A Travellerspoint blog

November 2016

Magical Monarch Butterfly Migration (1 Good)

El Rosario near Zitacuaro, MEXICO: WEEK 10 NOVEMBER, SUNNY, 12 - 21 DEGREES

sunny 20 °C
View Thomas's Great Adventure on edandsuet's travel map.

Monarch Butterflies drying out their wings

Monarch Butterflies drying out their wings

One of the reasons we came to Mexico was to have the once in a lifetime experience of witnessing the Monarch Butterfly migration that commences in mid November until March. Every winter, 150 million butterflies migrate from the Great Lakes in the US and Canada to the pine forests of Michoacan, the region to the west of Mexico City. It is astonishing to believe that the butterflies cover 4500km in four to five weeks to reach a unique micro climate in the pine forests, ready for winter.

The cool temperatures at 3000m help to conserve energy, the trees provide shelter and the fog laden air prevents the butterflies from drying out. The butterflies would normally die after 8 weeks, but to migrate and breed, they enter a phase which allows them to live for 6 months. They breed in the spring where their caterpillars feed on milkweed, before they die and their off spring return to the US. Nature is always a source of constant amazement - to think that their off spring must have the migration map genetically imprinted as how can they know where to fly back to?

With our limited Spanish, we needed to find out how to get to the 'Santuario de la Mariposa Monarca'. We based ourselves in Zitacuaro, a small town scattered over low hills at 1900m. From speaking to the hotel owners, who were incredibly friendly and helpful, we pieced together the information as we wouldn't have a map, which always seems simple at the time but in practice becomes another adventure into the unknown. The hotel owners even phoned their friend, who is a guide at the butterfly sanctuary, to find out what the best time was during the day to see the butterflies take flight.

We set off early to find a taxi collectivo to the village of Ocampo, which was meant to stop roughly two blocks away by a building with a sign for "Hielo Nacional", but was actually a parking lot with a bench. We were expecting a minibus collectivo, but it was a taxi. What should have been a 25 min journey turned into 45 min one due to numerous unexpected stops. Our taxi driver decided to order tacos for breakfast and eat them while driving, the cheese dripping down all over his top, stopped for petrol and then allowed another passenger to fill up a large gas canister which he promptly popped into the boot.

We arrived in Ocampo to find the main plaza had been cordoned off by police and we were meant to be dropped off at the Ocampo mercado which the taxi couldn't drive up to. Sensing an opportunity, our taxi driver tried to tell us in Spanish that the only way to get to El Rosario would be in his taxi (of course) at the exorbitant price of 250 pesos, as there would be no collectivos running from Ocampo. Edward was having none of it, so we walked to the main plaza to discover that there was a cheerleading/dance competition in full flow and most of the villagers were having a fiesta, which was why the road was closed and all the girls we encountered were wearing flashy leotards.

At this point, we had a tremendous stroke of luck. A collectivo (battered minibus) happened to be passing and we asked the driver if he was heading to El Rosario and he was! This part of the journey should have taken 40 min up a winding single track road, but again we were thwarted halfway by a procession of children in school uniform. This celebration blocked the main road, but our collectivo driver was a determined man and he took advice from the other passengers and turned onto a dirt track.

School Children Procession on the way to El Rosario from Ocampo

School Children Procession on the way to El Rosario from Ocampo

The older guy next to me crossed himself, which was when I noticed a sharp, mud and grass incline up ahead. "Only landrovers can make it up that hill," exclaimed Thomas and I admit even I've watched enough episodes of Top Gear to be in agreement. I wasn't entirely sure how a minibus without four wheel drive was going to make it up there and whether the minibus would end up stuck or overturn. The older guy crossed himself again, which didn't exactly inspire confidence.

Somehow, the minibus bumped and swayed from side to side to make it up the track, continued to lurch over the mud through small holdings, passing turkeys, chickens and a collection of sheep on the way. We ended up by a field of corn and ploughed back through local's back yards to find the road again.

Slight off road diversion taken by collectivo driver, Ocampo to El Rosario

Slight off road diversion taken by collectivo driver, Ocampo to El Rosario

Slowly, but surely we wound up through the pine forest, climbing ever higher until we reached El Rosario. The sanctuary have guides to accompany you to ensure that the butterflies and their environment are not harmed by tourists. Surrounded by Mexican families, young and old, we hiked ever upwards through the forest to a height of 3000m. Finally, we were among the butterflies, thousands and thousands of them; the branches of the trees turning reddish brown from all of the butterflies resting, drying their wings.

Monarch Butterflies weighing down the pine tree branches

Monarch Butterflies weighing down the pine tree branches

Monarch Butterflies weighing down the pine tree branches, drying out their wings

Monarch Butterflies weighing down the pine tree branches, drying out their wings

When the sun appears through the clouds, the butterflies take flight, a magical display of fluttering wings against the bright blue sky.

Monarch Butterflies take flight

Monarch Butterflies take flight


Monarch Butterflies taking flight during sunny spells

Monarch Butterflies taking flight during sunny spells

I could have stayed amidst the butterflies in the forest for hours - there was an overwhelming sense of calmness here and it was so beautiful, it made my heart sing. Maybe in another life I had lived in a little cabin in the pine forest, with just the elements and nature to battle (maybe young whippersnapper Meg, the backpacker from San Christobel, and her crystals were rubbing off on me). I was extremely privileged to be able witness such a glorious sight, but my heart became heavy with sadness too. Loss of pine forest habitat effects their numbers and as always it is humans who are the main threat. However, the web is filled with blogs from people who are planting milkweed to encourage the butterfly breeding so there is always hope. Everyone needs a little magic in their lives.

Thomas made it his mission to save as many Monarch butterflies as possible if they were stranded on the path. You are not allowed to touch them, but our guide showed him how to lift them up with twigs and carry them back to safety. "If I only manage to save one butterfly, it will make a difference", observed Thomas. It always makes a difference, it doesn't matter how small.

Thomas takes a stranded butterfly back to the forest

Thomas takes a stranded butterfly back to the forest

Posted by edandsuet 17:42 Archived in Mexico Tagged butterfly monarch migration Comments (0)

Mexico City: Taxi Driver from Hell (1 Bad)

Mexico City, Mexico: WEEK 10 NOVEMBER, overcast with sunny intervals, 11 - 21 degrees

sunny
View Thomas's Great Adventure on edandsuet's travel map.

Our stay in Mexico City didn't go according to plan. The tone was set when we boarded the bus in Oaxaca, having our day packs searched and our bodies patted down for weapons. An official then boarded and video taped all of the passengers. I've never been searched for weapons before taking a bus in all the years I've been backpacking.

Then there were all the warnings about self preservation in Mexico City, the most populous city in Mexico with 21.2 million inhabitants:

  • don't hail a taxi in the street, people have been robbed and abducted in stolen taxis
  • never take taxis from the airport or bus terminals unless they are authorised prepaid taxis
  • always double check a taxi driver's identification including their photo
  • don't go to bario Doctores or Lagunilla market at night which are centres for the drug trade
  • do not keep debit or credit cards on your person as muggers have been known to hold you hostage until they have extracted enough cash from the ATM with your card

We took all the relevant precautions as like any big city including London, you need to be vigilant at all times and we were constantly drilling Thomas about his bags and possessions. We arrived at the most enormous bus station I've ever been to, TAPO north terminal, in daylight. Mexico has four major bus terminals for the four points of the compass. We couldn't travel into the centre on the metro as backpacks are not allowed. We successfully found the authorised taxi desk, bought our ticket to the Zocalo (historical centre) and waited patiently for our authorised taxi in the queue.

Our taxi driver resembled Michael Douglas from the film "Falling Down" - he was definitely a man on the edge of imploding or on the brink of a nervous breakdown, attired in a white crumpled shirt with fraying cuffs, a loosely fitting tie and greying hair at the temples. When we handed him our prepaid ticket, he threw his hands up in disgust, slammed the driver's door shut with such force that whole taxi shook, threw our backpacks into the boot and stormed off like a toddler in tantrum meltdown.

We weren't sure what to do at this point as we had already paid and he had now taken our ticket. We got into the taxi, completely bemused, while I checked his identification and photo plastered on the window. We surmised that the historical centre was an unpopular fare and hoped that he would return to the taxi in a better mood. "Can we get a different taxi as he's a scary man?" requested Thomas. We were thinking about what we should do next when he returned, got into the driver's seat without a word, started the engine and agitatedly ran his hand through his hair. He slammed his foot onto the accelerator, the tires screaming in protest as we lurched forward over a speed bump to join gridlocked traffic. This was when I realised that yet again there were no seatbelts in the front or rear.

It was 2.4 miles to the Zocalo, most of it spent bumper to bumper, apart from odd bursts of speed which normally followed a dangerous manoeuvre that Fast and Furious Vin Diesel might have attempted. Our kamikazi driver decided to turn into onward traffic, edge through junctions with red traffic lights while other vehicles ploughed into us and overtake into lanes that didn't exist and relied on other traffic giving way. "I'm frightened', admitted Thomas, "why don't we get out of the taxi?" Good question, but when I glanced at the street we were stuck in, it was lined with shoe shine stands intersperced with coloured umbrellas under which were ladies in mini lycra skirts, stockings, suspenders and teetering on high heel platform shoes. "I don't think this is the best neighbourhood" was my reply and I couldn't have told you where we were either as I'd lost track of street names.

After enduring over one and half hours of erratic driving and horrendous traffic jams to cover 2.4 miles, we finally made it to the third largest city square in the world 'Plaza de la Constitution', where we screeched to a halt and our backpacks were unceremoniously dumped in the road without a road and our taxi driver roared away. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Our broom cupboard room in the hotel had bunk beds - a double on the lower level and single on the top. No one slept well as the bed springs were so noisy that whenever anyone moved in any of the beds, it woke everyone up (and that was with ear plugs jammed into my ears). All the hotels and hostels we tried were full so we made a decision to leave Mexico City behind early in the morning and head out to Zitacuaro, high up in the pine forests.

Posted by edandsuet 16:00 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Monte Alban and the Zapotecs (1 Good)

Oaxaca, MEXICO: WEEK 9 NOVEMBER, SUNNY, 12 - 24 DEGREES

sunny 23 °C
View Thomas's Great Adventure on edandsuet's travel map.

The city of Monte Alban, about 9km above the valley where Oaxaca lies, is apparently one of the world's great archeological treasures. I'd never heard of it or the Zapotecs, so had quite low expectations of what awaited us and as Thomas observed, "it's another set of ruins, can't be that big as no one has ever heard of them."

Monte Alban Ruins 1

Monte Alban Ruins 1

The ruins, atop a mountain, are the legacy of the Zapotec culture from over 1000 years ago founded in 500BC. The Zapotecs themselves appealed to Thomas, as they must have been slightly bonkers to have built a city without a natural water supply, relying on villagers to bring water up the mountain, and remote from the livelihood of the valleys. Yet the Zapotecs seemed to be making a point to demonstrate their mastery of nature. Without the aid of the wheel or beasts of burden, they managed to shift millions of tonnes of earth to build a vast, flat terrace on which colossal pyramids, astronomical observatories and palaces were constructed. The site is also one of the world's earliest examples of state government however it is believed the Zapotecs disappeared due to their top heavy society.

Monte Alban Ruins 6

Monte Alban Ruins 6

I was pleasantly surprised by how huge the site was - it was great for wandering around, scaling pyramids and plataformas to admire the views of the valley. It's also not that popular, so there were few tourists, no artesanas stalls and any tour groups were swallowed up by the vastness of the site. Thomas was so impressed, that he wrote a report on the Zapotecs when we returned to Oaxaca.

Monte Alban Ruins 4

Monte Alban Ruins 4


Monte Alban Ruins 9

Monte Alban Ruins 9

Posted by edandsuet 16:00 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Levels of Smeginess (1 Bad)

Oaxaca, Mexico: WEEK 9 NOVEMBER, sunny 14 - 24 degrees

sunny 21 °C
View Thomas's Great Adventure on edandsuet's travel map.

Where does the word smeg originate from - was it "Red Dwarf" (now I'm showing my age again)? Anyway, after nine weeks on the road it became clear that decisive action was required to stop the encroaching odour, so we found an efficient and cheap laundry service in Oaxaca (15 pesos a kilo). Clothes never felt so soft or smelt so good when we opened up the laundry bag.

How long is too long before washing clothes? Back home I would wash items of clothing after one day's wear, the few exceptions would be jeans. Is two to three days, a week, a fortnight too long? When the clothes change colour or emit an unpleasant odour? In San Christobel de las Casas, it was no longer possible to hand wash clothes due to the lower temperatures up in the highlands; it would drop to 11 degress at night and the miniscule sink didn't help much either. Neither did the position of the toilet where my face ended up five millimetres away from the sink basin, but I digress. Finally it was time to part with socks that had a blackish hue, a bra that had a nasty grey tinge and t-shirts with various food stains and sweat marks. Nine weeks was the limit as was two weeks wearing the same bra.

Unfortunately, it wasn't possible to pop my trekking shoes into the laundry; the odour had reached new levels of stinkiness after I'd worn damp socks in them - not a wise move. Poor Thomas couldn't bear to go anywhere near them or my socks as the smell was so overwhelming that our hostel room almost became a 'no go' area.

Drastic measures were called for, so I scoured the shelves in the supermercado trying to decipher the Spanish small print on various products. I ended up with some form of foot powder and left the shoes in a corner filled with powder for four days. I'll let you know whether the experiment was successful.

Posted by edandsuet 16:00 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

San Juan Chamula: An Intense Experience (1 Good)

San Juan Chamula, Mexico: WEEK 9 NOVEMBER, overcast with sunny intervals, 11 - 20 degrees

overcast
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Having visited some fascinating and interesting churches over the years including the Church of the Nativity, Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Vatican; the two hundred year old Inglesia de San Juan Bautista would seem like an odd choice to add to the list. This Catholic church in the small village of Chamula close to San Christobel de las Casas is architectually nothing to write home about.

Iglesia de San Juan Bautista

Iglesia de San Juan Bautista

Chamula is a Tzotzil Maya indigenous village, set in the highlands of Chiapas, 1600m above sea level. The indigenous community have their own language, are self governing, staunchly Catholic and their faith is centred around the church which is open 24 hours a day. The distinctly ordinary exterior hides an unorthodox interior; this is the first church I have ever been in that does not have pews or seating of any kind.

Epicentre of Tzotzil Mayan religion, Chamula

Epicentre of Tzotzil Mayan religion, Chamula

Statues of different saints are displayed in glass cases set on tables lining the church walls. The saints themselves are adorned with ribboned necklaces from which small mirrors are hung. The only light in the church comes from thousands of lighted candles casting an eerie glow - the candles on the floor beneath the saints are requests for help and those on the table are to say 'thank you'. The floor is covered with a thick layer of pine needles, so it is important not to slip over while walking round. The pine needles signify bringing the mountain into the church which originates from Mayan beliefs.

The religion practised in the church is a mixture of Catholicism, ancient Mayan beliefs and Hispanic traditions. If a villager has a problem or illness, then it's time to visit your chosen saint and practise a set of rituals which include lighting different coloured candles on the floor; the more colours used, the more complicated the illness or problem. Rituals inside the church can involve eggs, bones, live chickens and an array of fizzy drinks, as burping helps to release evil spirits.

Maybe it was the flickering candle light, but the atmosphere is all enveloping due to witnessing the fervant requests for help all around by families with their children sitting on beds of pine needles and starring up at their chosen saint.

Thomas commented that it was the best religious studies lesson he had ever had thanks to our guide who was engaging and incredibly knowledgeable.

We also asked our guide about the impact of the tax on fizzy drinks in Mexico and whether it had made any difference to their communities. He explained that the tax had done little to curb consumption. A certain huge fizzy drink company have a massive manufacturing plant in San Christobel de las Casas, which he believed had diverted the water supply, essentially cutting highland villages off which left them little choice, as they had limited access to clean water. Obesity and diabetes are huge problems here - there are health advisories on the sides of many of buildings in the village about diabetes. However, our guide himself admitted that they have 3 litres of cola for breakfast, the same at lunchtime and then for dinner. He believed Mexico was the only country in the world that produces 3 litre bottles for sale and that the cola in Mexico has far higher sugar content than in other countries round the world.

Posted by edandsuet 16:00 Archived in Mexico Tagged san juan chamula Comments (0)

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