When you drive up the paved road into Macheros village in Donato Guerra, Estado de Mexico, you enter a high altitude (2,600 metres) ejido (essentially a Mexican communal farm) that has a unique relationship with about 400 million monarch butterflies.
There’s a lot to unpack in that one sentence.
To start with, the mariposa monarca are the signature draw to this part of Mexico’s High Sierra range. They nest in oyamel fir trees, at about 3,000 metres, and depart starting early each March for Canada, taking three generations of rebirths to complete the annual trip.
Their population ranges from a high of about one billion to a low of 35 million, depending on who’s reporting, and the extent and availability of milkweed, their prime foodstuff. It’s broadly acknowledged that the butterflies are endangered, largely because farmers spray milkweed with Roundup pesticide.
On the plus side, Macheros has become home to an interlocking series of small businesses, all based on mariposa monarca conservation and visitation. At the core of these businesses is JM’s Butterfly B&B. Here the partnership of Joel Moreno Rojas and Ellen Sharp choreographs an organic array of opportunities for ecotourists from all over the world.
Their business card promotes: “lodging, butterfly tours, restaurant, cooking classes, fresh trout, horseback riding, bird watching, mushroom foraging, hiking and stargazing.” What it doesn’t explain is the complex interweaving of extended family and village talents in the delivery of the program.
Joel Moreno (the fourth child in a family of 10) left home for the United States at age 18. He worked in a landscaping business, and saved enough money to engage builders back home to create the bed and breakfast’s first building. In 2011, Joel met Ellen when she arrived at the B&B after completing her PhD in socio-cultural anthropology, working on vigilante justice in a Guatemalan village. Ellen created the website in 2012 and the couple began working to build the business together.
Adjacent to the B&B is the restaurant, which is much more than usual breakfast nook. It’s the home of Joel’s mom Rosa and his five sisters. All the siblings help with the business. Joel’s sister-in-law and aunt keep the rooms cleaned and fresh. All told, Rosa, nine siblings, and four nephews live next door to the B&B. As well as the restaurant, Rosa’s house is the village gift shop, selling local ceramics and baskets woven by her daughters from oyamel fir needles. It’s rare that visitors eat at the restaurant and don’t make a purchase before they leave.
Other village families play important roles, too. The trout and turkey, and chicken eggs served in the restaurant are sourced in the village. There’s nothing better than huevos rancheros made from fresh eggs gathered the morning they’re served. Rosa’s ranch eggs, fried and served with hot corn tortillas and smothered in cooked salsa, are a house specialty. Served with chocolate caliente, slow-cooked Mexican hot chocolate made with cinnamon, nutmeg and chili powder, they are unforgettable. At night, local trout or turkey are served with chocolate caliente el ron (rum), producing a totally different experience. The all-inclusive breakfast (huevos rancheros, coffee, fresh squeezed orange juice, chocolate caliente) is 80 pesos, or C$5.20.
The actual climb to the mariposa monarca is accomplished on horseback. At 10 a.m., a group of Macheros vaqueros assemble with eight horses for the guests out front of the B&B. The next hour and a half is spent riding the dusty trail to the butterfly nests high in the fir trees, still surrounded in morning mist.
By lunchtime, the sun is poking through the clouds and the mariposa monarca are starting to unfold their orange and black striated wings. They begin to flutter about the trees overhead. This is the signature moment of the trip. Cameras are unbundled, vaqueros speak of the butterflies’ imminent migration to Canada and Joel smiles from his saddle as the reason for the horseback ride becomes visually obvious.
Few opportunities exist to see a global natural wonder from a village perspective, interpreted by exactly the right people. JM’s Butterfly B&B at the gateway to the Cerro Pelon Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary is just such a place.
It awaits your visit patiently, with grace.
Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike has chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.