The coast of the state of Michoacán is quite spectacular with black sand, white sand, brown sand beaches, cliffs and a highway that snakes through a jungle like terrain.
Sunday, we headed back to the coast from Colima and entered the state of Michoacán where we checked out a couple of possible beach camping spots before settling in the town of Maruata. The place we intended to camp at would not allow you to drive up close to the beach and the palapas were not in a great state of repairs. The caretaker recommended going to the south side of town and we got a spot behind some palapas on the beach, with power, water and showers for less $8 for the night and settled under a palapa for the day. The beach was beautiful, the sand was warm and the water was a nice temperature. Life is good!
We did our yoga on the beach the next morning and went for a beach walk. To our surprise, we saw turtle tracks. There were many “pits” along the outside edge of the sand and we saw many, many tracks. There was a sort of sanctuary set up about half way down the beach where information about the turtles and egg laying was provided (in Spanish). We had read that turtle laying season ended in December so did not even think about seeing anything of this sort. You could see the “domes” they use to cover the turtle pits to protect them all piled up in one area. As we walked a bit further, lo and behold, we saw a baby black turtle making its way to the water!; so exciting. We saw about ten more but sadly many get plucked up by the sea birds both on land and in the water and after that long arduous walk to the water, their lives are over. We did film one that made it and you can check it out here:
As we continued our walk we continued to see more and more tracks but no more babies. We did see a couple of locals doing what looked like stealing eggs from some of the pits. As if the turtles don’t have enough hazards to overcome.
On our way further south along the coast on MX 200, we stopped many times to enjoy the view. We pulled into the town of Playa Azul which had a beautiful long flat beach with row after row of waves; apparently not too safe for swimming but it was safe enough to have lunch under a thatch umbrella and enjoy looking at it! This town is a little sad as they have so much beach front but is it not well developed. There are no RV parks and few hotels. We enjoyed the lack of tourism though. We had many restaurants trying to pull us in to eat but waited until we got on the beach to choose one that had tables very near the water. The food was not great and a little pricy but it’s Mexico; not really that expensive in the grand scheme of things. There were a few vendors selling their wares but as far as we could tell, we were the only gringos on the beach.
We continued along the MX200 as we had decided to make it a longish driving day so that when we got somewhere we’d stay at least two nights this time. We made it across the state line into Guerrero and drove past a few places we will check out later, arriving in Zihuatenajo before dinner. We knew of a campground (from iOverlander) near the beach called La Ropa (supposedly the best beach here) and we checked in there and went for a walk along the beach.
Zihua (as the locals call it) is a resort town just south of Ixtapa. The town seems to have kept it local feel but there are resorts lining this beach albeit a few seem closed down. The beach is quite beautiful, flat, curved, with lovely sand and palm trees and gentle surf. It was rather humid here (apparently unusual in January) so the first day here we had the air on and in the late afternoons to cool off both us and Tigger. This RV park only has ten spaces and six are filled with snowbirds from Canada!
We ended up spending three nights here with Doug working, us catching up on email and downloading, swimming, walking the town and the malecon, swimming, enjoying the beach, swimming, reading, studying Spanish, swimming, walking the beach. Our walk into town was pleasant; not super touristy except along the main malecon but the lesser malecon has no vendors on it but also NO shade. They beach in town is not as nice as Playa Ropa where we are. We really like this beach. The water here is quite warm.
We have met many Canadians here who live at least half the year down here. They say the weather and water are warmer than PV or on the Baja so they don’t mind the longer drive south to get this.
On our final day here, we drove around the resort town of Ixtapa to the far end of the “hotel zone” where there is a beach with a pier where you can catch a little “ferry” to Isla Ixtapa for swimming, snorkeling and lunch. Cost was 40Pesos a person roundtrip (about $2.50 US).
We were met at the parking lot by a man named Jose, who was affiliated with an island restaurant and he showed us where to park Tigger, took us to the pier and we went across together. He found us a waterside table at the restaurant and said he’d watch out things while we snorkeled.
The day was overcast which made it cooler than the day before which we had spent at Playa Ropa. The water was very clear near shore but got a little cloudy once you swam further out. There were lots a fish and lots of coral, although a lot was damaged/dead. After about an hour, we went to our table and had seafood tacos and beer looking out over the water.
We headed back north on the MX200 and after a bit of confusing directions from our GPS, we made our way to Playa Saladitas. This is a surfer town which is known for good waves for long boarding. There were lots of rental places, bungalows for rent and a quite a nice beach. It was still pretty overcast but still quite warm here. We went for a walk on the beach, watched some surfers. We stopped at a restaurant just off the beach that had a parking sign and we parked there for the night for 100 P. We could hear the surf from there.
Friday we hit the road somewhat early and headed back into the state of Michoacán as part of our plan to go see the monarch butterfly sanctuary. As we had heard this state has some cartel related issues, we were advised and heeded the advice to take the toll road north. The drive was up, up uphill over a few hilly/mountainous areas and we could see how agriculture is a big industry here; we even saw vineyards.
We arrived in Patzcuaro around mid-day and checked into a well-known RV park with hook ups, HOT showers and a pool. However, while the temperatures on the coast were in the 80’sF, up here we were around high 60’s so no swimming for us! We noticed as we drove north many signs about the upcoming visit of Pope Francis to Mexico. We are glad we will be out of this area by then (Feb 18th) as traffic will be ridiculous we hear.
Doug had some work to do so we hung around the park for a bit and the sun came out in the early afternoon so we didn’t feel so cold in our shorts. We did look out of place though!
We did take a “collective” (van like bus) into town in the midafternoon, checked out the market and the colonial streets. Nice little town it is.
At the campground we met a couple from Kelowna, BC, Gerald and Karen, who were headed in the same direction as us the next day: Parque Nacional Mariposa Monarca (Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary). They were uncertain about where to camp and we knew from iOverlander, that we could park in the lot there so we decided to go there together.
About half way down a long and winding road in pretty good condition, you arrive at Mil Cumbre (1000 summits). This is a beautiful lookout BUT they put up a wire fence around it so you can’t take great photos of the mountain ranges. Eventually you drive into the little town of Ocampo in northeastern Michoacán and then take a cobbled/bricked road about 6kms/4m to the parking area. This reserve is the largest of the four that are open to the public.
There were actually three levels of parking (and they needed that much for sure to accommodate all the cars and buses that come here, especially on weekends). It was a Saturday when we got here and also a long weekend. We arrived around 3 and decided to park on the road and check out the situation before trying to park; great idea as that’s when we discovered how popular this place was.
The parking attendant advised us that the lot empties out quite abit by about five so we sat in Karen & Gerald’s trailer and enjoyed a beer. Once the lot was empty, we pulled in and then waited about another half hour before we could park where we wanted to: more level ground and easy access to leave the lot when we wanted to go.
The sanctuary, El Rosario, is located at over 3000m/10000f and it cooled off quite a bit when the sun when down and was downright cold for us by morning (4C/40F). After some brekkie we walked the gauntlet of food and souvenir stalls to the entrance area. You are climbing a bit by this point. They have a very nice entry way and two ticket booths (unusual here). We bought tickets right as it opened at 9am and found a guide, albeit a Spanish one, and began the trek up to where the butterflies live during North American winters.
These butterflies travel from east of the Rockies in both Canada and the US. As butterflies have short life spans, sometimes it takes three generations for them to get here in early November. They congregate on the trees in clumps to stay warm. They like the altitude here, the food, the particular pine trees that grow up here and the climate, cold but not freezing, access to water but not humid. They leave again to head north in March.
It was steep climb of about an hour up, most of it is stairs. They are several sign boards along the way (in Spanish) but they were good places to stop to catch our breath at this altitude.
The reserve is a federal government entity but it is operated by the locals in conjunction with conservation efforts that include not only the butterflies, but the forest itself, the water supply and the flora and fauna that complete the circle of life up here.
We arrived at the top of the trail around 10:30 and were amazed at the branches covered so deeply in butterflies, they hung at 90◦ angles rather than straight out from the branches. Many of the trunks of the pines are covered as well. Each monarch only weighs about a gram, so to make branch bend that far, you know there are a lot of them on each branch. We were only see a small section of the reserve here; there are I think 400 hectares more of protected area.
Around 11am the sun begins to hit the trees and the butterflies begin to wake up, flutter and eventually leave their little hundle. Here’s a video of them after they first awoke and flew high above us:
We watched many begin to wake up and then the cloud cover set in. Our guide said if it’s too cold or cloudy, they often don’t leave the cluster. We began to slowly make our way down the trail to look at a different spot, when the sun came back out and more and more of them begin to fly around near the tree tops above us.
We moved down a bit again, heading back to an open area we’d passed on the way up, when we encountered hundreds of monarchs now flying around us. There were more and more people up here by this point as well. The areas where you can walk and observe are roped off and there are guides up there keeping people within the designated zones.
We made our way back to the open meadow and this was beyond words. Thousands upon tens of thousands, butterflies were coming out of the trees and just flying around past and into the crowds. This was unbelievable; no words can explain the wonder we all felt at being able to experience this. This is definitely one of our top highlights in Mexico. Here are links to three videos a the open meadow area:
After another hour or so we began to make our way slowly back down and it was quite surprising how many people were still coming up! They still had time to see the monarchs but missed out on their “waking up”. When we got back down to the ticket booths, the line ups seemed endless! Fran & Karen used the “sanitarios” and we worked our way back through the strip of shops/restaurants. We did a little shopping and then stopped for a late lunch.
We spent both evenings with our new friends, chatting and playing Cribbage in their trailer. They are pulling a 24’ travel trailer with a nice spacious “dining area” that is comfortable for four to sit at.
Next morning we headed northeast to Mexico City and Karen & Gerald went northwest heading through Guadalajara to the Pacific Coast before beginning their drive back to BC later this month. We really enjoyed our time with them and hope to stay in touch. It was so nice to share such an incredible experience with likeminded people.