Early in the summer of 2003, my ex and I decided to drive our RV to Mexico for the 3rd time. We wanted to visit the orphanage and drop off supplies, then continue on a tour of Mexico. We didn’t really have any destination in mind, just go further south.
One evening Vonnie mentioned in passing that she would like to see where the Monarch butterflies spend the winter. That fired my imagination immediately. Within minutes I was online looking at the situation. In two hours, I had a route planned and an itinerary set. She quickly agreed to my plan.
We’d been to the orphanage in Villa Juarez, Sonora once before. From there we continued south to Playa las Glorias, then on to Mazatlan. We had driven from Mazatlan to Puerto Vallarta in 2000/2001. We had to leave Mex 200 near the San Blas turnoff and head into the mountains to Tepic, Nayarit. From Tepic to Guadalahara, then to Ajijic, Nayarit. We spent a few days in Ajijic. My thinking was for altitude acclimation. For the most part of our trip we were at low elevation. Ajijic’s elevation is somewhere near 5000 feet.
We had heard many good recommendations for visiting the colonial town of Patzcuaro, Michoacan. That seemed a logical next stop, with it being less than a days drive to the butterfly refuge. Elevation at Patzcuaro is around 7000 feet, another good place to do a little more acclimation. There are many things to see here; we took a few days.
Many RVers are familiar with Patzcuaro and it’s usual stopping point, El Pozo RV park. No one seemed to have any good ideas from this point on, but I’d studied the situation. I chose a logical looking route that ended up working perfectly. I recommend this to RVers, as this is a good place to leave your motorhome or trailer (we had a 5th wheel trailer).
A note of caution. The roads approaching Angangeo or Ocampo from the north were not suitable for large RVs. One little pueblo in particular, Aporo, had major road construction on their main highway. We were diverted into the downtown area that also was under construction. It was not a pleasant experience with a full size 4X4 pickup. Trying to maneuver a motorhome or trailer would have been totally impossible. I’m sure that has changed by now, but check before you leave. Most of the other roads were narrow and quite rough. Passable, but driving these roads with an RV would have been slow and tedious. I also had a plan for our return trip that would have made an RV an unpleasant encumbrance.
We left Patzcuaro just before sun up at 6:00am with our tow rig, a full sized pickup. There was hardly any traffic going to Morelia on the maxipista. Morelia was just as quiet, with little north/south traffic at 6:30am. There is a four lane road north out of Morelia that joins the Guadalahara-Mexico City maxipista, route 15. From there continue east on maxipista 15. There are a few toll booths, but the price is not high for a two axle vehicle. If tolls are an issue with you, there is a free road from Morelia, highway 128. The old Guadalahara-Mexico City highway, 15, is also an option. However, there is no way to make time on this narrow and windy road. Our plan required that we drive to the sanctuary, visit, and then find a motel. The free 15 will not allow this itinerary.
Get off the maxipista on the Maravatio exit. It is well signed. Head towards Cuidad Hidalgo. There is an intersection at Irimbo that you need to make a left. Again, it was well signed (for Mexico). A few miles further is a junction where you have to make a choice. One way is Angangueo, which is the town mentioned on the PBS show Nature on their Monarch butterfly episode. The other direction takes you to Ocampo. On the south side of Ocampo there is a road leading into the mountains to the visitor’s center and official national park site. Either is fine. We chose to go to Ocampo. In 2003-2004, it was estimated there were 4 million butterflies near Angangueo, and 12 million at the site near Ocampo. A no-brainer, we set our sights on Ocampo. If a person was a billygoat, you could have probably walked between the two sites in a few hours. The terrain is rough and the altitude is high. Also the weather was cold and rainy. Not for me.
The Mexican government had obviously been busy trying to promote tourist visits to Ocampo. There was a very nice but steep two lane cobblestone road leading up into the mountains, a 10 mile journey from Ocampo. But… there had been heavy rains in the area the summer before. Their beautiful new road had been eroded, washed out, flooded, soaked, etc. and it was in poor shape in many areas. Again, this may have changed by now, but this is a word of caution to visitors. The road would have been quite unfriendly to low ground clearance tow cars and RV’s. Also, given Mexico’s reputation of violent weather and indifferent road maintenance, CHECK FIRST BEFORE LEAVING OCAMPO. During our trip, I would have assumed that the access was limited to high clearance pickups, vans, and short motorhomes unless you didn’t care about the underside of your rig.
We were driving up to the refuge when I shot this picture. It turned out the butterflies are hibernating on the far side of the highest knoll that is on the far right skyline and about 500 feet below the top. You hike through the saddle just right of mid-frame. We are already a couple thousand feet higher in elevation than Patzcuaro,s 7,000 and there is a cold bite to the air. I was wearing a heavy coat to keep warm.
At 10:00 am we were at the parking lot looking towards the sidewalk to the refuge. You have to walk through the saddle just above the white banner. This doesn’t look like much, but don’t be deceived. There were people hanging around offering to let us ride horses, but we declined. The altimeter watch that I was wearing registered the elevation at just about 10,000 feet. Little did we know that we were in for a 4 mile walk at this point!
The Visitor’s Center. There was little to see on the inside in January 2004. The facility was brand new, having been completed in November of 2003. The Visitor’s center is about a 1/3 mile walk from the parking lot. Bring your best and most comfortable walking shoes or hiking boots. You’re going to need them. It’s all up hill from here
The walkway. There are a series of stairs, ramps, and dirt pathways stretching about 1 1/2 miles up the hill and around the ridge above the Visitor’s Center. The climb isn’t particularly steep, but the altitude is certainly right up there. We had to pause frequently to catch our breath. There were other people that had to give up and turn back. If you have any respiratory problems, you might think twice about trying this.
12 million butterflies in an area of about 2 acres. There is just no way to describe this in pictures or written words. Even the television show on Nature couldn’t truly catch what your eyes are taking in. We were there in the depths of winter (unfortunately) and the bugs were pretty much dormant. The bright colors of flying butterflies will not come for another month But every now and then would would break loose from the cluster and flutter to the ground. We were not supposed to touch but what if…
one lands on you. Plop! Now what? Take a picture and enjoy. This little guy might have flown clear from Canada! I took a picture of my watch but it didn’t focus correctly. Elevation was an astounding 10,800 feet above sea level. The weather was cold and breezy with an occasional light rain shower. When the sun managed to peek through the clouds the butterflies might move around a bit. But otherwise silence ruled. Everyone talked in hushed voices, gringos and Mexicans alike.
One of the stars of the show in one of my best photos of all time.
We hung around for about 90 minutes hoping for a break in the weather and maybe some activity from the butterflies. Finally, cold and wet, we headed back to our pickup for lunch.
I’d set our sights on Zitacuaro, Michoacan for a motel room for the night. After some searching we found a nice room for $23.00 US. By 5:00pm we were comfortably settled in for the night.
So there you have it. 6:00am departure from Patzcuaro, to the refuge, and into a motel room by 5:00pm. This was not a hurried trip, we had plenty of time to sightsee and drive leisurely.
I posted this in my first Copper Canyon story under hints.
On a trip to see the Monarch butterfly refuge in 2004, we looked for a
room in Zitacuaro, Michoacan. The Hotel Villa Monarcha had rooms for
$85 and the hot tub didn’t even work. Rooms were OK (not great) but the
price seemed mighty steep for Mexico, so we continued searching
around. Through downtown Zitacuaro and around the area. No motels.
Finally on the downtown bypass we spotted the Hotel Valliodad (I think
that was the spelling) and we pulled in. We looked at a room with a
queen bed that was ideal, and the manager suggested the "suite" after
sizing up our buying power. OK, we agreed to look the room over. It
was spartan with little for decorations but…a comfortable king bed,
hot water, clean as a whistle, TV (with the Hallmark channel in English
subtitled Spanish), locked and gated parking for the pickup, all for the
grand price of 250 pesos, about $23 US. It was the most expensive room
by far but we grabbed it because…
What more could you ask for?
The next morning we were up bright and early and hungry. There wasn’t much activity in Zitacuaro, so we hit the road home. There were no open restaurants and we drove for over an hour to a little town named Tuxpan (the place of flowers). The public market was just opening and there were hardly any vendors. I finally located an eatery and started sizing up breakfast. The cook turned around and looked at us and then his mouth fell open. "Are you Americans?" he asked in perfect English. I replied yes and asked him if he was cooking breakfast. He laughed and said "Sure! I used to be a cook in Chicago for 5 years. I’ll fix you an American breakfast any way you like." We agreed right away, we were starved. Ham and cheese omelet, french fries (he apologized, no hash browns in Tuxpan), Tropic Delight orange drink, tortillas and beans for about $4 each. Not bad. Not bad at all!
The locals had never seen Americans in this mercado, we were quite the sensation. We received a lot of stares, but everyone was friendly. One guy had sat down and ordered before we arrived. He became so unnerved by our presence he got his breakfast to go and left.
Not far north of Tuxpan is a cave (called Gruta in Mexico) that Vonnie wanted to visit. It’s kind of hard to find from the main road, but it’s worth a stop.
This appears to be a small limestone cave that had a partial collapse of it’s roof.
The underground walk is about 400 yards long. Our guide, Joel, didn’t speak a word of English. We didn’t care. The walk was nice. We could understand a little bit of Spanish and the rock formations filled in the language gap with their beauty.
We returned to Morelia along old highway 15. The views are spectacular and the traffic almost nonexistent. This is another road that I would prefer not to drive with an RV, but due to the light traffic, it would be a nice side trip if you were so inclined.
The plaque commemorating the completion of the highway between Guadalahara and Mexico City.
We arrived in Morelia in the early afternoon. There had been no traffic on the previous morning, but the afternoon was entirely different. Morelia has the most out-of-control drivers I have ever seen in my life. Even Cebu Philippines is tame in comparison. Everyone is racing around in a mad dash and accidents are common. We witnessed a fender bender and the participants never even looked at each other, let alone stop. I was glad to get my truck through in one piece with no bent fenders. One huge advantage to having a large 4X4 pickup with black colored brush guard; the other drivers in Mexico respect the size and appearance of your rig and give you plenty of room. They know they will lose any confrontation.
We arrived back in Patzcuaro about 4 in the afternoon.
That was a nice, colorful two day trip to visit the Monarch butterfly refuge. I would strongly recommend against trying to do this in one day.