Monarch butterflies
Monarch butterflies, gathered on an Oyamel tree. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Why You Should Visit Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Sanctuaries

Millions of these colorful insects travel thousands of miles to congregate here every winter. It’s one of nature’s most magical spectacles.


Gazing at millions of monarch butterflies fluttering around their remote Mexican winter sanctuaries is an almost mystical experience, especially considering that many of these insects have traveled as much as 2,800 miles from eastern North America to get here.

Monarchs, one of the most recognizable butterfly species, have vibrant orange and yellow colors separated by black vein-like patterned lines, which makes their wings resemble stained glass. White spots dot the black edge of their wings and cover their black bodies. Their miraculous life cycle astounds: from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to winged delight.

The fragile monarchs' migration location remained a mystery until 1975. Researchers knew they flew south to Texas and on into Mexico, but exactly where no one knew. A program to tag their wings led to the previously hidden habitats. 

Every fall, as the weather turns cooler up north and the sun's angle dips to 57 degrees, the monarch butterflies start the journey to their sanctuaries. (The migrating generation is known as Methuselah after the biblical man who lived for 987 years.) These late-summer butterflies live seven to eight months—much longer than the two- to six-week lifespans of generations born earlier in the year. They develop flight muscles and store lipids for their hazardous journey to the ideal high-altitude habitat in the oyamel fir forests in the volcanic mountains of Central Mexico. They do not reproduce until the following spring when they return through Texas, lay their eggs, and then die.

A Window on the Monarchs’ World

Mexico now protects these tiny insects in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At this altitude, the temperatures are cool enough to slow the monarchs’ metabolism and the dense canopy of fir trees protects them from strong wind, rain, and occasional snow. From November to April, the reserve provides a rare opportunity to immerse yourself in the monarchs’ world.

Climbing to the reserve can be strenuous, but nature lovers, gardeners, photographers, and other curious individuals sign on for the trek every year, which involves a multi-hour drive up switchback-filled mountain roads to an altitude of around 7,000 feet.

Approximately 12 monarch sanctuaries exist, but only five are open to the public. Getting to them would prove difficult for anyone unfamiliar with the area, as would conversation, unless you’re fluent in Spanish. Consequently, day tours from Mexico City have become the most common choice for those wishing to glimpse the glorious insects. These tours last anywhere from nine to 14 hours. 

Others join a multi-day trip with tour operators, visiting several sanctuaries. Having more time provides the chance for changes in the weather and seeing the roosted butterflies and those flying free. The tours often include guided sightseeing in Mexico City, side trips to archeological sites, and independent time. 

Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacan, Mexico
Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacan, Mexico. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Hiking to High Altitudes

Upon arrival at one of the sanctuaries, most travelers mount horses to save themselves from huffing and puffing up the steep incline. Inexperienced riders needn’t worry because fit men lead the tethered horses up and down the trail. The approximately 15-minute ride follows a path through lush jungle greenery and into the canopy of oyamel trees that grow only at altitudes between 6,900 and 13,500 feet. Sanctuary guides lead the way to the best viewing spots, which may involve hiking as much as 2,000 feet higher once you dismount a horse.

If the temperature at this altitude reaches around 60 degrees, you can listen for the soft fluttering of gossamer wings as thousands of butterflies search for nectar and water. The sight brings some visitors to tears. Others say they feel they have stepped into a National Geographic documentary. Look down at the dirt trail and you’ll see shadows dancing like jumping polka dots. Look up, and you'll be mesmerized by the beauty of the mountains in the distance and the colorful flying insects. 

Toward the end of the season, in late February to early March, you may see butterflies mating or fallen wings littering the trail, a reminder of the fragility of these almost weightless insects.

If the temperature drops below 55 or the sky is cloudy or misty, the butterflies cluster together, one on top of another, with tightly closed wings, so the mass appears black. High up in the fir trees, the branches bend downward with what resembles a dangling, giant termite nest or a swollen beehive. The butterflies snuggle and remain motionless with the exception of when one of the species is arriving or departing. The butterfly groups blanketing the tree trunks look more like rusty autumn leaves. The overall sight is mystifying but slightly disappointing compared with witnessing the confetti-like flitting of monarchs on a warm day. 

French naturalist Marcel Roland said butterflies give us "solace for the pain of living." One look at the smiling faces of those leaving the sanctuaries confirms that. Comments overheard on the trail by this writer included: "a once-in-a-lifetime moment,” “simply stunning,” “a miracle of wonder,” “being one with nature,” and “exhausting but excellent."

Note: This is the second of two reports on the author's self-funded trip to Mexico. Click here to read part one, which focuses on the attractions you'll find in Mexico City. —Ed.


What It Is: The Monarch butterfly sanctuaries, where millions of the insects arrive annually from North America, are in Central Mexico, about 60 miles west of Mexico City.

Climate: Central Mexico has a subtropical highland climate. The dry season runs from November to May and the remaining months are rainy. The temperature ranges from 44 to 76 degrees F from January to March.

Getting There: Mexico City International Airport serves approximately 40 million passengers per year. Its longest runway is 13,074 feet. Licenciado Adolfo López Mateos International Airport, or simply Toluca International, is 36 miles west of the city. In addition to a terminal for commercial flights, it has private ones for business aviation. The longest runway is 13,779 feet.

What to Know Before You Go: You’ll need a valid passport for entry and exit to the country. Mexico is in the same time zone as the Central U.S. Credit cards are widely accepted.

Visiting the Monarchs: Mexico's butterfly season runs from mid-November to April, with ideal conditions from January to early March. Leading tour operators include Craftours, Natural Habitat Adventures, Responsible Travel, and Viator. If you’re concerned about altitude sickness, you may need to bring prescription medicine. Hiking at altitude proves difficult for many. 


Accommodation: Hotel Plaza Don Gabino Morelos (B) offers non-luxury lodging in the old mining town of Angangueo…The European-type city of Valle de Bravo has luxury boutique hotels and a lake resort called El Santuario Resort and Spa (A). Múbú Hotel Boutique (A), a five-star typical Vallesana century-old house, has seven luxury suites and contemporary Mexican food…Unico Avandaro Hotel Boutique (A-) is a lovely four-star hotel with 24 guest rooms, an outdoor pool, and a restaurant. 

Cuisine: Los Arcos (A) in Angangueo prepares excellent authentic Mexican fare with homemade tortillas and the tastiest guacamole ever…In Valle de Bravo, Restaurante Casa Avandaro (A) features international fare including Mexican and Italian favorites…Na-ha El Santuario (A) serves exceptional food with atmosphere and a lake view.