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In an attempt to avoid the traffic of downtown Mexico City to the north, we left our Airbnb in Xochimilco heading south through the narrow alleyways and rocky trails of the outermost villages before meeting up with Mex 95. We followed this highway further south for a few miles before eventually turning off to head into the pine-forested mountains of Parque Nacional Cumbres del Ajusco in the State of Mexico, which surrounds the federal district containing the sprawling capital city. This area reminded us of the Lake Tahoe region in the Sierra Nevada.

Narrow alley…

…to dirt trail…

…to man, dogs and donkey…

…to the highway south!

Beautiful riding country

Continuing in a northwesterly direction, we effectively bisected Mexico state on our way to the eastern border of the state of Michoacán as we approached our next destination: Zitácuaro. We decided to base ourselves at a quiet hotel a few miles north of town for a few peaceful days to recover from our time in the big city and to check out a monarch butterfly wintering ground nearby.

Arriving in the area in the third week of November we were quite early in the monarch season, which runs from mid-November to March with the popular months to visit being January and February. We weren’t sure if we’d see anything but decided to give it a shot anyway. The morning of our second day in the area we headed south, crossing into Mexico state again to reach the small town of Macheros at the base of Cerro Pelón (literally, ‘Bald Hill’). We had read this was the newest butterfly sanctuary and was the least visited (and least logged, for now) of the three main sanctuaries. Not that it really mattered this early in the season, but it didn’t disappoint.

In Macheros we followed signs with butterflies on them until we reached a grass parking lot and an office with some guides standing around outside. We parked the bikes, secured them and then walked over to see about admission. Each person needs a guide to visit the sanctuary, which we knew, and horses were highly suggested so we went ahead with them as well. While we like to get out for good, long hikes now and then, we weren’t about to overestimate our abilities walking a few miles up a steep, rocky hill to 11,000 feet.

Not that we necessarily wished it upon our horses, either. We were each assigned a medium-size mare to haul our towering frames up the trail; Ehren looked quite comical upon his. They looked to be well taken-care of, however, and while they had to stop and rest a few times along the way, they performed well. At any rate, it gave us time to get off and enjoy our surroundings, even attempting to go some of the way by foot—never making it too far by ourselves, however, as elevation often robbed us of our breath after a few hundred feet. Meanwhile, our guides walked up and back down without breaking a sweat. Perks of being a local.

View from a horse

Ehren atop his mighty steed

Beautiful scenery

We first got a glimpse of the butterflies as we passed through a picturesque field about a mile from the top. Aglow in orange and gold and fluttering about in the sunlight, monarchs brushed against our faces—like a falling snow that fought back—as we made our way into the woods on the other side.

We took this photo of the field on the way back down after it had emptied out—just imagine it full of butterflies!

After an hour-and-a-half ride up, we got to an extremely steep section where we had to dismount and walk for the last half-mile. Excruciating for our flatlander lungs, we made a 45-minute slog to the top where all effort was paid off with what we saw next.

Up we go!

Taking a breather

Feeling accomplished

Thousands of monarch butterflies filled the sky above us where the sun shone through the trees; in shaded areas they clung to branches in massive orange clumps. Quiet and peaceful, we gazed skyward in reverent awe.

Naturally, it brought us back to the last time we visited a place where a mass of butterflies flew about, which was a little over a year ago at the Key West Butterfly Sanctuary and Conservatory during our Florida motorcycle trip with Ehren’s parents.

Many colorful butterflies in Key West



Ehren’s mom amidst the butterflies on our Florida trip; we thought of her at Cerro Pelón

Cerro Pelón offered us a place to reflect upon the past year, and this leg of our journey afforded us the space in which to begin formulation of our plans for the coming year: when to end our travels and what the next step was going to look like. We had already decided—while we were still in Oaxaca—that we would be returning home for Christmas, a big departure from our original plan. The pending decision coming into the holidays was what other departures we would be making.

Late in the afternoon we were ready to head back down the hill. After a much quicker walk back down to the horses, we hopped on and made our way down the trail. At one point Ehren’s horse refused to carry him any further, so he dismounted and happily hoofed it back down to the village. Once we returned, we thanked our guides and returned to our mechanical horses of steel and rubber.

The horses waiting for us

Back in the saddle

On the way down

The point at which Ehren’s horse said she’d had enough

Britt’s horse toughed it out all the way down

The last few yards into town—here you see Ehren’s horse tagging along

Enjoying a beautiful sunset on the way back to our hotel, we stopped on the way through Zitácuaro and picked up a Domino’s pizza to bring back to our room. There we would eat our pizza disgusted with how out-of-shape we were but no less ravenous from the short yet strenuous bit of hiking we did.

Awww yeah pizza!

The bikes in Zitácuaro

We packed up our things for an early departure in the morning, showered, and then watched a movie on our laptop while falling asleep.

—Brittany & Ehren

P.S. Learn more about conservation efforts at Cerro Pelón


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