Show of hands, now — how many of you thought you would ever see Leslie riding a horse? I know you just can’t wait for the explanation, so here we go.
On Thursday, we went to Santuario Sierra Chincua, a monarch butterfly sanctuary high in the mountains about a three-hour drive from San Miguel. This is one of the places where the mariposa monarca spends the winter.
They migrate from Canada and the northern U.S. down to Mexico every year. Millions of them. And we spent a few hours with them.
Leslie and I went with five other people and Daniel, our driver. Getting there was not easy or fun. The van ride is very long and sometimes quite bumpy, and there’s not much to see along the way. But Daniel did a great job and got us to the sanctuary.
Sierra Chincua sits a little above 8,000 feet, and the difference in elevation is obvious — it’s cooler and breathing is slightly more labored, for example. We had a choice of walking up a dusty trail to where the monarchs were, or paying an extra 100 pesos to ride a horse. If you want to come back on the horse, that’s another 100 pesos. So we shelled out 400 pesos (about $20 USD) and we both mounted up. The horses were very gentle, and guides led us the whole way.
We dismounted after a 30-minute ride and walked a bit farther up a narrow trail into the forest. Soon we could see butterflies. They were in the trees, on low bushes and plants, flitting through the air. They were everywhere. They flew right past us sometimes.
Daniel taught us how to tell the difference between males and females, and he said many males die in the sanctuary after mating. He said that last year there was snow in the sanctuary, which is highly unusual. Many butterflies died. He also explained that birds eat dead butterflies, but only the body. The wings are toxic to birds. Sure enough, we found several places where wings were lying on the ground, but there was no butterfly body.
We could only see a small part of the sanctuary, which covers several acres. But in the small area where we were allowed to stand, we could look up into the sky and see them wafting around. We could look into the forest and see trees heavily laden with butterflies at rest. And there was no sound. All you could hear was the wind in the trees. Amazing!
Then it was time for a late lunch. Daniel took us to one of several small restaurants in the sanctuary compound, where he said the owner made a great mushroom soup. Several people, including Leslie, had the soup and all agreed Daniel was right! I had a potato and chorizo quesadilla, and it was fantastic. The hot sauce they served with it was great too. And really fresh hand-made corn tortillas — so much better than store-bought. Even better than our favorites, El Milagro.
Daniel explained that the local indigenous people make a living by taking care of the butterflies, and of the tourists who come to see them. They start as children, offering to watch your car for you while you’re spending time with the butterflies. As they get older, they work as horse wranglers or guides, or they do other work in the sanctuary, such as selling tickets or working in maintenance. Most don’t get paid much, if at all. They depend on tips, so our group tipped well.
According to Daniel, former Mexican president Vicente Fox provided substantial funds to build a nice entrance to the sanctuary, as well as quality buildings for restaurants and gift shops. This made the experience better for the tourists, and helped the people who work there.
Next time, arts and culture in San Miguel de Allende. Spoiler alert: There’s lots of culture!