Every winter, millions of butterflies descend upon the central state of Michoacán in Mexico as part of their enormous migration which spans from Canada to Mexico. It is one of the most incredible and mysterious migrations of the animal kingdom, as the huge journey lasts several generations of the short-lived monarchs and scientists have so far been unable to comprehend how the butterflies manage to repeat the 2,000-mile migration year after year. The monarchs cover the trees in the pine-oak forests of Michoacán from October to March as they weather Mexico’s more temperate winter.
Having heard that the butterflies were best seen in February and March, I headed out in early February to see them at the Cerro Pelón reserve outside of Zitacuaro, the less-frequented of the reserves. Unfortunately, the day we designated to see the butterflies was cloudy and cold – we knew that they wouldn’t be flying around very much, but we headed up to see them anyway. After a beautiful and peaceful hike through the mountain forest, we finally reached the butterflies. It was still impressive to see them in such large numbers, but I hated to admit that I was quite disappointed, as when they cling to the trees they are not the brilliant orange I expected, but an unremarkable brown, most likely a camouflage technique to blend in with the bark. There were a few flying around here and there, but as a whole they were an unmoving mass of brown, although impressively weighing down the branches of the trees they covered. As my parents had travelled all the way from the northeast U.S. to see this as part of their visit to Mexico, I felt quite bad for them, and convinced the guide to let us past the rope preventing the visitors from getting too close to the butterflies, as we were the only ones in the sanctuary at that time. We then got to see the butterflies up close, and there were a few more flying around closer to the trees, so I was happy that my parents got to at least have a closer look.
As I was living in Mexico City at the time, I, however, vowed to return to see the monarchs in their full glory on a warm, sunny spring day. I had heard that the butterflies could be seen as a (albeit very long) daytrip from Mexico City, so at 7am on a sunny Saturday spring morning in early March, my friend and I headed to the Central del Poniente bus station and purchased our tickets for the 8am bus to Angangueo (via Zitacuaro, on the Autobuses Zinacantepec y Ramales bus line). Three hours later, we were dropped off in the sleepy mountain village of Angangueo. Upon stepping out of the bus and exploring the town square, the first thing that we noticed was the odd monarch butterfly fluttering around here and there. This filled me with excitement, as when I went to the butterfly sanctuary near Zitcuaro, we barely saw any butterflies until we arrived at their actual resting place high up in the mountain – here in Angangueo, we begin to see them as soon as we stepped off the bus, and in contrast to my cold, cloud-covered trip to Zitacuaro, here the sun was shining in full force. Our trip was off to an auspicious start.
After enjoying a simple yet pleasant lunch of roasted chicken and tortillas in a tiny stand in the local market adjacent to the town square, we piled into a small school bus with some locals and headed up the winding mountain road to the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Preserve. As I would see later especially in Guatemala, old American school buses are often sold off to Latin American countries to be used as public transportation once they depreciate enough in the U.S. In our case, we rode in a revamped version of what is commonly known in the U.S. as “the short bus”.
Along the bumpy ride to the preserve, we began to see more and more butterflies as we looked out the windows of the bus. By the time we arrived at the parking lot outside the entrance of the preserve, swarms of flaming orange, excited butterflies fluttered around us. My friend and I were already ecstatic before we even entered the preserve. Once we passed the ticket counter, I was a bit put off to see that the sanctuary essentially consisted of a roped-off path around a small area of the forest where the butterflies had congregated. On top of that, we were assigned a mandatory guide, a young teenager from the local village. While keeping visitors from overly impacting the delicate butterfly sanctuary is completely understandable, compared to the open woods and freedom of the more isolated Cerro Pelón reserve I had previously visited, I was a bit wary of the linear and guided path of El Rosario. But one must always make the best of one’s situation, so I began to make friends with our guide, asking him questions about his village, and sharing some of our snacks with him. I eventually began to ask if there was perhaps a path or area of the preserve that he could take us to away from the rest of tourists, which were quite numerous on the already narrow path. He thought about it and seemed to indicate no, but his hesitation told me otherwise, so I gently pressed the issue as we went along our tour.
Eventually, we reached a corner in the path, and our guide suddenly lowered the rope and beckoned us to step over it. So my friend and I did, without asking questions, as fellow tourists looked on, undoubtedly wondering if we were entomologists conducting research on the monarchs. Soon we were walking down a blissfully tourist-free path, with butterflies flying around us and beautiful flowers poking out from the vegetation lining the path, until we arrived at a wide, open field, in stark contrast from the forest from which we had just emerged. After enjoying the isolation of the beautiful field, watching the butterflies gently float across it, we thanked our guide for bringing us to it and then headed back the way we came, nonchalantly stepping back over the rope and reemerging on the path to continue our tour of the sanctuary.
Upon exiting the sanctuary, we couldn’t find any school buses, long or short, or even a taxi to take us back down to the town. So we did what any reckless twenty-somethings still reeling from their amazing immersion in a world of butterflies would do – we walked down the road to the village, sticking out our thumbs to any passing vehicles to hitchhike a ride back down. Eventually, a man with a large, old, dusty pick-up truck stopped and let us in hop in the back. We clutched the wood rafters of the truck as we bumped along down the road, laughing the whole way as we made it back to the town, just in time to hop on the 5pm bus back to Mexico City to make it back by 8pm, bringing our total travel time to exactly twelve hours – during which it seemed we had travelled to a completely different world and back – and in a way, we had.
Even if you don’t manage to persuade your guide to take you off the path, El Rosario in early March is a fabulous place to see the monarchs. They cover the surrounding trees in bright orange and flutter around everywhere, happy to enjoy the sunshine after months of winter doldrums. It is a completely unforgettable and unique experience. But go see them now, because the fragile monarch butterflies and their intricate and extraordinary migration are in danger. Severe winter weather, illegal loggers, and large-scale farming along the path of their migration all take their toll on the species’ population. However, I highly encourage everyone to go see them, as it’s a low-impact way to witness the species in its full glory and perhaps instill the sense of conservational urgency so desperately more widely-needed to successfully protect the beautiful monarch butterflies, along with the rest of this fabulous biosphere that we’re lucky enough to call home.
WHERE: The main monarch butterfly reserves open to the public are located in the states of Michoacán and Estado de México. The most famous reserve is El Rosario in Michoacán. The Sierra Chincua reserve nearby is also popular. For a less touristed visit more immersed in nature, try the Cerro Pelón reserve outside of Zitacuaro.
Seeing the butterflies, as mentioned, can be done as a long daytrip from Mexico City, but I recommend spending a few days in Michoacán, which is personally one of my favorite Mexican states and has lots to see outside of the butterflies.
WHEN: October to March. Early March is the best time to see them, as it will most likely be warmer and the butterflies will be in motion, which turns the visit into a far more visually impressive sensorial spectacle. It really depends on the weather, but with any luck you should get a warm and sunny day in March, it is Mexico after all! But don’t wait too long – they typically begin their migration back up north in mid-to-late March.
HOT TIP: If you do visit the butterflies on a cold and cloudy day, as I did at first, try gently taking a motionless (but alive) butterfly off the ground, cupping it in your hands, bringing it to your mouth, and softly heating it up with your breath. You’ll warm it up, and it will most likely fly out of your hands when you release it, having been too cold to do so before. You may have just saved it from death, as it spirals upward to rejoin its fellow monarchs on the nearby trees.
A good link for practical information:
Additional reading on the fragility of the species: