My trip to see the butterflies happened during the first week of February and it started with the greatest of man made obstacles - incomprehensible international immigration laws. I walked right into the senseless bureaucracy after a sleepless night on a red-eye, the only direct from LA to Morelia, the capital of Michoacan. Apparently the "computer system" in Morelia is not set up to accommodate the new (well, now a 3 year old) law that allows anyone with an US Green Card to enter Mexico without a visa. The "system" demanded a Mexican visa and it took 4 hours of frantic phone calls and 25 reboots to convince it that the world wouldn't end if a poor little Indian spent a weekend in Morelia. Once that was settled, a natural disaster replaced it. As soon as I reached the city, I learnt that Angangueo (the village next to the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary) was buried in a landslide, thanks to an unseasonal rain, forcing the closure of the park. Only the $150 change of flight charge stopped me from catching the next flight out of the country.
Morelia must be quite a charming city, because I found it to be so right from the start despite the earlier disappointments. Morelia (nee Valladolid) changed her name to honour her favourite son, Jose Maria Morelos. Apart from the sites dedicated to her hero, the city houses an impressive Cathedral, a 253 arch aqueduct, a jaw-droppingly ornate church and of course public buildings with massive murals. The main city cathedral was quite a sight and it is prettier by the night when illuminated; on Saturdays doubly so as the illumination is accompanied by some impressive fireworks. The ornate church, the Santuario de Guadalupe, has an interior which can rival those of Oaxaca's Santo Domingo and Puebla's Rosario.
The following day, which should been spent gaping at the Monarchs, was spent visiting the towns surrounding Morelia. The best of these is Patzcuaro, the capital of Purepecha people - traditional rivals of Aztecs. Spanish, under Nuno de Guzman, was particularly brutal with the Purepechas and they might have disappeared completely if not for the efforts of a kind hearted bishop Vasco de Quiroga who put an end to the atrocities. The entire history of Michoacan adorns the interior of the city library in the form of a massive mural, which along with the Basilica and the pretty Iglesia de Sagrario are the reason why most tourists end up in Patzcuaro. The town is located on the bank of a lake whose islands are the home to the indigenous Purepechas. The most touristy of these is Janitzio, where hundreds of tourists flock to "witness" the Day of the Dead celebrations. During the other 364 days of the year, the primary attraction of the town is a 40m tall hollow statue of Morelos whose interior is covered with dozens of massive murals depicting his life. One can climb all the way to the top of the statue to enjoy one of the best views of the region.
While the sightseeing was going on, I was exploring all possible avenues to fulfill the primary purpose of the trip - to see the damn butterfly colonies. My two years of boring Spanish lessons finally paid off and I was able to locate a travel agency who had their "ways" with the authorities. After a three hour drive, one hour of wild discussions with the "authorities", a half an hour of hiking I was standing (and pinching myself) right in the middle of millions of swarming butterflies. The Monarch migration is unique in the animal world as it takes 5 generations to make one round trip - which means that the butterflies that reach here have never been here before and never will be here again. When this generation leaves Michoacan, they split into a few distinct paths and their third generation will end up all over Canada. Michoacan is indeed the best place to view them as here all the paths merge into one giant confluence of fluttering colours. No one knows how the knowledge of the route/destination is passed one from one generation to another - one of the hardest mysteries to crack in the animal kingdom.
My trip to see the whales was during the last week of February. As I was in no mood to drive a couple of days all alone, I had booked a tour via the San Diego Natural History Museum. It turned out to be a great decision as I learnt a whole lot on the trip, thanks to a very knowledgeable tour leader and an enthusiastic museum representative. After a surprisingly event-less border crossing, we drove a an entire day to reach Guerrero Negro, home to one of the two lagoons where the whales spend their winter. The drive rivaled any of the previous scenic drives I have taken around the world. The route cut across one of the most spectacular desert scenery, home to hundreds of plant species, many of which are endemic to this region. The pick of these were the "Boojums", bizarre looking desert plant which are found in only the central part of the thin long Baja peninsula.
The following day's whale watching trip was nearly cancelled as the land decided to move again, this time thousands of miles away in Chile. >The 8.8 Chilean earthquake and the ensuing tsunami watch meant we were to spend most of the morning glued to the news networks. Thankfully, the tsunami never came and once the authorities realised that Acapulco got nothing more than a ripple, we were allowed to go see the whales. Grey whales migrate to the Mexican lagoons to mate and breed and something about these cozy waters lulls the whales into a deep sense of security, turning the normal "people looking for whale" trip to a "whale looking for people" trip. The lagoons have a little over thousand whales during the peak season and all one has to do is to pick a spot in the lagoon and wait for the whales to come to you. The whales are quite playful and inquisitive and come close enough to be petted and scratched by the people. The mothers instead of being protective are surprisingly proud to show off their babies, pushing their kids closer to the people. Sanity and natural order get restored when the whales start migrating northwards starting around the month of March. Once they leave the lagoons, the whales are no longer friendly and the whale watching is no longer a touch-and-feel experience anymore. Why are these whales so friendly in these lagoons? Well, you have a better chance of figuring out the butterfly question above!
Trip to Baja ended the way the trip to Michoacan began, me scrambling all over the San Diego-Tijuana border to get the Mexican exit stamp (apparently, it is as hard to leave the country as it is to enter it!). This time at least I had few more people for company! Over the last 5 years, I have spent about 35 days in Mexico and I have just about gone past scratching its surface. Mexico has grown on me over the years and I will probably miss it more than US after I return to India!