Every year hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies undertake a great journey of up to 3000 miles in their annual migration from Canada and the United States to their wintering grounds in Mexico. Once in Mexico, the monarchs congregate in the oyamel fir trees of Michoacan and Mexico states.
The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site in 2008. The protected area covers over 200 square miles. Within the Biosphere Reserve, there are a few areas that are open to the public. Visiting the monarch butterfly reserves offers the visitor a chance to witness a wonder of nature. Being surrounded by thousands of fluttering butterflies and seeing them carpeting the forest floor and weighing down the branches of the trees is truly a remarkable experience.
Reserves in Mexico
There are several Monarch butterfly reserves in the state of Mexico and Michoacan which can be visited. In Mexico state (Estado de Mexico), the Piedra Herrada and Cerro Pelón sanctuaries are open to the public. In Michoacan, the two main reserves to visit are the El Rosario Reserve (El Rosario Santuario de la Mariposa Monarca) and Sierra Chincua Reserve (Sierra Chincua Santuario de la Mariposa Monarca). Either of these reserves can be visited as a long day trip from Mexico City or Morelia, or you can stay overnight in the nearby village of Angangueo to visit both.
The Monarch Butterfly's life cycle consists of four distinct stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The transformation from egg to adult is completed in about 30 days, and the average monarch's life expectancy is about nine months.
- Egg: Adult female monarchs lay their eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves. These eggs hatch in about four days. Each female may lay between 100 and 300 eggs during her lifetime.
- Larva (caterpillar): Monarchs do all of their growing during this stage. The larva begins life by consuming its eggshell and then begins to eat the milkweed plant on which it was laid. The milkweed is toxic to many of the monarch's would-be predators and so consuming this plant provides them with protection from their predators, who come to identify the monarch's colors and avoid them.
- Pupa: The caterpillars attaches itself head-down to a twig, sheds its outer skin, and begins the transformation into a pupa (or chrysalis). During this stage, the transformation from larva to adult is completed.
- Adult: It is fairly easy to distinguish between male and female adult monarchs. Males have a black spot on a vein on each hind wing. Females often look darker than males and have wider veins on their wings. Adult monarchs eat nectar from flowers to get the energy they need for their long migration.
Monarch butterflies spend the summer months in the United States and Canada. As the weather turns colder they head south. The reason for their migration is two-fold. First of all, they can not survive the cold - temperatures below 55°F make it impossible for them to fly and when the mercury dips below 40°F they become paralyzed. Also, adult monarchs consume nectar from flowers so they need to go where they will find food.
Traveling at an average speed of 12 mph (but sometimes going up to 30 mph), the monarchs cover about 80 miles a day. They can fly at heights of up to 2 miles. They travel an average of 1800 miles from the United States and Canada to the oyamel forests in Michoacan where they spend the winter before embarking on their return journey.
How the monarch butterflies are able to find their way to the same wintering grounds every year remains a great mystery. One hypothesis holds that a small quantity of magnetite in the butterflies' bodies acts as a sort of compass leading them to the magnetic iron which is found in the area of Michoacan where they spend their winters.
When to Go to the Reserves
The Monarch butterfly reserves of Michoacan are open daily from mid-November through March, from 9 am to 6 pm. January and February are popular months to visit because the Monarch population is at a peak at this time. If you do go during that time period, it is best to avoid weekends, which can get crowded.
There is a yearly one-week long cultural festival, the Festival Cultural de la Mariposa Monarca, that takes place at the end of February/beginning of March, and this is a very popular time to visit. If you're planning to visit on a weekend or during the week of the festival, be aware that hotels in Angangueo may fill up, so make your hotel reservations in advance.
How to Get to There
The El Rosario Butterfly Reserve in the state of Michoacán is located 130 miles (210 km) west of Mexico City.
You can get to the Monarch butterfly reserves in Michoacan by bus from Mexico City. Go to the Terminal Centro Poniente (Metro station Observatorio, Line 1 - pink). From here there are a few direct buses to Angangueo, or you can take a bus to the larger town of Zitácuaro, and from there take a local bus to Angangueo. In Angangueo you can find colectivo or private transportation to the El Rosario butterfly reserve.
If you choose to drive to the Monarch butterfly reserves in Michoacan from Mexico City:
- Take Mexico Federal Highway 15 heading west to Toluca, then continue on to Zitácuaro.
- In Zitácuaro follow signs for Ciudad Hidalgo, but when you arrive in San Felipe de los Alzati (9 km), turn right, heading towards Ocampo (14 km).
- From Ocampo, you can either head towards the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Reserve, or continue on to Angangueo (9 km), which is a good place to stay. From Angangueo, continue on to the Sierra Chicua Reserve.
Where to Stay
Angangueo is a good base for exploring the Monarch butterfly reserves. It is a picturesque mining town with cobblestone streets and wooden houses. Located at an altitude of nearly 8500 feet above sea level (2,580 meters), nights can be cold. Some hotels offer rooms with fireplaces which can be a good option for the chilly nights in Angangueo.
Hotels in Angangueo
- Hotel Don Bruno
Address: Morelos 92 Angangueo, Michoacán
- Cabanas Margarita
Address: Morelos 83
- Plaza Don Gabino
Address: Morelos 147 Angangueo, Michoacán
Zitácuaro is a larger town with more options for accommodation and dining but located farther from the butterfly reserves. Some hotels in Zitácuaro include:
- Rancho San Cayetano
Address: Carretera a Huetamo Km 2,3 Zitácuaro, Michoacán
- Hotel El Conquistador
Address: Leandro Valle Sur 2, Zitácuaro, Michoacán
- Hotel Mexico (Budget)
Address: Avenida Revolución 22, Zitácuaro, Michoacán
Tips for Visiting
Trails within the sanctuary are narrow and wind steeply uphill. You may have to walk a mile (much of it uphill) to get to where the main concentration of butterflies are located. The altitude and the steep climb can cause shortness of breath if you're not accustomed to it.
Dress in Layers
The altitude is such that it can be quite cool, but the uphill hike may make you warm along the way.
Wear Comfortable Walking Shoes
Besides being a tough climb, in some areas the terrain is uneven, so good walking shoes are essential.
There are stalls selling refreshments and souvenirs at the entrance to the reserve. Buy some water here if you don't have any with you.
Watch Your Step
At some points along the trail butterflies may blanket the floor. Do your best not to crush any!
Stay on the Path
Unguided hiking within the reserve is prohibited.
At the Sierra Chincua Butterfly Reserve, there are horses available to ride into the reserve. Considering the arduous hike, this may be a good option. You will be accompanied by a guide on foot who will lead the horse. Horses are not allowed into the areas of main concentration of the butterflies so you will still have to walk some of the ways. The guide will leave you inside the reserve and you will have to find another horse for the return trip. If you wait until just before the closing time of the reserve, there may be a great demand for horses and you may have to walk. Ride the horses at your own risk.