February 18, 2008
This morning we overslept a little! Luckily, we made it down to breakfast on time, where Chris and I tried cactus juice for the first time. It was pretty good! It was as green as newly-cut grass, with a taste of pineapple in it. After racing through breakfast, we boarded the bus to go to El Rosario, our first monarch reserve!
The 2.5 hour drive to the sanctuary was amazing, with mountains that are actually dormant volcanoes hovering above you. Some of them reach as high as 12,000 feet above sea level. Remember, here in NJ we are at sea level. As we drove up the cobblestone road that leads into the sanctuary, Marcos explained that the local townspeople had laid the road by hand in order to make it easier for tourists to visit the sanctuary. About halfway up the mountain we saw our first monarchs, a breath-taking sight since none of the teachers on the trip had seen monarchs since last fall, when we released them in the US and Canada. As we drove up toward the mountaintop, we could see the effects that years of mining and logging have had on the oyamel fir forests that blanket the area. For years the local Ejidos have cut down the forest to meet their everyday basic needs for shelter and wood for heating and cooking. More recently, the forests have also fallen prey to illegal logging because the wood from the oyamel trees is extremely valuable and can be cut down and sold for a very large profit in some parts of Mexico (especially Mexico City). If this illegal logging continues, then the migration of the monarch butterfly will become extinct. Thankfully, the Mexican government has begun to work with the local Ejidos and number of local non-profit organizations to restore parts of the de-forested areas and educate the locals about taking better care of their environment. A big part of this is the designation of the Monarch Biospere Reserve in this part of Mexico. In this reserve the Monarchs’ homes are now protected by the government and the local people who live here. El Rosario is one of these reserves.
As we drove, Marcos took the time to explain the background of the Mayan and Aztec calendar. The MesoAmerican cultures used an anthropomorphic calendar. This means that it is based on the humans and not on the sun. There are 260 days in a year because the average amount of time that a child spends in the womb is 260 days. It is absolutely fascinating!
Finally, we arrived at approximately 8,000 ft above sea level, to the parking lot of the El Rosario Sanctuary. We de-bussed and headed toward the mountain path. We passed through a gauntlet of shops and restaurants, and Marcos reminded us to “Be-a strong!” Anything we bought at the bottom of the mountain would have to be carried to the top and back down again. No thank you! However, our senses were assaulted by the sights and smells of the shops, making our mouths water and our eyes wander from item to item. It was hard to be strong!
After paying at the visitor center, we began our ascent. The ejido members have built concrete steps into the mountaintop for about half of the climb. This made the climb a little easier! As we reached a slightly higher altitude, we began to see a few monarchs flutter by our heads, headed down the mountainside to the flowers closer to the bottom. As we reached the Plains of the Rabbits (a meadow halfway to the peak), we entered a river of monarchs, flowing down the mountainside. As the warmth from the sun hit the clusters of monarchs on the bowed branches of oyamels, thousands more monarchs lifted into the air in search of nectar and water. It was surreal to stand in the midst of thousands upon thousands of monarch butterflies, tumbling down the mountain like flakes of orange snow.
As we kept climbing we saw more and more monarchs. More than I ever imagined possible. We came across hundreds of them puddling in small streams. We even got pictures of Mariposa (our class mascot) with a few other classroom mascots from around North America. They puddled with some of the live monarchs and even had a real, live monarch land on them!
Throughout the hike we would meet people on their way down, encouraging us to keep climbing. “It only gets better! You haven’t seen anything yet!” They were right! At the peak, the scene stole your breath away. Because the warmth of the sun had not yet risen to that height, the boughs of the oyamel trees were weighted down by millions upon millions of monarch butterflies. We spent about 45 minutes just sitting at the peak, surrounded by orange sunbursts flitting through the sky. It was serene and tranquil, like a silent snowfall. The only sounds were the wind blowing through the trees and the flapping of millions of butterfly wings.
As we descended the mountain later that afternoon, we stopped every few feet to lift sunning monarchs off the path. You had to watch each step to ensure you did not mistakenly step on a monarch gathering its strength in the afternoon sun. It was magical. The climb down was much harder than the ascent, though. It was so steep that you would have to grab into trees to keep your balance while scooting downhill. Because of the altitude and the length of the climb, many climber’s legs began to tremble as they walked.
Once we reached the main path we were inundated again by the shops and restaurants. The native people were shouting prices but the language barrier presented a problem. They began holding out goods to attract our attention, while slowly repeating the prices in Spanish. We were able to work together to determine the prices and even to bargain a little! I purchased a few t-shirts which were hand-embroidered on the site, along with pine needle baskets made by hand down the mountain. Even now, when I open the basket, it’s like a Pandora’s box of Christmas. The scent of pine and winter is overwhelming. We browsed through all of the shops, and even though I love to shop it is not easy when you don’t speak the language. It made shopping an intellectual experience if nothing else!
We had lunch at one of the small shacks on the side of the trail. The homemade blue corn tortillas were delicious! We don’t raise blue corn here in the States, so it was a treat to see blue tortillas. And fresh tortillas taste nothing at all like store-bought ones. I had quesadillas, and it was the best grilled cheese sandwich I have ever eaten! Almost everyone in the group ate at the restaurant and we all raved about the food. At one point we heard a cell phone ring, and we were amazed that anyone had service. Then, we saw one of the young Mexican girls grinning. It was her cell phone receiving a text! Even though the Masawa people have retained much of their own culture, technology like cell phones has made the leap over the great divide and become a part of daily life.
We finally got back on the bus later in the afternoon for the 2.5 hour journey back to the hotel for the night. I spent much of the long ride back thinking about what I had witnessed in the sanctuaries. Words can not describe what you see in the sanctuaries, and I wish that all my students could have the opportunity to see the magic takes place there. When you are here and you see, hear and feel the billions upon billions of monarchs, you are overwhelmed with the fact that we really are just a tiny part of this giant universe. It is a truly life-changing experience. Looking back at my pictures, video and words I realize that nothing can accurately describe the sanctuaries. The emotions that run through you as billions of Monarchs cling to the towering trees overhead and dance and play in a river of orange with a stunning blue sky behind them are indescribable.
I received a fellowship for this trip from the Monarch Teacher Network/Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. MTN is a fantastic organization that gives summer workshops, “Teaching and Learning with Monarch Butterflies”, all over the country. Anyone who attends the workshop (you do not have to be a teacher!), is eligible to go on one of the 3 yearly trips to Mexico.