One of the most surreal days I’ve ever experienced in my travels was a day spent at a forest sanctuary where the monarch butterflies spend the winters. I was honestly speechless, for one of the first times in my life. The only thing that kept my jaw from being permanently dropped was the fear that a monarch might accidentally fly into my mouth.
I moved to Mexico a few months prior, and didn’t hear about the monarch butterfly migration to Michoacan until a few other friends told me about it. We made plans to go visit one of the sanctuaries in Michoacan. As it usually goes with making travel plans with friends, everyone else bailed. It was almost March, nearing the time when the butterflies would leave Mexico and head back up north. I decided fuck it and hopped on a bus alone to Morelia, the capital of Michoacan. Aside from an interrogation from heavily armed police that left me pretty shaken, I avoided any real trouble in one of the more dangerous states of Mexico. I almost left the same day I arrived because of that, but I decided to push through. Whatever it takes to see the butterflies, right?
And damn, was it worth it. It was a lengthy journey from Morelia, much longer than I’d expected. The drive from there took over three hours and had taken the wind out of my sails. I was prepared to be underwhelmed and disappointed.
I trudged up the trail, huffing and puffing with every step thanks to the high altitudes. Occasionally, a butterfly would float by. I honestly began to wonder if that was it. If I had really just come all this way to see a few butterflies fluttering about while I struggled up a bitch of a mountain. It took about 30 minutes from the entrance of the sanctuary to the top of the hill. There, I began to see more and more monarch butterflies.
The wind was back in my sails, and I started having an extra hop in my step. I whipped my camera out, muted the shutter as to not disturb the monarchs, and felt like Bilbo Baggins going on an adventure. I was basically giddy as I frolicked along the trail. Clusters of monarch butterflies would congregate on flowers and bushes. Tree branches would be noticeably drooping down thanks to the weight of the butterflies.
The further I went, the more butterflies there were. You know that scene in 300 where the guy is like, “my arrows will block out the sun”? That’s kind of how it felt like, but with butterflies. Admittedly, if you replace the bright orange butterfly with literally any other insect, this would have been an absolute nightmare. Thankfully, these were butterflies, and not like, bees or something. Who says pretty privilege doesn’t exist?
I can only describe so much before words fail me. So without further ado, here are some of my favorite shots from my visit to the winter home of the monarch butterflies in Michoacan, Mexico. And a video!
How You Can Help The Monarch Butterflies
Sadly, I can’t write this post without mentioning the harsh reality that the monarch butterflies are facing. Environmental changes, habitat destruction, and other factors have led to a recent decline in monarch butterfly populations. One of the staunchest activists for the preservation of the monarch butterfly habitats in Michoacan, Homero Gomez Gonzalez, was assassinated, presumably by cartel members. He was strongly against deforestation, as doing so would destroy the winter home of the monarch butterflies. Sadly, the land in Michoacan is highly sought after, and you can imagine the cartel has no qualms about destroying the butterflies’ habitats.
While we cannot do much on that side, it is possible to help the dwindling monarch butterflies return to their former numbers, or at least, close to it. Planting milkweed is one of the best ways, especially in the spring as the monarch butterflies begin their journeys back north. The rest is going to take a massive group effort, especially against climate change, deforestation, and other environmental factors. Here’s more on how to help.
I heard from the workers at the monarch butterfly sanctuary that in ten years, the monarchs might not even be around anymore. Things are changing so quickly and drastically. It’s crazy to think that just a few years ago, there were exponentially more monarchs in the sanctuary than there are now. Seeing millions of monarchs fluttering about is something that I hope everyone can experience in their lifetime. Of all the things I’ve seen in my travels, there is nothing I could compare it to.
Also, be sure to check out my complete backpacking itinerary for magical Mexico, a jam-packed 68-page guide covering 30 of my favorite destinations in Mexico.