We opted to go to the reserve closest to San Cayetano called El Capulin, which is technically across the border from Michoacan in the state of Mexico. It is about half an hour’s car ride from the hotel to the stables, where we rented some pretty scrawny horses and hired guides for the 1 ½ hour trek uphill to the reserve at a place called Cerro Pelon. It was a rocky, dusty trip and there apparently are easier trails to the Sierra Chincua and the larger El Rosario sanctuaries in Michoacan, but it was well worth the saddle pain.
For here in the forest, I learned the great mystery of the monarchs, which is this: Most monarchs live only four or five weeks, but the generations that make the long migratory journey to Mexico live four or five months. They breed, the females lay their eggs on the road north, and die along with the males. Then, a year and five butterfly generations later, their descendants rely on some kind of instinctive GPS system to migrate south again, returning to exactly the same forest in central Mexico.
How cool is that?
Experts say the numbers of monarchs have been dwindling in recent years thanks to logging, insecticide use and other environmental pressures. We encountered a team of scientists from the World Wildlife Fund of Mexico and the Universities of Georgia and Wisconsin testing butterflies for parasites that attach themselves to the wings like excess baggage and drag the insects down. They found the ophryocystis elektroscirrha parasites on about 10 percent of the butterflies, which only weigh about a half-gram to begin with.
And yet, there are millions of them, flying, diving, sucking nectar from yellow and purple wildflowers, and seeking, like Skipton and Goldberger, the mates of their lives.
Recalling his romantic proposal, Goldberger said she remembers running to Skipton for the picture when ‘‘all of the sudden he was down on one knee.’’ It took her a moment to realize what was happening. ‘‘It was incredible,’’ she said.
And what did she respond?
If You Go...
BUTTERFLY MIGRATION IN MICHOACAN, MEXICO: http://www.visitmexico.com/en_us/VisitMexico30/Michocans_Billion_Monarch_Butterfly_Migration. Butterfly reserves are open mid-November through March. UNESCO World Heritage site: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1290. Reserves include El Capulin, over the border from the state of Michoacan to the state of Mexico. Entry fee at El Capulin, 35 pesos ($2.75). Horseback riding, 200 pesos ($16.50) and fee for guide, 200 pesos ($16.50) plus tip.
RANCHO SAN CAYETANO: Zitacuaro, Michoacan, http://ranchosancayetano.com/. Nightly rates, $130 plus 18 percent tax. Can be paid in dollars or pesos but quoted in dollars. Dinner at San Cayetano, 350 pesos ($27.45) plus 15 percent tip. Breakfast, 170 pesos ($13.30) plus 15 percent tip. They also will arrange box lunch tours to the sanctuaries.
GETTING THERE: Two-hour bus ride from Mexico City to Zitacuaro, Michoacan, on La Linea, 170 pesos ($13.30). Taxi from bus station to lodging, 35 pesos ($2.75).