a point on my way south towards Ciudad Hidalgo where my hoped for dirt roads have been replaced by characterless highway. I am riding along feeling a little dispirited about it when unexpectedly a sign, promising butterflies, directs me eastwards onto a small side road.

Turning off the highway, I make my way 20 kilometres to Senguio, an undistinguished village, where another sign directs me through the settlement onto a steep rocky path leading straight up a mountain. A couple of kilometres of steep climbing brings me to a small, entirely empty, hut which a group of men are standing next in the late afternoon sun. This, apparently, is the administrative centre of the Senguio butterfly sanctuary.

The men gather round me and stare and when I tell them I want to see the butterflies, they shake their heads and voice various objections.

“It’s a long way.”

“It is too late today!”

“You can’t go on a bicycle – it is too difficult!”

“You need a guide – you’ll get lost!”

It is difficult to shift facts from among the assumptions these people have about both my capabilities and my expectations. I tell them I have ridden from Alaska so I probably can handle a few more kilometres and that I managed to negotiate the terrain of the Copper Canyon. I explain if it is too late to reach the butterfly colony today that I will to camp somewhere and then set off in search of the butterflies in the morning. A new set of misgivings and doubts are raised.

“But there is nothing there but mountains here!”

“Aren’t you scared?”

“There are many bad people!”

They try to convince me to return to the village and stay in a hotel there but gradually the men realise I am determined. They ask me where I will go after my visit to the butterfly sanctuary and I show them my map and ask them if it is possible to get to Angangueo on dirt roads through the mountains.

“Yes, yes, of course!”

This is good news and I try to get more definite directions but further details are not forthcoming.

“Just go straight ahead.”

As I go to leave one of the man suddenly rushes off and returns with a pictorial map clearly intended for tourists that will be making no decisions of any kind on their own behalf and, armed with this rather inadequate additional aid, I turn to head up the mountain.

They make one last attempt to dissuade me from camping – a activity that seems beyond their comprehension and the idea of which apparently fills them with horror – by informing me that there is a monastery a little further along the road. They are sure that the monks will be happy to look after me and I promise to consider this possibility.

A police pick up truck soon passes me on a long cobbled ascent. The tray of this vehicle, incongruously, contains a sizable group of giggling school girls in blue uniforms and knee high white socks. The driver stops and questions me at length as to my destination and intentions and I end up having to go over all the same ground that I covered only a few minutes ago. The police are also extremely dubious about the idea of camping and like the men suggest that I ask the monks for accommodation for the night before continuing up into the mountains.

Ten minute later, when I reach the crest of the hill I am climbing, I pass by the gates of the monastery and find the two policemen, assault rifles slung casually over their shoulders, waiting for me. They give me little option but to accompany them into the monastery where they petition a man, who I assume to be a monk with some authority – although he is casually dressed and nothing gives his calling away – for a bed for the night, on my behalf. The man looks dubious and after considerable discussion the police eventually turn to me, looking somewhat crestfallen, their faith in the hospitality of the Catholic Church visibly shaken, and like the men below can only suggest I return to the village to stay in a hotel.

I am eager to be on my way as the sun is hovering on the mountain tops by this time. I assure all present that the forest and mountains are my idea of perfect accommodation and try to make my escape but the policeman’s face is stern.

“It is dangerous!,” he insists. “There are many bad people.”

I scoff at this.

“If anything happens to you, it will be a problem for us.”

For a dicey moment it seems I am being forbidden to proceed but then at a curt instruction from his superiour the junior member of the pair digs in his pocket for a scrap of paper and a pen. He hands them to me and asks me to record my name. I attempt to oblige but the pen fails half way through the task. However, after scrutinizing the paper for a few moments the officers seem to feel that they have adequately fulfilled their duties and wash their hands of me.

I go to leave but the girls, who until now have been occupied with some bureaucratic matter with the priests, suddenly surround me and take a series of photographs with their cell phones. Eventually, I am free to depart and I ride into the forest in the gathering dark where I find a nice hidden spot by a fast clear stream and set up camp.

In the morning it, quickly becomes apparent that the way is, indeed, not without its difficulties. The impact of the recent storms is clearly visible.

The recent storms have left their mark.

The track branches and turns through the forest and there are few sign posts so I navigate by the uncertain expedient of simply following the way that seems most travelled. Eventually, a few hand painted signs appear, some pointing the way and others admonishing people to make no sound.


Silence - butterflies are sensitive to noise.

At a point where the road is all but obliterated by landslides and fallen trees I abandon my bike and tiptoe uphill through the pine forest on a confusing tangle of footpaths. Where the paths cross I leave pointers to direct me back the way I came.

Hansel and Gretel-like, I fear getting lost in the forest and leave myself a series of markers to guide me back to my bike.

There is, at first, no sign of butterflies but as I wander up a gully, towards the top of a hill, the forest opens out and gradually one by one, in growing numbers they start to appear. The sun is shining and butterflies flit through the trees, skimming the surface of a swift running stream, settling in clusters on flowering bushes in golden light. I am enchanted.

Butterflies drinking nectar in the sun.

The butterflies current task is to fatten up for the long trip home after their winter hibernation.

I stumble upon another vehicle track running along a fence which I follow for a while before sitting down amongst the flowering plants and clouds of butterflies. I haven’t found the source of the creatures yet but I have no indication how to proceed so, eventually, I decide to return to the bike. I assume the road I am now on is the one that will lead me over the mountains and down towards Anganguero and I hope that it will pass by the butterflies colony en route.

Once I return to the bike, I backtrack to the previous junction hoping that the alternative route will lead back to the track I have just discovered on top of the mountain. The road leads upwards and proves difficult to negotiate. Numerous choices of direction present themselves which my only instruction – go straight ahead – does nothing to illuminate.

A series of wash outs caused by landslides make the track difficult to negotiate...

... and the surface doesn't help at all.

The surface improves but other obstacles present themselves. I have to unload the bike and carry everything to the other side of this fallen tree.

At the top of the hill the road starts to lose confidence and then vanishes without a trace so I abandon the bike again to investigate on foot. I scout around on various foot paths and eventually find an overgrown jeep track that descends on the other side of the mountain. Pondering its possibilities, I consider a number of factors: the track doesn’t appear to have had any recent use and I have no idea where it actually goes; I only have enough food and water for a meal or two, I haven’t seen a trace of another person in almost 24 hours; and the terrain between here and where I have left my bike is extremely difficult.

I hate turning back but eventually I finally decide that, in this case, it is probably the best thing to do.

One benefit to going back the way I came, is I find my Guadalupe scarf which I had lost somewhere on the road.

Finally, in the golden light of the late afternoon I make my descent past the monastery and back to Senguio.

Once I pass the obstacles on the most difficult section of the road the descent back to Senguio is relatively effortless.

{ 3 } Comments

  1. Lucie | March 14, 2010 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    Oh, this looks like a hell of an ascent, Anna! I am glad you turned back, I wouldn’t like to see you without food on that mountain, even if it was covered in butterflies all over!:-) The path looks almost unwalkable to me, not talking about riding a bicycle… But I know you had to try. I’d have tried it too. The “priest” didn’t seem like a trustworthy person to me…

  2. Don Cuevas | April 3, 2010 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    “Matavario” is actually Maravatio.

    Don Cuevas

  3. anna | April 3, 2010 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the correction, Don. I’m a bit dyslexic, I think. I’m always mixing things up.

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