Butterflies add color to Michoacan's winter

MEXICO CITY -- Just as much of North America was preparing for the ice and snow of winter, an estimated 250 million monarch butterflies began their annual fall journey to Michoacan, Mexico, for what many consider to be one of nature's most spectacular events.

Each year, the brightly colored, orange-and-black monarchs travel distances as great as 3,100 miles to avoid the north's freezing temperatures.

Originating in Canada and the U.S., the butterflies begin their monthlong journey in late October or early November, flying approximately 70 miles per day.

The monarchs' final destination lies in the eastern mountains surrounding Morelia, the capital of the state of Michoacan.

Morelia is a lively city with a university and an active cultural scene.

Among other interesting sites, Michoacan contains the colonial town of Patzcuaro, set near scenic Lake Patzcuaro.

Here, in the Oyamel fir forests, the butterflies spend the winter waiting for spring and the mating season.

When early springtime arrives, the butterflies mate then return north, laying eggs along the way.

For clients planning a late winter visit to Mexico, there are two butterfly reserves open to the public: El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary and Sierra Chincua Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary.

El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary is set in the mountains in the easternmost portion of Michoacan, about three hours by bus west of Mexico City.

The monarchs cluster together by the thousands in the mountain's pine trees, often weighing down branches with their sheer mass.

Ordinarily green pine trees glow orange from the multitude of orange wings.

The sanctuary is open every day during the butterfly season. The admission fee is approximately $1. The fee includes the services of an English-speaking guide.

The Sierra Chincua Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary is near the small mountain town of Angangueo.

The admission fee is about $1, and visitors can opt to explore the sanctuary on a guided horseback tour.

Angangueo and nearby towns such as Ocampo, Zitacuaro and Maravito celebrate the monarch butterfly in February with the Festival de la Mariposa Monarca.

The festival includes traditional dances, music and craft markets.

The best way to get to the butterfly reserves is from the town of Morelia.

A local bus company, Autobuses de Occidente, operates buses twice daily to the sanctuaries. The trip costs $1.50 one way.

For more information, call Autobuses de Occidente at (011) 52-4 312-0600.

A local tour operator, Operadora Monarca in Morelia, conducts tours of the sanctuaries for $75 per person. The tours include motorcoach transportation, a meal with beverages and a bilingual guide.

Operadora Monarca can be reached at (011) 52-4 313-3571.

Clients also can stay in the mountain town of Angangueo at the comfortable Albergue Don Bruno hotel, (011) 52-7 156-0026. In Zitacuaro, clients can stay at the Villa Monarca Inn, (011) 52-7 153-5371.

Although the monarch is not an endangered species, the Mexican government has taken several actions to protect the butterfly.

In 1986, the Mexican government created a reservation to preserve the monarch's essential habitat.

This reservation covers five of the 13 known sites in Michoacan where the butterflies spend their winter.

In addition, Mexico's government established the Michoacan Reforestation Fund to set aside money to replant trees in the forest.

More information on the butterflies or inns mentioned in this story can be obtained by calling (800) 44-MEXICO, or via the Web at www.visitmexico.com.

For additional information about Morelia, including its hotels and transportation to the butterfly sanctuaries, call the Morelia Tourist Office at (011) 52-4 313-2654.

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