How to Visit the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuaries in Mexico

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How to Visit the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuaries in Mexico

For those who don’t know, 25 to 50 million monarch butterflies migrate from the USA and Canada to the monarch butterfly sanctuaries in Mexico every year.  This is a far cry from the billions that made the journey until a rare freeze in Mexico obliterated 80% of the population creating piles 13 inches high of dead monarchs on the ground.  Regardless, it is still an amazing phenomenon that could go extinct…not the butterflies, but the migration. So go check it out before it is too late!

The monarchs arrive in the high-altitude Mexico mountains around November 1st and migrate back to the USA and Canada in mid-March.  They concentrate in 12 known areas over three hectares in the biosphere reserve.  Four of these areas are sanctuaries that are open to the public.

Itinerary to Visit the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuaries

During our trip to Mexico to see the migration, we visited three of the four monarch butterfly sanctuaries over three days plus we added some time in advance to explore a few mountain towns to get acclimated to 10,000 feet where the monarchs reside for the winter.  Find out more at my blog post Top Things to Do in Patzcuaro.

To visit the monarch butterfly sanctuaries, we hired a tour company and avoided figuring out any logistics as well as avoided any perceived danger.  Despite the level 4 no travel warning from the USA State Department, we felt completely safe walking around the small towns at night and were even there during a Fat Tuesday celebration.

We flew into Morelia, Mexico and out of Mexico City.  Sometimes one way travel on an airline can be expensive, but this did not jack up the prices.  In fact, we may have saved money by flying into Morelia, which is a great city to visit was well.

cathedral in morelia

Our Itinerary to Visit the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuaries Was as Follows:

Day 1: Fly into Morelia in the state of Michoacan, Mexico and transfer to Patzcuaro where we stayed two nights at Hotel Casa del Naranja

Days 2 and 3: Explore Patzcuaro, the surrounding villages of Quiroga and Sta. Clara del Cobre, and the Tzintzuntzan ruins.  Activities included visiting churches, admiring murals, watching copper making, strolling through markets and more.  Again, see my post Top Things to Do in Patzcuaro for more information.

Day 3: Transfer back to Morelia as it is closer to the monarch butterfly sanctuaries.  We spent the afternoon strolling through the square, visiting the cathedral, and checking out the festival. 

NOTE: If you didn’t exchange money at the airport ATM, it is also a good time to exchange money as some places do not take credit cards nor US dollars, including in Patzcuaro.  The ATM fee at the department store, Sanborn’s, across from the Plaza de Armas had the best fees that we found.

Day 4: Transfer to Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary Sierra Chincua and overnight in Angangueo.  This was the first day to see the monarch butterflies, and the most natural setting.

Day 5: Transfer to El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary and overnight in Valle de BravoEl Rosario has the most monarch butterflies, so if you only have time to visit one sanctuary, go here.

Note: For approximate fees in pesos, see the El Rosario website.

Day 6:  Visit Piedra Herrada Monarch Butterflies Sanctuary and return to Valle de Bravo.  The hike at Piedra Herrada was the hardest.  Piedra Herrada is the closest sanctuary to Mexico City.

Day 7: Transfer to Mexico City and return home

Possible Changes to Itinerary

For what we wanted, this was a very good itinerary with a few exceptions.

  1.  NEVER go to a sanctuary on the weekend!  There may have been more people than butterflies at Piedra Herrada on the Saturday we visited. BIG MISTAKE!
  2. The best days to go would be Tues-Thurs. assuming the weather is sunny as they cannot fly unless it is above 55 degrees.  Find out more about the monarch butterflies at my post, The Monarch Butterfly Migration.
  3. Two sanctuaries were likely enough, allowing more time to see Valle de Bravo and Avandaro as these are resort towns with lots to do in the mountains.  In fact, as an outdoor enthusiast, I could have added a few more days here.

If you are short on time, I recommend one of the following itineraries:

  • For those that like authentic Mexico, I suggest flying into and out of Morelia, enjoying a few mountain towns and going to El Rosario.
  • For those that prefer resorts, I recommend flying into and out of Mexico City, exploring the Valle de Bravo area, and going to El Rosario.  All be it, El Rosario is a few hours farther than if you were to visit Piedra Herrada.

Photos don’t do the experience justice.
I took tons! The best are below.

While I have mostly recommended visiting El Rosario, it is the most commercialized, and I am happy to have experienced the other sanctuaries as well for various reasons mentioned below.

All the sanctuaries have a dirt parking area, a ticket booth, bathrooms for 5-7 pesos, restaurants all serving the same limited cuisine, and gift shops.  There is an option to ride horses one-way or roundtrip for an additional fee paid to the cowboys once inside.  Though the horses do not go all the way to the viewpoint, so walking is still necessary.

Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary Sierra Chincua

At Sierra Chincua, after you use the toilet and purchase your ticket, you pass through the covered walkway to the roped off entrance where you meet your Spanish speaking guide.

The guide is one of the farmers whose communal land was turned into a biosphere reserve.  Our guide, Adam, was 18 and had worked at the sanctuary for five years.

Every day he commuted from a town above Angangueo by shuttle van.  At the sanctuary, he waits to accompany a group of visitors to the monarch butterflies.  He only hikes once a day.  On slow days, he might not get a guiding gig at all, and as a result, no tips. 

It is very similar to the porters that line up to help carry your gear while hiking to the gorillas in Rwanda, except those porters require a small upfront fee.  In the end, it is a way to give money to the poor farmers who cannot log their oyamel fir trees on which the monarchs are reliant.

Depending on the time of year, the hike to the monarchs at Sierra Chincua varies.  Earlier in the season, it is shorter but up higher.  In February, the peak time to visit, the hike is longer and descends into the forest. We walked around 3-4 miles roundtrip.

The Hike

The dirt path passed through the oyamel fir forest blanketed in shrubs and wildflowers with intermittent views of distant mountains and hillside farming.  For anyone that enjoys hiking, it was a nice walk through a rather dry forest to the butterflies. If you don’t like hiking, you may rent a horse directly from a cowboy for one way or both ways.  Just ask which way is uphill for the one-way option.

The path led us downhill to a small viewing area a bit away from the firs clustered with butterflies.  I thought we would be much closer to a big cluster of orange, but all of the sanctuaries keep visitors at a distance. All be it, this viewing area may have been the most distant of the three we visited.

That said, many butterflies circled the flowering bushes near the path.  They glided onto the leaves, sometimes joining a group of feeding monarchs and other times disrupting them!  With the temperature above 55 degrees and sunny skies, the monarchs were quite active at 2pm when we arrived.

photographing monarch butterflies in mexcio

There was only one small group at the viewing area and after they left, we spent close to an hour alone with the monarchs.  We were certainly mesmerized.  Little did we know what we were about to see at El Rosario the following day.

While El Rosario is home to the most monarchs of the butterfly sanctuaries in Mexico, what I really liked about Sierra Chincua was its natural feel.  Though the entrance includes shops, restaurants and even a zipline, the hike takes you into the forest and provides a very relaxing experience.

Town of Angangueo

El Rosario is located up the hill from Angangueo, a small mountain village with a history of mining.  We stayed in Angangueo for a night, and I really liked it, despite all the stray dogs that saddened me.  We arrived in the late afternoon and checked into Plaza Don Gabino Hotel.  With little daylight left, Mike and I walked up the hill into town.

It was a little farther than I remembered from the drive downhill, but I found Angangueo delightful.  The historic mining town was very resourceful.  It was like each towns person specialized in a necessity.  A candy store here, an electronics store there, a shoe store in between. 

There was also a pet grooming service, a doctor’s office, an internet café, a hardware store, a monument the miner and a spectacular mural that should not be missed. 

amazing mural in angangueo

Angangueo’s square, flanked by two churches, featured few small boutiques and restaurants as well as a town sign, which was common in most small towns we visited in the area.

angangueo town square

After an hour of wandering, we returned to the hotel just in time for the scheduled dinner.  Plaza Don Gabino Hotel is basic with small, clean rooms, each having a bathroom, but no heat. 

We had an upstairs room with lots of blankets, so we didn’t even need the small space heater that our guide told us to request.  Some others in our group, however, had downstairs rooms, and they said the night was a little cold.

The service at Plaza Don Gabino Hotel was surprisingly good, as was the food.  Our dinner and breakfast were included in our stay and somewhat preset.  We had a choice of beef or chicken for dinner which was served with soup and a half an avocado. 

Breakfast featured fruit and eggs to order in two different styles though they accommodated our friend Mike who adjusted the veggie options.  It’s amazing how fresh the meat and produce are in Mexico!

After our breakfast, our guide and driver took us up to El Rosario on the steep, cobblestone road that afforded lovely views of the below valley.  As we wound up the mountain, the locals walked into town.  Our driver abruptly stopped, we thought for the view, but instead, he avoided hitting the cutest 8 week old puppy.  It was without its mother, so it rode with us the rest of the way, and our guide found a friend to care for it.  I hope it survives.

cute puppy in angangueo

El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary

El Rosario, which is supported by the World Wildlife Fund, was far more commercialized than Sierra Chincua.  The parking area is circled by souvenir shops and tent covered restaurants all serving the same thing…chicken or beef with rice and beans, chili rellenos, and a few other selections.  I can only imagine what this area looks like on a Saturday.

Fortunately, our Friday visit at 11am was not too busy, but there were more visitors than at Sierra Chincua the previous day.

Once again, the bathroom was by the entrance. $5 pesos gets you a few squares of toilet paper from the attendant, a stall, and a sink.  After a stop at the toilets, we got our tickets and met our customary Spanish speaking guide, Cecilia who was 28 and had been working at the butterfly sanctuary two years.

As we climbed the 600+ cement stairs which gained 1,000 feet in a mile or so, I asked her about the mating monarchs.  Interestingly, the male butterfly dive bombs down to the female and then carries it straight up like and alien spaceship selecting a human off earth in the movies.

The females don’t want to mate, which is sometimes a 16-hour ritual, because they likely will not survive the migration north to Texas in mid-March.

After climbing the stairs for a while, we reached a dirt area from which some trails went upward and to the right.  To the left, looked like an unused dirt road. Snap a photo of this road with hardly any butterflies because you will be amazed to see the difference an hour later. I wish we knew this! See the below videos that we took an hour later.

We climbed the trail straight ahead which switched back up the hillside at 10,000 feet. Soon we veered off to the right, meandered through the bushes, and descended to the viewing area.  At first, we did not realize this was the main viewing area as it just looked like the top of some stairs.

As a result, we followed Cecelia down the stairs a little sooner than we would have liked.  Upon realizing our mistake, we turned around.  After all, we flew a long way to see the monarchs and we were definitely going to spend more time watching them than hiking to them.  Remarkably, most people don’t!

The butterflies at El Rosario were like falling leaves in autumn.  Looking up into the bluebird sky teeming with floating orange monarchs was a sight to behold.  There was so much going on, it was easy to walk right by a tree trunk coated in butterflies while scanning the sky in sensory overload. 

Thousands of monarchs cluster on the branches, some feed on the flowers, some mate, many seek water, others mistakenly land on you, a few fall to ground struggling to survive, some share the trail with you, and some cluster on the trunks which coincidentally are 2.5 degrees warmer than the ground and help the monarchs survive the winter.

With our heads on a swivel, we cautiously descended the stairs, still at a slower pace than Cecilia, though to her credit she was patient. 

Viewing the monarchs was sort of like an African safari, because just when you think you’ve seen everything and you’ve gotten enough pictures, you notice something else.  As we headed down, we noticed all the monarchs flying the same way.  Masses of them zooming by us.  Who knew they could fly so fast!

They were seeking water.  They left daily around 11 or 12 and returned around 3 or 4.  It’s like a mini migration with them all soaring the same direction.  By the time we descended to the area where the trails split off, monarchs filled the sky, flew along the dirt road and clustered in the mud puddles to drink water.

We stopped again, this time squatting to capture all sorts of photos of the monarchs clustering for the water and spinning in awe as they passed us by with a purpose.  While I love still photography, it doesn’t do these remarkable insects justice.  Be sure to capture video in regular and slow motion!

Resort Near Valle de Bravo

After two hours with the monarchs, we had lunch at one of the vendors by the parking lot before we made the 2 hour 30 minute drive to the Valle de Bravo area, where we checked into the Avandaro Resort & Spa.

I was the one who insisted that our tour go to Valle de Bravo because I had heard the area was pretty with lots of outdoor activities.  Little did I know, this is a popular resort area for Mexican Nationals who visit on the weekend.

I was not expecting to stay in a full-scale resort in the mountains for two days with our entire trip (guide, driver, transportation, a week of hotels, breakfast, and the entrances to the sanctuaries) costing just a little over $1,000.

It seemed like a bargain to end up at a lovely resort featuring three restaurants, a golf course, tennis courts, Padel courts, a pool and more.  I kind of wished we had more time at the resort and in the area, especially knowing we would likely not top our monarch butterfly experience at El Rosario.

avandaro resort & spa

That said, we enjoyed a few hours at the pool, a nice dinner, and filled our packs for another day touring around.

Piedra Herrada Monarch Butterflies Sanctuary

The following day, a Saturday, we visited Piedra Herrada as well as the town of Valle de Bravo.  Our first mistake was going on a Saturday near the end of the monarch butterfly season!  OMG! 

Piedra Herrada was absolutely packed.  At least twenty giant tour buses filled the enormous dirt parking area upon our arrival around 11am and by the time we left, there were probably twenty more.

Our guide managed to secure our tickets relatively quickly, but the line to enter the sanctuary was a few hundred feet long and multiple people deep.  The attendants only let in groups of twenty at a time. 

While our guide’s English and random answers to our questions frustrated us at times, she was worth her weight in silver for our experience at Piedra Herrada.  She said, “Follow me and act like you know what you are doing.”

The next thing we knew, we were at the front of the line and a few minutes later we were ducking under the makeshift rope fence.  She asked the guide’s name who was talking to a group of 20, turned to us and said, “Go by yourselves, hurry, and if anyone asks, your guide’s name is “so and so.”  She would have been worth her weight in gold is she told us to skip the monarch sanctuary all together!

We walked by masses of people while avoiding eye contact with the guides who were supposed to be accompanying us.  Not only was this hike crowded, but also it was the hardest of the three butterfly sanctuaries we visited. 

The walking path paralleled the horse path.  The horses kicked up the dust, which blanketed the surrounding ground cover in dirt.  Fortunately, we had buffs to cover our noses and mouths.  Unlike our visit to Sierra Chincua, as a horse owner and hiker, I can’t say this trek was very fun.

At some point our walking path switched from cement to dirt and after the horse drop off station, the way became very steep.  I don’t know how some of those ladies in skirts and slip on dress shoes made it up the mountain slope.

We didn’t even see a butterfly until we got to the viewing area which was jammed packed with people.  I’m only slightly exaggerating when I say there were more people than monarchs.  In fact, I took more pictures of people than butterflies while visiting Piedra Herrada.  Contrary to our time at El Rosario, we couldn’t get out of there fast enough!

Once we made it down to the bottom, we skipped the shopping, restaurants, and bathroom.  We were ready to see Valle de Bravo!

Remarkably, when we got onto the main road, the monarchs were everywhere!  Cars and trucks turned on their hazards as they slowed to save the butterflies from their windshields.  Then, just a few hundred yards from the entrance, we saw several cars stopped on the side of the road.

This was the place to be.  Monarchs were streaming from the forest like bats out of a cave.  They were fleeing the sanctuary just like we were!  No, one serious note, they were headed to the water.  Regardless, the roadside experience made visiting Piedra Herrada worth it.

While I cannot speak from experience, I hear that, visiting Piedra Herrada on weekdays is quieter and similar to what we had at Sierra Chincua and El Rosario.  So, in fairness, I can’t compare, but if I were only going to Mexico to see the butterfly sanctuaries, I would fly into Morelia and visit Sierra Chincua and El Rosario.

Valle de Bravo

If, however, I wanted to enjoy a resort town and to add in a butterfly sanctuary, I would go to the Valle de Bravo area and visit Piedra Herrada on a weekday. Or go to El Rosario if you don’t mind the extra 2+ hour drive one way, as it is the biggest and best.

Speaking of Valle de Bravo, we finally made our way toward the town.  The construction and the traffic turned this short drive into a long one!  I recommend going into town early.  We only had a few hours to walk around.

We followed our guide who raced up a street lined with shops until we made it to the square.  Having already seen enough squares, cathedrals, and street vendors, we asked to see the lake. She was dumbfounded.  She replied, “I’ve never had any tourists ask me to see the lake.”

Well, we walked back down toward all the traffic and found the lake along with a variety of restaurants overlooking the water. We ate at a restaurant just northwest of Plaza Mariposa, but there are better views at Marina 33 and other places near the archaeological museum.

We enjoyed our afternoon in Valle de Bravo but could have easily spent the whole day or weekend in the area, including Avandaro, a newer, upscale town near our resort.  I also understand there is a cemetery nearby that has a small grave as a symbol for the hundreds of millions of monarchs that died in the 2012 freeze which killed 80% of the monarch population.  Seeing 25 to 50 million butterflies was quite a treat.  I can’t imagine what it was like when there were 1 billion monarchs overwintering in Mexico.

In all, I highly recommend visiting the monarch butterfly sanctuaries in Mexico. While I have always enjoyed photographing butterflies, I have a newfound respect for monarchs.  I never thought I’d describe an insect as remarkable. ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

9 thoughts on “How to Visit the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuaries in Mexico

  1. Yes, feels as if I’ve been there too. Very detailed information, tips and videos. Great work! I once visited the Cockrell Butterfly Center in Houston, Texas.

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