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  • Total days on the road: 586
  • Currently in: USA
  • Miles Driven: 36821
  • Countries Visited: 17
  • Days Camping: 389
  • Days Indoors: 202

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Central Mexico: A Tale of Butterflies and Earthquakes

Written by Jared on December 15, 2011

A monarch butterfly.Start: December 5, Mazatlan
Finish: December 12, Cholula
Earthquakes Survived: 1
Monarch Butterflies Seen: Gazillions
Nights of Fireworks Slept Through: 7
Tacos al Pastor Consumed: 6

This leg of our journey takes us from the coast of the Mexican mainland to the heart of central Mexico. Three long days of driving take us across the country, from Mazatlan to Guadalajara, to the monarch butterfly reserve high in the mountains and finally around Mexico City to Cholula, a suburb of Puebla.

The entire country is celebrating a week-long holiday called Día de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Day of our Lady of Guadalupe) in honor of the Virgin who appeared to an indigenous Mexican named Juan Diego who later became Mexico's religious patron. Towns have been packed, parties stretch into the wee hours and fireworks (more like explosives) shake the ground every night. Little did we know it wouldn't only be fireworks doing the shaking...

Our campsite in Jocotepec.

We arrived at our first campsite in the mainland just after dark and a very long day of driving. The ferry from La Paz was an hour late, and it took us more than an hour to get off the ship. Although we couldn't see much of the campground when we arrived, the gate keeper was very nice and showed us where we could pitch our tents. After a month of sleeping on sand and gravel in Baja, green grass was a nice change.

A lighthouse near our campsite in Jocotepec.

The campground, named Roca Azul, is located an hour from Guadalajara and sits at the end of Laguna de Capala, the largest lake in Mexico. It is ten minutes from Jocotepec, a good-sized town that gave us our first taste of mainland Mexican amenities. We spent three nights in the campsite; one day to work and another day to recharge from our ferry adventure and the long drive.

A shot of the hillside in Angangueo.

After leaving Jocotepec we faced another long day of driving through the valleys and mountains of the central highlands. Our destination: the monarch butterfly reserve. We found our plan A campground closed and decided to drive further up into the mountains to the town of Angangueo (don't try to pronounce it) and stay in a hotel. We're glad it turned out that way, Angangueo was unlike anything we'd ever seen.

The town full of hillside houses and has an impressive central square with two cathedrals. At an elevation over 9000 feet it was a big change from what we'd been through the past six weeks.

Another view of the town of Angangueo.

This is another view of the town, looking down the mountain. You can see the two cathedrals off to the left. The central square is ringed with street vendors, shops, and the only two restaurants in town. We ate at both of them, chicken with mole poblano and chicken with mole verde. Even with the lack of options, both meals were delicious!

Part of the trail leading up to the butterfly colony.

However it was not food that brought us to Angangueo, it was butterflies. Ten minutes up the road is the entrance to the reserve. From there we had the option to hike or take horses up the one mile trail. We opted to walk, even though they tried hard to talk us into taking the horses. It took about thirty minutes to climb to the top of the hill, then back down the other side. Luckily we were given a guide, a young gentleman named Jose, who knew which way to go.

A monarch butterfly on a tree.For those unfamiliar with the migration patterns of monarch butterflies, allow me to give you a brief lesson.

Monarchs live all over North America. Every year around two thirds of all monarchs (many millions) migrate to a select few colonies high in the mountains of central Mexico to spend the winter huddled together in a very specific type of fir tree.

Nobody's quite sure why this happens, or why the monarchs choose this area to spend the winter. At an elevation over 10,000 feet it is cold, and although it rarely snows, it drops low enough to cover the ground with frost.

Why is this so special, you may ask? Monarchs only live a few months. So not only is this the only instance of north-south insect migration, it means that next year it will be the great-great-great-grandchildren of the butterflies you see here who will return to the mountains of Mexico. How do they find their way back here every year?

Fir trees filled with monarch butterflies.

See those dark clumps hanging from the trees? Those are monarchs. Gajillions of them. They stay like that until it warms up near the middle of the day, then they take flight and fill the air.

A closeup of  a clump of butterflies.

Unfortunately we were there on a cloudy day, so most of the butterflies stayed asleep. This closeup gives you an idea of just many thousands of butterflies are in these trees. Despite the fact they weren't very active, it was still an amazing spectacle to see.

Our campsite in Cholula.

Our next stop was the city of Cholula, about 100 miles southeast of Mexico City. We planned to spend four days here to check out the city, and neighboring Puebla.

Our first night as we sat around the campsite enjoying some after-dinner libations we felt the ground start to shake. I thought maybe it was time to put down the bottle of vodka - but Jessica and Kobus agreed that something was definitely not right.

Birds and bats flew from the trees overhead, dogs started barking, car alarms were going off, Blue was swaying back and forth. Definitely an earthquake. It lasted about 30 seconds and then all was quiet. We found out in the morning the quake's epicenter was in Guerrero, quite a ways away, and measured 6.5. Thankfully, no lasting damage was done to us or the city around us.

Pyramid in Cholula.

The next morning we set out to explore the town. Cholula happens to be the home of the largest pyramid in the western hemisphere. Pictured above, it looks more like your average hill with a church built on top. Many civilizations built on top of the pyramid throughout the years and historians are not entirely sure that the original Christians who built the first church knew that it was anything other than a normal mound of dirt.

The church on top of the pyramid in Cholula.

It was a short ten minute walk up the hill to the church. The outside of the building is covered in colored tiles, a motif that we'd learn is widespread in this area of Mexico.

The volcano overlooking Cholula.

From the top of the pyramid we had excellent views of the city and surrounding mountains. Including one of several active volcanoes in the area.

A shot of the central square of Cholula from atop the pyramid.

This shot looks down on the central square from the top of the pyramid. Very interesting architecture, a sort of cross between medieval Europe and Russian orthodox churches. Unfortunately the central square was closed, possibly because it was Sunday, so we couldn't explore any further.

Guys on the pole.

Back down the pyramid we grabbed some snack food - fresh coconut with lime and chile powder, and a glass of fermented pineapple juice.

We watched a group of street performers sitting on top of a rather tall pole, dressed in native costumes.

Every thirty minutes they would climb the pole, tie a rope around their wastes, spin around in a circle to wind the rope around the pole, and then fall backwards.

In unison they would spin around the pole with their feet in the air slowly unwrapping the rope from the top.


Guys swinging around the pole.

This is what it looked like as they fell off the top of the pole. Notice the guy in the middle, he's playing a pipe and banging a drum. That's some serious multitasking.

The cathedral in Puebla.

The next day we hit the streets of Puebla with three goals: see a gigantic cathedral, go to a museum and have tacos at a popular local eatery. Above is the cathedral in the central square of Puebla. It's massive, and famous enough to be displayed on the Mexican 500 peso bill. One down!

Mission number two was a famous art museum near the center of Puebla. We walked through dozens of rooms of ancient pre-Colombian artifacts from civilizations we never knew existed. It was a very impressive collection, and left us wanting to learn a bit more about the history of Mexico before the conquistadors. Two down!

A vertical spit full of delicious meat.

And finally, mission #3! My personal favorite. I've said it before, and I'll say it can never go wrong with vertically oriented meat spinning in front of a flamethrower. Greeks have their gyros, Turks have shwarma, and Mexicans have tacos al pastor. It doesn't matter what part of the world you are in, for a quick lunch it doesn't get any better than this.

Two delicious tacos.

And there it is. At under $1 each, they were quite possibly the best tacos I've ever had. Nothing but grilled pork, cilantro, onions, a dash of lime and a bite of pineapple. Simple things done right.

Jessica eating chocolate covered strawberries.

As if the world's best tacos weren't enough - Jessica finds her happy place with a kebab of chocolate covered strawberries. Yeah, we're not really losing any weight on this trip so far.

Up next: we head to Oaxaca, San Cristobal de las Casas and the ruins of Palenque. From the mountains to the jungle.


#2 Jessicam 2012-01-10 13:56
Hi James! Short answer, we went to Sierra Chincua. Longer answer: we tried to go to El Rosario, but all the campground possibilities were closed or deserted or both. So we hauled it to Angangueo and found a reasonably cheap hotel for a few nights. The town was fantastic, as were the butterflies in Sierra Chincua. Enjoy!
#1 James 2012-01-09 23:51
Did you guys go to El Rosario or Sierra Chincua? I was going to go check out that pyramid as I was stoked on seeing a monster pyramid outside of Egypt, but from the looks of it...

Tacos al Pastor are my jam!

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