CERRO PELON, Mexico – One of the most recognizable symbols of Dia de Muertos is a creature many people in San Antonio and South Texas are familiar with, the monarch butterfly.
In Day of the Dead lore, these butterflies are said to represent the souls of lost loved ones and appear in Mexico every year around Dia de Muertos.
In February, a KSAT crew traveled to the village of Macheros, in the state of Mexico, where millions of butterflies take residence deep in the forests during the winter months.
The massive butterfly reserve near Cerro Pelon is considered to be among the best places to see the monarchs.
“This is the place where the Monarch migration was confirmed, so it’s the original sanctuary,” said Ellen Sharp, co-owner of J.M.'s Butterfly B&B. “It’s the most remote. It’s the least developed, the most pristine and I think the most beautiful.”
The reserve is so remote that the best way to access it is by horseback. The closer you get to the top of the mountain, the more butterflies you begin to see. Thousands can be seen floating in the air in every direction.
At the top, you can see millions flying in the air, it almost looks like snowfall. They also cluster by the thousands in Oyamel trees that are at an elevation of 2,400 to 3,600 meters. This keeps them warm and the humidity in the air keeps them from drying out.
But their arrival in the mountains of Mexico is still a bit of a mystery. Wildlife experts say their migration is a unique and amazing phenomenon.
The monarch is the only butterfly known to make a two-way migration as birds do, according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.
Unlike other butterflies, monarchs cannot survive cold winters in northern climates. Wildlife experts believe they use environmental cues to know when it is time to travel south for the winter.
The combination of air currents and thermals help them travel long distances.
The U.S. Forest Service says some fly as far as 3,000 miles to reach their winter home, using what appears to be a combination of the magnetic pull of the earth and the position of the sun to direct them to the Mexican forests.
Like clockwork, they return to these remote sanctuaries during Dia de Muertos. It’s why they are so revered in Mexican culture.
Centuries before their migration was tracked by wildlife scientists, the native Purépecha tribe recorded the arrival of the “orange-winged” butterflies at the same time each year.
They believed that human souls do not die, but instead continued living in Mictlan, a resting place for souls until the day they could return to visit their relatives.
In Mexico, the monarchs represent the souls of the dead returning to Earth for their annual visit.
“'It’s one of the wonders of the world. There’s the so-called seven wonders of the world, (but) this has to be replacing a couple of those because it’s these living critters that are so amazing, beautiful, elegant and what they do is just amazing,” said Bob Elde, a tourist visiting Cerro Pelon. “They’re so iconic for life on this planet and the fragility of life, and the threats they face, which are similar to the threats we face.”
“I think it gives me hope with so many dire things going on,” said Bonnie Baskin, a tourist visiting Cerro Pelon. “And to see this going on, it makes you feel that somehow we’re going to get past it. It’s going to be OK."
In San Antonio, the annual Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival is tagging and releasing monarchs in honor of those lost. Click here to learn more about their initiative.