The Monarch Butterfly Migration Turns This Mexican Forest Orange Every Fall — Here's How to See It

Witnessing the monarch butterfly migration in Mexico should be on every nature-lover's bucket list.

Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacan, Mexico, a World Heritage Site
Photo: JHVEPhoto/Getty Images

Every November, the forest located between the Mexican states of Michoacan and Estado de Mexico is covered in fluttering orange, black, and white wonders. As part of their migration cycle, monarch butterflies fly around 2,800 miles from Canada and the United States to spend the coldest months of the year in warmer lands.

Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacan, Mexico, a World Heritage Site
Bob Hilscher/Getty Images

The monarch butterfly has the longest migration trajectory of any insect, and their journey is a wonder in itself. These beautiful creatures start their long flight in August and arrive during the first days of November to the tall trees they'll call home until spring. They stream into the protected areas of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, which was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2008.

Inside the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve

During the four to five months that the butterflies stay in Mexico, the forests become an orange wonderland. Pine, oak, and oyamel trees are completely covered with butterflies that tend to stay very close together. When the temperatures are too cold – especially early in the morning – they sleep in clusters and close their wings, so at first sight they might seem like dry leaves on the trees. When it gets a little bit warmer, they open their colorful wings wide and fly around the forest (as part of their mating ritual) creating a magical scene.

Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacan, Mexico, a World Heritage Site
Roberto Michel/Getty Images

The butterflies migrate to this forest because it has all the elements they need to reproduce. There are clear streams running between the bushes, the temperature is cool but not too cold, and – most importantly – it's silent. Silence is key for the butterflies, so visitors are encouraged to stay as quiet as possible during their visit. When it's silent, the butterflies will take off and fly around the air in a splendid aerial dance anyone would be lucky to see!

Where to See the Butterfly Migration in Mexico

Although the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve has a territory of 139,019 acres, not all of it is open to the public, since the core is protected in order to guarantee the safety of the butterflies and the other animal species (more than 180) that live here. However, there are three zones in Michoacán and three in Estado de Mexico that are open to visitors. In Michoacán, the most popular sanctuary is called el Rosario, which is 5.5 miles from the town of Angangueo, but you can also visit Sierra Chincua and Senguio. In Estado de Mexico, Piedra Herrada is the best-known sanctuary, which is very close to the town of Valle de Bravo and the National Park of El Nevado de Toluca; the other two sanctuaries are called El Capulín and La Mesa.

Once you arrive at the sanctuary, you'll have to walk up the mountain for an hour or two, but the hike is well worth it to see hundreds of fluttering butterflies.

Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacan, Mexico, a World Heritage Site
Bob Hilscher/Getty Images

The Legend of the Monarch Butterflies

Although the forest didn't become a protected area until the late '80s, monarch butterflies have been visiting this biosphere for centuries. Local indigenous communities, like the Mazahuas and Purepechas peoples, have legends about these winged creatures, mostly relating them to souls coming back from the dead (since they arrive around the time Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico).

According to one legend, deceased family members come back to visit their living relatives as these butterflies. Another legend considers them the spirits of the forest and the messengers of the gods, while others say that they are creatures that aide the souls of their loved ones after death. Whatever the belief, monarch butterflies are respected and loved by the locals, who have even regarded them as sacred animals.

Visiting the Monarch Butterflies

Even though these beautiful insects are not considered endangered, their habitat has been threatened lately for several reasons, including illegal logging, pollution of the streams, and trash in the reserve. Now, more than ever, visitors have a higher responsibility to make sure the butterflies remain safe.

When visiting the sanctuaries, there are a few simple things you should remember:

  • Do not bother the butterflies resting in the trees or flying around
  • Keep a distance of at least 54 yards from the trees that are covered with butterflies
  • Remain silent
  • Do not throw trash on the forest floor
  • Stay on the designated paths
  • Do not bring pets
  • Avoid taking pictures using flash
  • Don't smoke
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