Visiting the monarch butterflies in Mexico

Monarch Butterfly from the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico

After visiting historic Santiago de Querétaro, we took a detour over to the Monarch Butterfly Reserve in the state of Michoacán. The 200 sq-mile reserve is located the pine-covered mountains about 100 km northwest of Mexico City.

From Querétaro the reserve was only about about 150 km away, and one thing we’ve learned while traveling is you’d better see things when you have the chance, because you rarely get back.

The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve

Seeing the Monarch butterflies in Mexico had been on our bucket list for a long time. The UNESCO Heritage Centre listed it as a World Heritage site back in 2008. From their website:

Every autumn hundreds of millions of butterflies from North America return to the site and cluster in the small areas of the forest reserve, colouring its trees orange and literally bending their branches under their collective weight. In the spring, these butterflies begin an eight-month migration that takes them all the way to Eastern Canada and back, during which time four successive generations are born and die. How they find their way back to their overwintering site remains a mystery.

Each year the monarchs migrate up to 2,000 miles from the eastern U.S. and Canada and spend the winter in small colonies on the Michoacán reserve, which has several visitor centres. We visited Santuario Sierra Chincua, where the butterflies make their home from October to mid March.

Though the butterfly colonies inhabit small areas, the entire region is protected. The ecosystem they depend on is at major risk from deforestation, illegal logging, unorganized tourism, forest fires, and general lack of coordination from various authorities.

Scientists only discovered that that butterflies wintered in this location in 1975.

Angangueo

On the way we stopped for lunch in Angangueo, the town nearest the reserve. In retrospect we should have kept driving. It turned out there was much better food available at the reserve, so keep that in mind if you’re passing through.

Monarch butterfly reserve

Angangueo

Angangueo, MX

 Santuario Sierra Chincua

Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary Sierra Chincua in Mexico

This is the particular colony we visited, and my tips for visiting the butterflies apply mainly to this location.

We arrived late in the day, around 3 pm. It took much, much longer than we expected to get there from Querétaro, mainly because of the windy mountain driving.

After entering, we were further delayed due to a bit of confusion about an official guide.

I’m working on my Spanish, honestly, but when I bought the tickets I missed most of what the ticket guy said. Then as we entered the reserve, we suddenly found ourselves with a guide. I noticed no one else had one. We couldn’t figure out if it was some kind of gringo scam, or if I’d accidentally authorized one.

The guide, a lady in her 50s, seemed official. She was kind and low-key but only spoke Spanish. I asked if there was a charge, and she said she worked for tips. At first it was a bit awkward having someone with us, but we felt bad sending her away, and once we got up to the butterfly colony, she was really helpful. She guided us to various viewing areas we probably would have missed and told us all about the butterflies. I didn’t understand everything, but I did catch enough to enrich our experience.

Sometimes I get frustrated with how slowly my Spanish seems to be progressing, but I was pleasantly surprised to understand quite a bit of what she said.

Afterward we gave her $60 pesos, having no idea what a fair tip would be. She seemed pleased with it. Maybe that was a lot, I don’t know, but I felt bad giving her less than the horse.

Speaking of horses…

The Horses

Seeing the butterflies involves a strenuous 45-min hike at high altitude (9,000 ft). Horses are available at the bottom of the trail. Rides cost $75 pesos per person each way.

If you don’t want to ride, don’t appear ambivalent (like me!). Otherwise the men leading the horses will walk along next to you and be charmingly/irritatingly persistent. If you have kids, the kids will definitely want to ride, and the horse guides will WORK IT. I found the whole to-ride-or-not-to-ride situation irritating on top of the guide confusion. Neither was really a problem, but with all the conversations happening in Spanish, it was overwhelming and made us even later than we already were.

I’m getting tired of being a gringo with limited Spanish. Mexican families get asked, gringo families get pestered. It’s just a normal part of international travel, but I look forward to the day when I can communicate clearly here in Mexico.

Anyway, we ended up taking the horses up the mountain to save time, and also because Scout was practically vibrating at the prospect of riding, even for a few minutes. We let her ride back down too because she loves horses so much, but Mark and I walked to save money.

OK, now for the monarchs…

The Monarchs

Monarch butterflies from the UNESCO World Heritage butterfly reserve in Mexico

Monarch butterflies from the UNESCO World Heritage butterfly reserve in Mexico

Monarch butterflies from the UNESCO Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve

Monarch Butterflies on the UNESCO World Heritage Biosphere Reserve in Mexico

The sheer number of butterflies was astonishing. There are no words, really.

By the time we finally arrived around 4pm, the air had begun to cool, and the butterflies had begun congregating on the pines for warmth in massive clumps. The branches appeared orange and sagged from their weight.

At the same time, thousands of the black and orange beauties fluttered around us. It boggles the mind how these delicate creatures are able to fly up to 80 miles a day during their migration.

We sat very still right near the roped-off boundary, just watching and listening and feeling grateful that we were able to experience this. Scout gently handled the butterflies that landed on her, examining them carefully before releasing them. I think you’re not supposed to touch them, but when they land on you, it’s hard to resist.

After telling us about the reserve, our guide quietly worked on her crocheting off to the side, answering questions as they came up. When we were done, she brought us to this lovely viewpoint nearby.

View from the Santuario Sierra Chincua butterfly reserve in the state of Michoacán, Mexico

So that’s it. If we ever find ourselves back in the area, we will absolutely do this again. I’d like to experience when the sun is out and all the butterflies are airborne.

Have you had a chance to visit the monarch butterflies? If so, leave a comment! I’d love to hear about it.

Tips for Visiting the Butterflies

  • To see the butterflies flapping in full force go on a sunny day between 11 am and 3 pm.
  • A bunch of small restaurants sell really delicious food inside the reserve entrance. So there’s no need to bring lunch or stop for it beforehand.
  • Horse rides are $75 pesos pp each way. The trail to the butterflies goes right past the horses, so you can’t avoid them. If you don’t want to ride, warn your kid in advance, because if your kid acts like they’re interested (and really, what kid isn’t?), the guides will be really persistent.
  • Dogs aren’t allowed inside the sanctuary. Sorry Archie!

Learn more about the migration of monarch butterflies

About the UNESCO world heritage listing: UNESCO World Heritage Centre: Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve

About this particular location: Santuario Sierra Chincua

About Monarch butterflies:

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Becky March 6, 2013 at 6:14 am

This is my family’s dream!!! 🙂 I’m so glad you got to go and experience this- what an incredible day.

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2 Renee March 7, 2013 at 1:38 pm

Thanks, Becky!

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3 Clélie March 6, 2013 at 3:51 pm

I saw this on one of David Attenborough’s lovely DVDs, and I am so envious. What an amazing experience!

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4 Renee March 6, 2013 at 4:34 pm

Clelie, it was incredible. And the butterflies pack themselves into pretty dense little islands. I’ve never seen anything like it!

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5 Kirsty Bartholomew March 7, 2013 at 4:17 am

Oh I would love to see this one day. Going to show the pics to my daughter too – she’ll love it!

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6 Renee March 7, 2013 at 9:57 am

Any plans to come to Mexico?

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7 Kirsty March 11, 2013 at 12:37 am

oh plenty of plans. Not for a while yet though!

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8 Mona Miller March 7, 2013 at 11:33 am

My best experience this year was at El Rosario. The trails are well maintained. Much of the area has concrete steps. El Rosario had more butterflies than the Cerro Pelon and Sierra Chincua and was much easier to get to. Much easier meaning that I didn’t have to ride a horse, but still had to walk for over an hour. The altitude is rough, rest a lot as you make your way up the hill.

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9 Bob Szuszkowski March 7, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Thanks for sharing. Having gone to the Sanctuaries of Sierra Chincua and El Rosario on 4 occasions between 2006 and 2009 with the Monarch Teacher Network (www.monarchteachernetwork.org) I found my visits there to be totally life changing events. My visits to Sierra Chincua were especially memorable because of the remoteness of the monarch colonies and the wonderful folks like Francisco, who has dedicated his life to preserving the reserve for the Monarchs, and his lovely wife Dona Lola who always welcomed us into her kitchen for lunch, as well as the many people that I have shared my journeys with throughout the years. My fondest memories will always be my visits to Sierra Chincua. If you have time please check out my website http://www.myteacherpages.com/webpages/rszuszkowski/ and check out the journals that I kept on my 4 trips, on the menu on the left side of the page.
Peace!
Bob Szuszkowski
Newfoundland, New Jersey.
http://www.myteacherpages.com/webpages/rszuszkowski/

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10 Carol Pasternak March 7, 2013 at 1:11 pm

Thanks for the detailed report. I will surely brush up on my Spanish before visiting the reserves. 🙂

I love An Extraordinary Life. One can learn all about monarchs through this delightful drama of one butterfly trying to get to Mexico safely.

Another book for your followers to consider is mine. 🙂 It details the monarch’s anatomy, lifecycle, predators and migration, in addition to how to get your monarch butterfly garden started, and all the details needed to raise monarchs: How to Raise Monarch Butterflies A Step by Step Guide for Kids.

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11 Renee March 7, 2013 at 1:25 pm

Carol, thanks for the link to your book! I would love to have raised Monarchs at home when I was a kid. Is it hard?

I looked at your book, and it sounds terrific (with high reviews), so I’ve added the link to the post.

Have you thought about doing Amazon’s “Look inside” option? I wanted to take a peek but couldn’t. Often as a book buyer it’s that peek inside that puts me over the edge from browsing to buying. Just my two cents. I”m sure you’ve already considered it. 🙂

Also if you need an e-version, let me know. I know a terrific ebook designer…Mark at http://ebookdesignworks.com. Cheers! 🙂

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12 Tracy March 24, 2013 at 6:04 pm

I’m totally jealous you got to go here! When we were in Seattle we saw a IMAX movie at the Science Centre on monarch butterfly migration. Up until then I honestly had no idea they were so fascinating. I was expecting some pretty 3D movie my 5yr old would like and ended up walking out babbling for days about butterflies!

The part about the horse hassling had me laughing. At least it was a win for your daughter and the horse owners!

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13 Renee March 24, 2013 at 8:46 pm

Tracy, yes come to Mexico and see the butterflies! Even after everything you and your family have seen of this world, this will stand out.

The horses weren’t so bad once we got it all sorted. But jeesh. You know how vendors love to target kids! 🙂

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14 Ariana August 12, 2013 at 9:43 pm

The first photo caught my eyes. Butterflies are truly beautiful creatures and I’d love to touch them (I’ll make sure no one is around) and be amazed of how stunning they are. Thanks for the photos. I’d love to visit this place someday.

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15 Renee March 8, 2014 at 5:16 pm

We touched the ones that landed on us! How could we not? 🙂

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16 A.C. Doyle November 20, 2013 at 6:32 pm

We’ll be visiting one next week, after Thanksgiving, and were zeroing in on Rosalio, but we can do any of them, en route from Zihua back to Queretaro, where I live. The place we’ve rented on the beach takes dogs, and I presumed they’d be barred from the monarch preserves — but is there a shady place to park, or people around the entrance whom you could pay 50 pesos to tie the dog to a tree and give her water?

If you’ve any advice to offer before Sunday morning (24-Nov), please reply. Otherwise, we may play it safe and leave her behind here in Qro.

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17 Renee March 8, 2014 at 4:42 pm

I missed this comment when it came in! I’m too late for you AC, but in case it helps someone else, yes, dogs are prohibited in the park. There are people loitering around outside the reserves but I wouldn’t trust anyone with my dog. Leaving the dog at home is the best choice.

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18 Annie March 8, 2014 at 3:39 pm

Thank you for sharing your experience. Question, what did you do with Archie while you visited the reserve?

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19 Renee March 8, 2014 at 4:39 pm

Hi, Annie. Because we were road-tripping, Archie was with us. There was lots of cloud cover and the day was cool, so he was able to nap safely in the car. If the day had been warmer, I would have skipped the butterflies and stayed with my buddy.

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20 Renee March 9, 2014 at 10:58 am

Annie, fortunately it was a cool day so he napped in the car. We were roadtripping, otherwise we’d have left him at home with a dogsitter. If it hadn’t been cool, I would have stayed behind. I rarely leave him in the car but didn’t have much of a choice.

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21 Travel with Kevin and Ruth May 12, 2014 at 9:38 pm

We’ve been to two different butterfly reserves in Mexico. The one you went to, and one near Valle de Bravo.

It’s an amazing experience, isn’t it? It’s true… words can’t describe.

When we went, we were told that a guide was not an option. Everybody had to have a guide, and sure enough, everyone did…including the Mexican tourists. So our experience was that it was not a “gringo” thing. The guides work for tips only, and I think we gave her 50 pesos.

We would never do the horseback thing though. Too expensive, and not necessary.

Now, can you imagine that we drove our 30 ft motorhome up and down that cobbled road??!!
Travel with Kevin and Ruth recently posted..And they said it wouldn’t last…My Profile

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22 Renee May 12, 2014 at 10:23 pm

I’d love to go back. We were definitely the only ones with a guide, but I liked her and was happy to have her…though I’m sure I’d understand much more now. As for the horses, you’re right, not necessary for able-bodied adults, but they are hard for kids to resist.

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23 Linda May 18, 2014 at 9:00 am

I am glad to have found my way to your narrative…excellent and encouraging. I wonder if you learned (or did I miss the info) about the 2010 flood and devestation to the community, region, and butterflies. Your account offers hope. I also hope you’ve read Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. Her book is what prompted my exploring more info and finding your blog. Nice work.

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24 Renee May 26, 2014 at 11:51 am

Thank you, Linda. I haven’t read Flight Behavior but will definitely get myself a copy.

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