Hiking the Huge Mountains of Mexico City: Izta-Popo National Park

Unless you’re looking out of an airplane window, you might not even notice that Mexico City is surrounded by mountains, including the second and third highest in the entire country. You can see the green slopes and sometimes snow-capped peaks off in the distance when you finally escape the dense neighborhoods of the mega-metropolis.

At least ten national parks are within driving distance of the the city, meaning hiking trails, ziplines, ATM rentals, old ruined convents, waterfalls, caves, and expanses of pine forest. You might even get lucky and see animals like weasels, the tiny teporingo rabbit, white-tailed deer, long-tailed wood partridges, horned lizards, tarantulas, and rattlesnakes. Don’t be afraid of these last two–they’ll leave you alone if you leave them alone.

What you should make you cautious, however, are badly-marked trails and some safety issues, especially robberies. So if you want to go hiking near Mexico City, go in a group, stay on the most obvious trails, and come prepared with rain gear, layers of warm clothing, food, and lots of water. Also, choose a national park where you must pay an entrance fee and can park in an official parking lot, which will greatly reduce (if not eliminate) the possibility of criminals on the trail.

If the trail takes you high into the mountains, even better. For all these reasons, Itza-Popo National Park is probably the best for a day of hiking near Mexico City. I’ll write about other places in later posts, like the Cubres de Ajusco and Nevado de Toluca national parks.

You’ll need a car to get to there, or else pay for a long taxi or uber ride. Driving there is straightforward–just follow directions on Waze or Google Maps to the Paso de Cortés (Cortés’s Pass), where the park entrance is located. Get up early; the best light for photographs is in the morning, and rain is most likely in the afternoon, especially in summer.

Izta-Popo National Park

The two tallest mountains next to Mexico City, which are also the second and third highest in the country, are actually volcanos, one active and one long extinct. Active Popocatépetl has that classic cone with a wisp of smoke coming from the crater, while Iztaccíhuatl has a rocky, broken peak that gives few obvious clues to its volcanic origins.

Both of these pre-Hispanic names are quite a mouthful, so they’re usually abbreviated as Popo and Izta (pronounces EES-ta). They were revered as gods by the native Mexica, along with neighboring peak Tlaloc, named after the rain god.

In the Nahuatl language, Popocatépetl means “mountain that steams,” as it’s been active since ancient times. Iztaccíhuatl means “white woman”–like many mountains in the world, people have identified the features of a reclining body in its crags and cliffs.

Popo is off-limits to hiking because of regular activity; big eruptions happened most recently in 2000 and 2005, and it ejects long columns of smoke nearly every day. So the spot for hiking is on Izta, a long, arduous and high-altitude hike that’s only for the experienced and in good shape.

A less difficult hike is the Alpino trail, which follows the saddle between the two mountains. It begins at the parking lot at the entrance to the park and ends at La Joya, the name for the area that has the parking lot for the trail up Izta. Cars can take a winding dirt road to La Joya; the Alpino trail is roughly parallel to it but follows a higher ridge, with the road mostly out of sight.

Map of the Alpino trail

Hiking Alpino takes about two hours each way, there and back, and has great views of both mountains. If you have enough time, you can continue up the trail to Itza for an hour or two for more great views and a taste of big-mountain experience.

When you arrive, first visit the park office to register and pay the 57-peso per-person fee. Then you can decide whether to start on the Alpino trail right there or continue driving to La Joya, where the hike up Itza begins.

Hiking Itza near Mexico City

The park office is located at the Paso de Cortés (Cortés’s Pass), named after the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, who crossed it in 1519 after leaving Cholula, the nearby pre-Hispanic capital where he and his men had slaughtered between 5,000 and 6,000 people. Legend has it that, on the way, some of his men climbed Popo to collect sulfur for gunpowder for their canons and rifles. Then they descended into the Valley of Mexico to eventually conquer Tenochitlan, the island city that’s now the central part of Mexico City.

Yes, it’s a long story, and a fascinating one.

(paid link)

Today, a bumpy dirt road leads down the mountain slopes from the Paso de Cortes to Cholula, one of the most attractive towns in the area, with its yellow church built atop a massive, mostly unexcavated pyramid that resembles a hill. So, a nice two-day trip is an early morning hike in the national park, a twisty downhill drive to Cholula, and an evening and next morning exploring the town. You could also visit the city of Puebla right next to Cholula, making for a weekend of dramatic nature, pleasant towns, great food, and astounding history.

The Mark of the Michelada: All about Beer in Mexico

Mexican domestic beer, microbrews, and beer-drinking customs

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Beer lovers, Mexico’s got you covered. There’s a lot of variety and quality in popular domestic brands, which are inexpensive and available everywhere. The average convenience store has at least six options, ranging from smooth pilsners to amber-colored ales. Factory beer stores called depositos offer even lower prices. You can find a reasonable number of imports, and there’s even a growing microbrew scene—some not so good, most overpriced, but at least the options are there.

There’s a long history of beer brewing in Mexico, beginning with the Spanish in colonial times and later greatly improved by several waves of German immigrants to Mexico in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Cuauhtemoc-Moctezuma, one of Mexico’s two major beer conglomerates, was cofounded by German immigrants, and Mexico’s many dark beers from both companies are largely based on German recipes.

Germans didn’t only bring better brewing techniques, but also music. Polka directly influenced popular Mexican styles like banda, which features large horn sections, tuba for bass, and bouncy 3/4 rhythms. And what goes better with banda than a cold beer or ten?

Before beer, the alcoholic drink of choice in Mexico was pulque, made from the fermented nectar in the heart of the large maguey plant, similar to how tequila is made from the blue agave. Unlike tequila or other local spirits like mezcal, pulque has roughly the same alcohol content as beer. White, milky pulque has a slightly pungent or sour yet somehow refreshing taste, unless it’s curado—brewed with an additional natural flavor, such as strawberries or pine nuts.

Pulque was the victim of a smear campaign by beer companies in the early 20th century that portrayed it as a drink for low-class people with bad taste, giving it a negative stereotype that persists today, despite a slow-growing hipster renaissance. Pulque is still widely believed to be brewed with cow manure, which isn’t true, at least according to all the pulqueleros (pulque brewers and sellers) I’ve bought from and drunk with.

What is true is that pulque can’t be bottled; seal it, and it will eventually explode, due to pressure from ongoing fermentation. The best place to try pulque is at a pulquería or pulqueta (a cantina serving pulque—check Garibaldi Plaza in Mexico City, where all the mariachis are) or in a small town’s outdoor Sunday market, where you’ll see people, mostly men, gathered around a big plastic jug drinking pulque from earthenware mugs.

But enough about polka and pulque—on to beer.

Domestic beer in Mexico

Domestic beers are so well-established that you don’t see too many imports. The most common ones are probably Heineken, Stella Artois, and the occasional Budweiser. And recently, Michelob, which is strangely being marketed as an upmarket beer. You’ll find that imports are more expensive than the typically better Mexican equivalent, especially in cantinas and restaurants.

Domestic beer in Mexico is divided into two broad categories—clara and oscura, which mean light and dark. Claras are lagers or pilsners, like Budweiser or Heineken. Oscuras are usually ales, sometimes bocks, although the recipe and brewing method usually isn’t specified, other than simply being “dark.”

Mexico has two major beer companies, which like Miller and Anheuser-Busch in the U.S. have slowly acquired most other independent breweries. Both companies have their light and dark brews, with good ones on both sides.

Grupo Modelo is best known for Corona, and also produces Victoria, Modelo, Negra Modelo, Pacifico, Montejo, Leon, and Barrilito. This is Mexico’s top brewery, which has been owned by Anheuser-Busch since 2013.

The other company is Cuauhtemoc-Moctezuma, owned by Heineken and named after two important Aztec leaders during the Spanish conquest. History has been kinder to the former than the latter. While there are statues of Cuauhtemoc throughout Mexico, and countless neighborhoods and children named after him, Moctezuma is regarded as more of a failure, a weakling who was manipulated and outmaneuvered by Hernan Cortes. Despite this, his image is featured on the label of one of Cuauhtemoc-Moctezuma Brewery’s most important beers, Indio, which means “Indian.” Their other brands include Sol, Tecate, Dos Equis, Bohemia, Superior, Noche Buena, and Carta Blanca.

These domestic beers are available all over Mexico, with some more popular in certain regions, such as Tecate in the north or Superior in the south.

A note: I prefer dark beer, especially porters and stouts. I also love a good pale ale; IPAs, not so much, and weiss beers don’t do much for me. Light beer like Miller High Life or Corona are fine, but taste quite similar to me, especially when you squeeze a lime into them, as Mexicans are prone to do.

So, instead of saying which are “best,” I’ll just describe them and tell you what I like.

Oscura: dark beer

As mentioned, dark beers in Mexico fall under the general category of oscura. They are mostly ales. Dark dark beers like porters and stouts aren’t common in Mexico, and would be probably classified as “negro”—black.

My two favorite domestic beers in Mexico are both oscuras and are both made by Grupo Modelo: Victoria and Negra Modelo. Victoria is a lighter amber color, while Negra Modelo is truly dark, though not technically a stout or porter. Both go down smooth without heavy flavors or aftertastes.

Both are widely available in stores and restaurants, although Victoria, like Corona, is perhaps slightly more common. Victoria also comes in more convenient containers, like the most affordable tallboys and caguamas (40-oz size returnable bottles. More on beer packaging below).

If Victoria wasn’t flavorful enough for you—if you want something with more caramel, chocolate, or general density—then try Leon, which I personally place in third after Victoria and Negra Modelo.

Two more major-label brands with even more flavor are Bohemia Oscura and the seasonal Noche Buena, which is only available in the months surrounding Christmas. (Noche Buena, literally “Good Night,” is Christmas Eve, and also the Poinsettia, the red and green Christmas plant, which is indigenous to Mexico and on the label.) Both are a little too chocolatey for my taste—I can drink one or two and that’s it. But there’re worth a try—some people love them, especially Noche Buena.

Or, go right to the microbrews described below, but they’ll cost you.

The most common alternative to Victoria, produced by the competing company, is Indio, which is usually the same price and available at the same places as Victoria. Also like Victoria, it’s common in tallboys and caguamas.

Indio is fine, and it has a strong presence at rock concerts and soccer games, meaning that sometimes you’ll have no choice if you want an oscura. Try it, and if you do so right after a Victoria, you might agree with me that Victoria is just a little bit better.

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Clara: light beer

Literally “clear,” claras include the beers that made Mexico famous—Dos Equis, Sol, and especially Corona. The brilliant marketing campaign for Corona showing the two transparent, sweating bottles with limes in their necks, sitting on a table on the beach before a calm ocean and bright blue sky, did wonders for this otherwise unremarkable beer.

Sure, it tastes fine, especially on that warm day as you sit in the shade of a seafood restaurant on the beach with your toes in the sand. But really, squeeze a lime into a Sol, Modelo, Pacifico, Tecate, or any other Mexican clara, and they all taste pretty much the same. Here’s a test—squeeze a lime into a Coors Light, and you’ll probably get the same effect.

Another note: In Mexico, they squeeze a slice of lime into beer, not lemon, and they never stick the whole thing in the bottle. More on that below.

As mentioned, I prefer dark beer, but I won’t turn down a light one on a hot day either. Of the many Mexican claras, without a lime squeezed in, probably Modelo and Pacifico are the best, Modelo if only because you can buy it in cans for really cheap in nearly every neighborhood store.

After Corona from Grupo Modelo, the other most popular clara in Mexico is Sol from Cuauhtemoc-Moctezuma. They’re both typically available in the same places as their dark counterparts Victoria and Indio. “Corona” means crown, by the way—look for the king’s cap on the label, and “Sol” means sun.

Dos Equis, popular outside of Mexico, means “two Xs”: XX, which you can see on the label. Dos Equis has a clara and an amber. The clara’s light but distinctive taste is enjoyed by many on both sides of the border. It’s not my favorite; I consider it the Mexican Heineken, to compare it with another popular beer that doesn’t do much for me.

Tecate Light is the Bud Light of Mexico, loved by cowboy-hat wearing, big truck driving characters. (And yes, there is a Corona Light, Tecate Light, etc.—why they make light beers lighter, and if there is actually any difference, I have no idea.) Regular Tecate is far better than Tecate Light, especially from a tallboy as you stroll the beaches and marinas of Cabo San Lucas.

Yet another note: Public drinking is officially illegal in Mexico, although it’s tolerated in many beach towns. Don’t try it in Mexico City, however.

Other common ones for a hot day are Montejo, Superior, and the supposedly premium Carta Blanca. You could also pick up a six-pack of Barrilito, which come in funny, short bottles.

Finally, the domestic light beer with the most flavor is Bohemia Weizen, the Bohemia with the blue label. It’s more expensive than everything else I’ve mentioned, but quite good—no need to squeeze a lime in.

Speaking of Bohemia, there’s also the strong Bohemia Obscura with the brown label, the average Bohemia Ambar, a redish pilsner, with the red label, and Bohemia Clasica, also a pilsner.

Try them all and tell me which ones you liked the best.

Microbrews

There are now hundreds of microbreweries in Mexico, with more appearing regularly. The best place to find a wide selection is a specialty beer store like The Beer Box, or any somewhat upscale restaurant. They’re usually called cerveza artesanal or cerveza de autor.

I’ve tried many, and they’re hit-or-miss. Sometimes they taste as good as any U.S. craft beer, especially the ones brewed in Baja California. Sometimes they taste like Corona with food coloring added. And sometimes—a real disappointment—something went wrong in the brewing process, and the bottle is far too pressurized. When you open it, beer foams out everywhere. So always have a large glass ready to pour it into.

One thing Mexican microbrews have in common is they’re uniformly expensive, especially when compared to the price of domestic mass-market beer. You can expect to pay between 60-160 pesos for one 12-oz bottle, about three to eight U.S. dollars, and more in restaurants.

When you go to Beer Box or a restaurant with a selection of craft beer, try a few different ones, ask for advice, or check their descriptions. Two I like (that I can remember) are Comma Beer and Red Pig. To that end, here’s some beer vocabulary in Spanish to help you choose your craft beer.

  • pale: rubia
  • red: roja
  • lúpulos: hops
  • cebada: barley
  • trigo: wheat

I love a good craft beer, but in general, my conscience won’t allow me to spend 60 pesos on one 12-oz bottle of beer, no matter how good it may be, when I could get two 40-oz bottles of Victoria for the same price.

Similar to how there are two main producers of domestic beer, two craft beers have emerged as more affordable and more widely available than the rest, at least where I live: Minerva and Cucapa. At about 30 pesos per bottle (about 1.5 USD), they’re at least half the price of other craft beers, although still double the price of a domestic.

Minerva is far better than Cucapa, which can be downright nasty, and sometimes suffers from the overly-pressurized bottles mentioned above. Of all their varieties I’ve tried, their oscura—American Brown Ale—is the most acceptable.

Minerva, on the other hand, is great. I love their stout, and their pale ale is good too. They also have an IPA, a lager, and something called a “tropilager,”—a “tropical lager”—all of which I haven’t tried yet. Their stout is good enough for me, making it my regular microbrew indulgence.

Besides beer stores like the Beer Box, you can find Minerva, Cucapa, and other cheaper microbrews at big supermarkets like Chedraui or Wal-mart. (Yes, it’s a sad truth that in Mexico, Wal-Mart is one of the best places to buy imported beer, craft beers, wine, even bourbon—not to mention peanut butter, cheddar cheese, and Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream.)

The other affordable craft beers I’ve tried have been nothing to get excited about. Two that you might find at a big supermarket are Day of the Dead or Calavera—fancy packaging, tempting descriptions, but mediocre beer, and the danger of overly-pressurized bottles. Tulum is another, which is available in convenience stores in the Mayan Riviera at a higher price than regular domestics, but cheaper than most other craft beers. I remember Tulum as being pretty good, although my perception was certainly skewed by beautiful sunny weather compounded by profound thirst.

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Where to buy beer in Mexico

You can buy beer practically anywhere in Mexico—even on the side of the highway to take with you in the car. At concerts and soccer games, you don’t have to go looking for them—vendors regularly bring them right to you.

You can usually buy alcohol anytime you want, although in some parts of Mexico you can’t buy after midnight (or some late-night hour) or Sunday afternoon. Chain stores like the nationwide convenience store OXXO enforce this, locking their coolers, although many independent corner stores may not. Also, on election days and some Mexican holidays, the ley seca (the “dry law”) applies, meaning that sales of alcohol are prohibited, even in restaurants.

Tap beer is not so common, even at bars and cantinas—usually they just give you bottles. Be careful with tap beer too. Unless you are at a reputable place that regularly cleans out the tubes that go from the barrel to the tap, you can get a wicked hangover from drinking tap beer. This has something to do with all those nasty old particles clinging to the tubes.

To save money, or to buy in bulk, you have two better options than the average family-run corner store. You’ll see OXXOs everywhere, and they have average prices and a good selection. What you may not notice is that, depending on the specific store, you can get a discount on certain beers (usually tallboys, called latas altas) when you buy four or more. You can look for signs or displays, ask the clerk, or just buy four and see what happens to the price.

Even better discounts are available at depositos, which are factory stores, also known as expendios. There are two types, corresponding to each major beer brand. These are the best places to buy caguamas—the refillable 40-oz bottles that are not only the best value, but the most environmentally friendly.

Tip: With recycled bottles (you’ll know them by their beat-up conditions and leftover label glue on the glass), don’t drink straight from the bottle. Look under the rim and you’ll probably see some leftover gunk that wasn’t properly washed off. Pour the beer into a glass, or wipe the rim down with a napkin. This also goes for soda, which is why at restaurants your Coke will always come with a glass.

You pay a deposit on the caguamas, so save the receipt. You can find them at OXXOs and small corner stores too, but they are much cheaper at depositos. At the moment the promotion is two for 60 pesos—about three USD, bottle deposit not included. Think about it—that’s 80 ounces of beer for the price of one microbrew at a beer store, or one 12-oz Corona at a fancy restaurant.

But it used to be even better. When I first moved to Mexico in 2010, there was a promotion for Indio—bring in three bottle caps, and a caguama of Indio was 10 pesos. Ten pesos—at the time it was about 80 U.S. cents!

Right about then, I happened to make friends with the guy who parked and washed cars in one of the parking lots near my house. He drank caguamas of Indio all day, every day, throwing the bottle caps into a big pile in the corner. Not because of the promotion; he just liked Indio. When I asked him if I could take some caps, he said, take as many as you want! Scoop them up!

So for my first six months in Mexico, I drank 80-cent 40s of pretty good beer. I thought, I’ve come to the right place.

Drinking beer Mexican style

You’ll rarely see a Mexican drink a beer straight, without any enhancements. Often so much goes into it that it barely tastes like beer. Me, despite the occasional squeeze of lime into a light beer on a hot day, I prefer beer in its natural state. So, I recommend nothing described below, except maybe the shrimp michelada for novelty’s sake.

Just like there’s salt and pepper on every dinner table in the U.S., there’s salt and lime on every Mexican table. They go on everything—tacos, soups, and of course beer. Mexicans squeeze a lime into the beer—they never shove the whole lime down the neck—and then sprinkle some salt on top. And it’s always a lime, never lemon. In fact I’ve only seen lemons for sale in certain regions of Mexico, and they’re a little different from the lemons you may be imagining.

A note on confusing vocabulary—limes (green) are called limones, and lemons (yellow) are called limas.

You can even order it this way—escarchada, which means “frosted.” You’ll get a frozen mug with salt on the rim and lime juice at the bottom—sometimes two or three fingers of lime juice—along with the bottle of beer, for an extra cost of a few pesos.

There’s something else about that lime and salt—if you happen to get a skunked or flat beer, the lime kills the bad taste. Lime is more than delicious, but a great equalizing force.

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Lime and salt is only the beginning. The really Mexican way to drink beer is in a michelada. I’m not sure of the origin of this word, but it is similar to chela, which is the Mexican slang word for beer.

A michelada is basically a Bloody Mary with beer substituting vodka: lime, salt, tomato juice, and maybe something extra like hot sauce or Worcestershire sauce, which is called salsa inglesa—English sauce. The top of the container—usually a liter-sized paper cup—will be coated in dried ketchup-like hot sauce and salt, looking vaguely like the pieces of broken glass sunken into the top of a concrete wall for security, seen on modest urban homes throughout Mexico.

You can even buy cans of pre-made micheladas, or with just the lime and salt already mixed in.

You can get some wild micheladas too, sometimes full of seafood like shrimp or oysters or slices of fruit and vegetables like mango or jicama. These aren’t bad, actually, but are more of a meal, or an experience, than a refreshment.

Another option is a cubana, which skips the tomato sauce and loads up with Worcestershire sauce until you can’t even taste the beer. Some places commit the further blasphemy of putting sugary fruit-flavored powder (mango, pineapple, etc.) in the beer or on the rim, presumably for the younger crowd.

Besides restaurants and town fairs, you can also find these for sale on the side of the road from convenience stores or little stands. You’ll know they serve micheladas when you see a bunch of caguama bottles lined up and big paper cups on a table in front of the store.

I don’t drink micheladas or these other concoctions, and I don’t know many foreigners who do, but actually they’re not as bad as they sound. Because of all these options, if you just want your beer and nothing else, order it sola—literally “alone.”

But try a michelada, if for nothing else than the experience. I had them fairly often when I first moved here, although now I can’t remember the last time I’ve had one. Probably at a crowded town festival with bouncy banda music playing.

You’ll know you’ve been drinking micheladas at one of these events, because the next day you’ll wake up to your shirt covered in little red horizontal lines from all the times someone bumped into your beer, and the rim of dried hot sauce and salt hit your chest. At your next Mexican party, look around for the mark of the michelada. If you see one, I hope you’ll remember this article and laugh.

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The Monarch Butterfly Migration to Mexico

If I told you that, every year, millions of insects migrate thousands of miles from the eastern U.S. and Canada to the same part of central Mexico, would you want to go there to see them? Probably not, if you’re imagining roaches or locusts or something similarly horrible.

Fortunately, the protagonist of this voyage is the monarch butterfly, pleasant creatures to walk among as they gather in great groups on the trunks of tall oyamel fir trees in the mountain forests of Michoacan and the State of Mexico.

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This migration is one of the largest in the world, certainly the largest in North America, and the only one by insects that includes the return trip. And it happens right above our heads every year—millions of butterflies following no leader but instinct.

Or is it something more than instinct? It’s still a mystery to scientists how these masses of butterflies return to the same specific areas every year, a relatively small region of the central Mexican plateau that’s about a four-hour drive from Mexico City.

Although the precise method is unknown—it may have to do with Earth’s magnetic field, the wind currents of the northern hemisphere, or some kind of insect collective unconscious, the purpose is clear: escaping the cold winters of the north, which the butterflies are far too sensitive to survive, for the perpetual spring weather of the Mexican highlands, like so many other northern visitors. Much of the Mexican altiplano is arid and desert-like, but the areas around its mountain ranges have forest groves with enough humidity to support the needs of countless creatures, including the monarch butterfly.

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Another mysterious phenomenon is involved in this migration: the birth of a special generation that lives much longer than the average butterfly. Most monarchs live only a few weeks, but in late summer, the migratory generation is born, the final generation of the year. Also called the Methusula generation, named after the biblical character who lived 969 years, these butterflies have a lifespan of up to nine months, allowing them to migrate south to Mexico, gather together in the trees for warmth and protection, breed and produce the next generation.

These successive generations have the typical two-to-five-week lifespan, so they fly north in stages, laying eggs and dying along the way. About four generations later, once the voyage is over, the migratory generation is born once again, destined to travel south like their great-great-great grandparents did the year before.

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These insects face plenty of obstacles on the way, in both the north and south. For instance, according to the Washington Post, 20 million monarch butterflies die every year from getting hit by cars.

In the U.S. and Canada, the main threat comes from a decline in milkweed, which the butterflies rely on for food. More factory farms and fewer milkweed plants means less food for the monarchs. The butterflies also face danger from the weather—one harsh chill on the way, and an entire flock can be wiped out.

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In Mexico, the greatest threat comes from habitat loss, especially logging, which is why the Mexican government has designated eight butterfly reserves. Five are open for limited tourism. You must stay on designated trails, and touching the butterflies is forbidden.

Besides being important sources of food for creatures higher on the food chain, monarch butterflies are important pollinators, like bees. Therefore, conservation efforts are underway in both countries. It’s such an important issue that the fate of monarch butterflies was a topic of discussion during a summit of North American leaders Barack Obama, Peña Nieto and Stephen Harper in 2014 in Toluca, the nearest big city to the reserves. Afterwards, Michelle Obama planted milkweed and other plants favored by monarchs at the White House.

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I visited the largest reserve in Mexico, El Rosario, in March of 2019. We left early from Toluca, the capital of the State of Mexico, taking the highway west to the state of Michoacan. More remote parts of Michoacan have a bad reputation for danger from drug gangs, but there’s little to worry about on this well-worn route between the monarch butterfly reserves and Mexico City. (Toluca is on the way.)

Two hours into the drive, as we grew closer to the reserve, a few butterflies fluttered on the side of the twisting road, but nothing like the dense clouds we hoped to see. No matter, we pressed on, and after about three hours on a smooth highway surrounded by low brown hills, patches of rolling forest, and small concrete towns, we reached the parking lot for El Rosario.

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First there was an uphill walk on a twisting path lined with wooden structures containing small restaurants and vendors, most selling butterfly-related souvenirs: painted ceramic decorations, tablecloths, and t-shirts, all decorated with the familiar orange and black pattern. Many had buckets of fresh fruit for sale, including peaches, strawberries, and blackberries bigger your thumb. Smoke poured from open grills in front of the restaurants, while teenagers holding laminated menus called out the specialties of each.

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The entrance to the reserve appeared after this gauntlet, a wide arch above the crowds. By now the butterflies were thick in the air. We paid the 50-peso entrance fee (about $2.50 USD) and entered the reserve.

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One long trail in a big loop went up and then down the mountain slope among the tall oyamel fir trees. A few other trails branched off from this loop, but they were either blocked off or for horses only. According to the guides selling horse rides, the butterflies were even thicker higher in the mountains and away from the crowds.

Some tree trunks were completely covered in butterflies, fluttering masses that resembled the leaves of dense creeper ivy in black and orange. The sky was full of them, the ground too, though mostly with corpses of the fallen. We passed several pools of muddy water where butterflies drank on the surface and from all sides.

The path took about two hours with slow walking and lots of stopping for pictures or to just take in the spectacle. With continuous walking, it would take about an hour. I couldn’t help but think that any other insect swarm might not be so pleasant, but the colorful butterflies instead made for a peaceful, beautiful sight. The light sound of fluttering wings was like a breeze through stiff leaves.

For the most part the butterflies stayed well above our heads, although regularly one or two would drift down to land on a shoulder or forearm. One of the park’s rules was to not touch any butterflies, and it seemed well respected for the most part. You had to watch your step as well, because many butterflies ended up landing on the path.

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Once we left the park, we took a different route home, on narrow highways through the forested mountains of Michoacan to the magic town of El Oro, which translates to The Gold.

El Oro used to be a gold mining community that attracted prospectors from all over the world, especially from English companies, which is reflected today with names like Brockman for a large reservoir next to the town. Buildings like the Municipal Palace and the Juarez Theatre have art nouveau and neoclassical architecture that you don’t usually see in Mexican small towns, which are typically in the Spanish colonial style.

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We ate lunch in the Vagon Express Minero restaurant inside an old converted train car in the center of town. When someone stood up or a waitress walked by, the whole car rocked back and forth with the motion. The food was ok; the atmosphere better.

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I’d already been to Tlapujajua, another magic town just up the road, but never to El Oro itself. Both are nice and quite different—Tlapujajua is all winding cobblestone streets on the side of a mountain slope, while El Oro is relatively flat and laid out in a grid. Visiting both in one day would be easy, and would give a nice introduction to the tranquil, friendly Mexican magic towns.

The magic town designation is a program in Mexico to recognize and preserve the most beautiful and representative small towns in the country. At the moment there are 121. I’ve been to many—maybe 40 or 50—and each has something unique or interesting.

In El Oro, it’s certainly the ambiance, with qualities not seen elsewhere in Mexico—British names and wooden buildings, a train car restaurant, and an old train station across the street that’s now a museum. Besides the Tequila trains that leave from Guadalajara and the Copper Canyon train in the north, there are no passenger trains in Mexico, so these are rare sights.

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Another good stop near the reserves is Valle de Bravo in the State of Mexico, which is in the opposite direction from El Oro and Tlapujajua. With its large reservoir for boat rides, tall mountains for parasailing or mountain biking, and pretty town center, Valle de Bravo is a popular weekend destination for people living in the madness of Mexico City. If you wanted to spend more than one day on your butterfly adventure, a small hotel in Valle de Bravo would be your best choice.

How to get there

Many websites offer tours to the butterfly reserves, some for thousands of U.S. dollars. Unless you’ve got the money and want a comprehensive scientific explanation of everything you’ll see, however, you don’t need a tour, especially considering the low entrance fees for the reserves. El Rosario was 50 pesos, about $2.50 USD, and I’m sure the other reserves have similar prices, if not the same.

All you need is a rental car and a GPS or a cell phone with the Waze app to help you navigate. The highways and roads are generally good but can become confusing once you leave the highway at Zitacuaro and pass through small towns on the way to the reserve. There aren’t many street signs in the towns—most are confusing grids of one-way streets, many with parked cars partially blocking the way. Here’s where you’ll need to follow Waze, or if there’s traffic, you can follow the cars in front of you—they’re probably going to the reserve.

The reserves are open from mid-November to March, with the best times for viewing butterflies from January to early March.

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Sources and more information:

Michoacan travel website: http://michoacan.travel/es/lugares/santuario-el-rosario.html

USDA Forest Service website: https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/Monarch_Butterfly/migration/index.shtml

The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2015/12/monarch-butterflies-fly-south-for-the-winter/422115/

The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2018/06/21/monarch-butterflies-migration-is-part-relay-race-part-obstacle-course-and-full-of-danger/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.d6b15389b66f

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