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In Mexico, Monarchs' Winter Digs

By Laura Dine
The Washington Post
Sunday, February 22, 1998; Page E04

Butterflies make noise. A lot of it.

When several million monarch butterflies gather in a quiet place, it sounds like strong wind blowing through trees, or maybe a mountain stream. It's the sound of millions of butterfly wings flapping at once.

You can hike up a fir-tree-filled hillside in El Rosario sanctuary, in the central Mexican town of Angangueo, and hear it for yourself. Each fall, more than a hundred million of the gentle, orange-and-black insects journey here from southern Canada and the eastern United States to spend the winter. Unfor-tunately for their human admirers, they don't choose a nice, sunny resort town. They come to this chilly, high-altitude preserve about four hours west of Mexico City, where they huddle together to keep warm from November through March. They've traveled up to 3,000 miles to get here. They've been doing it for as long as anyone can remember.

From now through March, the butterflies are at their most majestic. In the spring, the fragile but tough insects will fly north again -- the only butterflies to make such a long, two-way migration each year.

In 1986, the Mexican government created the Monarch Butterfly Bio-sphere Reserve to provide protection for wintering monarchs. Of the five sanctuaries in the area, El Rosario is one of two that allows tourists.

When I visited on a November morning, the butterflies were just beginning to arrive. My guide and I walked quietly through the woods for a few minutes, and then he pointed upward. The branches of the trees were dark and heavy with the weight of the sleeping monarchs.

Then, as the sun hit the upper branches, a swarm of monarchs suddenly took flight, their branch flying up as if a clump of snow had just slid off. As the sun rose, more branches popped up. Soon the air was thick with millions of the colorful creatures taking flight. It was hard to not be moved by their powerful presence. It was hard not to be cold, too -- it was 40 degrees.

Now, if I were going to travel 3,000 miles to escape winter, I wouldn't choose a spot where I needed to hud- dle with my buddies to keep from freezing to death. But who am I to judge? I didn't even know that butterflies made noise.

Several tour operators offer trips to Mex-ico's El Rosario sanctuary. Steppingstone Tours, based in North Carolina, has seven-day trips March 7 and 21 at $990 per person, double occupancy; the price includes accommodations, transportation from Mexico City, meals and bilingual guides. Air fare is not included. Details: 910-843-9101. For more information, contact the Mexican Govern-ment Tourism Office, 1-800-446-3942, on the Internet. For more about monarchs, check out the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary Founda-tion Web site at jnorth/sm/aboutmbsf.html and the Monarch Watch site at http://www.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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