Vanlife diaries #50: Santiago de Querétaro & Sierra Chincua Monarch Butterfly Bioreserve, Michoacán
From experiencing the absolute best of Mexican hospitality and witnessing one of the most incredible natural phenomenon in North America to ending up in hospital, this was simultaneously the best and worst week we’ve had in Mexico so far.
What we’ve been up to this week
Departing San Miguel de Allende at the start of the week, we drove a short distance across statelines to Querétaro. Unfortunately, our journey was anything but smooth. The first campsite we found was a grassy lot just behind a gas station, a prime spot off our camping app that we were overjoyed to have found, but no matter how nicely we asked, the staff insisted that it wasn’t allowed to camp here.
Our second attempt was a quiet and incredibly scenic spot right on the lake, just a little further down the road, and we couldn’t have been happier with a rare night of “real camping”. An hour passed and just as we were going to sleep, multiple people started tapping on the outside of our van, even attempting to open our locked doors, and shouting in Spanish— we opened the front door to 3 police officers, who firmly reported that it’s a civic infraction to park here.
They took our IDs, which thankfully did get returned, and demanded we open the rear doors to look in the van. I repeatedly told them that we understood and would drive immediately to a different spot down the road, but they kept us there for some time— parroting the same information about a civic infraction and asking Dan “what should we do with you”. It became clear at some point that they were fishing for a bribe, hoping to scare us into paying something when truly we’d done nothing wrong (there are no signs posted here to prohibit camping and we were happy to move immediately to a new spot).
We managed to get out of it using the very useful tactic of “polite and confused”, whereby Dan successfully (and somewhat naturally) gave the impression of speaking almost no Spanish, but just kept saying “gracias” over and over, and in the end we were allowed to leave, likely because it became not worth their time to continue pestering us.
We did find camping just down the road, but it was an unpleasant encounter than did not lead to a restful first night in Querétaro. Thankfully, this was a singularly negative impression of an otherwise wonderful state!
Santiago de Querétaro, Querétaro
If we thought Guanajuato was a reasonably well-kept secret from gringos, Querétaro is nearly off the map altogether and yet one of the most beautiful and unbelievably spotless states we’ve visited.
The capital in particular, Santiago de Querétaro, felt like such an international city that I could easily have been convinced I was in some Melbourne suburb wandering past trendy cafes, blooming jacarandas, and well-maintained laneways.
We spent our morning running errands, but in the afternoon, stopped into a local brewery, Cervecería Hércules, in an eastern city suburb of the same name.
Although it was eventually incorporated into Santiago de Querétaro, Hércules was once its own walled town and the brewery is actually built into the centuries-old compound, creating a new centre of activity in the ageing remains of this significant site.
Without question, this is the most spectacular brewery in Mexico, as much for its incredible variety of world-class beer as for the rich history preserved within its expansive walls. We didn’t know much about the latter when we first arrived, sitting in the beer garden for lunch and simply admiring the scenery and lengthy menu of excellent food and beer, but when we asked a waiter for permission to camp within the compound overnight, one of the owners came over and introduced himself instead.
We’ve had the experience of being treated like visiting dignitaries at a brewery before (Russian River being one of the most memorable), if for no other reason than we were super keen and the staff got excited to share special beer with people who really care— but this was on another level.
Santiago swept us away from our table and began an hours-long tour of the property, picking up Travis along the way, a gringo brewer specialising in the wild ales and farmhouse saisons that have recently become my favourite.
We sampled multiple beers directly from the tank, wandering through enormous rooms filled with brew equipment and a loft lined with wooden barrels as Travis narrated his creative process, before touring the hotel being restored within the walls of the brewery.
Amidst the constant hum of construction, we looked across at the cobbled courtyard and historic clock tower, both of which were also in the process of restoration, and wandered under a section of the Romanesque aqueduct— the very same that towers over the roads of Santiago de Querétaro as the city’s most notable icon.
All this to say that Hercules is much more than just a brewery. The entire compound is a living, breathing part of local history, and it is being meticulously and passionately maintained by the group of 6 middle-school amigos who started Cervecería Hércules a decade ago.
Never with empty glasses, we were taken to the shop and gifted brewery t-shirts of our choosing, guided to move the van to a closer spot within the compound, and finally seated in the twilight beer garden at a candlelit table with both Santiago and Travis, who by now felt like old friends.
Over the next several hours, we were invited to try anything from the menu, including beers not available from the 15-tap draught that were only sold in bottle.
Querétaro is known for its cheese, so a platter of local cheeses was whisked over to our table. We had been curious to try the molotes, so this was quickly procured for our enjoyment. Among his many impressive business ventures, Santiago also owns a mezcal brand, and an endless flow of mezcal was poured into delicate glasses for us to sip alongside the standard local accompaniment of Tajín-crusted oranges and crispy chapulines (dried crickets).
Although Mexican hospitality and generosity has become a constant in our trip (from being told that there was no charge to fill our water tank by a friendly local man who was simply delighted we were in his town to the lunch and mariachi invite from Gilbert, whom we’d met on the street), this exceeded anything we’ve yet experienced in Mexico— I’d even go so far as to say anything that we’ve ever experienced, full stop.
Dan had been carrying a bottle of barrel-aged beer from a Seattle brewery around in the van for months, almost opening it on countless occasions but always deciding “the time wasn’t right” for such a special beer. Tonight was the night— we popped open our Fremont B-Bomb, and the feeling of having something, even small, to share after such an incredible evening certainly justified the long wait.
At the end of the night, all off-canter from an excess of mezcal and stumbling toward the van for a shared nightcap, several bottles of special cerveza (the names of which I’m not even allowed to disclose yet) were heaped into our arms for future enjoyment on our trip and we were invited to stay as long as we’d like. This was how we enjoyed our BEST night in Mexico— and the following morning, I had the hangover to prove it.
If not for the need to reach Michoacán before the weekend rush, we eagerly would have accepted the offer to stay in our van at Cervecería Hércules (forever, or at least for the week), but alas we had just the morning in Querétaro before we were compelled to hit the road.
The drive took us back into Guanajuato, across statelines to Querétaro again, through the very dicey State of Mexico, and finally into Michoacán. The latter sections were on terrible roads, the worst we’ve yet seen in all of Mexico, and we were keenly aware of driving through areas that are considered to be among the most dangerous in the entire country.
But we were headed somewhere special, a pocket of true magic amongst the sacred oyamel firs at 3200m (10,000ft)— the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.
Sierra Chincua Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, Michoacán
As part of what is perhaps the most intriguing natural phenomenon in all of North America, an estimated one billion monarch butterflies leave their summer home in Canada and migrate 5,000km (3,000mi) to the high-elevation forests of Michoacán in south-central Mexico every single year, returning with almost laser precision to a place they’ve never been themselves— instinctively draw to the sacred oyamel fir trees that have provided ideal overwintering conditions to generations of monarch butterflies before them.
Amazingly, it takes several generations of monarchs to travel north to Canada for the summer, a constant cycle of birth and death that revolves around availability of the milkweed plant.
Each of these new butterfly generations lives just 5-7 weeks in their steady journey towards warmer breeding grounds, but when they do arrive in the early autumn, an incredibly resilient generation of monarchs is born— one with the strength to fly the entire 5,000km to southern México and with a lifespan long enough (8 months) to spawn the next generation of butterflies.
Once in Mexico, the cycle begins again.
It’s almost like the fulfilment of some invisible destiny, or at least one which remains unknown to the monarchs themselves. What is it that draws the butterflies without exception to this part of Mexico? To one of only a handful of protected forests high in the mountains? To the exact trees that their ancestries once hung from, clustered by the millions until even the branches themselves appear orange?
Scientists have theorised that the butterflies can sense their position relative to the sun and that this influences the timing and trajectory of their migration, but it’s a complex adaptation that remains largely mysterious, even to leading researchers.
However beautiful the monarchs may be (and they REALLY are), it’s this incomprehensible journey that makes them so special— that even the simplest creatures are able to intuit things which take science and technology hundreds of years to understand is, in a word, humbling.
We as humans are forever struggling to keep pace with the incomprehensible brilliance of the natural world, and it’s impossible not to be awed by the monarch butterflies who float through the cool mountain air in Michoacán, blissfully unaware of their own significance— and of their preordained fate in a grand cycle of migration that has been spinning for thousands of years.
And so, we travelled wildly out of our way this week for something that I told Dan from the first moments of our Mexico planning was “non-negotiable”. Whatever else we did, I wanted to see these miracle butterflies.
After our brutal drive from Querétaro, we spent a very pleasant night free camping in a large meadow just beneath the parking area, and at 10am on Friday morning, we arrived to the unassuming entryway of the Sierra Chincua Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, one of 3 public sanctuaries in Michoacán where the monarchs are protected from the threat of logging, farming, and other habitat destruction.
Entry was a modest 80p ($4) and we declined one of the local guides (correctly assuming that hiking alone would enable us to move at a slower, more photography-friendly pace), and then we were off into the trees.
Although the Reserva de Biosfera de la Mariposa Monarca, now a UNESCO World Hereitsge Site, protects over 56,000 acres of forest in southern Mexico, the overwintering areas populated by monarch butterflies are a mere fraction of this— a large buffer zone ensures better protection for the species, so a visit to any sanctuary involves a bit of a hike.
Sierra Chincua, the less touristy and more rugged of the two sanctuaries currently open in Michoacán, is about 45min from the entry gate, a pleasant hike along a dusty trail that passes under the intermittent shade of towering pines and fir trees as sunlight filters in through the needles.
The butterflies arrive at the end of the year, but usually don’t become active until late January when the temps start to rise— the hotter and sunnier the day, the better. And as luck would have it, we were greeted by nothing by clear blue skies and a strong winter sun, ideal conditions for our day with the butterflies.
We marvelled at the complete lack of monarchs outside (or even just inside) the sanctuary gates, but a brief 20min up the trail, we began to catch our first glimpse of delicate orange wings fluttering through the trees and latching onto the wildflowers.
I stopped constantly to photograph the monarchs, excitement mounting as more and more butterflies came into view with each step (and likely also as we approached the warmest part of the day).
By the time we did reach the marked entrance to the habitat itself just before 11am, posted signs instructed us to whisper as we followed a rough path through the trees.
I don’t know if I could have spoken much anyway, stunned into silence by the millions of bright orange monarchs that flapped in the dappled sunlight, congregated on every plant and tree, fluttered past my face, and even landed on outstretched hands.
Indeed, they reached peak activity in the heat of the afternoon, right around 12.30pm, and we were there to witness it all.
Looking up was like gazing into a storm, the sky so thick with butterflies that I swear I could hear the sound of wings. It was indescribable and infinitely more magical than any secondhand account can prepare you for— one of those things you must truly see to believe.
Visiting the emergency room in Mexico City
After the most incredible day at Sierra Chincua, we spent another beautiful night camped in the nearby meadow, enjoying fresh air and afternoon sunshine for several hours before we even had to retreat indoors.
And then I woke up vomiting. I vomited outside the van, kneeling directly in the dirt, and I vomited inside our van into a metal pot as Dan began the long drive to Mexico City.
I couldn’t understand where this illness had come from, as I’d been totally fine the previous day, but with each passing hour, things worsened until I lost complete feeling and the use of my hands for a full 10min after a vomiting spell. It was then decided that we’d be going to the emergency room.
I won’t relay the full ordeal, but suffice to say it was the single most stressful day that we’ve had since we moved into the van a full year ago.
I ended up spending 2 days in hospital, submitting to a battery of tests and receiving half a dozen bags of IV fluids before the doctors determined that I’d contracted a rather serious gastrointestinal and renal infection that was contributing to my severe dehydration, agonising stomach and kidney pain, and the 120bpm resting HR that left me feeling like I’d run a marathon when I hadn’t even sat upright in several hours.
Once on antibiotics, my fever broke and I was discharged— a very exciting $1,300USD bill waiting for me at the front of the hospital and a slew of dashed plans. Like two zombies, Dan and I retreated to the comfort of an airbnb, which is where we will be spending the entirety of next week trying to recover.
Where we stayed this week
Just like the week itself, our accomodation ranged from some of the absolute best free camping we’ve had in mainland Mexico to an expensive and extremely uncomfortable stay in the local hospital.
- Parking behind a Mobil petrol station just across the border into Querétaro (free; 15 Feb)
- Parking within the secure compound of Cerveceria Hercules in Santiago de Querétaro, Querétaro (free; 16 Feb)
- Camping in the forest just outside of Sierra Chincua Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, Michoacán (free; 17-18 Feb)
- Overnight stay at the ABC Hospital in Santa Fe, CDMX (VERY expensive; 19 Feb)
- Hotel in Santa Fe, CDMX (560p; 20 Feb)