Millions of monarch butterflies turned a visit to Mexico into the trip of a lifetime for a Belle Fourche couple.
Bob Hamilton surprised his wife, Beverly, with the wildlife adventure last month. The two spent a week in the heart of Mexico, where the monarch butterfly winters over.
Bob Hamilton said he booked the trip last year as a birthday present for his wife of 40 years, and they saw what he described as millions and millions of butterflies that looked like huge blankets covering the trees.
“I was fully surprised,” Beverly Hamilton said. “I have my bucket list—everyone my age has a bucket list—but this wasn’t even on it.” She said she never imagined her husband would want to go on such a trip, and she never would have gone alone.
Monarch butterflies hold a special place in her heart. As a former first-grade teacher in Indiana, Hamilton had raised monarch butterflies in her classroom for 25 years. Knowing where to find the eggs, she started each school year with a monarch butterfly project as an ice breaker for the children and as a fun way to introduce them to the first grade. When the butterflies emerged from their chrysalis, the class released them in the wild. While most butterflies hibernate during the winter, the monarch butterfly migrates.
The Hamiltons traveled to the state of Michoacan, two hours west of Mexico City. They left on Feb. 4 and returned home to Belle Fourche on Feb. 12.
With so much attention on violence in Mexico, Hamilton said her family was concerned about their travel plans, but because of the historical region they were visiting, safety was never a concern for them.
“We never saw anything that would cause us to be fearful,” she said. She even shopped alone one evening in the square near their hotel.
There are 12 butterfly sanctuaries in Michoacan, but only four are open to the public, she said. The Hamiltons visited two of them: the Sierra Chincua and the El Rosario. The El Rosario is the oldest and more famous of the two and is where they saw the most butterflies.
She said their guide at the Sierra Chincua, which is at about 11,000 feet and the steeper of the two sanctuaries, made just 30 pesos per tour, which is the equivalent of less than $3. The climb took more than an hour. The guide is not able to do more than three tours a day.
“Not because she was physically unable to do the tour, but because she was restricted by law to only three,” Hamilton said. Although that was the woman’s income for the day, “the butterflies have helped out that poor area a little bit,” she added.
The Hamiltons arrived at the second sanctuary in the morning when it was still cool, before the butterflies had taken flight.
“I can’t describe the amazing amount of butterflies that there were. It looked like someone had thrown blankets over all of the trees. The branches were hanging low with these mass quantities of things. Until you really looked at them, you didn’t realize it was thousands and thousands of butterflies,” she said.
The bark of the trees was not visible because of the number of resting butterflies. As the temperature warmed, the butterflies started fluttering around. She said it was like a scene out of a Disney movie.
“It defies description. The sky filled with butterflies and they flew along with us as we walked,” she said, adding that the pictures they took do not come close to capturing what they saw.
Hamilton said butterfly tourism has helped this poor area of Mexico. The only drawback they experienced was a language barrier. Because their destination was not in a large Mexican city, very few people spoke English. An interpreter and tour guide for Eco Colors tours met the couple at the airport and accompanied them on tours and to restaurants the week they were there.
The hotels they stayed in were all built in 16th century and were former haciendas. She said the food was traditional Mexican fare, which included enchiladas, burritos, green sauce and red sauce.
While there, the Hamiltons visited mostly local crafters. They brought back copper pieces made by a copper artisan and a hand-carved mask made by a mask maker.
She said they saw a lot of needlework, too.
“Of course you could buy butterflies on everything,” she said.
They did not see many tourists during their week-long stay. They met a couple from France and another couple from New Zealand who, like the Hamiltons, were there to see the butterflies.
Because the monarch butterfly’s life cycle is six to eight weeks at the most, the ones that leave that part of the country in late fall never make it to Mexico. The butterflies make stops as they go, mate and die as they travel.
“It’s a turn-around of four or five generations,” Hamilton said. The ones that make it to Mexico live the longest.
“In mid-March, the butterflies that have wintered over mate again, and then they start their travel back north” she said. They usually reach Canada by July and repeat the cycle: Mate and head south again.
“It’s a nonstop process,” she said.