Angangueo – With the onset of fall, the biosphere reserve that straddles Mexico state and neighboring Michoacan welcomes millions of monarch butterflies from Canada and the United States looking for warmer climes, a miraculous migration that has now become a major tourist attraction.
The species begins its migration in September in the Great Lakes region of the United States and finally lands at its hibernation site in Mexico between late October and early November.
Despite its fragility, the monarch butterfly soars between 2,000 and 4,500 kilometers (1,200 and 2,800 miles) until it clusters in the forests of pine and sacred fir in the western state of Michoacan, sanctuaries where they will breed the next generation of the species.
One of these sanctuaries is in the Sierra Chincua mountains near the town of Angangueo, Michoacan state, "a cool, moist place, which is what they look for here," one of the sanctuary caretakers, Francisco Ambrosio Martinez, told Efe.
The 63-year-old native of the area said that since the day he first opened his eyes, the butterfly was there.
Denominating the place a sanctuary was not done by chance - it refers both to the millennial belief among locals that each butterfly represents the soul of a dearly departed coming to visit them on the Day of the Dead, as well as to the preservation of the habitat's peace and quiet that the species needs.
The spectacle of hibernation turns the trees into huge swarms of butterflies that bend down the branches and make the paths into carpets where anyone walking through the evergreens must take extreme care to avoid stepping on them.
The incredible beauty of this phenomenon opened a new opportunity for the tourist business.
Specifically, the Sierra Chincua since last year has been provided with rest rooms, restaurants, handicraft stores, a cable car, and organized excursions on foot, bicycle or horseback that have made the spot a center of tourism.
"Three years ago Mexican President Felipe Calderon came here with his family and decided that the place ought to have an ecotourism hotel," Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada said while visiting the area this Thursday.
The secretary spoke with the community here and agreed to launch promotions to boost the number of visitors and bring the locals more business.
The challenge is to increase tourist activities while respecting the environment, and at the same time erase Michoacan's image of violence currently generated by the organized crime gangs operating in the area.
As to the first, the secretary said that "the woods are in good condition" and as an example said that, according to the World Wildlife Fund, the cutting down of trees is 99 percent under control.
With the aim of protecting the area and the spectacle of the monarch butterflies, the authorities have ordered that butterfly-watching can only be done on authorized paths in guided groups of no more than 20 people each.
"It is our obligation to preserve the ecosystem. The National Protected Natural Areas Commission looks after this biosphere reserve as one of the 176 areas regulated that way nationwide," Elvira Quesada said.
With regard to the danger of gang violence, local residents have told the authorities of their concern because of the progressive decline in the number of visitors, which they attribute to Michoacan's unsafe image.
Michoacan has been hard hit by the drug-related violence that has left nearly 50,000 dead across Mexico since Calderon took office in late 2006.
The secretary expressed confidence that the promotional campaigns will help change that frightening image and that the area will attract some 50,000 visits this season.