The hour walk out of the cave visitors are left to their own devices, the trail lit by bluish lights along the path, casting eerie shadows on everything. The air tastes slightly metallic, smells humid, in some places, like wet dog. We walk in silence, taking it all in. When we reach the opening to the outside, the pale evening sky, the sound of birds, is indescribable, we gulp in the fresh air as if we have been in the cave for days.
That night in Ixtapan de la Sal we settle into a motel with the makings of a Thelma and Louise set location. The combi parked out front of the main lobby, is a natural draw for everyone. The owner of the motel saunters out and chews the fat with Jorge about one he used to have himself as a young man, looking nostalgically into the distance, running his hand over the still-warm hood.
In the morning, after an early-morning search finally yields a bakery and coffeeshop open along Ixtapan's cobblestone streets, we roar out of town to some Arcade Fire, the locals staring openly at our choice of tunes this early in the morning, and the VW bus barreling towards them.
Today is the big day, we are off to see the monarch butterflies, the reason for our season, the icing to our roadtrip cake. This is an event that only happens for a few months every years, when the Monarch butterflies make the arduous journey from Canada to spending their winter months mating and recuperating from the most intense road trip of their lives. When the butterflies arrive in November they rest and eat for three months before they start to mate… and once it begins, it is definitely on.
I had been once before to see the Monarchs but it was a last minute trip, poorly planned, and we arrived late in the afternoon when these incredible creatures were already clustering up for the night to keep warm.
This day we start to see them flitting about almost at the exact moment that we pass the sign welcoming us in to the sanctuary.
Our guide Ciro, is a soft-spoken local from the Piedra Herrada ejido community (an ejido is communal farmland in Mexico). They have been charged with not only running and managing the sanctuary but also patrolling the area for illegal logging and other activities that might hurt the butterflies or their habitat.
As we climb the almost 3 kilometers to the top, Ciro tells us that what we will see is the fourth generation of monarchs, in the midst of a mating frenzy and preparing to head back north in a few weeks to lay their eggs in Texas where they will die, and the next generation will carry on the yearly migration.
All the males will mate and die here in Mexico, only females will make the trip back. Ciro says they are led by their queen, who acts as their guide on the trip. They follow her to whatever part of the forest she deems appropriate for their stay in Mexico. Later when I researched this, I found exactly zero information about the monarchs having a queen that they follow, but I like the idea that every journey has a guide and that the creature you are when you set out, is not the creature you are when you arrive. Ciro gets a pass.
Jorge and I are both overwhelmed by the sight of the butterflies, in particular the moments that they seem to get spooked by something and all take to the sky together, like a million-bird flock. There are pairs of mating butterflies all around us, consumed in their sexual dance. There are no words that can describe it and no photo that will do it justice, but Miles Davis' "Embraceable" on the way out of the park is a nice audio backdrop for our thoughts.
I've made a reservation for us at Joya del Viento, a B&B outside of Valle de Bravo, but when we arrive they tell us we don't have one. I am livid—we've just driven through a random field, and down a dozen winding roads with no signs to get here. But Jorge, my ever-steady road trip driver, just smiles and says we'll figure it out. Valle de Bravo, the closest town to the Sanctuary and another popular weekend getaway, is packed, and we wander from hotel to hotel for a while without finding anything available.
"You know," I tell him, "We could just drive back. How do you feel about driving at night?"
"I like it even better than driving during the day," he smiles.
So we hop in the combi, with a soda and snacks to fuel our return.
© Jorge Reich
I've always liked night drives and while the family road trip I envisioned probably had me sleeping in the back at this point, this night ride I am up front watching the flickering lights of Toluca as we pass and listening to "Bohemian Rhapsody." I sing Billy Joel's "My Life" at the top of my lungs way too many times for Jorge and I to still be friends. As we head back to the city, I begin to think about my own bed and I am struck by the truism that no matter where you roam, the best part, in the end, really is going home. Jorge has his nostalgia and I have my daydreams, but both of us are happy to see the high towers of Mexico City's financial district in the distance and to know that very soon we will be home again.
To plan your own vintage roadtrip visit: https://matilda70.com/ or contact Jorge Reich at info[at]matilda70.com
Lydia Carey is a freelance writer and translator based out of Mexico City who spends her time mangling the Spanish language, scouring the country for true stories and "researching" every taco stand in her neighborhood. She is the author of "Mexico City Streets: La Roma," a guide to one of Mexico City's most eclectic neighborhoods and she chronicles her life in the city on her blog www.MexicoCityStreets.com.
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The Shaman of San Regis - James Michael Dorsey
Calling Ancestors Through the Butterflies in Guatemala - Tim Leffel
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