Monarch Butterflies – A Winter Holiday in Mexico

Introduction

Millions of Monarch Butterflies make an epic journey every year from the USA and Canada to Central Mexico. I had seen this natural spectacle on one of Sir David Attenborough’s natural history documentaries for the BBC many years earlier and it had always fascinated me. Whilst investigating how to fill in a two week gap between house sits we discovered that the Monarch’s migratory mountains were close enough to visit. The bonus was that our timing to see them was perfect.

Planning the trip

There are 4 main Reserves where the mass migration can be observed. Three of these are quite commercialised and used by day tours from Mexico City and Morelia. We were made aware of a more tranquil, eco-friendly option by a fellow house sitter friend Sharon (Nomadicwidow) and made the necessary arrangements. Word had spread amongst our group of fellow house sitters in Mexico about this option and our friends Dave and Sue (Whereverarewe) ended up booking a trip here ahead of us. This proved extremely valuable as they were able to report back the key information to us. They encountered challenging weather conditions and you can read Sue’s account of their trip here – Mixing with Royalty at 60

We arranged for a two night stay at the JM Butterfly BNB in the small village of Macheros. This is an enterprise setup by local boy made good Joel Moreno Rojas and his American wife Ellen Sharp. Joel’s father worked as a Park Ranger in the nearby Cerro Pellon sanctuary and Joel and his nine siblings were exposed at an early age to the beauty and conservation requirements of the Monarch Butterflies. Fast forward many years and Joel and Ellen have created a wonderful, tranquil Bed and Breakfast and brought much needed jobs and economic opportunities to their small community.

  • Entrance gate way into the mountain village of Macheros

Would the weather co-operate?

The one thing none of us can control is the weather and the Monarch Butterfly activity is purely dependent on the weather. If it’s cold and overcast then the butterflies just huddle together in the trees and do nothing. Should it be bright and sunny they warm up and fly about searching for nectar and dew. It took us a full day to travel from San Miguel de Allende to Macheros (two 4 hour bus rides and a 30 minute taxi ride) so we only had one day to visit the Butterfly sanctuary. If the weather had been unkind our plan B was to stay an extra day. Fortunately, the sun was shining as we rose for our big day.

An Amazing Day

The day starts with a short briefing from Ellen about the Butterflies around 10am as you walk through the village to get your horse. Jacqueline and I were the only guests doing the tour on this day so we had a private tour. Joel’s sister, Ana, would be our guide. The ride took just over an hour and each horse is lead up the mountain by a sure footed handler. These guys really earn their money as they walk the entire distance over some pretty rough terrain. You ascend an additional 1,000 metres (3000 feet) from Macheros to an altitude of 3,000 metres (10,000 feet) get to the Butterfly colony. So it’s pretty strenuous (unless you’re sitting on the back of a horse!!!). You have the option to walk the trail or ride the horse – with or without a handler.

Ready for our ride

Getting to the Monarch colony

As we ascended the mountain path I was amazed at the flowering plant life we were passing. Multiple varieties of flowering Salvia and other plants I didn’t expect to see at this altitude. But this is why the Monarchs come to this part of Mexico. As we gained altitude through the forest we started to see the odd butterfly feeding on these flowering plants. As we got closer to the colony the Monarch numbers increased until we finally arrived.
Words are difficult to come by to describe the sight of millions of Monarch Butterflies fluttering about in the sunshine. Please take a look at the video and you might get a small idea about how awesome this was.

A video journey of our day with the Monarch Butterflies

Thousands were on the ground taking a drink of water from the dew attached to the grasses and weeds. The surprising thing was the number that were on the ground and we had to be careful where we stepped for fear of crushing these delicate creatures. The ones on the ground in the shade were being “rescued” by some of the rangers. The Butterflies require the warmth of the sun to get flying and if they are in a shady spot they can’t fly. The rangers would gently pick them up, cup them in their hands and blow warm air onto them. This was sufficient to get them flying and on the road to recovery. We asked if we were allowed to “save” some of them too and joyfully warmed them in our cupped hands and set them on their way.

I love the smile on the Rangers face after ‘saving’ a Monarch Butterfly

A journey of thousands of kilometres

We spent about two and a half hours mesmerised by the beauty of nature and this amazing phenomenon. To think that these delicate creatures had made a journey of thousands of kilometres to spend the winter in the same trees as their ancestors. More amazing is the fact that the ones here are a super generation that live for many months. They migrate from the US and Canada and arrive here in early November and stay until about the March equinox. On the journey back they will breed and die before they arrive ‘home’ and the next generations (that only live for about a month) will continue the journey back North. And so it will continue until the next super generation is born and ready for the epic journey South back to Mexico. A great mystery is how this super generation ‘know’ where to go when they haven’t been there before.

  • Having a drink from the morning dew

The stillness and gentle sound of millions of butterfly wings flapping continuously is something we’ll never forget.

We highly recommend this once in a lifetime experience.

If you’d like to learn more about the Monarch Butterflies in the Cerro Pelon take a look at:
Butterflies and their people
Journey North

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