Observing the millions of monarchs in Mexico is one of the most fascinating animal migrations on the planet and certainly the most colorful.
A gentle rustle of rippling wings pitter-pattering above us increased as the sun emerged. In the next moment, a cascade of thousands of bright orange monarchs burst into flight, whirring like a peaceful forest rain. A dream come true. We were visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Site (Reserva de la Biosfera Mariposa Monarca) in El Rosario, Mexico, winter home to the largest migration of monarch butterflies in the world. This is no doubt, the most colorful migration in the natural world.
In 2006, when our six children were six and under, we watched a Moody Science video–“Flying Wings of Beauty / The Long Journey”. We were awestruck as we watched that same DVD many times throughout our travels. Brent and I dreamed that, one day, we would take our children and experience this magnificent migration in person.
The drive from Ajijic (due south of Guadalajara) to El Rosario in the state of Michoacan was a bit treacherous. We left late and ended up tackling those un-railed, winding Sierra Madre roads in pitch-black darkness while the temperatures rapidly dropped–a feat we do not recommend. Knowing that we would be climbing to about 10,000 feet, we intentionally monitored our altitude, planning to stop before the last 4000 feet to prevent altitude sickness.
NOTE: When we left Morelia, we climbed a few thousand feet in elevation as we drove. We should have filled the tank before we left; there are few gas stations along these rural routes. We ended up paying double for gas at a country stand, purchased and siphoned liter-by-liter.
Our first night on the road, we stayed at the Hotel Romo in Ciudad Hidalgo, a budget hotel. Nonetheless, the owner was accommodating, and the rooms were comfortable and clean.
The cold hit us all that night; there was no heater in the hotel. Our thin blankets barely kept us warm as the temperature dipped into the low 40s. In the morning, we purchased some warm clothes from the local Bodega Aurrera and kept climbing up the mountain.
We entered the quaint town of Zitacuaro. Located at 7000 feet above sea level, it provided an altitude adjustment stop on the outskirts of El Rosario. We had no reservations but landed at the charming and newly renovated Villa Monarcha. We rented a a three-bedroom furnished house. The children were delighted with the huge playground and pool. The restaurant was a good value for the tasty local fare.
Locals told us to be at the entrance around 7:30 or 8:00 in the morning in order to see the butterflies in flight. We ate a hearty early morning breakfast to give us energy for the hike. Since this was Hannah’s 12 year-old birthday, she was given her gift–a camera.
We drove up the beautiful mountain and could hardly believe we were finally heading to the UNESCO World Heritage site, locally known as the Reserva de la Biosfera Mariposa Monarca. There were surprisingly few signs. The pot-holed road worsened until it turned to dirt. We stopped to pay our twenty pesos toll for the dirt road. The final section of road was a steep, narrow, winding but well-maintained stretch of cobblestone.
We pulled into the unpaved, unmarked parking lot. Being swarmed by local children was the only clue we had that we were in the right spot.
As we all piled out of our camper, one man started chopping walking sticks to make them child-sized. He was selling them for a few pesos. Tossing aside our normal rejection of impulse-buying, we nabbed one for each child; these were too practical (and adorable) to refuse.
The final half-mile hike to the Sanctuary entrance was lined with locally-owned craft shops and small restaurants. The owner of our villa helped us arrange child care for three of our children who for health issues could not make the steep hike. They enjoyed eating baskets of hot tortillas. An indigenous grandmother, her English speaking daughter (a therapist for children with special needs) and an assortment of curious neighbor children all entertained our crew.
The rest of us followed our guide through the village to the entrance.
Having only given given birth five weeks earlier, I was breathless from the hike through the old village. We paid a small entrance fee (30 pesos for children six and over, 40 for adults). The tour began with a well-done, educational video explaining the monarch migration. I welcomed the chance to nurse the baby in the indoor warmth; clean four-peso baños (restrooms) were also available.
We had planned ahead of time to pay the extra 50 pesos for a horse instead of hiking the next mile straight up the mountain. The children were thrilled with that surprise; it greatly added to the pleasure and of the day.
The horses were well-acquainted with the steep, rocky, muddy and rough terrain. Honestly, with a newborn in my arms, the ride was terrifying–and I say that as “horse girl”. Inwardly, I hoped we would all make it to the top without anyone going over the cliff. I was holding baby’s head with one hand and the reins with the other. Madness! When we reached the top, I knew there was no way I would take the horses back down that same path. We all agreed to hike it down. We tipped our guides for helping us arrive alive and were ready to climb. Unless you have just given birth (like me), I highly suggest paying the small fee for this added adventure.
The horses can only go so far; a steep hike remained to reach the butterflies. In December, the butterflies nest at their highest point. Each month until they leave, the monarchs gradually make their way down the mountain.
The children were in great spirits. As we hiked, the scent of sun-dappled Oyamel pines increased, and the patches of wildflowers multiplied. We started seeing a few monarchs basking in the sun.
“There’s one!” shouted one child.
“I’ve found two over here!” came another excited little shout.
A butterfly landed on Jeremiah’s hand, opening and closing his wings. The boy was thrilled: he thought we were there to HUNT butterflies. We reminded the children not to catch them. The Aztecs believe the monarchs in Mexico are the souls of the departed. This is a spiritual pilgrimage for many.
Jeremiah quickly befriended our guide. The guide had been born in these mountains and was now the father of his own three year-old. Jeremiah chatted happily in Spanish to his new friend. Inwardly, I smiled at the thought of others’ concerns that worldschooled children “lack socialization”.
Suddenly, Jeremiah found himself surrounded by butterflies dancing around him.
It was breathtaking. Absolutely captivating. This alone would have made the entire trip worth it, but much more lay ahead.
We each took our turn having the monarchs encircle us. It was like a dream. A fairy tale. The birthday girl danced with the butterflies as they swirled and fluttered all around her.
Then, as the sun hid behind the clouds, the magnificent monarch wave disappeared. We followed our guide farther up the hill. He pointed to an Oyamel fir tree in the distance. The entire tree was covered in what appeared to be grey leaves. The leaves were actually the undersides of tens of thousands of monarchs, hanging in tight clusters for warmth.
With no other tourists around, we had an unrushed opportunity to savor the splendor. We jutted slightly off the trail to witness a few hundred butterflies sipping moisture and minerals from a muddy patch. The guide explained that, in their Mexican overwintering, the monarchs eat a completely liquid diet, gathering minerals from mud and nectar.
Finally, our guide led us to the steepest point of the mountain. We stood in awe of a living cathedral of millions of monarchs–perhaps fifty million–clinging to trees. The monarchs, weighing no more than a 1/5 a penny, were so tightly clustered that the mighty branches of the Oyamel fir hung low from their combined weight.
Here we were, surrounded by our children watching one of the greatest migration of animals on the planet. Scientist do not fully understand how these tiny marvels of the universe make the mind-boggling 4000-mile journey sometimes crossing the Atlantic ocean, to the same trees year after year.
When the sun disappears, a butterfly must stay warm to survive. We saw several rock “altars” where other tourists and pilgrims placed the monarchs that failed to reach the warmth of the final destination. We left with an even greater awe for the design and delicate durability of the monarch.
Joining the others, we gently laid the fallen travelers upon the rocks.
After nearly a half hour of enraptured silence, we began our hike back down the mountain. Although much of the day was overcast, as we left the sun broke from the clouds once again, energizing the monarchs. They flew in large, orange waves, beating their wings as if to bid us farewell and a safe journey.
Exiting the Sanctuary through the village, we stopped for a bite at the local stands. I sometimes forget what a large family we are until we stop to eat. Beans, rice, cactus and plenty of hot, black corn tortillas filled us well. Ten platters ordered made this kind lady’s day; at US $2 dollars a plate, it made ours as well. We topped it off with blackberries–mountain-grown, pesticide-free–a wholesome, delicious treat. We also brought home raw honey and the comb.
At our birthday girl’s request, in place of our traditional birthday cake, we bought locally made buñuelos con miel (a sweet, crispy, Spanish Christmas dessert) and went back to the villa to celebrate our girl.
Very few days are as perfect as today. Check out this short, but awesome video of our day with the monarchs in Mexico.