In late February, 2020, my wife and I journeyed to Mexico to witness one of the greatest mysteries of the animal kingdom–200 million monarch butterflies overwintering in the high-altitude forests of central Mexico. Many of the butterflies’ gossamer orange and black wings had carried them nearly 3000 miles to the mountains of Michoacan, Mexico. Miraculously, these monarchs have never been to Mexico before and they will live for six to eight months instead of the normal lifespan of four to six weeks. No one knows how this is possible.
My wife, Shirin, and I joined a tour offered by ECOLIFE Conservation whose founder, Bill Toone, has visited this area yearly for 31 years.
Here’s what we learned that will help you better understand, and prepare properly for, your trip.
WHEN TO GO: According to journeynorth.org, “Monarchs migrate to Mexico from across eastern North America. They spend the winter in a very small region that’s only 73 miles wide. Within the region, only 12 places have the habitat the butterflies need to survive. The sites are at a high elevation of 10,000 feet. There the oyamel forest habitat provides the microclimate conditions the monarchs need. The butterflies arrive in November and depart in March.” The most popular month is February, when the weather is warmer and the sleepy butterflies start to fly in large swarms.
GETTING THERE: We decided to fly directly from Tijuana Airport to Morelia, though another option was to fly to Mexico City. For anyone who can arrange the logistics, nothing beats the CBX (Cross Border Express), a new border crossing that allows US travelers to walk directly into the modern, clean Tijuana Airport via a covered bridge, passing the US/Mexico border halfway. Customs and immigration going and returning is the fastest and easiest of anywhere we’ve been in the world. We parked in a discount lot (Lions Parking) on the US side and their free shuttle took us quickly to the CBX facility. Tijuana offers more direct flights, at a much lower price and frequency, to almost anywhere in Mexico than in the US.
MORELIA: As an add-on to a monarch journey, Morelia is an enchanting Colonial city worth two or three days. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is full of centuries-old cathedrals, monasteries and plazas and a renowned Saturday night light show.
GETTING TO THE MONARCHS: The three-hour drive from Morelia to Zitacuaro, the largest town near the reserves, cost us $30. Detailed instructions for reaching the monarch area from Morelia, Mexico City or San Miguel de Allende are found here: https://jmbutterflybnb.com/directions/
In Zitacuaro, the best place to stay is Rancho San Cayetano, just outside of town. Few hotels in town are appealing, and while the city has friendly people and clean streets, it totally lacks beauty or charm. Another option is to stay in Macheros at JM’s Butterfly B&B. They can arrange a monarch tour for you at Cerro Pelon, a sanctuary I highly recommend.
SEEING THE MONARCHS: There are four monarch sanctuaries open to the public. We visited El Rosario, the most famous one, and Cerro Pelon in Macheros, a less known but more satisfying sanctuary, both located less than an hour from Zitacuaro. These are not easy DIY destinations, so I advise arranging a tour.
EL ROSARIO (most famous and most crowded): After paying the entrance fee at El Rosario, instead of hiking for 30 – 45 minutes up to the monarchs, we rode for twenty minutes up the mountain on the people-friendly horses. This saved us from a long, dusty climb at high altitude (over 10,000 feet) and helped us reach the monarchs earlier than the other visitors. The ride was not too long or uncomfortable.
- BRING EXTRA MONEY: The walkway leading to the start of the trail is lined with dozens of souvenir shops with local handicrafts.
- IT’S DUSTY. Bring a scarf or facemask to cover your face if ride the horses–dust fills the air.
- WEAR LAYERS: At 10,000 feet, it can get chilly; on a sunny day, light layers will do.
- LOTS OF PEOPLE DURING PEAK TIMES. Avoid weekends in the peak January/February months when up to 3,000 visitors per day visit El Rosario. Get there early because the monarch viewing area is bordered by “do not cross” tape 75 yards or more from the monarch clusters. Only people in front got clear, photo-friendly views of the distant monarchs. At 10:30am on a Thursday, we were the first group but within a half hour at least a hundred people arrived.
- PHOTOGRAPHY: A telephoto lens is a must. I had an 18-135 lens but wished I had brought my 70-300 lens, too. A tripod is not realistic among the tightly grouped visitors. A monopod is better. Bring binoculars.
- MANAGING EXPECTATIONS: I expected to be close to, and surrounded by, vast swarms of monarchs covering maybe the whole forest. That may have happened when one billion monarchs made the journey, but two hundred million monarchs now make for a different experience. The sanctuaries carefully protect the monarchs, whose clusters are surprisingly hard to find. Local guardians locate the monarchs daily as they move around and surround the monarchs’ trees with yellow “do not cross” tape at a distance of 50 to 100 yards. Only a few trees (less than half a dozen in a given locale) are covered with clusters of many thousands of monarchs. On cool, cloudy days, the massed monarchs appear as large brownish/orange clusters. When warming sunshine hits the clusters, large numbers of butterflies peel away and flutter high in the air like confetti. We didn’t see it happen, but our leader said that during warm spells a cluster can suddenly “explode” and the air is filled with the sound of beating wings.
CERRO PELON (MACHEROS VILLAGE): This tiny village is the gateway to our favorite monarch sanctuary. The lack of crowds, the abundance of butterflies and the adventure of reaching the monarchs made this our favorite place, despite the challenging nature of the trip.
- DON’T HIKE UP: This trail is long (almost 1 ½ hours up by horse), fairly steep towards the top, high altitude (over 10,000 feet) and covered with a 6” deep layer of the finest dust and loose cobblestones. However, on the way down my wife and I walked the last 20 minutes when we needed a break from the saddle.
- DUST: Thick clouds of fine dust fill the air as horses walk on the trail, so wear a scarf or mask over your face.
- REQUIRES FITNESS: Riding a horse up and down the mountain for 90 minutes on extremely rough trails will make the legs of most people feel quite tired, and it’s even harder coming down than going up (which is tough). If you’re not in shape, this trip will challenge you greatly.
- PHOTOGRAPHY: There will likely be few, if any, people up there with you. The “do not enter” tape allowed us to get closer to the monarchs than at El Rosario, though still 75 to 100 feet away. A telephoto lens and binoculars are recommended. Shoot video as well as still photos.
Seeing the magical monarchs in Mexico was a “bucket list” item for me, and I’m glad I did it. Three recent trips to Mexico have demonstrated that many of its cities are much safer, cleaner and enjoyable than people think. If you go, please share with me your experience.
Doug Hansen is a travel writer and photographer in Carlsbad, CA. See more photos and articles at HansenTravels.com or Instagram @DougHansenTravels
IF YOU GO:
JM’s Butterfly B&B in Macheros, Mexico; https://jmbutterflybnb.com/
CBX Cross Border Express; www.crossborderexpress.com or 888 CBX INFO.
Rancho San Cayetano, Zitacuaro, Mexico; firstname.lastname@example.org.