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  • Writer's pictureDonna Zabel

Breathtaking Butterflies

My stubborn streak can get me into trouble, especially when it comes to travel. This time it meant, after multiple cancelations and Covid mandated restrictions, I finally made it back to the Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico, sipping a glass of locally cabernet in the terrace restaurant. The oldest hotel in Mexico, on the edge of the historic Zocalo, she still exudes late 19th century elegance. From my table I look out over the historic square ringed by the ornate Cathedral with its gold-plated interior, the block long Presidential Palace, and the Portuguese tile-studded City Hall, all linking Mexico’s colonial past to the present.

Except for the altitude, I love this part of Mexico and Mexico City. Within a few blocks of where I am sitting are buildings with elegant French balconies, or Spanish baroque influences, or walls covered in old Portuguese tiles. A short walk down a major thoroughfare leads to the stunning Palacio de Belles Artes with interior walls covered in Diego Riviera murals. Linger long enough and you discover every building has a story, as the one on a corner that once housed Emperor Maximilian’s lover. It is now a Zara store.

This time my lingering in the capitol city is only long enough to acclimatize my oxygen-starved lungs in city higher than Denver and visit a few of the major neighborhoods before moving on to my main goal for this visit, the annual Monarch Butterfly migration.

Touring around Mexico City often includes Xochimilco, or the floating gardens, even if the gardens do not float anymore. Flat barges covered in multi-hued blossoms have been replaced by brightly painted boats sailing up the river, accompanied by mariachi bands competing for a chance to blare out a traditional song for a tip. Still, the ride is relaxing and the mariachi band, if touristy, is always fun.

After Xochimilcan a quick stop at the Ciudad Universitario was a surprise. The sprawling area is more than a campus, more than a university. It is UNESCO World Heritage site, due to the imposing National Library covered in Diego Rivera murals made of mosaics, depicting the symbolism and history of Mexico. It is the largest university in all Latin America and one the hardest to gain admission. No surprise that the mascot is the magnificent puma, elegant and powerful. One must feel a little sorry for the other university in Mexico City with its mascot a white donkey. Never mind the local comparisons……

The floating gardens are relaxing, the University inspiring, but the main attraction of Mexico City’s Coyocan neighborhood is the Frida Kahlo Blue House. Unknown until the 2002 movie, visits to her house and painting studio now require advance registrations and long lines. It is all worth it—the light, airy courtyard beneath her studio, the multiple pots of paints arranged to be accessible from her wheelchair, the entry halls lined with her drawing and paintings. It all speaks to a legendary woman, her strength and her frailties, her amazing talent, and her struggles to be known. I think it is time to watch the movie again.

But back to butterflies. Monarch Butterflies. Thousands and thousands of them. That is my reason for this trip to Mexico. The migration is legendary—their flight of hundreds and hundreds of miles to the breeding grounds of central Mexico, high in the treetops. There are several places to experience the butterflies—mine is at the Santuario Piedra Herrada, a two-hour drive from Mexico City.

To experience the butterflies was a bucket list item for me. The climb, however, was not. At over seven thousand feet, the last part, crawling over tree roots and rocks, had me gasping for breath and trying to remember long-forgotten survival skills, when I was not holding onto my guide or a nearby tree trunk for dear life, and trying to remember why this trip was so important.

Until I reached the butterflies. First you see trees with branches that look strangely heavy, as if engulfed in some thick growth. Next you realize they are branches covered in thousands of monarch butterflies, huddled together, coating the branches, wings still folded up, waiting for the sun’s warmth. As the sun reaches the clusters, the branches begin to move and sway. Soon the air fills with beautiful, black-striped, orange monarchs, an aerial sea of delicate wings. They are the reward for the climb, along with the smiles all around from fellow hikers.

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