Murals, Morelia and millions of Monarchs

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February 25th 2018
Published: February 25th 2018
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I am going to say more about PV in the next blog, but now want to tell you about our side trip inland to an area north west of Mexico City. It is not logical to go all that way and then return to PV before flying back to Mexico City when it is time to go home but the reason we did it is because we wanted to see the Monarch butterflies and they fly north before we go to M.C. We might have missed them if we had tried to see them at the end of March as they usually leave about the time of the spring equinox in March but the exact date depends upon weather conditions. When the 'right' wind blowing from the south comes along, they go with it.

So that was the sole purpose of our excursion. It is not easy to reach the right area but we worked out that we could arrange a day trip up to the butterfly reserve from Morelia, and to get there required a five hour bus journey to Guadalajara and then a four hour bus ride on to Morelia. We were so focused on butterflies that we were not expecting very much from either city en route. We were so wrong.

Arriving in Guadalajara, second only in size to Mexico City with around five million population in the wider metropolitan area, we checked in quickly about 3.30pm and then went off sightseeing, realising we only had a few hours. I had planned what we wanted to see, three main highlights, the first of which was the Instituto Cultura de Cabanas which was the furthest attraction away from our hotel and which closed at 6pm. It is a Unesco World Heritage site as the neoclassical structure is chock full of modernist murals by Jose Clemente Orozco, plus works by other artists. The building comprises numerous arched courtyards and was originally designed in 1805 as an orphanage. Orozco, born in Guadalajara, is one of the 'big three' muralists of Mexico and between 1938 and 1939 he painted 57 fantastic murals that decorate the main chapel at the centre of the complex.

Murals are very important in Mexican culture. They are political, religious and social statements truly 'written large', or in their case painted large, to communicate with people many of whom were illiterate. Interestingly, the majority of present day english language films and TV programmes shown in Mexico are dubbed as there is still a relatively high rate of illiteracy particularly in rural areas, so subtitles are not popular. That makes it difficult to try to understand the Spanish as the sound does not match the lip movements. I had not thought about that before but it does make a difference.

Anyway, back to murals. They have a phenomenal power and energy, are often dark and unnerving and contrast sharply with the classical buildings that house them. Orozco, in the chapel at the Instituto, has included very modern looking images amongst the fire, blood, armour, machinery and religious icons. Given his time they served as a warning against extremism, both Fascist and Communist, perhaps still needed in many parts of the world including the UK and USA.

After viewing them we moved to our second objective, the Palacio de Gobierno, or town hall, but it is much grander than most of those found in Britain. Built in 1774 it houses a fenomenal, 'stop you in your tracks' mural of the priest, Miguel Hidalgo, (he of 'the Cry of Pain' which started the War of Independence in 1810) which covers the ceiling and walls of the grand staircase. What I love about Mexico, as in Spain, it is possible to wander in and out of all these public buildings at will, and people are always encouraging and welcoming.

Then we moved on to the Cathedral. Begun in 1558 with neo-Gothic towers built to replace the originals which were demolished in an earthquake in the mid-19th Century, the Cathedral is a mix of styles but still very impressive.

Finally we moved to the main square as the sun started to set. We sat in an outdoor restaurant enjoying the last rays of warm sun and ordered the local delicacy, a Torta Ahogada, translated as a 'drowned sandwich', but we were not really sure what to expect. It is a crusty roll, roughly half the size of a baguette and heated, filled with pork, then it is 'drowned' with gravy and accompanied by crispy tacos and vegetables. There is an innocent looking sauce to accompany it, the consistency of water but bright red. Luckily I only dribbled a few drops onto the top of the roll but that was enough to keep my lips buzzing for a couple of hours because of the chilli content! It was delicious, and that together with two drinks each (mine being Pina Coladas) totalled £10. We realised that, as we had already believed, the prices in areas full of northern snow birds have inflated prices. Guadalajara and Morelia were much cheaper.

The next day we were back on a bus for the four hour journey to Morelia where we checked in to the Hotel Casino on the main square. It is delightful. A pink stone building as are most of the structures in the historic centre, and our room is on the top floor, huge with a ceiling about five metres high and supported by black beams.

We went to look around the town and were entranced. It is the state capital of Michoacan with a population of 700,000, a university town with two music schools and a beautiful public library dating back to the 16th Century which houses more than 22,000 books recounting the histories of Spain, Europe and the colonies in wooden bookcases which rise up to the domed ceilings. In the centre there are 1,000 protected buildings most of them constructed from quarried pink stone. Overall it has a feel of Oxford but with a few important differences, there are no crowds of tourists being guided around, the stonework is pink and best of all it is possible to wander in and out of public buildings without being stopped by security guards or asked to pay ridiculous entrance fees as in the Oxford colleges.

All that is before I mention the Cathedral, which dominates the city and whose clock towers, (yes, it has two!) are visible from our room above the rooves. It took more than a century to build so again has a mix of styles but is breathtakingly magnificent. The organ has 4,600 pipes which I would have loved to have heard.

Towards the east of the town an aqueduct built between 1785 -1788 to bring water for the rapidly increasing population of that time runs for several kilometres and has 253 arches.

One day we sat in the patio inside the Conservatorio de las Rosas, built in 1743, and listened to an already very accomplished soprano being given a lesson. Every Thursday they present a free concert so we went along to hear a cellist, Rene Mayoral, perform music by Bach and Haydn as well as the main work of the evening, Seven Butterflies by Kaija Saariaho. This was most appropriate given the reason for being in Morelia and it was a beautiful piece with tiny, precise and gentle notes I suppose representing the butterflies. It must be a difficult piece to perform and included numerous sounds made by his fingers alone on the strings rather than the bow.

Morelia, originally named Valladolid, was founded in 1541, one of the first cities in Nueva Espana. In 1828 when Nueva Espana became the Republic of Mexico the city was renamed Morelia to honour Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon who was a key figure in the fight for independence and who was born in the town. The elegant 16th and 17th Century buildings line the streets and many of them were originally monasteries, convents and churches, as the Catholic Church had a huge presence here, and public buildings such as hospitals and orphanages. There are still a huge number functioning as places of worship and they all seem busy.

The Museo Casa de Morelos is in a former home of the independence hero and apart from many of his personal items the display boards give the clearest explanation of Mexican history in english and spanish that I have seen, although by the end Jim felt he had read enough about campaigns. I found it helpful to read about the role that the Spanish kings' and Napoleon's involvement had on Mexico and also how liberal and 'socialist' the philosophies and objectives of the 'Insurgentes' were, well ahead of other countries.

Another small gallery contained work of local artist Alfredo Zalce, both paintings and photographs. The photos taken of the erupting volcano, Paricutin, in 1943 are particularly interesting. Life seemed to continue as normally as possible below the steam and lava flows for more than a year. I wonder what effect that had on the health of the local community?

We had allowed a day to recover from our journey before venturing off to see butterflies. They are not easy to access. We had arranged for a guide to take us and Alfredo arrived on time. He then explained the itinerary, a three hour drive to El Rosario reserve, the easiest butterfly site to reach, a one hour walk uphill to their present location, they move regularly so the length of walk can vary slightly, an hour back downhill, lunch at the kiosks by the park ticket office and then three hours back home. He was very professional providing everything we needed for the trip including water, a window sun screen for me in the rear seat, walking sticks, even wipes and he speaks perfect English. He also provided face masks but we did not find this out until they were needed.

Every autumn millions of Monarch butterflies start their migration from the Great Lakes area of Canada and the US to the forested mountains of Mexico 4,500 kilometres south. This area is ideal because the climate is perfect and the woods are full of five varieties of Milkwood plants which is their preferred food. They form colonies on eight different mountains but there is only public access to three areas, partly because of the difficult terrain and also to protect their populations.

When they are close to their destination they swarm together in clusters on the fir trees and weigh down the branches. This clustering together helps them conserve moisture which is essential for their survival. The butterflies arriving in Mexico are a 'super' generation which has delayed sexual maturity in order to accumulate water, lipids and protein to help them survive the journey. They then go into a state of semi dormancy which reduces their metabolism enabling them to make the long journey and live in the forests here until the weather warms up in March and then they finally reach maturity and reproduce.

The complete cycle of migration involves four or five generations. The first is produced by the overwintering female Monarchs who migrated here and who are pregnant (that is the word used in the Lonely Planet, it seemed strange to me) when they leave Mexico. They fly to the north of Mexico and the south east of the US and lay their eggs on Milkweed plants there before dying. The eggs hatch into caterpillars which feed on the Milkweed, make cocoons and then emerge as new second generation of butterflies in late May. Another generation hatches out in July/August. The second and third generation only live from two to six weeks en route to the north. The fourth generation produced in the Great Lakes becomes the 'super' butterflies who will make the migration south again. This sounds straightforward but in fact it is a complex pattern as they spread out as they fly north and extra generations might be produced!

Research suggests they mainly use the sun together with their internal clock to navigate supported by magnetic fields in certain places.

Once in the fir trees here they have three predators, birds, frogs and mice. We saw lots of dying butterflies where the birds had eaten half their abdomen. They do that as other parts of the butterfly are poisonous to them so they select out the safe bite.

The drive was divided into three, the first part on well maintained but expensive toll roads, the second on ordinary roads through occasional villages and the third driving up into the mountains on a very slow road with literally hundreds of topes or speed control bumps. There are rarely speed limit signs in Mexico but the bumps are used very effectively to control traffic especially near houses and villages.

Eventually we arrived at the end of the road after the village of Ocampo, where there is a small encampment of stalls selling food and souvounirs. We collected an official Reserve guide and set off up the hill. Everyone has to be accompanied by a Reserve guide as well as your own guide, although the local ones do not speak English and are only there to ensure that you obey the rules, which to be fair, does protect the Monarchs. Our young female guide appeared to be about sixteen years old.

Then we started our trek. The next hour was excruciating. The path is roughly two and a half kilometres long, which does not sound too difficult. However, the climb takes you from a height of 2,800 metres to 3,200 metres, which is approximately two miles above sea level. The first kilometre and a half is up concrete steps, and it is definitely UP! Jim calculated the total trail averaged out at a climb of 1 in 6 but with the steps forming the much steeper part.

Within seconds of starting our lungs were burning and we were gasping for breath. Eventually we realised we could climb for about 100 metres then we needed to stop for a couple of minutes for our breathing to normalise before starting another 100 metres. Of course younger, fitter people can do it more easily but having said that some people were experiencing greater problems than us and not all of them oldies. However at this point I really was wondering if it was worth the effort.

After the concrete path ends the trail becomes a very dusty track, still going up, but made even more uncomfortable by the dust. It was then that Alfredo brought out his masks, the kind worn in hospital theatres or by people with colds in some countries. They were a mixed blessing. They reduced the impact of the dust but made our glasses steam up so we could not see where we were going. Eventually we spotted a few Monarch butterflies and stopped to take photographs despite Alfredo saying that we would soon see more. I always work according to the 'bird in the hand' (or in this case it should be 'Monarch on a bush'? ) philosophy, if it is there take a photo, you might see more later but you never know. Perhaps I had a sneaking suspicion I might not make it much higher. A few people passed us on their descent and I could not help feeling they were very lucky.

Finally, we arrived at the cordoned viewing area and were urged to be very quiet before being allowed to wander off alone within the boundary. It was spectacular. Within seconds all thoughts of pain and permanently damaged lungs evaporated as I began to appreciate what I was seeing. The branches of fir trees were being pulled downwards by the weight of butterflies clustered on them. The trees looked as if they were changing colour for the autumn but it was just the covering of Monarchs. Then gradually as it warmed up, it was about 1pm, more and more took to the air although it seemed like millions of others stayed on the trees as their numbers did not seem to dwindle. There were truly millions.

I have included photographs but they do not convey the true colour or movement. Video gives a more realistic impression. Because there is constant movement of the butterflies all over there are always some out of focus.

So by this time I was positive it had been worth the effort, perhaps heartened by the knowledge that the next hour was downhill all the way. Having said that Jim's knees suffered on the descent but his lungs were fine. We had sore calves for at least three days afterwards.

As we left the viewing area some of the Monarchs started to follow a stream downhill for water so they fluttered and flowed through the trees in cascades even settling at one point in a shallow puddle. An opportunity for even more photographs.

We had chosen to go midweek and it was just as well. The weekends can get very busy according to Alfredo and that would have made it a less enjoyable experience as well as creating much more dust.

We had two more days left in Morelia. We had allowed that time in case for some reason such as poor weather we did not see the butterflies. Luckily we did but we both said we would not have had the energy to go back again so it was just as well. We thought about going to another nearby town, Patzcuaro, which is pre-colonial but we were enjoying the ambiance of Morelia so much we decided to continue wandering around the town and absorbing the atmosphere.

Our return journey to Puerto Vallarta turned out to be much easier than expected. We had chosen to travel the whole route in one day, leaving Morelia bus station at 9am, having a two hour lunch break in Guadalajara to allow time for the first bus to be delayed before continuing in another bus to arrive in PV about 9pm. We were not really looking forward to it. However, we arrived early for the 9am bus so they let us on the 8am, no fuss just issued a new ticket. Then we reached Guadalajara ten minutes before the noon bus left so again, they just reissued a ticket very quickly so we were off again and arrived back at Posada de Roger by 6pm. A much smoother ride than expected. Each time they changed the tickets very pleasantly and with no extra charge, very different from National Express.

I think I might have said that Posada de Roger was full so now we are in a small apartment they own, just around the corner. We have a bedroom, bathroom and sitting room with tiny terrace. It could do with a little updating, however it suits us despite being a touch down market compared with the Posada which was certainly not 'upmarket' to begin with! We are just going to relax and enjoy PV, perhaps doing a few bus trips out to the beaches until we return to Mexico City on 23rd March.

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26th February 2018

So pleased for you
Hi there - so pleased that you managed to see the Butterflies and survived the uphill hike what an adventure! Looking forward to catching up with you on 21 April - ? Silvernomads x

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