I love nature and always want to see and experience the best of it during my travels. I never thought I would get to see the incredible spectacle of the monarch migration in North America or Mexico. I always thought that seeing it was something only scientists got to experience or that it would be so out of reach for regular travelers that you would have to pay thousands of dollars to be taken on a special expedition up some high mountain to find them. Little did I know that reaching their habitat would be so easy!
I didn’t have much of a plan when I came to Mexico, I just knew that I had to make it from Guadalajara (Jalisco) to Oaxaca in about a month. After seeing Jalisco for a few days I ended up in Guanajuato and began to look into options of where to go next. During my research I happened to run into some blog posts about the monarch butterflies and realized that I was actually in Mexico in the middle of their migration time. How could I not go see them?! I was not very far from Michoacan, one of the states the butterflies choose as their mating grounds so I decided to travel there.
WHY & HOW THE MIGRATION OCCURS…
The monarch migration is one of the most amazing phenomena of the animal kingdom and extremely unique in the insect world. Prior to the 1970’s no one knew where millions of these butterflies would go after they left Canada and the US in the Summer and returned back in the Spring. It wasn’t until a study of 40 years done by a couple of Canadian Scientists, pairing up with a couple of research volunteers from the US and Mexico, that it was proven (by 1976) that these fragile creatures were making the long and arduous two-month journey of 3,000 miles (4,700 km) from North America to the Sierra Madres mountains in Mexico.
It takes a total of four generations of the butterfly to complete an entire migration cycle from Canada to Mexico to Canada. What is even more incredible is how these butterflies always reach the same grounds in Mexico year after year even though the generation that arrives to Mexico has never been there before.
Once the harsh winter begins in North America the monarchs will begin their migration in November to warmer climates in the South to reach the mountains in Michoacan and Estado de Mexico where they find pine-oak and oyamel tree forests to call home, hibernate and mate until March. As Winter ends and Spring begins, the pregnant females return to the South of the United States to lay their eggs. The new children will migrate north to Canada where they will spend the Summer and reproduce. The monarch has an average lifespan of 2-6 weeks but the generation that makes the long journey back to Mexico is said to be stronger, larger and can live up to 8 months!
The entire region where hibernation and mating occur in Mexico is composed of around 56,259 hectares and has been declared a protected natural area known as “Reserva de la Biosfera Mariposa Monarca” since 1986. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.
WHERE TO SEE THE MONARCH BUTTERFLIES…
There are five sanctuaries inside the Reserva de la Biosfera Mariposa Monarca that are open to the public. Two are located in the State of Michoacan- El Rosario and Sierra Chincua and three in the State of Mexico- Santuario Ejido El Capulín, Santuario Piedra Herrada, and Santuario La Mesa. After reading about all the sanctuaries I decided to go to the one that was considered to be “the best” to see as many butterflies as possible- El Rosario. I headed to the town of Angangueo in Michoacan, one of Mexico’s magic towns or “Pueblo Magico”, a colorful mining town located in a canyon and surrounded by the high and rugged mountains of Michoacan. You can reach Angangueo by bus from Mexico City by using Zina Bus. This beautiful town can serve as a great base to visit not only El Rosario but also the Sierra Chincua sanctuary. I planned my visit to match the forecast of sunny days as the butterflies only fly around when the sun is out and it’s easier to see them. During cloudy days they will stay perched onto the tree branches and trunks and it can be hard to see them at a distance.
I began with El Rosario sanctuary just in case the weather took a turn for the worse and I could only see one of the two.
Many tours are offered on the web and in town to visit the sanctuaries but if you like to do things independently like me, then here is how: from Angangueo you can take a “combi” or a shared taxi van from the corner of Nacional and Calle Negrete (southwest part of town). It costs MXN$50 and takes about half an hour to reach the entrance. The vans usually leave at 6:30am, 9:00am and 11:00am but these times can vary as the drivers will wait until the vans are full. The vans will run back and forth (following the tourists needs) until 7:00pm.
El Rosario is open from 9:00am to 5:00pm and it costs MXN$45 for adults and MXN$35 for children to enter. My recommendation would be to leave Angangueo at 11:00am so that you can be at the top of the mountain at around 12:00pm. If it is sunny outside the monarchs will fly all over the place between 12:00pm and 2:00pm when the sun hits their wings.
Once you arrive to the sanctuary you (or your group) will be assigned to a local guide which is included in the ticket price. It is recommended and expected that you tip them at the end of your hike. They are there to ensure everyone follows the reserve’s rules to protect the butterflies, their habitat and to provide information on the reserve, the butterflies, and their conservation efforts. By using the guide’s services you are contributing to the protection of the butterflies. The government is working with the local communities to help them switch their jobs in logging and farming to tourism and conservation so the butterflies can continue to visit Mexico every year. Tourism is their way to not only protect these beautiful creatures, but most importantly to sustain themselves and their families financially. I recommend going during a week day vs. a weekend day and avoiding Mexican holidays so that you don’t have to deal with large crowds during your experience.
The 2km (1.17mi) hike up the mountain is a bit steep and it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour depending on how fast you do it. I would say take it easy and enjoy nature. You can see butterflies all along the route. You are also at a high altitude which makes it harder to breathe but they rent horses for MXN$150 at the bottom and top of trail in case you opt to go this way. You will be at around 3,000 meters or close to 10,000 feet once you reach the butterflies and your guide will give you 20 minutes to observe them in silence and take your photos/videos. I was lucky enough to be there when it was not crowded so my guide let me stay for 1.5 hours. The area where the butterflies gather in large groups will be roped off so that visitors cannot get too close to the trees or step on the forest floor where they begin to land as they fly around. The guards will move the ropes further out as the butterflies begin to extend out onto the trail where you will be standing. Unfortunately many tourists step over them by mistake as they try to move around to take their photos. You have to be careful and watch where you step at ALL times!
I also noticed that if you stay still and are wearing white or colors that resemble flowers, the butterflies will begin to land on you. I had a few land on me!
Once you descend you will find the reserve’s main restaurant where you can get a set menu for MXN$50 or exit through the main gate and find many family restaurants located around the parking lot. By eating there you are contributing to the local tourism-based economy and ultimately saving the butterflies from continued logging and farming activities. I personally recommend the food at Cristobal & Mari’s restaurant, the one with the blue awning toward the end of the lot on the left side. Although they charge around MXN$80 for a lunch plate, they will provide a lot more meat than the park’s restaurant. They also have tons of souvenir and snack stands all around the main gate.
The next day it turned out to be sunny again so I decided to visit the Sierra Chincua reserve. I thought that nothing could top my incredible experience in El Rosario but boy was I wrong! Although El Rosario is the most popular and has the best reviews out of all five sanctuaries, I found Sierra Chincua to be better! To reach Sierra Chincua you can take another “combi” from Angangueo. It is open from 8:00 to 5:00pm and it costs MXN$35 for adults and MXN$30 for children. The combi will drop you off on the main road where you will have to take a smaller road for about 20 minutes to reach the entrance. It is a beautiful walk in nature. Once you pay your entrance, you will be assigned a guide. The trek up the mountain is about 2.5km (1.8mi) to reach the butterflies. I liked this one better than El Rosario for various reasons. The hiking trail was all dirt with no steps so it felt more “wild”, the views were absolutely incredible and you can reach a few miradores or viewpoints along the way.
Once you reach the butterflies, there will an area of large rocks to the left of the trail where you can sit and rest while you watch the butterflies fly around. It feels like you are closer to them here and you have a better view of them and the trees. They were flying everywhere above us and around us. Luckily there were not many visitors on that day so my guide let me stay for 1.5 hours to watch them and take my photos/videos. I was able to stand near a tree where the butterflies were landing and some landed on my head and arms. It was truly an incredible experience! At this place they also have restaurants and souvenir shops that you can enjoy after your trek. It is cold in all of these places so make sure to dress appropriately. In Angangueo the temperature got down to 0 celcius (32F) at night!
I don’t try to describe the butterflies much or my feelings about seeing them on this post. I just believe that it is something that you have to experience for yourself. It was truly incredible and one experience that I will never forget. A true spectacle of nature that we are still lucky to be able to see in Mexico. I ask you to PLEASE follow all rules while you are in the sanctuaries, they were put in place to protect the butterflies and their habitat. Butterflies are an extremely important part of many ecosystems all along their migration route in Canada, the US, and Mexico. Please take care of them! If the route happens to be near where you live, please plant some milkweed flowers so they have some food to access during their long journey. I hope you experience this at least once in your lifetime.
FOR MORE INFORMATION…
Here are some links to great resources to help you plan your trip and learn more about the monarchs:
And many great videos on Youtube like this one: