Nothing could have prepared me for today. ‘I was blind, and now I can see,’ I think I’ve heard that before, seems appropriate now.

We sit atop our rides in the sanctuary camp of El Rosario, not far from Angangueo, a once thriving mining town in the central mountainous region of Mexico, in the state of Michoacan, but that booming time was many years ago, the town now a facsimile of its former self, not unlike many northern American towns. You can feel the emptiness now, only filled with the warmth of our hosts and those souls who refuse to leave their homes, at least until they need to find work.

We pass through lush forests of pine, and open valleys of golden grass before we reach a clearing where we meet locals who live and work in these forests. We begin the two-mile trek up the remaining mountain pass, the rest of the way to the monarch colony, a place that requires the light touch of human feet, and nothing more.

It starts small, as these things do, one little butterfly greeting us on the path upward, waving us on into the forest. Then we see another, then another. It’s at this point I think back to the two days previous. The first taking place at this same sanctuary, El Rosario, and the second at Chincua across the mountain.

The Storm at El Rosario

We bounce along the road in our open-air trucks, driven by locals, and navigated by our guides Astrid, Karel, and Lilia. As we climb higher, the gears in the well-used truck I’m in, yell out with grinding and sputtering cries as they try to catch their breath on the steep grade. The air is getting colder, the sun scarcer, with every turn taking us closer to our destination, the El Rosario Monarch Sanctuary.

The trucks wait for us at the bottom of a small hill, tree farms grow to our left, marked with the familiar WWF panda logo. Up ahead Karel pays a local woman at an entrance gate for passage up the trail on horseback, her people own this land and rely on visitors to the sanctuary for their livelihood, as well as the programs WWF and the Mexican government provide. The air is thin at 11,000 feet, and Astrid assigns each of us a mode of transport to help our lungs with the initial ascent.

We pace through the forest, an overcast and cold day on the mountain. We had had some drizzles earlier, some gusts of wind, some small weather disagreements, but nothing overly alarming. But what is past in not always prologue.

Storm rolling in at El Rosario. @ WWF-US/Evan Levent

A slight puff hits my rain jacket, large enough and with enough density to take notice. “That had some weight to it,” I think to myself. “Are the raindrops getting bigger?” A second much harder puff whips my shoulder taking me out of my thoughts, “ok that one hurt.” Then I see the little white remnant fall off my jacket and roll its way down my leg to the ground. Are you serious right now? Is this happening? Is this hail? On a strange mountain, in a strange forest, in the middle of Mexico? Yes. Yes, indeed it is.

Like a shock from the sky, thunder crashes and frozen orbs descend on us like a biblical plague. All I can do is flip my hood up, duck my head under, brace for impact, and hope to get through it as we’re pelted over and over and over again. We plow ahead, our group hearty with resolve, but honestly, what choice do we have? We are in too deep, we have come too far. We pass our muster though, and hold up to the scrutiny of Mother Nature, barely complaining as the frozen ice dropping from the heavens hits our hides and heads. So we plow on, hoping for relief.

The storm breaks just as I’m about to, I’m wondering to myself if I’m covered with bruises under my gear. We move on a little further down the road to dismount. The rest of the journey is to be finished by foot. But, as we ascend the last leg of the trail, we slowly come to the realization that this might not be the day for monarchs.

The end of the trail is in sight, and the butterflies hang snugly to the trees above us in massive clumps that look like dead brown leaves, they are using each other for warmth after the storm, and barely move. We take a couple snap shots of the clumps, some in our group shivering uncontrollably, others sharing extra clothes to keep them warm. We look at the resting butterflies through binoculars, have one fun moment when a brave monarch leaves the warm confines of its tree and perches itself on one of my fellow traveler’s heads. Then, we head back down the mountain, wet and cold, without really seeing what we had hoped to see.

A Step Up in Chincua

The next day is a better day at Chincua. We find ourselves in a beautiful solar powered sanctuary base first thing in the morning, a newly built facility constructed, from what I learn, from government and private donations. We begin a familiar schedule, once again mounting our horses and entering the forest.

After a half hour of riding a beautiful trail through lush green forest, with the sun breaking through at just the right times, we again reached as far as assisted transport can go in the sanctuary and finish the trek by foot. Immediately we know this will be a better day, we begin to see our monarch friends early in the journey, and they kept getting denser as we moved on. Finally, we reach the end of the trail and watch from about 100 feet away as the orange and yellow we knew from our childhood dance around the forest, feeding, mating, and being butterflies. It was definitely a level up from the day before, but as I said before, nothing could have prepared us for day three.

First glance of the monarchs in Chincua. @ WWF-US/Evan Levent

The Great Day

Back at the scene of the crime, El Rosario, where just two days before we had been pelted by hail and barely saw a butterfly doing anything. This time, though, we’re going in the morning with the hope of the right mix of sunshine and clouds that the monarchs love to play in. It begins the same, we get our rides with an invigorated spirit. We ascend. We dismount. We walk. Our welcome party of a few little butterflies are in our rear view and then, just as the hail took us by surprise days earlier, forces began to gather, this time in our favor. Larger clusters of butterflies bounce around, everyone stops to take pictures, but our local guide, Rachel, urges us to keep moving, obviously knowing something we don’t. So we move. Then more. Then more. Then more. Then, sunlight breaks, the earth warms under our feet and onto our face, and the monarchs come alive.

Monarch butterflies at the Monarch Biosphere Reserve, Mexico © Court Whelan/Natural Habitat Adventures

It begins with one massive cluster of butterflies hanging in a tree in the distance, they fall off two, three, four at a time, then, like a plume of smoke they explode from the tree filling the sky with their orange and yellow radiance.

It begins with one massive cluster of butterflies hanging in a tree in the distance, they fall off two, three, four at a time, then, like a plume of smoke they explode from the tree filling the sky with their orange and yellow radiance.Then another plume, this time much closer explodes in the same fashion. Not too long after, a third plume of radiance, color, and movement. Poetry in motion. Every time a clump breaks into the sunlight I can feel the dopamine rush filling my brain, exhilarating my senses, forcing a smile across my face.

Before too long, with conditions just right as we had hoped, we’re surrounded by floating, fluttering, flapping wings. I lay down on a little mound of dirt with some of my fellow travelers, stare up, and take it in. Nobody talks, not because we remember that our guides told us we should be quiet in the sanctuary, but because we have no words, just gaping looks of wonder as we experience this magic. And we knew this was a particularly magical day as even our guides were taking pictures with the same look of wonder spread across their faces.

They fly in levels, the monarchs do, some hundreds of feet high, barely specs of black for our eyes to see, some fly nearer to the trees above where you can make out their familiar shape and some color depending on how the sun hits them. Then there are the more adventurous flyers swirling just above our heads and around those who are still standing. Still more there are those monarchs that land on flowers and low hanging trees to drink the nectar in preparation for their migratory journey back north through the US, then into southern Canada, before their progeny flies all the way back down to Mexico to spend their winters as generations before have done. Always finding their way right back to these forest sanctuaries. Others even mate right on the ground next to us, yeah, that happens too, so they can lay their eggs on the southern variety of milkweed in Texas a month later.

That Texas generation will fly another month north then lay their eggs in the central states from the east coast to the Midwest, then yet another generation is born a month or so later in the northern US, and finally a heartier bigger generation is born on the northern most milkweed varietals in southern Canada.

This generation, those born in Canada, live six or seven times longer than any other monarch, flying themselves all the way back down to Mexico to spend their winters, then beginning the whole cycle over again. And it’s these monarch butterflies, the methuselah generation, that I’m spending my time with now.

Hours of meditative bliss pass by, no one wants to leave, but we have places to go, open air trucks waiting to take us back into town. So we leave the colony, smiles on our faces, and we’re all fluttering about too, ‘That was amazing’ ‘Once in a lifetime’ ‘I thought yesterday was great, but oh my.’

While I’ve tried here to paint a bit of a picture of what this experience is like, the truth is, as is the nature of most of these things in life, it’s hard to justly express the magnitude and majesty of what we saw, the sheer scale of what this experience can be, literally millions of butterflies dancing around you. Before I went I had no idea, yes, I liked monarchs, as most of us do growing up in North America, but this was a far greater assault on the senses, in the best way possible, than I could have anticipated. As Jodie Foster once said in the great 90’s movie Contact “they should have sent a poet.” Because that’s what this was, natural, beautiful, inspiring, magnificent, pure poetry in motion.

@ WWF-US/Evan Levent

By Evan Levent, WWF