This weekend, John & I took advantage of the Friday I had off of work in honor of el Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe to drive to Michoacán to see the annual monarch butterfly migration! In a nutshell, millions of butterflies migrate from the US & Canada each year starting in November to spend their winter in the oyamel fir tree forests in the mountains of central Mexico. This entire journey is a fascinating process, with the monarchs somehow knowing where to go every year despite multiple life cycles elapsing during the trip. The monarchs normally live for sub-2 months, but those that make the trip south live closer to ~9 months.
The other cool part is that the very first butterflies arrive in Mexico right around Dia de los Muertos (Nov 2), when Mexico welcomes the souls of the dead back to Earth. It is said that the monarchs’ arrival is the souls of the dead returning for their annual visit. Outside of that hypothesis, no one knows exactly why the monarchs come to Mexico, how they know to return here, or why they like this specific type of tree.
We visited the sanctuary called El Rosario, the most popular option of the three publicized spots. (You can find a decent map here.) For Spanish speakers, the WWF México website has some good background info; alternatively, About.com also provides an overview of the trek. (Note: Updated Sept 2012 to fix broken links) Logistics-wise, we left at the crack of dawn (6:30AM) to avoid Mexico City traffic, and it took us about 3 hours to get there (with no traffic). The only slightly confusing part was getting through Ocampo, but between following the signs for “Mariposa Monarca” & looking for the touristy road with 4 tracks of bricks interspersed with stones in concrete, we figured it out. Be prepared not to go more than about ~20mph on this road due to the omnipresent topes (speed bumps).
There is a random $30 peso “toll” on the touristy road to the sanctuary (read as: a few people draping a rope across the road), which we couldn’t be bothered to argue. The road leads directly to the parking lot of El Rosario, which helpfully has a $3 peso bathroom option before you start your trek. After running the gauntlet of a dozen shacks selling quesadillas & tacos, you reach the official entrance, pay your $35 pesos each, and follow your guide up the mountain.
I feel like the old Lonely Planet may not sufficiently stress how steep the hike is, particularly given its ~3000m altitude (aka 2,300 feet higher than Mexico City’s ~7000 feet). It is marginally uphill for the 1.5km from the parking lot to the entrance, at which point you may start to think “Hmm I could be in better shape”. Once you start the 2.5km up the mountainside which progresses from stairs to just dirt, be prepared for a little huffing/puffing & possibly even some heavy glowing (for those of us who don’t sweat). But it was all worth it once we arrived at the clearing with a very small stream running through the grass, where thousands of monarchs were out for a drink in the mid-morning sun.
I have never heard the sound of butterflies’ wings flapping (arguably as elusive as the sound of one hand clapping), but that is exactly what we heard as they fluttered all around us. Absolutely beautiful. We then hiked up a little farther to see a few of the fir trees where many more thousand were still napping. Unfortunately (but understandably) you can’t get too close to this section, but you could still see what looked like giant clumps of brownish feather-dusters attached to the branches. I can’t even imagine how many butterflies were perched on a single branch to give that visual effect from afar.
As many better photographers than me have pointed out, photographing butterflies flying around on a sunny day is a challenge at best, but hopefully these photo snippets have at least enticed you to schedule a visit to see for yourself! To that end, below is a brief video that may give a slightly better feel for how much monarch activity will be surrounding you! (May be more effective to watch the higher-res video on YouTube directly here. (Click “watch in high res” just to the lower right of the screen.)
In summary, the monarchs of Michoacán are definitely worth a visit if you are in the area between November and March. Just be prepared to work for the experience (my calves still hurt from walking down that many stairs three days later) and also to fend off a number of other vendors/children/parking lot attendants/people selling all-things-butterfly along the way.