By Logan Hawkes

It may be hard for us in the modern world to understand how the habits and nature of a butterfly can change the way we live. But that's exactly what happens each year in parts of Mexico where the Monarch butterfly signifies the end of one way of life and the beginning of another. It's an essential part of indigenous folklore and rituals in large areas of Mexico; a natural time clock for the changing of the seasons.

In spring, when the butterflies leave, the locals know it is time to plant. When the butterflies return in late fall, it's time for the harvest and great celebration.

But the folklore goes far beyond that. There is a significance to the annual event that goes beyond the understanding of the outside world. In many ways, the return of the Monarch's indicates the readiness of the local culture to prepare for the annual Dia de los Muertos celebration, a time to honor the return of the dead.

The migration of the Monarch butterfly is one of the most spectacular natural phenomena in the world. It is considered an "endangered phenomena" because scientists fear this incredible journey may not last beyond the next decade. There is concern this could create an economic and spiritual disaster for the Mexican communities who flourish from tourism related to the Monarch migration.

Fortunately there are scientists, naturalists and eco-travelers who wish to experience this beautiful spectacle of nature, work to safeguard their winter nesting grounds, and preserve this incredible phenomena for future generations to enjoy.

Nature of the Monarchs
The Monarch's migration is unique in nature, more like the migration habits of birds and whales. These creatures travel vast distances (up to three thousand miles round trip). They are the only butterfly species to make such a long trek, flying in large groups to the same winter grounds year after year, often to the very same tree.

How and why? Their homing system is still a mystery to the scientists and naturalists who've studied them for over two decades, and no one knows all the answers.

But it is estimated that some 200 million Monarchs begin their trek each fall from Canada and the upper Northern United States to points south. Beyond our heads and unknown to most there is a glorious highway of colorful butterflies each year soaring to places like the Rio Grande Valley and coastal areas of Texas where they often stop to rest before continuing their migration journey to their primary winter nesting grounds in Mexico.

Angangueo, Mexico, is known as the headquarters for Monarch migration. This quaint village is known as the unofficial Capital of Mexican Monarch Country. The town is located four hours west of Mexico City in a valley surrounded by mountains with terraced farms and a large misty fir tree forest at 10,000 feet elevation, a natural protection for the Monarch's winter nesting grounds.

There are several butterfly refuges in this area but none quite as famous as the first and most prominent butterfly sanctuary, El Rosario Sanctuary.  Angangueo is the nearest town to the sanctuary and it's people are dependent upon the tourism that the Monarch migration brings to the area. In fact, villagers have the utmost respect for the butterflies and go out of their way to educate visitors to respect them as well. It is not uncommon to see such phrases posted around town like: "Cuida a la mariposa! No la maltrates," (be careful with the butterflies! Don't mistreat them.) And "Guarda Silencio" (Guard the Silence). The feeling of local reverence for these delicate and beautiful creatures is unmistakable.

After a visit to the sanctuary you can understand the awe of the locals. It is indeed a euphoric experience to walk into a forest of Monarchs, their gentle fluttering surrounding you and soothing your spirit. The floor of the forest looks like an exotic Zapotec rug of constant moving colors, and yet the sound is as soft as winter's first gentle snow. You're almost afraid breathing too loud will disturb the peace and tranquility. Just then, as the clouds cover the sun, a whirl of activity will startle you as clouds of butterflies rush past leaving you breathless at the spectacle.

It is hard to fathom the numbers of butterflies wintering here but it is estimated there are nearly 4 million per acre in this one sanctuary alone.

There are plenty of local tour guides at the sanctuary and other reserves throughout the region to guide your adventure. Though the arrival of the Monarchs begins around the annual Dia de los Muertos celebration in October, the reserve itself doesn't open to the public until mid November to allow the butterflies to nest. The sanctuary remains open through March. Hours of operation are 9-6 daily. A good pair of walking shoes or boots are highly recommended for your visit.

Take a walk in the clouds -- the Mariposa clouds, the Monarch Clouds of Mexico!

Local Lodging:
Hotel Albergue Don Bruno***, - Morelos 92. Tel. 156-0026
Cabañas Margarita*** - Morelos 83. Tel. 156-0149
Hotel Parakata, Matamoros 7 - rooms with a private bath
Casa de Huéspedes El Paso de la Monarca - Downtown Angangueo
Casa de Huéspedes Juárez - on Angangueo's Main Street

Check out when the Monarch migration will peak in your area:
Thanks to Monarch Watcher Richard Breen for this handy tip!
Midpoints and peaks of the migration by latitude.

Peak in monarch abundance
26 August
18-30 August
1 September
24 August -5 September
6 September
29 August - 10 September
11 September
3 - 15 September
16 September
8 - 20 September
22 September
14-26 September
27 September
19 September - 1 October
2 October
24 September - 6 October
7 October
29 September - 11 October
12 October
4-16 October
18 October
10-22 October
23 October
15-27 October
28 October
20 October - 1 November
4 November
27 October -8 November
11 November
3-15 November
18 November
10-22 November