ZITACUARO, Mexico – He found the love of his life 2,000 miles from home in a chance encounter that gave him butterflies, and she moved west to be with him. So of course, Jason Skipton told me, there could be no better place to propose marriage than in a swirl of orange and black butterflies that had migrated thousands of miles to mate.
Never mind that the stunning monarch butterfly sanctuary was in an area of central Mexico contested by drug cartels. When Samantha Goldberger set up her camera and darted to Skipton's side for a Valentine's Day picture, he dropped to one knee and asked for her hand.
"This place is like a miracle. And it is a miraculous thing that took place with us," Skipton said. "No one knows why the monarchs travel so far, or come here to find each other. It is inexplicable."
Indeed, every year, millions of monarchs migrate from the eastern United States and Canada to central Mexico, a journey of 2,000 miles and more into a wooded land under attack by loggers in a region bloodied by drug traffickers. The tiger-striped butterflies arrive in late October and early November to hibernate in fir trees, clinging together like great clusters of fall leaves. Come February, they start to awaken in the warm sun, turn glittering somersaults in search of their mates, and begin to couple.
I had long wanted to see this magical sight, and to hear the delicate music the butterflies make with the fluttering of their wings. As I boarded the bus from Mexico City to Michoacan with my husband and a friend, I wondered what tourists we might encounter in a place both beautiful and beastly. Who had the appetite for travel to central Mexico after the U.S. government warned against non-essential travel to most of the state of Michoacan, where we were headed?
There didn't appear to be other foreigners making the bus trip, a two-hour ride out the Toluca highway and along winding country roads as a subtitled version of the movie "Abduction" aired on TV screens overhead. Our hosts and hoteliers, Pablo and Lisette Span, had told us to buy a ticket at the taxi stand in the Zitacuaro bus station for the 10-minute ride to their Rancho San Cayetano. We did, arriving safe and sound.
Friends told us San Cayetano was one of the nicest and most charming places to stay in butterfly country. It's also one of the priciest, but the manicured grounds are lush and the rooms are cozy, each with a fireplace and woodpile ready to light at night. Although there are individual dining tables, guests naturally mingle and chat so that dinners and breakfasts become rather communal affairs. Pablo Span ate with us the first night and, in his gentlemanly way, tried to set us straight on the violence in Michoacan.
"Around the world, Mexico is synonymous with violence. But the violence is between the cartels fighting each other over territory, or between the cartels and the police and military. It's not against us. Not a single national or foreign tourist has died in the violence," he said.
The U.S. travel advisory makes a similar point that "attacks on Mexican government officials, law enforcement and military personnel ... have occurred throughout Michoacan."
Added Span: "The reality is — touch wood — we live exactly as we always have."
Touch wood? Really, that's our security policy?
But like Skipton and Goldberger, the guests we met were not only unfazed by the warnings, they were utterly captivated by the landscape. Another visiting couple, Michael Marez and Grace Buckley of Denver, Colorado, own a vacation house in Mazatlan, have been travelling throughout Mexico for years, and see no reason to stop now. They appeared to subscribe to the idea that violence is relative, noting that more than 1,700 people had been shot to death in the United States since the Newtown school massacre.
"People in the United States are desensitized to what happens in the United States and think what happens in Mexico is so much worse," said Marez. "We hope to avoid being collateral damage anywhere."
"You pay attention," added Buckley. "Sure Mexico has problems. They're sad and awful. But it's a wonderful country."
Rounding out the foreign crowd was a group of Intel employees and their families up from Mexico City. So it seemed the tourist pool, in this corner of Michoacan at least, was made up of expats, old Mexico hands, and hardy adventurers who consider witnessing the miracle of the monarch butterfly migration essential travel. (Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, also made the pilgrimage to see butterflies that weekend, but to the Piedra Herrada sanctuary near Valle de Bravo, in the state of Mexico.)
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?