Photo: Monarch butterflies in flight

Warmed by the sun, thousands of monarch butterflies spontaneously take flight.

Photograph by Annie Griffiths Belt

By Melina Gerosa Bellows

From the November/December 2009 issue of National Geographic Traveler

An incredible journey on the wings of butterflies.

My butterfly obsession began in a yoga class. My body was jackknifed in the downward dog pose. But my mind was far, far away, in the Central Mexican states of México and Michoacán. The area's boreal forests are the winter haven for more than a billion monarchs. The entire story line of a novel downloaded itself into my brain as if my muse simply pressed her "Send" button. My imagination invented a protagonist whose mission would be to save this endangered place, and because she's dying, she has less than a year to do it.

After that yoga class, I started to notice butterflies everywhere. Fluttering down city streets in the winter, intricately tattooed on women's bodies, even appearing in my own children's artwork. The butterflies were speaking to me. So I started writing.

Three years, four drafts, and hundreds of research hours later, I decided to retreat from fiction into reality and actually visit what would eventually appear in my novel—the Kingdom of the Monarchs, a 60-square-mile area in Central Mexico's volcanic highlands. Gamely, my imaginary heroine and I set off to a remote, ethereal place that monarch expert Dr. Lincoln Brower once called the Eighth Wonder of the World.

I am rolling through Mexico City, its sleekly modern skyscrapers giving way to neighborhoods of Spanish-style mansions with flowering purple jacaranda trees and then bucolic countryside fecund with peach and avocado orchards. I continue through a string of towering active volcanoes. I learn that the locals make a yearly pilgrimage to dance and offer flowers, clay artifacts, and turkey blood to keep the snowy-peaked Nevado de Toluca volcano quiet.

Several hours later I reach my first destination, the tiny former mining town of Angangueo in Michoacán. This traditional village has cobblestone streets and white stucco buildings with red-tiled roofs. No one speaks English.

After a quick hotel lunch at Plaza Don Gabino—fish roasted in cornhusks, homemade tortillas, and the creamiest guacamole on Earth—my butterfly safari begins.

I climb into an open-air truck, which begins a steep ascent up the mountain. I pass homes with outdoor birdcages, pots of red and pink geraniums, and freshly washed baby clothes drying on tree branches. Little kids kick a ball, and an old lady throws rocks (big ones!) at a pack of scuffling dogs.

Of the four monarch sanctuaries open to the public, I'll visit three. From the entrance of my first, El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, 129 miles west of Mexico City, I begin the hour-long hike up. The air is thin and getting thinner.

I pass other visitors on their way down.

"Worth it!" they say, jubilantly.

A Mexican grandmother stops to inform me in hand gestures that a butterfly landed on her hat.

The scent of pine increases the higher I climb. The color of the trees and wildflowers seems to deepen. As I approach 10,000 feet, I'm exhilarated but breathless.

The intensity of the experience recalls another ritual, the tradition of hand-copying 278 Japanese characters before being granted access to Kyoto's moss garden. Both exercises serve as a meditation, purifying and preparing the mind for the sacred experience to come.

As I hike, I start stripping layers. One, two, three, four, until I'm down to my T-shirt. I'm reminded of how a butterfly develops through four stages—from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to the winged delight that flits around me. I consider the wonder of this metamorphosis and the even more amazing phenomenon of the butterfly's migratory cycle.

For at least 10,000 years, these monarchs—each weighing no more than a fifth of a penny—have traveled as many as 2,500 miles with pinpoint accuracy from the northern United States and Canada to reach a place none of them has ever been. They begin their journey in the fall and remain in Central Mexico all winter. It is now late February and I am here just before lift off—mating is getting into high gear.

I round the corner and the show begins. One butterfly flutters by, and then another and another. I watch as dozens float past, their shadows dancing like polka dots on the dry dirt.

The monarchs are everywhere. Hanging on the pines like flat Christmas ornaments and clumping like swollen beehives on the ends of branches. Some evergreens are so covered with butterflies that they resemble maples in the fall. Although a monarch weighs so little, overburdened branches can actually break from the cumulative weight, killing many of those aboard.

Standing on the path mesmerized—I am among about 150 million monarchs—I take in the sound. The whirring is soft, like rain.

A butterfly lands on my hip, opening and closing its wings in the sun. Then another lands on my stomach.

Strangers take photos.

"Es un macho," says my guide Astrid. "You can tell by the two black spots."

Slowly, the male starts walking up my shirt.

"Look out, here he comes!" says an onlooker, as the butterfly reaches my chest.

Before it gets too personal, the monarch takes wing. The onlookers laugh. I feel light, happy, as if I've just been kissed by nature.

Just then, several sweaty local men huff and puff up the hill with a stretcher. They deposit Ida, a 90-year-old from Gulfport, Mississippi, on a rock. She blinks as if she's just been dispatched to the moon.

"I've never seen anything like it," Ida declares in wonder.

One of the most striking things about being in the sanctuary is not the monarchs, but the effect they have on the people here. Young, old, male, female, local, foreigner—everyone is smiling, helpful, friendly. It's as if the butterflies are bringing out the best in human nature.

On the walk down, I'm befriended by a pack of female athletes on their annual visit to the sanctuary from Mexico City. Two of the four carry dogs in their backpacks; a white poodle with a pink bow named Bianca and a Chihuahua named Merlina with two puppies.

I ask why these cosmopolitan babes keep returning to this quiet place when Mexico has so many playgrounds for the young and beautiful.

"It's a mystical place," says Teresa. "It's healing for the spirit to come here."

Her friend Josefina recites a poem in Spanish, which Teresa translates.

Small volatile souls
That let our imagination fly away
That give us our strength
And feeling of vigor.

I lend Tatiana, who's shivering with cold, my down vest for the descent. She accepts it as naturally as if she were a longtime friend.

"The Aztecs believe that when we die our souls become butterflies," explains Teresa. "All of our ancestors' spirits are still here. You can feel it, and it energizes the soul."

That night I stay at the clean but rustic Posada Don Bruno in Angangueo. None of the hotels in the area has heat, and I've been warned to wear thermal underwear with my pajamas—the temperatures dip below 30 degrees at night.

Our dinner is a buffet of rice, beans, chicken, and cactus, washed down with endless Mexican beer and lemony mountain tea, brewed with limoncillo from the side of the road. After dinner I'm presented with a hot water bottle and retire to a freshly lit fire in my room.

My second day I visit the Sierra Chincua Sanctuary, which is about an hour from the hotel. At the entrance, our group mounts horses, and we make our way through 112-foot-tall white pines, oaks, and firs on a skinny, rutted footpath. The experience is silent and serene. After an hour we dismount to hike the final mile.

Before long, I spot one monarch, then another. As I walk, I see dozens, then hundreds and thousands. The sun is shining and the butterflies are in flight. The experience is otherworldly, like being inside a snow globe with orange glitter. In this one area alone, there are 30 to 50 million monarchs.

Thonk!

A threesome lands in my lap with surprising heft. (These fourth-generation monarchs can get quite chubby because of their relatively long lifespan.) One butterfly disentangles itself, and the male yanks the female to a tree to close the deal.

The males vigorously go at it, attacking anything that moves, including other males or fluttering leaves. Once a male latches onto a female, the nuptial dance can last for as long as eight hours.

They've had time to prepare. Since last fall, these butterflies have been staving off sexual maturity, thanks to the unique environment these forests provide, which is not too hot or cold, wet or dry. They settle and remain motionless—in stasis—until spring and mating. That's when the milkweed grows, creating a surface on which they'll lay their eggs—then becoming food for the caterpillars when they hatch.

Suddenly, the soft pitter-patter of murmuring wings increases to the decibel of a loud downpour.

"Mira, una explosión de mariposas!" says our local guide.

I peer into the valley, and the cobalt blue sky turns into a shimmering sheet of orange and black. When the sun has warmed a large number of butterflies, they simultaneously burst into flight.

"What do you think?" asks Rosemarie, a fellow butterfly watcher. "Did you get what you need for your novel?"

But that's just it, I can't think. My brain has been turned off. Protagonist Shmotagonist. As my jaw hangs open, all I can do is rubberneck. This moment alone is worth enduring cold hotel rooms.

I make a conscious effort to absorb the natural wonder into my soul. Perhaps I can draw on this awesome inspiration later when I'm back in the real world, tackling taxes, stuck in traffic, or taking myself too seriously. Maybe this is why my protagonist and I are here, for an object lesson on how to live life well, no matter what lies in store. I think of French naturalist Marcel Roland's quote that butterflies give us "solace for the pain of living."

But if every silver lining has a cloud, here it's the shabbily clothed children who are begging who I encounter when I return my horse at the bottom of the mountain.

There is much poverty in the region, and to survive many locals have turned to illegal logging to make ends meet. Now the great migratory phenomenon is endangered because of habitat destruction, which could threaten the butterflies' survival. The thinner the forests become due to logging, the more vulnerable the monarchs. In 2002, a single winter storm wiped out 70 percent of the overwintering population, which were left piled two feet high on the forest floor.

Still, it's hard for locals to care about the monarchs when their families are hungry. Logging is lucrative, and the farmers want to use the land to raise crops.

The Mexican government has sent federal marshals to thwart the illegal logging. And it has made serious efforts to involve local communities in conservation. Farmers are incentivized not to log their property. Instead they gain financially from reforestation efforts. "It's as complicated as fighting drugs," admits our local guide, Astrid.

As we approach our final sanctuary, the butterflies meet us on the way. We pass the policía. A cop is holding what I think is a radar gun.

"Actually it's a video camera," says Astrid, laughing. "He's filming the butterflies."

The State of México pays the police to enforce the nine-mile-per-hour speed limit near the sanctuary. Killing even one butterfly incurs a fine of 500 pesos ($38.50), so people take the prohibition seriously.

At the Piedra Herrada sanctuary we mount our horses for the steepest climb yet. The day is sunny, and hordes of uniformed schoolchildren are also undertaking the journey. Single file, our sure-footed caballos lurch onward, and then we dismount to hike down a steep precipice to a tiny dirt patch on the mountainside.

Although this roost is smaller than the previous two, I'm mid-canopy, putting me eye level with a butterfly-covered oyamel fir. The sun hits a branch and, majestically, a shawl of butterflies shakes itself out into a thousand flying tigers.

I hear a gentle rustle over my head. I look up to witness another explosion; this one looks as if a popcorn machine is spewing mounds of butterflies into the air. The sights are spectacular, but our time here is limited. We must relinquish our perch so the schoolchildren can have their turn.

As we descend, I am struck that we are the only tourists here ­despite the fact that Mexico is emerging as a popular ecotourism destination. And while the country still has much to do to preserve the butterfly habitat, in the last ten years Mexico has tripled its acreage of protected areas.

The efforts appear to be working. Illegal logging has dropped 48 percent since 2008; close to four million trees have been planted, and in November 2008 UNESCO declared the 139,019-acre Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve a World Heritage site. Ecotourism, it's clear, can benefit not just the monarchs but the locals whose welfare is dependent on their willingness to protect the creatures. As I leave the park, my vehicle snorkels through a sea of butterflies. We stop once more on the roadside for a final opportunity to visit the monarchs that have flown down the mountain to drink the salt and minerals from the mud puddles.

I watch as a young girl in a blue school uniform crouches down to closely observe a populated puddle. A butterfly surprises her by hopping aboard her finger. Her friend snaps a picture with her cell phone, and the two girls giggle in wonder.

And there it is, the magic I've come to find. It's not the moment I thought I'd experience, a sudden clarity about my own life, or even a plot twist for my protagonist. Rather, it's a reminder that joy is contagious, we're all connected, and that Mother Nature has a healing, salubrious effect on human nature.

Intelligent Travel: Central Mexico

Entry requirements U.S. citizens need a valid passport to enter Mexico and to re-enter the U.S. Time The states of México and Michoacán are located in Mexico's Central Time Zone and are one hour behind eastern standard time. Currency The Mexican peso (MXN); for conversion rates, visit www.oanda.com Phone calls For the U.S., dial 011, the country code—52—the local area code, and the number.

Hotel Plaza Don Gabino Morelos No. 147 Angangueo, Michoacán, CP 61411 Mexico; 715 156 0322

Posado Don Bruno, Morelos No. 92 Angangueo, Michoacán, Mexico; 715 156 0026

Sierra Chincua Sanctuary, Angangueo, Michoacán, Mexico

Piedra Herrada Sanctuary, Los Saucos, State of México; 722 107 9032 (Spanish language only)

El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, Sierra El Campanario, Angangueo

Mexico Tourism www.visitmexico.com/wb/Visitmexico/Visi_Home?show=regions.

Natural Habitat Adventures Tour Operator www.nathab.com.

Melina Gerosa Bellows is the editor in chief of National Geographic Kids; her first novel is Wish. Photographer Annie Griffiths Belt is the author of A Camera, Two Kids, and a Camel.

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