<< markandrupa


march 2009

Mexico's Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve was inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List in July 2008. Each winter nearly a billion monarch butterflies return to the forested mountains of central Mexico to colonize the trees and await the return of spring. As the cool mountain air warms in mid-to-late March the butterflies resume their northward migration toward Eastern Canada. Four successive generations hatch, pupate and die in order to complete the annual circuit - their return to the same overwintering grounds year after year is one of nature's great mysteries and the reason we decided to embark on our first trip south of the border.


A slideshow of our trip is available on flickr, as is a slideshow of our best butterfly photos.


  1. Seattle to Teotihuacan - march 1

    You know you friends are family when they show up at 5:30 in the morning to save you a taxi ride to the airport. Jean gave us a lift and after a pair of flights we found ourselves in Mexico City by mid-afternoon. Customs had a nifty button to randomly determine who would receive additional screening (removes the possibility of racial profiling), but Rupa and I passed with a green light and proceeded to meet our driver in the terminal. My original plan had been to hire a taxi, but earlier in the week I'd emailed the hotel and asked about the going taxi rate (1000 pesos) and instead they arranged for a private car and driver at only 700 pesos (plus our ride was a comfortable minivan rather than the more typical vw bug). We exchanged money at the change desk (the airport banks were closed on Sunday, so we didn't get a great rate) and after an hour's ride through the grassy outskirts of Mexico City we arrived at Teotihuacan.

    Our hotel was a charming hacienda-style resort located directly across from the archeological site. The 42 guestrooms were all arranged around a lush central courtyard featuring a large pool and a canopied bar. Bright colors, colorful mosaics and decorative fountains added to the charm. Our room was comfortable, spotlessly clean and attractively furnished - a real bargain for $70/night.

    After checking in we crossed the street to visit the ruins, and though the gates were closed for the day we walked along the roadway that circumnavigated the site. It was nice to get in some exercise, but the site was larger than I expected and it took us more than an hour and a half to complete the loop, the later half of which we completed in the dark. It was a rather pointless hike, but worked up an appetite and enjoyed an authentic Mexican meal in the hotel restaurant. The Aztec soup (a spiced tomato base with tortilla chips, cheese and avocado) was particularly tasty while my fajitas were served in a molcajete - a volcanic stone bowl traditionally used for grinding spices. Cactus slices were the topping of choice - crunchy like snap peas but juicy - and a fun novelty that we continued to enjoy throughout central Mexico.

    Hotel Villas Arqueologicas, Teotihuacan

  2. Teotihuacan - march 2

    Teotihuacan is a large archeological site representing the remains of a 2000-year-old city that at its zenith was one of the largest cities in the world. Its most famous structure, the massive Pyramid of the Sun, is the world's third largest pyramid (by volume) though it stands only half as tall as Egypt's Great Pyramid. After a quick breakfast at the hotel we spent the rest of the day exploring the pyramids, platforms and temples that once comprised the religious and political center of Mesoamerica's dominant culture. However, little is known about this civilization, and even the site's prominent features - the Pyramid of the Sun and the Avenue of the Dead - are known only by their Aztec designations, coined centuries after the city's demise.

    We began our self-guided tour at the south end of the Avenue of the Dead, a wide stone thoroughfare lined with ceremonial platforms that the Aztec's mistakenly believed were tombs. Our first stop was the large Temple of Quetzalcoatl, an enormous sunken courtyard surrounded by a dozen or so elevated platforms and sporting a pyramidal temple at far end. A raised platform with harrowingly steep steps (tall risers and narrow treads) obscured the pyramid, but by climbing to the top we could check out the elaborate stonework on the face of the pyramid. Geometric serpents and gods adorned the pyramid and were in remarkable condition, almost as if they'd been sculpted yesterday. It turned out that they were buried in ancient times as the pyramid was expanded and had only recently been uncovered.

    From there we walked up the Avenue of Dead a few hundred yards toward the Pyramid of Sun. Dozens of wandering vendors offered up obsidian carvings, blankets, Aztec calendars and other trinkets, but unlike the aggressive salesmen in Egypt and Asia these were easily dismissed with a "Gracias, no" and a wave of the hand. Although the avenue looks fairly level in photos, a number of sunken avenue-spanning plazas add a bit of intrigue. The stepped ceremonial platforms lining the avenue were about a storey tall and generally lacking of interest, though small patches of the original plaster work made it possible to imagine the structures as they once were, gleaming white and covered with colorful murals.

    Unlike the pyramids of Egypt, the Pyramid of Sun was designed to be ascended (a temple likely adorned the flattened top), and thanks to reconstruction efforts in the early 20th century it's possible to climb the 2000-year-old pyramid today. The steps here were less regular than at the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, but shorter risers, wider treads and a rope banister made the climb less harrowing. We paused at the end of each level, for even though we were in good physical shape (the best in years) Mexico City sits at an elevation of 7,300 feet and the thin air was stealing our breath. It wasn't a long climb though - altogether less than 10 minutes - and we were quite surprised to find ourselves at the breezy 230ft summit so quickly (it looked much taller from below). From there we had an unobstructed view of the archeological complex and imagined the once fertile valley filled with the ancient activities of some 200,000 natives.

    At the northern end of the Avenue of the Dead sat the smaller yet-still-impressive Pyramid of the Moon. The Pyramid has not been fully reconstructed and we were only allowed to climb to the first level but that was plenty high enough given how steep the stairs were. It was a popular spot with a great view directly down the Avenue, but sitting on the edge we couldn't help but fear for the flip-flop-wearing twenty-year-olds galloping down the stone steps with reckless abandon. For our own descent Rupa and I held tight to the rope railing and cautiously placed both feet on each tread before progressing.

    Off to the right as we left the Pyramid was a partially restored complex known as the Palace of Quetzalpapalotl. Different than the other pyramidal temples and ceremonial platforms, the Palace was laid out as a series of adjoining rooms, porticos, courtyards and walkways adorned with various murals and carvings. Of the remaining artwork the most impressive were a courtyard with carved-stone pillars, a painted frieze of colorful quetzals and a mural of a jaguar wearing an elaborate headdress and holding a trumpet.

    We paused for a water and ice cream break before beginning our walk back down the Avenue to the south. Along the way we made two stops. The first was the Conjunto Plaza Oeste, another series of rooms and courtyards under which was buried some earlier structures, including a pair of immaculate snake heads at the foot of a wide stairway. Expansion work in ancient time had raised the floor and buried the heads, which explains why they were in such good condition and had a dedicated watchman guarding them.

    Our second stop was the Edificios Superpuestos - yet another series of rooms and small platforms that had been expanded upon many times over the centuries of habitation. Although some artwork was still visible, the real draw were the still-plastered walls and stairways that gave a very good impression of what the rooms might have been like 2000 years ago.

    Unfortunately it was Monday, and as such the site museum was closed. I have yet to figure out why so many tourist sites around the world choose to close one day of the week. It's not like the museum is a religious building or a family-run affair - hire a few more people and keep it open! We also ended up missing two important sites - the Palace of Tepantitla and the Palace of Tetitla, both of which feature some fantastic murals. Our guide book only gave them a small write-up and they weren't on any of the site maps since they were located outside the main archeological site. I suppose we will just have to return some day to check them out.

    When we arrived this morning the ticket agent told us that the gate closed at 5pm so we timed our visit to finish up by then. We found out later that only new entries were cut off at 5pm - the site remained open until nearly sundown for anyone already in the complex. If we had known that we'd have probably stayed a bit later to get some nice evening-light photos. Anyway, back at the hotel we had another great meal - Rupa claims the best chicken mole of her life. Online restaurant reviews for the hotel were not particularly flattering, but they had a new chef and we were quite pleased.

    Hotel Villas Arqueologicas, Teotihuacan

  3. Teotihuacan to Zitacuaro - march 3

    We met our driver and guide, Carlos, this morning as we checked out of the hotel. He spoke perfect English, which he learned years ago while working in Texas and Portland, and was now a full time guide for MMG Tours in central Mexico. It was more expensive to hire a private guide but it was well worth it - we had a comfortable ride and a full-time local with in-depth knowledge of the region to show us around. Besides, even with a private guide our entire trip cost was still only about half that of a small group tour

    We had a three hour drive to our first stop in Toluca and Carlos kept us entertained the entire time. He started off with a bit of history about Teotihuacan and later gave us a drive-around tour of Mexico City. Traffic was heavy and the smog was worse - we could literally see a pinkish cloud hovering over the city as we approached and it wasn't until we crossed a ridgeline on the far side of the valley that our eyes stopped burning.

    Toluca is a large industrial city, popular because of its proximity to Mexico City (less than an hour's drive) and its growing airport, which many travelers use as an alternate to Mexico City's bustling hub. We arrived downtown with one stop in mind - the Cosmovitral-Jardin Botanic. This turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau building served as the city market for 65 years before being shuttered in 1975 and reopened five years later as a botanical garden. Over an acre of floor space overflowed with hundreds of plant species from around the world including the African Bird of Paradise, begonias, roses, ferns and Mexican orchids. Pathways, fountains and streams added to the sense of tranquility here in the otherwise hectic center of town.

    What made the garden truly stunning though was the largest stained-glass mural in the world; nearly 30,000 pieces of colored glass filled 71 larger-than-life panes that encircled the upper storey of the garden and bisected the ceiling from front to back. As Rupa and I browsed the garden and gazed up at the murals Carlos met a local guide who described to him the imagery depicted in the murals, which Carlos then shared with us. The entire composition reflected the ebb and flow of life and the struggle between good and evil. The brilliantly-lit southern panels depicted man rising from birth and aspiring to goodness and knowledge. The brightly-colored glass featured imagery of diurnal birds (primarily eagles) and outstretched men reaching and soaring upwards, culminating in the glorious Sun Man pane at the far western end. Meanwhile, the northern panels portrayed man's fall from grace with the bright colors fading to deep blues and grays, day birds falling prey to night birds (including a massive multi-pane owl) and shifty men cowering in the shadows. We spent over an hour and a half admiring the layered imagery and seamless transitions before heading across the plaza for lunch.

    Toluca is known throughout Mexico for its chorizo sausage, and before we left the garden Carlos picked up a good recommendation from the ticket agent. Rancheros del Sur was not particularly charming, located in the bottom two floors of a rather ordinary office building, but it was filled with locals enjoying their traditional mid-afternoon meal. A large brick grill occupied one entire wall where sausages and tortillas where being prepared. I ordered the chorizo-and-cheese tacos, which arrived as a large plate of ground up sausage-and-cheese hash and a pile of soft corn tortillas. Rupa and Carlos each ordered the chorizo-and-cheese quesadillas, which arrived fried like a hot pocket. Everything was quite tasty but the real treat was the horchata that Carlos ordered - a sweet milk-like rice-and-cinnamon drink that tamed the spicy sausage and salsa.

    Walking back across the plaza we noticed a number of large colonial-era churches all built within a few blocks of one another. As Carlos explained it, colonial Mexico was dominated by the Catholic Church, which levied a 10% ecclesiastical tax (aka tithe) on most business income. The tax was divided a number of ways with a portion set aside for the local parish churches. Consequently, each of the religious orders (Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans, etc) found it advantageous to establish a presence in the major cities and collect their share of the local tithe. We stepped briefly into the Templo del Carmen, an 18th century Carmelite church with a typical Mexican stucco exterior hiding a more traditional neoclassic interior, before resuming our drive to Zitacuaro.

    An hour and half later we rolled into Zitacuaro. There aren't many tourist class options in Zitacuaro (or nearby Angangueo) and the few that do exist get mixed reviews on Trip Advisor. When I was making plans (a week ago) I had hoped to stay at the best-looking of the bunch - Rancho San Cayetano - but it was all booked up. When I mentioned this to Luis (owner of MMG tours) he directed me to Los Solaches, a family-run B&B in Zitacuaro. They'd only been operating as a B&B for about a year and there were no reviews up on Trip Advisor, but they had a nice-looking web site so I gave them a call. It took a while to get the owner, Emilio, on the phone, but between his rough English, my rusty Spanish and some furious typing on Google Translate I had a reservation (Luis was kind enough to confirm it for me the next day).

    It was just after dark when we arrived at Los Solaches, just a few blocks from the town square in a gated community. It wasn't much to look at from the outside, but the interior was beautifully furnished with tile and hardwood floors, brightly colored walls and authentic Mexican folk art. We'd booked the suite for $53/night and it was enormous - nearly half the size of our house back home. The bathroom was especially impressive, with tile floors, a large jetted tub, a shower and a 10ft-long wall of closets (though only three hangers). The staff didn't speak English, but with our handy Lonely Planet phrase book we got along just fine.

    Carlos stuck around and after we checked in he drove us back to the town square and dropped us off. It was a Tuesday evening but the plaza was bustling with locals out enjoying a lovely warm evening and snacking on fresh fruit, bread, tacos and various snacks. Most of the shops and food carts were in the process of shutting down but we managed to pick up some sweet bread and the best churro ever - crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside, and filled with chocolate sauce. An hour later we were back at the hotel where we checked email (brand new computers with flat screen monitors) and fell into bed.

    Los Solaches B&B, Zitacuaro

  4. El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary - march 4

    We were up at 7 this morning to get a head start on the one hour drive to El Rosario. It was a bit early for the hotel's standard breakfast, but Magaly (the owner's wife) led us out back to a courtyard and up to a second story dining hall where she had arranged a "light" breakfast for us: Yogurt, cereal, fruit (excellent cantaloupe), bread and juice. Carlos arrived around 8 and we set off across the valley. It was smooth sailing until we arrived at the small village of Ocampo, where we diverted onto a long, winding cobblestone road up to the park entrance. Nine years ago this road was a veritable dustbowl and the only way up was on the back of a flatbed truck. The cobblestone was a compromise - it's more tourist-friendly than dirt and more environmentally-friendly than asphalt.

    Carlos spent the drive educating us on the annual migration of the Monarch Butterfly. It begins each year in the fall when Monarchs throughout the eastern US and Canada began a southerly migration to escape the increasingly cool temperatures. They cannot survive the freezing winter and fly 3000 miles down here to central Mexico to spend the winter huddled together in a few strands of mountainside forest. It wasn't until the mid-1970s that biologists were able to understand this incredible migration and locate these particular forests, which are unique in that they provide the perfect wintering conditions: It's cool enough to hibernate but not cold enough to freeze, the thin leaves of the fir trees allow thousands of butterflies to huddle together and form an insulating barrier, winter-flowering plants provide life-sustaining pollen and spring streams provide fresh water. Up to 200 million Monarchs spend the winter here.

    When spring arrives the Monarchs awake from their three-month slumber, fatten-up and mate. The males die shortly thereafter, but the females begin a northward journey that takes them as far as Texas, where they each lay several hundred eggs and subsequently expire. Four days later each egg hatches into a tiny caterpillar that feeds non-stop for two weeks before molting into a small cocoon-like chrysalis. Hormonal changes lead to the "birth" of the next generation of Monarch, which continues the northward migration. Over the course of the spring and summer three successive generations of butterflies repeat this cycle and continue the northward trek. By the time the fourth generation emerges it is once again time to head south - a journey last undertaken by this generation's great-great-grandparents.

    We were one of the first cars to arrive this morning and were able to park right by the entrance. On busy weekends even the overflow lot a few hundred yards down the hill can fill up, and on those days the park is a veritable carnival. Today though it was quiet and peaceful and we only encountered a few dozen visitors all day. We immediately set out on the mile long hike up to the butterfly colony, which took nearly an hour as we climbed over 800 feet. Ordinarily such an elevation gain wouldn't have been exhausting, but starting at 10,000 feet El Rosario was even higher than Mexico City and the elevation slowed us down a bit.

    On the walk up we heard dozens of hummingbirds chirping and spotted the occasional Monarch flitting lazily in the breeze. It wasn't until we reached a broad rolling meadow that the butterflies began to proliferate: A small puddle with a few dozen Monarchs, a couple hundred more streaming into the meadow and finally a few thousand gathered in a soggy patch of grass. We spent a considerable amount of time observing the last batch, watching as they jostled for position while incoming butterflies crash-landed by the dozen, spilling into the drinkers who fluttered to regain their balance. Every so often an even larger crowd would fly by in such a dense formation that they couldn't help but crash into us, falling leaf-like to the ground before continuing their journey. We had the area all to ourselves and sat quietly for over an hour listening quietly to the gentle hum generated by thousands of beating wings. Over time the butterflies encircled us, making it difficult for us to move for fear of crushing them. We eventually managed to extract ourselves (with zero casualties) and continued a short way down to where the path entered a dense strand of trees.

    We had hoped to hike deeper into the colony and observe the butterflies clustered densely on the fir trees but the path was closed for the day so that a NOVA film crew could get some tourist-free footage. Instead, we diverted onto a downhill path and were immediately engulfed in a frantic swarm of orange-and-black. Somewhere within the colony the sunlight had shifted and a massive cluster of butterflies, newly exposed to the sun, came rushing forth in search of food and sex (little else disturbs them at this stage). It was an incredible sight as tens of thousands of them funneled into the narrow pathway ahead.

    Along the path a trickle of water seduced many of the passerbys, but these just added to an already chaotic scene of anxious butterflies jostling, drinking, drowning, drying and eventually trying to get airborne.

    It was warmer than we expected up at this altitude and Carlos explained that as the temperature rises the butterflies become more active, though they always return to the colony to stay warm through the night. Although we weren't allowed into the colony Carlos found a faint trail and took us into a sunny hill-side glade where the Monarchs were out basking in the sun. They clung to the firs in droves, wings mostly spread as they soaked up the warmth. Overhead, though, in a slightly shadier area, were some truly dense nuclei with thousands of butterflies hanging from individual limbs. From the ground they looked like dozens of beehives drooping from the branches, but in fact it was the weight of the butterflies themselves that were pulling the branches downward. It takes a thousand Monarchs to weigh a pound, so we could only imagine how many thousands it took to weight down some of the heftier limbs.

    There were also plenty of mating butterflies in this sunny stretch of forest. It's an awkward ritual for the male, who must line up abdomen-to-abdomen with the female and literally carry her beneath him, doubling his weight and restricting his movement. He compensates by flapping furiously, but all too often his efforts are foiled and with a light thud the couple falls to the forest floor. They persevere though, repositioning themselves and having another go at it. When it's over the male is fatally exhausted - the female literally sucks the life out of him, pilfering most of his fat and protein stores to strengthen herself for the long journey back to Texas. By the end of the season each female will have mated numerous times, leaving behind a lifeless trail of spent males.

    We finished the day at a scenic hillside stream, which was really more of a shallow marsh. Drinking butterflies filled the lush banks while thousands more streamed by overhead in search of pool to call their own. There were more tourists here, as it was likely the best viewing of the day, but the crowds were still never overwhelming and we stayed long enough to span a few gaps and have the field to ourselves.

    Around 4pm, fully satisfied with the day's experience, we began the long hike back down to the gate. By the time we arrived we are all quite famished, but Carlos had arranged for his favorite local "restaurant" to stay open (with so few tourists today there was a worry that they might close up early). Below the gate a paved boardwalk led down to the overflow parking lot, lined on either side with dozens of small wooden shacks. Most were closed today, but the few that were open offered a variety of souvenirs and snacks. The one we were headed to had been converted into a dining hall with a couple of picnic tables, a cooler for drinks, and a small workstation where a pair of sun-worn older ladies cooked up a variety of dishes all served on freshly-ground blue-corn tortillas. Everything we tried was delicious and we thanked Carlos for bringing us here as it wasn't somewhere we would have found on our own.

    Before leaving we made a three-peso pit-stop; the short, wooden stalls perched on the hillside looked as if they were part of western movie set, though these came with a porcelain toilet bowl (no seat) and a bucket of water (to flush with). The ride home was uneventful - mostly because Rupa and I napped - and once we were comfortably back in our room it didn't take us long to find the bed.

    Los Solaches B&B, Zitacuaro

  5. El Capulin butterfly colony at Cerro Pelon - march 5

    Today was one of those really awkward days where everything was just a little bit off. They haven't happened often, but when they do we just try to persevere, knowing that by the end of the day we'll be back in our hotel room and one way or another everything will have worked out.

    It started off on the 40-minute drive to El Capulin, a small village nestled at the foot of another butterfly sanctuary. It was a winding road with a profusion of speed bumps and by the time we came to a stop Rupa was feeling quite nauseous. Relief arrived the instant she stepped from the car and spilled her breakfast all over the dirt roadway. Anywhere else and it might have been really embarrassing, but this was a dusty two-street town and was only a matter of time before some wandering chicken or stray dog would clean up after her.

    Our first stop was a small ranch-style restaurant where Carlos made us a post-excursion reservation. It's not like they were crowded or anything - Carlos just wanted to make sure they stayed open for us. The dining patio was encircled with planter boxes and hanging pots overflowing with succulents, including some impressive burro's tails. The owners had also planted some milkweed in hopes of attracting some of the local non-migratory Monarch population - these butterflies simply roam up and down the mountainsides adjusting their elevation to match the climate. Their efforts were paying off - they showed us a pair of creamy-white Monarch eggs about the size of small peppercorns as well as a pair of newly-formed chrysalises, bright green and still showing off their golden "crowns". The chrysalises were smaller than I expected - only about an inch tall and half an inch in diameter.

    From there we checked in at the gate - we were only the second car of the day - and rented horses for the ride up the mountain. The terrain here was more rugged than at El Rosario and the steep paths were dusty and littered with large rocks and boulders, so the horses were almost a necessity. Besides, renting horses keeps the locals invested in the butterflies and motivates them to protect the forest from illegal logging, which has been chewing up the local habitat for years. Unfortunately, the pony-sized horses were a bit short for me and I ended up riding with my knees bent uncomfortably backward. That was only after I got on the horse though - I missed the first time while trying to hold my tripod and ended up spooking the horse, which tried to gallop off with my left foot still in the stirrup. I kept my balance though and the guide kept the horse from wandering too far, and on my second attempt I made it aboard while one of the guides carried my tripod.

    The ride up lasted over an hour and the elevation gain was much greater than yesterday. The horses were pretty adept at navigating the uneven terrain, but even they managed a few slips here and there. The worst part was the thick layer of fine dust caking the trail - the horses kicked it up as they climbed and the guides leading the horses had to wear masks to keep from choking. It was worth it though when we arrived at the top unsullied and ready to go.

    The Monarch colony here at El Capulin had settled into a shallow ravine, densely packing the strand of fir trees nestled within. From the lip of the ravine we had a wonderful eye-level view into the colony from as close as twenty yards, where we watched as various branches would unload during a sun-strike and then slowly refill once back in shade. The Monarchs were not so much streaming down the mountain as they were at El Rosario but rather swirling about the ravine in search of sunny roosts. They fringed the flowers, pines and bushes around the lip of the ravine, but when the sun succumbed to a cloud they quickly took flight and retreated to the safety of the nucleus.

    We eventually made our way down into the ravine, where we were treated to even closer views of the dense colony. Thousands of butterflies circled overhead while one tree in particular stood out with its dropping branches loaded with innumerable ranks. Later we paused at a small steam where I tried some abstract "painting with butterflies" photos. The butterlfies here were quite friendly with us and persistently amorous with each other so I was able to get some nice close-ups, but the stream was far less interesting than these at El Rosario yesterday so we returned to the horses. We'd spent nearly five hours with the Monarchs and were now looking forward to that early dinner Carlos had arranged this morning.

    But first we had to make it down the mountain, which was considerably more jarring than the uphill climb. I suffered through it, though my sit bones would remind me of it for days to come. Rupa, on the other hand, managed a more memorable experience. Right from the start her horse wasn't happy with her and tried meagerly to buck her. Rupa held on the first time, but the second time she was already leaning back and her left foot came loose. She flopped to the ground with a high-pitched scream that startled the horse, and with her right foot still in the stirrup the horse charged ahead. The guide was able to keep the horse afoot and slow it down but not before Rupa had been dragged 10-20 feet through a thick layer of fine dirt. She clamored back to her feet, shaken and dusty but otherwise unharmed, and she elected to continue the rest of the downhill hike on her own two feet. As harrowing as the experience was she was actually quite fortunate - moments earlier or later and she'd have fallen upon sharp rocks with an unbalanced horse crashing on top of her.

    We made it down to dinner in one piece and enjoyed a tasty Aztec soup and farm-raised steamed trout - a nice alternate to the heavy chorizo and mole sauce we'd been enjoying lately. The restaurant sat across from a church, and Carlos took the opportunity to surprise us with a story about how easy it had been for the missionaries to convert the natives to Christianity, something I'd always been curious about. As it turns out, the natives were already accustomed to changing their deities regularly - via prescribed ritual cycles, by merging with other tribes or by being conquered. They also prayed to various deities for nearly everything important to life - the rain, the sun, the moon, finding a spouse, etc. The missionaries quite cunningly took advantage of this concept and assigned various saints to replace each of these deities - Saint Isidro became the "rain saint", Saint Anthony the "find me a husband" saint, and so on. Even today many Mexicans still pray to these saints for the same reasons - Saint Anthony is particularly popular with young girls looking to fall in love.

    Los Solaches B&B, Zitacuaro

  6. Sierra Chincua Butterfly Sanctuary - march 6

    For our third and final day of butterfly viewing Carlos drove us two hours north to the Senguio entrance of the Sierra Chincua Butterfly Sanctuary. It was a long drive, but being a Friday the more neighborly reserves would be quite crowded, as evidenced by the dozen or so large buses we saw headed their way. We stopped in downtown Senguio to make a lunch reservation before continuing following an unmarked rocky road ten minutes outside town to the park entrance, marked by a lonely wooden toll both. The park only sees about ten groups each week, but in an effort to boost exposure the town is building a few guest lodges and a restaurant due to open next year. We were actually the second visitors today - a National Geographic crew had arrived around 7am, though they were headed deep enough into the forest that wouldn't see them.

    The older lady manning the toll booth hopped in the car with us - she would be our guide/caretaker for the day - and we drove another twenty minutes up the rocky road and into the reserve. The road was somewhat suspect with steep drops and scree-like climbs but Carlos managed some nifty driving to keep us on the road. We crossed a couple of small streams, stepping out to shoe away the sipping Monarchs, and eventually parked the car when the road became impassable. From there it took us another hour to complete the steady uphill hike to the colony. Even without the prospect of the butterflies, though, it was a lovely hike through an open pine and fir forest with meager undergrowth and a trickling stream. We paused a few times to catch our breath and to photograph small pockets of butterflies, first in a flowering field, then at a waterfall and finally at a stream crossing where the butterflies were strafing the surface of the water and clinging to rocks while searching for a shallow spot to take a drink.

    By the time we arrived at the colony we were exhausted. Thankfully there was little need to move around as the forest was quite spacious and there was no one else around. The butterflies here were not as accessible as in the other two parks - most were still sitting in large clusters 50-100 feet up the tall, slender fir trees. Only through the binoculars were we able to get a good view. It was interesting to see how they have been moving their roosting site downhill - our guide was able to point out their prior roosts from just days earlier, marked by thousands of spent carcasses littering the forest floor. With no one else around it was a more peaceful experience than the prior two days, but given the long climb and the lack of intimate contact I would probably look for an alternate site next time. The only real photo opportunities were some carpeted tree trunks and a sun-lit baby fir tree where I tried out some photography tricks such as long exposures and zooming with the shutter open.

    The hike down was far easier than the hike up, though it seemed much longer and by the time we found the car again we couldn't believe we'd hiked all that way up. We'd certainly earned our afternoon meal, which included a vegetable soup, nachos, and an extra-large chili releno stuffed with bananas, pineapples, cheese, apples, corn, rice and more. It was an interesting dish for sure, both filling and quite delicious. Rupa and I napped again on the drive back to the hotel and spent the balance of the evening relaxing.

    Los Solaches B&B, Zitacuaro

  7. San Felipe Los Alzati (Zirahuato) & Morelia - march 7

    After three early mornings in a row we took it easy today, enjoyed the standard hotel breakfast and checked out before starting the three hour drive to Morelia. We made one sightseeing stop outside the town San Felipe Los Alzati where we toured the small but scenic ruins of Zirahuato. Perched halfway up a tall, solitary mountain the former Matlatzinca ceremonial site offered dramatic views across the Zitacuaro valley, a distinct advantage for a people geographically sandwiched between the powerful Aztecs and Purepecha. Eight hundred years ago this was the religious center of a large city that cascaded down the mountain, but all that remains today are a pair of reconstructed pyramids. We climbed the taller of the two - carefully given the step gradient and lack of hand rails - to take in the view and then crawled back down to the base where Carlos demonstrated an interesting auditory phenomenon. Standing directly in front of the steps Carlos clapped his hands and the resulting echo replicated the squeaking call of a mockingbird (a coincidence I'm sure, but some locals seem to think it was designed that way).

    From there we drove the remaining 2.5 hours to Morelia along the old Pan-American Highway. The new highway cuts directly through the mountains to shave time, but the old one winds scenically up and over a number of mountain ridges. We stopped once at a dedicated viewpoint with a neglected old fountain that was once used to water horses. The passes must have been up pretty high as both Rupa and I came down with headaches as we descended almost directly into Morelia.

    Morelia was a much larger city than I expected, nearly filling the entire Guayangareo Valley with its one million residents. Even the UNESCO designated Centro Historico (Historic Downtown Area) was large, covering 150 square blocks and encompassing some 1100 colonial-era buildings. The city was essentially built from scratch by the Spaniards beginning in 1541 and consequently has a very European feel - two and three-story stone buildings, narrow streets and alleyways, numerous plazas and plenty of churches and monasteries. In fact, recent legislation has improved its old-world charm by limiting on-street signage and requiring the burial of all power, telephone and TV cables. Even satellite dishes are restricted now that the city has been wired for cable TV.

    Before dropping us at our hotel Carlos gave us a rapid-fire driving tour of his beloved hometown, pointing out interesting sights and good restaurants. He also pointed out his wife, who was working one of the tourist information booths on the public square. He finished by driving us up hillock outside town for a grand view of the entire valley.

    Our B&B was located in the heart of the historic district along a wide pedestrian boulevard (the ) built in the 18th century to attract locals to the recently constructed Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. There wasn't much of a sign to identify the B&B and all the single-story buildings along the boulevard looked pretty much identical, but Carlos knew where to find it. Inside we met Lino, the easy-going 50+ year-old former social worker from Santa Cruz, California who relocated here a few years ago and who now spends his "retirement" sharing his love for Morelia with guests of his three-bedroom B&B. Lino showed us around the adorable little complex with its eclectic Mexican-themed décor (Lino has a great eye for local artwork) and then spent an hour "walking" us through a city map and regaling us with short stories about the area.

    One event Lino did not want us to miss was the weekly light show tonight at the Cathedral. We made our way downtown a bit early and arrived in time to carve out a decent spot directly in front of the church. As darkness settled in a series of flat-screen monitors in front of the Cathedral presented a brief history of the church. Moments later the lighting ceremony began, and for ten continuous minutes a barrage of lighting effects, fireworks and synchronized music brought the Cathedral facade to life. By the end of the show the Cathedral was beautifully lit, and though the fireworks were not particularly impressive in and of themselves, it was a fun display and nice way to bring the community together every weekend.

    After the show we grabbed dinner at a restaurant Lino had recommended, Fonda las Mercedes. Its exposed brick walls, stone arches and wood-beam ceilings were wonderfully lit and enhanced with an interesting collection of art, as well as dozens of mysterious stone spheres that we later learned were naturally formed when ancient lava cooled in a nearby lake. The food was more international than Mexican, but delicious nonetheless and the service was impeccable. Overall we were quite pleased with the recommendation and found it an enjoyable way to end our first day in Morelia.

    La Posada de San Antonio B&B, Morelia

  8. Tupataro, Patzcuaro & Tzintzuntzan- march 8

    Lino's cook served up a wonderful breakfast including fresh juice, croissants, fruit and yogurt and tasty chilaquiles. We spent a leisurely hour chatting with Lino before hopping in the car for a final day of touring with Carlos. The tiny village of Tupataro was first on our list. Next to the flowering town square sat a rather ordinary looking colonial church, though once we stepped inside it became imminently less ordinary. Simple white-washed adobe walls and wood-plank floors focused our attention on the gilded altarpiece and colorfully painted wood-panel ceiling. Sometimes called the "Sistine Chapel of the Americas", this 16th century church is very typical for the region. We were the only visitors this morning and the official INHA caretaker gave us a thorough thirty-minute tour of the ceiling which Carlos translated for us. The recently restored scenes depicted the lives of Mary (ex: The Annunciation) and Jesus as well as 33 angels holding the implements of Christ's crucifixion including the cross, a sword, the nails, the shroud, the Holy Grail and even the coins paid for Judas' betrayal. In addition, one of the middle panels portrayed the Last Supper complete with trout from a local lake, a watermelon and a dog - important components of colonial life.

    We also spent time admiring the gold-leaf altarpiece which served to frame a series of beautiful oil paintings dating from the 17th century. Also right up front was the church altar with an intricately detailed front panel composed of corn stalk pulp, orchid bulb paste, linen and cotton overlayed with silver leaf. There was so much to see that it was an easy decision to pay the official $3 fee to photograph the church (without a flash, of course).

    From Tupataro we continued through the green countryside to the small town of Santa Clara del Cobre, famous for its copper craftwork. Surprisingly, Carlos pointed out that there are no copper mines in the immediate vicinity. Instead, Santa Clara del Cobre rose to prominence because of its close proximity to a large fir forest, the preferred source of hot burning wood needed to soften the copper for forming. As it turned out, it was easier to move the raw material than to move the fuel. These days, though, the cost of newly mined copper is so high that much of the copper work now depends upon recycled copper wire.

    Carlos took us into one shop that offered a demonstration of the forming process. Over the course of dozens of heating cycles a thick copper disk is pounded into a thin sheet and then into a rough shape using an angled hand-held pipe. Eventually the copper is thin enough that heat isn't required, and the piece is worked into its final shape by pounding it with specially designed hammers. It's a long, arduous process but the resulting pieces can be quite lovely. We browsed a couple of the nearby shops and picked up a few souvenirs before moving on with the sightseeing.

    Patzcuaro was next, a fairly large city with an active Plaza Grande. Carlos dropped us off while he went to park the car and we found ourselves listening to some live guitar music by Joaquin Pantoja, a locally famous musician whose music Lino had introduced us to at breakfast this morning. More than fifty people were gathered around while he and an accompanist played custom arrangements of classics by Simon and Garfunkel, The Eagles and more. We bought a couple of his CDs before picking up some ice cream and meeting Carlos for a brief walking tour around town. We passed by the Basilica, the Templo del Sagrario and a 16th century college (now a museum) before entering the Casa de los Once Patios, a former convent-turned-crafts bazaar. The most impressive craftwork on display was pasta de cana, a native-Mexican technique used to construct large "sculptures" that were light enough to be carried around (popular for life-sized crucifixes). The statues were created by binding dried corn stalks and then covering them with a mixture of corn stalk pulp, orchid bulb paste and various other natural elements. This paste was sculpted into the desired shape and allowed to dry, much like plaster. The exterior was then covered in gesso (a smooth white primer) and painted. The resulting pieces were both weather and insect resistant and have survived for many centuries - 500 year-old pieces are not unheard of. Though the technique was once quite common it is now known only to a few remaining artisans in Patzcuaro region.

    We certainly could have spent more time in Patzcuaro (easily a couple of days) but there was more we wanted to see today. On the eastern side of Lake Patzcuaro we stopped at the small village of Tzintzuntzan, which 500 years ago served as the capital of the Purepecha Indian Empire. As with most archeological sites in the region the ancient ceremonial site is all the remains, and even that has been heavily reconstructed (the unofficial name of the site is "Las Yacatas", which literally means piles of stone). Set atop a large man-made terrace overlooking the lake and mountains, the site featured the foundations of a palace or two as well as five distinctive step-pyramids. The identical pyramids were not particularly tall, but their unique shape - circular in front with a tangential rectangle at the rear - and end-to-end alignment has made them the subject of much debate. From the base of the terrace, down some very steep stairs, a wide boulevard led to the center of Tzintzuntzan. For centuries locals used this boulevard to hijack and transport the well-formed stone blocks from the palaces and temples for use in churches, public buildings, homes and more.

    It was getting late and we were all hungry so Carlos drove us up to Quiroga for some famous pork carnitas. The town square had a festival-like atmosphere with lots of families milling about the central square, part of which had been converted into an open-air food court with vendors selling all manner of Mexican food and treats from their carts. Picnic tables had been arranged behind the carts, serviced by drink vendors who had dibs on particular tables. With carnitas on the mind we immediately bellied up to Carnitas Carmelo's. The cart was stacked with piles of juicy fried pork (the secret was to fry it in its own fat) and the gregarious "chef" behind the cart served us each a heaping plate of meat and skin atop fresh tortillas, to which we added pico and cactus slices. The three of us sat at a table, ordered drinks (I had a horchata) and enjoyed what was arguably the tastiest pork on earth.

    We finished the day back in Tzintzuntzan, where Carlos wanted to show us the 16th century Franciscan monastery of Santa Ana. Three churches sat facing the large park-like courtyard, the oldest of which was really just an open-air aspe built into the wall of the courtyard. The native Purepecha were accustomed to worshiping outdoors, so to gain their loyalty the local missionaries had to adapt. The courtyard walls, churches and other structures were built largely with stone blocks plundered from native temples; the evidence is sometimes plainly visible. From Tzintzuntzan we drove back to Morelia and said goodbye to Carlos. He'd been an excellent driver and guide, and I wouldn't hesitate to contact MMG again should we return.

    La Posada de San Antonio B&B, Morelia

  9. Morelia - march 9

    Lino spoiled us with another fabulous Mexican breakfast; today we stuffed ourselves with huevos rancheros. Our plan for the day was simply to walk around Morelia and do some leisurely sightseeing. We started off just down the street at the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. The rather ordinary looking church exterior hid an exquisite interior bejeweled with intricate clay reliefs. A pastel color scheme and colorful floral details gave the church a distinct feminine guise, befitting a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. We've seen plenty of churches in our travels but this one may very well be my favorite.

    We continued our self-guided tour downtown at the large Cathedral, which in contrast to the Santuario had a rather interesting pink volcanic-stone exterior but a peaceful, solemn interior. The highlights here were a beautiful half-ton solid silver monstrance and a monumental 4,600-pipe organ. Across the street we peeked into the Palace of Justice to see the bold stairway mural depicting Morelos leading Mexico toward independence.

    We had high hopes for the sweets market but were rather disappointed when it turned out to be a tourist trap with more souvenir stalls than candy stalls. What few candy stalls we did find all offered the same pre-packaged concoctions, though we did manage to pick up some ate cubes (gelatinous fruit cubes) and I ended up finding a pair of stylish t-shirts. In an effort to salvage our search for sweets we ducked into the Museo de Dulces, a private sweets shop that offered a much more interesting collection of deserts. We left with a jar of goat-milk caramel called cajeta and numerous packages of obleas con cajeta, a hand-holdable disc of cajeta sandwiched between two rice-paper wafers.

    We made our way back to the hotel walking alongside the 18th century aqueduct (no longer in use) and spent the latter part of the warm afternoon napping in our room. For dinner we joined Lino for tacos al pastor (marinated pork meat garnished with cilantro and onion) at Kiki's food truck. Nothing in Mexico beats the street food, and the tacos here were cheap and tasty.

    La Posada de San Antonio B&B, Morelia

  10. Morelia to Seattle - march 10

    We zipped through out last fantastic breakfast - enchiladas with carrots and potatoes - so we could catch our morning flight to Mexico City. We were about the only car on the brand new two-lane highway to the airport and arrived in plenty of time at the small and quiet modern airport - perfect for a late check-in. Our flight to Mexico City was smooth and easy, and after a lunch-time layover in Mexico City we were on our way home.

    Back at home in Seattle

Souvenir List

  1. Magnet from Teotihuacan
  2. Stone Aztec calendar from Teotihuacan
  3. Copper purse mirrors from Santa Clara del Cobre
  4. Copper butterfly magnet from Santa Clara del Cobre
  5. Copper bud vase with painted butterflies from Santa Clara del Cobre
  6. Seven-piece mariachi band ceramic shelf-sitters from Tzintzuntzan
  7. Three Joaquin Pantoja music CDs
  8. Two t-shirts for Mark from Morelia sweets market
  9. Bag of Ate y Laminillas from Morelia sweets market
  10. Obleas con cajeta from Museo de Dulces in Morelia
  11. Jar of cajeta sauce from Museo de Dulces in Morelia