As we navigate through a since-COVID-world these days, I’m constantly reminded of the merits and necessity of travel. Sure, there are those highlight moments such as the first time you see the Eiffel Tower, or the first time you see a lion in the wild, or when you first set your eyes on Machu Picchu, but oftentimes it’s those “small moments” surrounding the “big moments” that make travel so inspirational and intoxicating.
The first time I saw the Eiffel Tower, for instance, I ended up playing bocce ball with local Parisians while we drank wine out of paper cups underneath the iconic structure. Or the first time I saw a lion in the wild was in the Serengeti, when a lioness approached our vehicle and I swear she looked straight into my eyes, time stopped for a few skipped heartbeats. And when I saw Machu Picchu, as breathtaking as it was, I felt compelled to lay down, which quickly resulted in a nap only to be awoken by an alpaca standing above me.
We often travel with a goal in mind, such as seeing a world wonder, but it’s the adjacent experiences that change us for the better, and keep us coming back.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, like many of you, I have been stuck indoors, periodically escaping to take in fresh air but prevented from leaving the country. For those of us who adore travel, this year has been a challenge against our passion. My escape through it all has been in my travel memories, the most recent of which is an unforgettable Kingdom of the Monarchs adventure in February 2020, just before the pandemic really spread.
Having been to Mexico a dozen or so times in my life, I hadn’t put too high of a priority on joining this adventure. Admittedly, I wasn’t entirely keen on seeing slews of monarch butterflies either; it just had never been a top interest of mine. Those are exactly the reasons why I elected to take this trip in 2020: I wanted to better understand the draw of this unique itinerary.
Allow me to share the unforgettable, permeating half-day that’s replayed in my mind throughout 2020, narrowly maintaining my sanity as we all face a variety of lockdown measures.
On day two of this journey we disembark from Mexico City, a sprawling metropolis most Americans never consider visiting, but one that is well worth the trip. We take a large coach bus, with social distancing before it was a widely known concept. The highway climbs through the Mexican Rockies, awarding us with gorgeous scenery and crisp mountain air that brings goosebumps to my arms with every remembered inhalation.
After a few hours we reach the small mountain village of Angangueo, a mining town situated in the shadows of surrounding peaks. The town embraces the monarch migration phenomenon with street signs featuring the insects, murals painted near the town square, and sculptures commemorating the butterflies. Upon arrival, we had a delicious and authentic Mexican lunch, washed down with Mexican beer or real-sugar Coke served by some of the most gracious people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.
Following the delectable meal, we climb into the back of covered pickup trucks because the forthcoming road is too treacherous for larger vehicles, much less a full-sized coach. This winding road escorts us another thousand or so vertical feet by local communities which rely on farming and are centered around the most notable, and perhaps only permanent, structure in their village: a rustic cathedral. The locals wear smiles on their faces as they see us in our unique vehicle climbing higher into mountains and seeing those smiles is rivaled only by the sweeping panoramic views of the landscape.
We arrive at El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary, and after exchanging a few more smiles and waves with the locals nearby, we quickly hop on horseback to climb ever farther into the mountains.
Now, I grew up in Colorado and have a lot of hiking and horseback riding under my belt, but I am not a fan of horseback riding. I share this because many of our travelers feel trepidation about that aspect of this itinerary and someone who loves the activity might not be the best resource for you. I, however, am like many of you and felt a slight sense of dread when approaching the equine. The horseback riding may have been my most cherished moments of the entire adventure.
Growing up in Colorado, I’d hike 100 miles each summer and one thing you quickly learn as a hiker is to always look down. There are roots and rocks and branches that all present themselves as tripping hazards. While on horseback, guided by a hiking local who held the reins, I was able to relax, to take in the mesmerizing views over the mountains, to lean back and stare straight up where giant fir trees scratched the skies 60 to 80 meters above my head!
As we gained altitude a lone monarch butterfly flew into sight, among those behemoth trees—just a small reminder of why we came. As we climbed higher, more monarchs reveal themselves—it felt like a corny description of Heaven out of a book, but it was all too real.
The horses gallantly take us another thousand feet from where our modified trucks wait, but there’s farther to go. We dismount the horses at around 11,000 feet in altitude and hike deeper into the remote wilderness. The hiking is easy, mostly flat land surrounded by some of the most beautiful wildflowers you’ll find in open meadows. While the butterfly colonies will move periodically and therefore the distance of hiking can vary, you generally can expect about a 20-minute leisurely walk.
At the end of the walk is a monarch butterfly colony. I don’t have the words to express the spiritual awakening one feels when approaching the colony, it just may be one of those experiences you have to have for yourself. Everyone innately goes silent, tiptoeing their way to the best viewing location. When the butterflies’ body temperatures are cool, they gather in clusters along the fir tree trunks and branches, coating them in wings upon wings upon wings, overlapping in a mosaic of layered patterns.
As the butterflies are warmed by the sun, they have only one option to cool themselves down: fly. The clusters will warm together and when it becomes too warm, they will take to the sky, disengaging from the branches like a waterfall. This is called a cascade.
After the excitement of witnessing a cascade of butterflies, you stare at the sky as tens of millions of butterflies flutter about. The silence is interrupted only by the hum of their wings, and you certainly can hear them, you can even feel the air around you whirling in tiny whisps of air propelled by each butterfly wing. Iridescent scales naturally fall off of the wings, creating a pixy-dust atmosphere that only further extends the magic you’re feeling inside.
You sit, you smile, you take in the smells and the fresh air and the rustling of one of the world’s most magnificent great migrations. You close your eyes and capture that rare moment so that you can revisit it forevermore.
As the pandemic continues and lockdowns remain in place, I find myself escaping to this memory of falling in love with the people, the culture, and the ecosystems of a country that I was already familiar with. Thank you, Nat Hab, for giving me a memory that I can dwell in during this difficult year.
Those who wish to experience their own monarch butterfly adventure can do so soon, as Mexico has opened their borders to Americans and we optimistically plan on operating this itinerary as scheduled in early 2021, with our many COVID protocols in place.
Witnessing the monarch migration was a phenomenal experience, but it’s the small moments surrounding it that make this adventure my own personal retreat.
This guest post was written by Nat Hab Adventure Specialist Joey Sudmeier. All photos by Joey Sudmeier.