The definition of "easy to get to" changes depending on what side of the border you're on. In the United States, if you had to drive on a rutted dirt road to get to someplace, you wouldn't call that place easy to get to. In Mexico, the phrase apparently is used more loosely. Otherwise, Verónica Palafox would not describe Le Papillon butterfly farm, which she and her husband Alfredo Cerón opened last month, as easy to get to. From San Ysidro, you make your way to Playas de Tijuana, go south down the toll road 15 miles or so, then turn northeast up the Boulevard 2000, a brand-new four-lane divided highway that runs between Rosarito and eastern Tijuana. (It's called the Boulevard 2000 because it was supposed to open in the year 2000. It didn't open until 2007.) After about a dozen scenic miles through chaparral ranch country, you see hand-painted signs for "mariposas," which means butterflies. Turn right, ease around the giant puddle, and travel up a smooth, sandy road for about a mile. Then the sand gives way to hard dirt littered with thousands of softball- and volleyball-sized stones. Deep ruts running perpendicular to the direction of travel cause your car to bounce up and down and occasionally bottom out on a crest. When you think your oil pan will rupture on the next stone, a narrow ranch road splits off to the right between two lines of towering eucalyptus trees. A half mile up this road and you'll see what looks like a greenhouse, but instead of plastic or glass, black sun-filtering netting covers the steel-tube frame.
Inside this 15-by-15-foot enclosure, potted plants grow everywhere. On a table in the center stands a nasturtium. Its light green stems contrast with its darker, round leaves. Palafox, a petite 33-year-old dressed in designer jeans, magenta sweater, and oversized sunglasses, turns over one of the leaves. On the underside near one edge lie what look like 12 grains of saffron rice. "These are eggs," she explains, "of the cloudless sulphur butterfly. It's a yellow butterfly we raise here."
Palafox swivels her head and scans the enclosure. "Ah," she says, "here's one." Against one wall, a two-and-a-half-inch yellow butterfly stands on a pointy-leafed cassia plant. It holds its wings together straight above its body, revealing two silver dots and several black markings under each wing. "This is one of the species we raise, along with monarch butterflies and a white butterfly native to Baja California called Pieris rapae."
No Pieris rapae -- known in the United States as cabbage white butterflies -- are in the enclosure today. "Another part of our business is doing butterfly releases," Cerón, a clean-cut 32-year-old stylishly dressed in jeans and a tan corduroy jacket, explains. "And we've done quite a few lately. So we're out of white butterflies right now. We do the releases at weddings, quinceañeras."
"Well," Cerón suppresses a chuckle, "we can't do funerals because we don't get enough lead time. We need a few weeks' time to produce enough butterflies for a release. You don't get that with funerals. So most of our business is weddings."
"We release them as the bride walks out of the church," Palafox explains. "There's a legend in Mexico that butterflies at a wedding bring good fortune to the bride and groom. Sometimes the father of the bride, sometimes the priest, reads the legend as we release the butterflies."
It's Palafox's turn, when she's asked if the released butterflies return home like pigeons, to suppress a chuckle. "No," she answers, "they just continue their life cycle in the wild. The white butterfly lives for 15 days. And sometimes we release monarch butterflies, which live 30 days."
Against the back wall of the enclosure opposite the door grows a vine with thick, hand-sized leaves. One blossom, as big as a salad plate, grows on the vine. Its ten outer petals are purple tipped with white, as are its two layers of spiky inner petals. "All of our visitors ask about that plant," Palafox says. "It's called passion flower. It is very beautiful, but it's also needed to raise a butterfly called the Gulf fritillary. It's an orange butterfly like the monarch but smaller. A lot of people ask, 'Is that plant plastic?' We say, 'No, it's not plastic. It's real.' In fact, at first we didn't sell the plants here. But we were explaining to people about the larvae and eggs on the certain plants. And they were asking, 'Would you sell us this plant?' So we started selling the plants too."
About 100 yards across dusty ranch land -- nine acres of which Cerón and Palafox rent for the butterfly operation -- lies Le Papillon's larger butterfly enclosure. This one's about 50 feet long, 20 feet wide. Other than the gravel path, which makes an oval circuit through the enclosure, every inch inside is covered in flowering plants -- lantana, margarita, geranium, bougainvillea, and more.
"The plants are for the nectar," Cerón explains. "Butterflies will eat nectar from almost any plant."
"We also cut slices of apple for them to eat," Palafox adds.
Twenty-five or 30 orange-and-black monarch butterflies flutter around, sometimes alighting on the plants, sometimes on the netting, and sometimes on the plate of apple slices that sits on a stand in one corner. The ten humans in the building stand mute and watch the winged insects fly about. There's something hypnotic about the silent fluttering. Their flight paths are never straight, and they look as if a light breeze would knock them to the ground. But they're hardier than they appear. Monarch butterflies migrate from Canada to central Mexico every year.
"We usually have a lot more butterflies in here," Palafox says, "but, as my husband said, we've done a lot of releases lately."
How do you catch them?
"Like this." Cerón approaches a butterfly sitting on the net. It flies away when he reaches for it. He approaches another, reaches out, and gently pinches the wings together between his thumb and forefingers. The creature's six legs and two antennae wriggle in protest to this treatment. Cerón releases it and smiles as he watches its irregular flight to a nearby orange-flowered lantana. "That's how you catch them."
"But we don't catch them for wedding releases," Palafox says. "The ones we release we raise in containers. They go from eggs to caterpillars to butterflies all in the container. And when they're two or three days old we release them. If we don't need them for weddings or quinceañeras, we release them in here."
On its opening weekend, in mid-November, Le Papillon had 500 visitors, though not all were paying customers. "We invited a lot of people," Palafox explains. The plan for Palafox and Cerón -- who work day jobs in management at two of Tijuana's maquiladoras -- is to attract school field trips. "We pay a company that does marketing to the schools. There is no way we could go to every school to pitch this. But the company we work with has contacts with over 1000 schools. So they print a brochure that they send to all of their schools. They bring busloads of kids, and we get two dollars per kid."
In addition to field trips, the couple hopes to attract Tijuana's city dwellers for a day in the country. They plan to build a playground for kids. And they're working on permits to import more exotic species of butterflies. They charge 30 pesos (about $3) per visitor. "The idea is that families will be able to come and spend the whole day with us," Cerón says. "Kids love it here. In TJ, we don't have a lot of parks and play spaces, and the houses are very small. Here, we have butterflies and room to run. It's a very safe place to play -- except for the rattlesnakes."