According to several reports, including the arborists of Cerro Pelon and Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, this is the year to visit the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Mexico!
If you've found yourself on this page, you probably don't need any convincing to go see this phenomenon. Seeing millions of Monarch butterflies floating in the sky like an orange and black snowstorm is truly a magical experience. However, there are even more reasons to visit the overwintering ground in Central Mexico.
In the past, the forests of the sanctuary have suffered from issues of illegal logging and this is still happening in some places. However, with the income from butterfly tourism and concern about the Monarch population, some locals have started tree nurseries and are working as guides within in the sanctuary. By visiting the sanctuary, you are helping to raise awareness and employ those who are protecting the sanctuary.
When to Visit
The Monarchs begin to arrive at the sanctuary in the Central mountains of Mexico in November (this year they arrived on November 6th) and will overwinter there until mid-March when they head North again. The sanctuaries aren't open to the public until mid-November. Apparently, the most popular time to see them is between January and February when they are in peak migration. However, I would highly recommend going in late-November or December. Why? For one, there will most likely be less people and you will have a more private experience. Don't worry, you will still see A LOT of butterflies. The video above was taken in Cerro Pelon in early December.
There are 4 sanctuaries open to the public. Each of these sanctuaries is a little different in accessibility, difficulty of hike, location, Monarch population, and flora. Why not visit them all?
Cerro Pelón is where scientists first confirmed that the butterflies migrated from Canada all the way to this Oyamel Fir forest in Central Mexico. Many butterfly enthusiasts and travelers will say that this is the most rugged and beautiful of the sanctuaries. I would have to agree that it was a lovely and private experience. Other than the arborists, ranger, and our guide we were the only people up there on the mountain.
We booked our Cerro Pelon tour and stay through JM's Butterfly B&B. As far as I know, they are the only local guide company based in Macheros, the mountain village where the entrance to the sanctuary is. In fact, the entrance to the sanctuary is just a few minutes walk from JM Butterfly House and someone from the B & B will escort you. I highly recommend staying at JM's and booking a tour with them. Their guides, as well as Joel and Ellen are extremely hospitable, knowledgable and will give you the full butterfly experience! I was very excited to meet the Butterflies and Their People arborists.
For prices and concise directions to JM Butterfly click here.
It is a very steep hike up even for the experienced hiker. I opted for the horse and it was about an hour and 20 minute ride up the mountain at a fairly brisk pace (for the horse). Have no fear if you are not an experienced horseback rider because there will be a horse handler to lead you and your horse.
Once you arrive at a clearing at the top of the mountain, your handler will tie up your horse and it will be between a 15 and 25 minute walk to the colony of butterflies. Keep in mind that the length of time will vary considerably at different times of the season. I visited at the beginning of December. My guide, Ana, said that the Monarchs generally continue to move deeper into the forest and higher on the mountain as more butterflies arrive.
This was the second most recommended sanctuary by the folks of JM Butterfly House and I was told it was less developed and less touristy than El Rosario.
My mother and I stayed in Zitácuaro the night before which is about an hour and a half drive from the sanctuary. We took a bus to Angangueo (also called Pueblo Mágico), a small mountain village with beautiful, colorful houses and a lovely cathedral. It is the perfect launch pad for El Rosario and Sierra Chincua, being just about a 30 minute taxi drive to either. I would recommend staying in this village if you get the chance.
After taking a bus from Zitácuaro to Angangueo for around 50 pesos ($2.50 USD), we took a taxi from the plaza of Angangueo to the entrance of Sierra Chincua for around 100 Pesos ($5 USD).
Important Note: Once up on the mountain in Sierra Chincua, public transport is very limited and you may want to arrange a ride prior. We were told that there is a combi (an outfitted VW bus) that arrives at 5:00 pm but we decided to have our taxi driver wait for us. The price for this will vary depending on your taxi driver but he told us he would wait 2 hours and take us back to Angangueo for 500 Pesos ($25 USD).
Sierra Chincua did not disappoint. Entry fee into the Sanctuary was 50 Pesos ($2.50) per person and renting a horse is 200 pesos ($10 dollars). It is also customary to tip your guide somewhere between 100 and 200 Pesos. There are also restaurants and souvenir shops at the entrance.
The horseback ride was much shorter than the one to Cerro Pelon and was only about 15 minutes up (although it is very steep). From there, it was about a 15 minute walk to the tree stand that is inhabited by the butterfly colony. It was a cloudy day and most of the butterflies were roosting in the trees. A different perspective than the sunny day we had in Cerro Pelon! Both views were absolutely stunning.
Unfortunately, we didn't have time to visit El Rosario this year although we got close. From Angangueo, you can take a combi to the entrance which is about 30 minutes and will cost less than 50 pesos ($2.50 USD).
Here is a quote by Ellen Sharp from JM Butterfly House about El Rosario:
"Unlike the unmarked trail that winds up the mountain on Cerro Pelon, here you’ll find numerous souvenir stalls, large tour groups, concrete steps, interpretive signs, and a lot more guides making sure you don’t get too close to the colony. The hike up is mostly on a paved trail and it takes 30-45 minutes each way, depending on your speed and acclimation. A horse will get you there in 20 minutes. In recent years, El Rosario has been the most populous of the butterflies’ overwintering sites. "
Again, we were not able to visit this site but here is a summary from JM Butterfly House:
"The trip from our place to Piedra Herrada takes you through the small farming villages of the State of Mexico on a road lined with fields of fruit trees and nopal cactuses. Then the road descends into the cosmopolitan colonial gem and weekend resort town, Valle de Bravo, which we visit on the way back. The sanctuary is another half hour down the road from here. The trail begins with a stone path with a separate trail for horses. The hike takes from 45 minutes to an hour each way."
Bring an extra jacket because it will always be colder in the sanctuary which is at an altitude of almost 10,000 ft or 3000 m. If riding a horse, you can ask to tie the coat onto your saddle.