Butterflies, a Marina, and a Waterfall

One of many Monarch butterflies seen at the Piedra Herrada Sanctuary in the state of Mexico. In addition to Piedra Herrada, there are other sanctuaries in the nearby state of Michoacán. Some are open to the public. Also, a new sanctuary was found this year.

February 4 – 8, 2019.

Finding good camping in Mexico can be a bit of a challenge. Right now we are at a campground parked on an incline. We have boards under our front tires to level us up, but we could use a couple more. Unfortunately, this is the only good option we have near this town. We were turned away at another campground who told us they only rent cabins or tepees. Another option we didn’t try is reportedly down a steep hill with only a few spaces big enough for us. We could try stealth camping (parking and sleeping on the street) in El Centro but the streets are nearly too packed to drive down – searching for a grocery store was nerve-racking enough. We do have flush toilets here and free WiFi, but I don’t think the showers haven’t been cleaned since they were built a year ago.

Mexico is just not set up for travelers like us. We have met Belgian, German, Canadian, American, Swiss, Argentine, and Russian Overlanders traveling in vans, truck campers, and RVs, but no Mexicans. Mexicans do appear to love to travel but seem to stay in hotels or if they camp they weekend in cabins or tents. And as for foreign RVers in general, we seem to be few – often times we are the only Overlanders at a site.

Although they are much less numerous than they are in the US, we have found a handful of RV parks geared especially for those living and traveling in vehicles. These parks are usually in someone’s backyard. The owners put in electrical and water hookups, build bathrooms and showers – and voilà they have an RV park.

We stayed in a campsite like this in Oaxaca – a big grassy field behind the owners’ house. Every day their old golden retriever, Bella, would make the rounds checking on all the campers.

As I know I have mentioned before there are tons of options to find different types of camping in the US, But here in Mexico, we find camping using a crowd-sourced app called iOverlander almost exclusively. So when it was time to leave Oaxaca I checked iOverlander for our best option for our trip to our next destination.

It was February and we wanted to head back north to visit a Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Mexico State before they started migrating north in March. It was going to be a long trip to the sanctuary, nearly 400 miles, so we decided to break it up into two days.

All we needed that first night was someplace to sleep, nothing fancy. iOverlander showed a Pemex station over halfway on our route. Pemex Is the national gas station. We have never stayed at one but from what I’ve read it is quite common for travelers and truckers to overnight in their parking lots. Sometimes they have showers and other amenities as well as an overnight guard. It is free to stay at Pemexes but often times Overlanders give the guard a tip in the morning before they leave. As we approached our destination we still had quite a few hours of daylight so I found another spot to spend the night on iOverlander and we pressed on.

We ended up at a National Park, Grutas (Caves) de Cacahuamilpa. Spending the night in the parking lot of a tourist attraction is often an option listed on iOverlander. We paid a parking fee of 50 pesos and found a nice flat spot. They didn’t have RV camping but did have tent camping spots next to a pool – this was an additional fee. There was also an additional fee to enter the caves with a guide, but we never even got out of the van. It was a long stressful day. It was a holiday so the park was pretty busy, but eventually, people quieted down and started to go home. We spent the night and left first thing in the morning.

I had read on iOverlander that the Butterfly Sanctuary allows Overlanders to spend the night in their parking. The Sanctuary doesn’t have official tent camping as the Caves did – so staying overnight would be kind of an unofficial thing. Sometimes these unofficial spots can be tricky because although one person has said it’s ok, the next person may say something else. This is, of course, compounded by trying to communicate with our limited Spanish.

We asked about staying the night when we paid for our entry tickets and were told we needed to pay a parking fee. No problem, we paid the fee, but we wanted a receipt. They said to get a receipt when we returned from our tour. When we returned we found out we need to pay another parking fee for the night and were then given a receipt. All was good until the guard came to inform us he was locking up the gate. Eventually, after much broken Spanish we convinced him we wanted to be locked in for the night and all was well.

Butterfly migration takes four generations. Three travel north and the fourth travels south. Is it possible that we saw some of these back in Shenandoah?
Male monarch on the left has two dots and slightly thinner vein lines.
The Monarchs settle at the top of the mountain here and descend as the temperature gets warmer.
We had a long steep climb to see their gathering spot. A couple of people in our group opted to ride on horseback after starting the walk.
Butterflies huddle together for warmth. When a little breeze hits this tree, though, there will be an explosion of activity.
Luckily we were joined by a familiy of vacationers from Mexico City. They had an english speaking guide, who translated everything said by our local guide.
We were fortunate also to have perfect weather. If it’s too cold or cloudy the butterflies just stay clumped together.

The next morning we headed on into the nearest town, Valle de Bravo. I had a state park camping spot lined up that I had found online somehow. It didn’t work out. The online info didn’t exactly tell us how to get to the camping area and Google maps looked like it wanted us to drive up a very steep cobblestone road. We decided to bail on that site and pulled iOverlander out again. We ended up at a Marina and RV park full of small sailboats and stationary RVs mostly for weekenders on the lake that bordered the city. The showers were cold (hot water was extra) but the owner was nice, the bathrooms were clean, and because we were on a lake we broke out the kayak.

Our campsite on the lake was run by a very friendly guy who spoke little English, but he loved to chat and we had an amazingly long (for us) conversation with him in Spanish.
Valle de Bravo is a Pueblo Magico and reportedly had some nice hiking but by the time we got to our campsite we just wanted to do some relaxing. It was nice to be able to get the inflatable kayak (we still need a name for her!) out and take a paddle around the lake.
The day we arrived there was a small sailboat regatta on the lake. Our dock was also a launch point for fishermen.
Sunset on the lake.

From Valle de Bravo We decided to do a little trailblazing. I’d had found another Mexico state park, Paque El Salto, online that had camping and a nice waterfall. I researched it on Google Maps and it looked pretty straightforward to get there until we actually hit the road. After turning off the main highway we preceded down some very steep narrow roads with a few sharp turns through a small community and then down a dirt road straightaway with low hanging trees that grazed the top of the van that ended at the park’s parking lot. This site, like most other camping sites in Mexico, was only set up for tent or cabin camping – but we asked the attendant if we could stay in the parking lot and he was fine with that. The camping fee was 80 pesos plus 20 pesos for each person on top of a 20 pesos fee for parking and 20 pesos fee per person for entry to the park. There were bathrooms and showers here but since we were out in the parking lot we didn’t use them. The lot was pretty shady (bad for our solar panels) and it wasn’t very level but we had a nice little hike out to the waterfall and it was pretty. The next morning I added the campground to iOverlanders database and we headed up the road to our next camping adventure.

The waterfall at Parque El Salto.

4 thoughts on “Butterflies, a Marina, and a Waterfall

    1. Us too! We got lucky that the other group we were with had a bilingual guide. It was a fun experience.

    1. The butterflies were on our bucket list. It was really great – but now I want a better camera, mine just didn’t do justice to the experience.

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