At first, the air on the winding, one-lane mountain road is completely clear. But as we round a curve, the sky is suddenly teeming with butterflies, a storm of bright orange-and-black wings. It’s so utterly breathtaking, and unexpected, that my husband pulls over the car so we can attempt to register the magic of that particular moment. (And to take a video, of course.)
All this, and we hadn't even made it to Piedra Herrada, part of Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.
Seeing the monarch butterfly migration has been on my bucket list ever since reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (in which they unexpectedly land in a small Appalachian town — a fictional twist on their usual migratory path). But reading about it in a novel did not at all prepare me for the sight of more than a hundred million butterflies drifting across the sky like dark clouds. Once in the reserve, more than 10,000 feet up, I didn’t know where to look first: the sky, the trees, the flowering bushes, the forest floor — everywhere, really — was alive with this kaleidoscopic natural phenomenon.
This extraordinary migration takes place every year, and witnessing the event in person is the perfect excuse to plan a trip to Mexico — if not this winter, than definitely next.
What It Is
A lot is still unknown about how the butterflies are able to find their way to Mexico every fall — or how they make the return trip north to Canada and the northeastern United States come spring. The mystery stems from the fact that this migratory path takes multiple generations to complete. In other words, the butterflies that winter in Mexico have never been here before (and will never return).
One thing we do know is that when the weather starts warming up in the U.S., they’ll head back north from Mexico, stopping in southern states like Texas and Louisiana to mate and lay eggs, which quickly become caterpillars that transform into butterflies that continue flying north bit by bit, mating (and dying) along the way. (In the summer, the average life span of a monarch butterfly is about two to six weeks). Eventually — multiple generations later — a population will be born in Canada and the northeastern U.S., one that miraculously has the ability to complete the entire 2,500-plus-mile journey south of the border, survive the winter, and fly partway back north in the spring, where it all begins anew.
Another thing that’s become clear in recent years is that populations are dwindling. In fact, over the last two decades, more than a billion (yes, billion) butterflies have disappeared. One reason is the decline of milkweed, mostly a result of herbicides. Milkweed is the only plant on which monarch butterflies can lay their eggs — and the only food caterpillars feed on before turning into butterflies.
(Inspired to help? The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service outlines how you can get involved.)
When To Go
The butterflies typically arrive in Mexico in November and stay until March, taking shelter amid the oyamel fir trees in a small area about two hours west of Mexico City. (It’s doable as a day trip if you’re visiting the capital.)
The best time to see them is January and February, when the population is at its highest. When arranging a visit to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve — which has a few different entry points (more on that below) — plan to arrive at the roosting areas during the warmest part of the day, between 12:30 and 2:30 p.m.
That’s because the butterflies enjoy basking in the sunshine, taking to the sky and fluttering around the surrounding flowers and bushes. (You’ll also see them hanging from the trees in shadier areas of the forest, clumped together in enormous swarms that weigh down the branches.) If you can, go on a weekday, when you may even have the reserve all to yourself.
Where To Go
There are four places the public is allowed to witness the migration within the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, which straddles Michoacán and the State of Mexico. Accessing either requires a hike or a horseback ride (or both) of varying lengths; it’ll cost between 100 and 200 pesos (approximately $11) to hire a horse and guide.
Regardless of which you choose, you’ll be covered in a film of powdery brown dust by the end — so wear shoes and clothes you don’t care much about.
Sierra Chincua, Michoacán
To get here, you'll drive through a guarded, gated entrance before continuing almost a mile on a windy, narrow road to the parking lot. From here, you can rent a horse and a guide for a 20-minute trek; you’ll then continue alone on foot for about 15 minutes to the roped off, relatively small viewing area that can feel crowded fast. (This is one of the easier hikes, if you want to go by foot the whole way.)
El Rosario, Michoacán
This is by far the most popular, especially on weekends when tour buses filled with locals tend to visit. But the crowds do thin out on weekdays. It’s a steep, 1.5-hour hike that gains altitude quickly, so consider renting a horse to take you almost the whole way up. From there, a guide will lead you on foot the rest of the way.
Cerro Pelon, Michoacán
This is perhaps the least known and most challenging of the sanctuaries, where the altitude reaches more than 10,000 feet. You’ll definitely appreciate the horse doing the work. Much of the trail is narrow, steep, and rocky, and it can take about two hours to get to the top. From there, you’ll walk with a guide along a thin path around the woods to observe the butterflies in various areas.
Piedra Herrada, Valle del Bravo
This access point in the State of Mexico is an easy stop on the way to or from the lakefront resort town of Valle del Bravo. The uphill trip wth a horse and guide takes about 30 minutes, and then you dismount and walk a circular route through the woods that takes you by the most populated areas. If it’s empty, your guide may let you linger for as long as you like — and you’ll certainly be tempted to.
It should be noted that Michoacán is currently one of the five areas recently added to the State Department’s “do not travel” list. We drove by two armed checkpoints en route from the reserve (which are also guarded) to our hotel, and never felt unsafe.
Where To Stay
In Michoacán: Hotel Rancho San Cayetano
This 12-acre boutique property is located in the sleepy town of Zitácuaro, but it’s relatively close to each of the three reserves (around 1.5 hours from both El Rosario and Sierra Chincua, and about 40 minutes from Cerro Pelon). It has a mix of rooms, cabins, and apartments with white brick or stone walls, wood-beamed ceilings, working fireplaces, and terraces that overlook the lush grounds. The owners can arrange a tour to see the butterflies (including transportation, horses, and lunch), but it’s easy — and much cheaper — to do it on your own.
In Valle del Bravo: Hotel Rodavento
Families will especially love the 27 tented cabin-like suites, the smallest of which comes with four beds (two queens, two singles). It’s about 25 minutes from Valle del Bravo’s main square, but there’s plenty to keep you entertained on-site, including a spa set within the forest, fishing in the hotel’s reservoir, and guided mountain bike rides.