Monarch butterflies by the million in Mexico

Samantha Goldberger, left, who has just set her camera on a timer, is surprised by her boyfriend, Jason Skipton, as he proposes marriage at the El Capulin reserve near Zitacuaro, Mexico. 
Associated Press
Samantha Goldberger, left, who has just set her camera on a timer, is surprised by her boyfriend, Jason Skipton, as he proposes marriage at the El Capulin reserve near Zitacuaro, Mexico. Associated Press
Published Feb. 26, 2013


He found the love of his life 2,000 miles from home in a chance encounter that gave him butterflies, and she moved to be with him. So of course, Jason Skipton said, 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."

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. I boarded the bus for the two-hour ride from Mexico City to Michoacan with my husband and a friend, heading into a place both beautiful and beastly, where the U.S. government warned against nonessential travel.

Pablo and Lisette Span's Rancho San Cayetano is one of the most charming places to stay in butterfly country. It's pricey, but the manicured grounds are lush and the rooms cozy, each with a fireplace and woodpile ready to light. Although there are individual dining tables, guests naturally mingle and chat. Pablo Span ate with us the first night and, in his gentlemanly way, tried to set us straight on the violence in Michoacan.

"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 reality is — touch wood — we live exactly as we always have."

We went to the reserve closest to San Cayetano, called El Capulin. 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.

And 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, then the females lay their eggs on the road north and die along with the males. 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.

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How cool is that?

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.