Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Travel Tales: Ocampo, Michoacan, Mexico

The Monarch Butterfly Preserve

Our local English-language newspaper has an article this week about the monarch butterflies of Michoacan. Unfortunately, the number of butterflies is down by about 30% and the number of people visiting them is down by an equal amount. It seems that environmental stress and the threat of cartel violence are the causes. I'm glad we went a couple of years ago in better times.

The hike up to the butterflies was pretty tough for me because the air was cold, the trail was steep, and the altitude high. With my asthma, we had to stop a lot to rest - for some reason Terry worried when he noticed my lips turning blue - but we saw many guides pass by with small packs on their backs. We had started early and climbed slowly and only later did I learn that all those packs carried small oxygen canisters, for visitors just like me.

The experience was well worth the struggle, though . We got to the top of the trail a few minutes before the sun came up over the mountain, which is the goal. We saw 'sleeping' butterflies dotting the ground and park rangers carefully moving them so they wouldn't be trampled. Above us, the tree branches, heavy with butterflies, were more orange and black than green. Who would have ever thought that butterflies could cause large branches to droop under their weight?

The magic began as the rising sun struck the branches, for as the butterflies felt the warmth, they took flight by the thousands. The sky was literally full of the fluttering orange and black creatures. I'll never climb that mountain again, but it was an experience that I'll never forget.

The Village of Ocampo

Equally as fun, and a lot less work, was our visit to Ocampo, the town nearest the park entrance where we slept the night before our climb. We drove around the white-washed village looking for an inexpensive hotel, but we couldn't seem to find anything. When we saw three men standing on the street corner, we pulled over so I could ask for information. "Disculpe, senores. Donde esta un hotel economico?" (Excuse me, gentlemen. Where is an inexpensive hotel?) The three guys looked at each other and one turned to me and said, "No hablo Ingles." (I don't speak English.) For just a minute I was confused, and then I told the guy that I wasn't speaking English! I think he was so convinced that I would speak English to him that his brain just kind of shut down before he realized that I was speaking Spanish.

We decided to look elsewhere for someone to ask and as we drove by the shady plaza, we came to the police station. We stopped again to ask and, before we knew it, we had a police officer sitting in our back seat holding his M-16 in his lap and giving us directions. Having heard stories about bad cops in Mexico, I was very uncomfortable about the situation, but what could I do? He took us to a nice little hotel, and when no one was around, he had us wait while he walked to the owner's house to find someone to check us in! We tried to give him a tip before he headed back to the station, but he wouldn't accept it.

We had a few other surprises in store for us in Ocampo. The first was the discovery of a street named 'John Lennon'. I would have loved to find out how that came about, but before I could ask, we were sidetracked by the number of children who were greeting us in English as we walked around the plaza. It is not unusual to run across one or two that might give a shy "Hello" but we had never seen so many! Finally, after one little girl said, "Hello. How are you?", we asked her parents why so many of the kids spoke English. The father explained that most of the adults in that town had been to the US to work and,realizing the value of being bilingual, they insisted that the school teach English to the children in all grade levels.

On our way back to the hotel that evening, we ducked into a candy store - literally. This place had so much candy that it was even hanging in bags from hooks on the ceiling. Mexicans tend to be short, especially if they have a lot of Indian blood, so these bags of candy hung down to about five and a half feet off the ground. Terry, at 6' 2", had to walk through the store bent over at the waist! Even so, he was delighted to discover some giant marshmallows, at least three inches across, so when we returned to our room we each carried a big bag.

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