We had not ventured into México since 2019, but the decline in COVID-19 outbreaks coupled with our own fully vaccinated and boosted status led my wife Monika and me south of the border for a long-awaited vacation 10 days ago.

Our plan was to spend a few days in México City and then visit fellow San Antonians in Valle de Bravo, two hours west of the capital, where we would make a highly anticipated day trip to the Santuario Piedra Herrada, a monarch butterfly preserve in the state of México near the border with Michoacán.

Monika writes at the Texas Butterfly Ranch and was hopeful we would catch at least some of the millions of monarchs wintering in the high elevation sanctuaries located within the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage serial site. We knew that February would have been a more ideal time; by mid-March they might be headed north toward the United States and Canada.

In fact, we shared an amazing experience with friends, some of whom had never witnessed the forest scenes of countless wintering monarchs.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently moved México’s travel advisory rating down to Level 3 (“high” risk for Covid) from Level 4 (“very high” risk). While that might be more risk than some would undertake, we also knew mask use was nearly universal in México, unlike at home, and much of our time would be spent outdoors with fully vaccinated and boosted friends.

We returned safe and sound on Thursday after testing negative in a Valle de Bravo clinic 24 hours before our flight home from México City, a mandatory requirement to board any international flight to the United States.

Our time in México, a country we have visited regularly for decades, exceeded expectations, but getting there and back home was anything but fun and relaxing. Travel in the pandemic era calls for more patience. I am not a big fan of the cramped Airbus A320, the single-aisle aircraft of choice for many low-cost airlines, that Aeroméxico and Volaris use for the San Antonio-Mexico City round trip flights.

But our time in México more than made up for travel hassles. Our México City Airbnb overlooked the Parque México in the Colonia Hipódromo Condesa. The tall jacaranda trees were in full bloom and temperatures were moderate. The shaded grounds teemed with locals walking their dogs or partaking in public dance classes, amid skateboarders and artesanía vendors.

The words “great city” are badly overused in San Antonio and elsewhere, but I rank Mexico City, with an estimated population of 22 million people in the vast metro area, as one of the world’s great cities. It’s a bargain for visitors with U.S. dollars. The cultural amenities, the culinary scene, the mercados and green spaces offer endless choices for people who enjoy walking and wandering.

Two young biologists offered us an unsolicited and highly informative private walking tour of the Jardín Botánico del Bosque de Chapultepec, which is the oldest such garden in the hemisphere, having first been established by 15th century indigenous ruler Nezahualcoyotl.

San Antonio friends and artists Veronica Prida and Omar Rodriguez divide their time between San Antonio and Casa CantaGallo, an Airbnb they operate in Valle de Bravo, overlooking Lago Avandaro, which is reached via a series of narrow, climbing, cobblestoned streets. One night, as we dined al fresco, we watched a wildfire spread quickly across a drought-stricken hilltop across the lake, the flames feeding a massive cloud of smoke that rose thousands of feet in the air.

Firefighting crews had extinguished the fire by the following day as we hiked down to the lake’s edge from Cascada Velo de Novia, a spring-fed waterfall located above the town of Avandaro.

Valle de Bravo also is home to Galería Venado Azul, the Blue Deer Gallery, one of the best boutique sources of curated artisan folk art in the country.

We made our way northwest to the butterfly sanctuary knowing that many, if not most, of the monarchs likely had left the oyamel forests for the journey north.

“By Easter weekend they will all be gone,” our guide María Alvarado Gonzalez said as she led us up the steep, two kilometer trek to the reserve. One of our group opted to make the climb on horseback as we slowly worked our way up the forested trail to an altitude of 10,350 feet. Not a single other visitor was passed on the trail.

What we found near the top was one of the greatest concentrations of monarchs I had witnessed in several years — whole oyamel firs teeming with tens of thousands of monarchs, roosting one moment, fluttering into flight the next, others breeding on the earthen floor all around us. Our group of eight San Antonians spent the next two hours in near silence, witnessing one of nature’s most magical experiences.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.