One of the most surreal experiences you can ever witness takes place every winter in the mountains of Michoacan, Mexico. Visiting the winter home of the monarch butterflies in Mexico is nothing short of magic. It felt like I was in a fairy-tale, wandering through the forest while surrounded by tens of thousands of these beautiful insects. Seeing the monarch butterfly migration is something that belongs on everyone’s bucket list, and easily one of the best things I did in Mexico.
Here’s how to see the monarch butterfly migration in Mexico.
When To See the Monarch Butterflies in Mexico
The monarch butterflies migrate from the U.S. and Canada to spend the winters in the Mexican state of Michoacan. It’s a journey that spans thousands of miles and multiple generations of butterflies. That’s right. The butterflies that begin the journey aren’t the same ones that finish it. The monarch butterfly migration is truly one of the most amazing feats of nature. It’s like a multi-generational relay race. Even weirder, the generation that finally makes it to their winter home just so happens to live several months longer than the average life span of the monarch butterfly. They call this generation the Methuselah generation, named after the biblical Methuselah who reached the ripe old age of 969 years old.
Anyway, sorry I got over-excited about the butterflies. The monarch butterflies begin to trickle into the forests of Michoacan in November and they stay until March. I visited them towards the end of February and there were still tens of thousands of them up there. Visiting in December, January, or February will give you optimal odds of seeing the monarch butterflies at their peak. Go during the day. Late morning and early afternoon is your best bet of being surrounded by as many monarch butterflies as possible.
Where To See the Monarch Butterflies’ Winter Home
Now, you can’t just hop into any old forest in Michoacan and expect to see butterflies. First of all, Michoacan isn’t exactly the safest state in Mexico. I’ve been to 22 of Mexico’s 32 states, and Michoacan stood out to me as one of the more dangerous ones. It’s a shame, because honestly, Michoacan might be the coolest state in Mexico. I’m not saying you shouldn’t visit, but this is definitely one of those states where you should opt for guided tours instead of figuring everything out on your own.
Luckily, the monarch butterfly reserves are pretty popular. I used Morelia as my home base for exploring Michoacan, and had no trouble finding tour agencies to organize a trip out there for me. Keep in mind that Morelia isn’t particularly close to the monarch butterfly reserves. It was about six-hours round trip drive to make the day trip over to the monarch butterfly sanctuaries. That left us a little over two hours to spend in the forests, with most of that being spent hiking up and down the mountain.
If you want to spend more time in the reserves, which you will, I’d recommend staying in the pueblo magico of Angangueo. This tiny town doesn’t offer much besides the monarch butterfly reserves, so I wouldn’t recommend staying more than a night.
Once you get to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, choose a sanctuary to visit. I chose El Rosario. Once you get there, pay the entrance fee and get your ticket. Afterwards, you have the option to hike up to the top or take a horse. You have to pay for the horse, which annoyed me because I would have preferred to hike. However, we were short on time because the drive took so long so I basically had no option besides to pay for the horse roundtrip. It costs about $15 to go up and down.
At the top, you’ll hop off the horse and your guide will start walking with you into the forest. This is a protected area, after all. As much as I can see this becoming a popular destination for “influencers”, please respect the butterflies. Do not touch the butterflies. Don’t make loud noises. No flash and no shutters when you’re taking pictures. Basically, make your presence as minimally-known as possible. Keep in mind that these are their natural habitats and you are just visiting.
If you’re with a guided tour, you won’t be able to stay for too long. There are actually places to camp in the reserve. However, those little cabanas are closer to the base of the mountain, so you’re not really anywhere near the butterflies.
Is it safe to visit Michoacan?
Okay, I’m not just going to bring up how unsafe I felt in Michoacan without going into detail. So I spent a total of five days in Michoacan, using its capital city of Morelia as my home base. Outside of Morelia and the Monarch Butterfly Reserves, I made day trips to the pueblos magicos of Patzcuaro and Tzintzuntzan. I did all of it with guided tours from the city of Morelia.
Before I arrived in Morelia, people warned me that Michoacan was unsafe. I was on a bus from Mexico City, and everything seemed fine at first. We were stopped a few times by heavily armed police, and since the bus wasn’t too full, I got grilled heavily for being the only foreigner on the bus. The family ahead of me got grilled pretty hard, too, and it turned out, for right reason. It was an older lady traveling with three teenaged boys, and she told the police that she was their aunt. They played the part well, until we got to Morelia late at night and the older of the teenaged boys started making out with this lady in her 50s. I told this story to Instagram, and someone told me that Michoacan was just the Alabama of Mexico, but I think something fishier was going on.
So basically, Michoacan is a state at war, and it’s getting worse by the year. There are multiple cartels vying for territory. The government isn’t really doing anything about it, so the citizens have basically taken up their own arms and started taking matters into their own hands. I’ve heard horror stories, many of them extremely violent, from the locals of Michoacan. As a tourist, you won’t be a target. That goes for most of Mexico. If you don’t get yourself involved, then the people won’t involve or target you.
However, that doesn’t mean you should feel free to wander around cluelessly. I do that often and everywhere I go. I thought I could do that in Morelia, and I quickly straightened up as soon as I rolled into town. There is a huge police presence in Morelia. Throughout Michoacan, there will be checkpoints on all the roads. That’s why I recommend going on a guided tour if you are dead set on seeing the butterflies. If you aren’t fluent in Spanish, it will help monumentally to have a local guide speak for you.
Save The Monarchs
One last thing before you go. It’s sad, but I have to say it. The monarch butterflies are dying out. It may not seem like it because like, dang, look at all those butterflies, but they are. There used to be millions of them calling these forests home. However, due to deforestation, climate change, and habitat and food loss, the monarchs are indeed dying out.
The workers at the monarch butterfly sanctuary in Michoacan told me that in ten years, the monarchs might not even be around anymore. Our planet is changing drastically. Just a few years ago, there were exponentially more monarchs in the sanctuary.
The land in Michoacan is highly sought after by the cartel because it is prime farmland for growing… avocados. That’s right. Not weed or cocaine. The new cash crop in Mexico is avocados. Homero Gomez Gonzalez, an environmentalist and staunch defender of the monarchs was assassinated by the cartel due to his efforts to protect their habitats. Gonzalez was strongly against deforestation as it would destroy the winter home of the monarch butterflies, but you can imagine the cartel has no qualms about destroying the butterflies’ habitats.
While I’m not encouraging you to take on the cartel, it is possible to help the dwindling populations from our side of the border. Planting milkweed is one of the best ways to help, especially in the spring as the monarchs begin their journey 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.
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, witnessing the monarch butterfly migration in Mexico has nothing else I could compare it to.
Oh, and before you go, make sure to have good travel insurance handy whenever you’re out adventuring. I use SafetyWing to keep me covered throughout my travels for as low as $40 a month.
My Complete Mexico Backpacking Itinerary
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.
My Complete Mexico Backpacking Itinerary
By popular demand… Here is the complete itinerary for one of my favorite countries in the world, Mexico. In this 68-page guidebook, I cover 30 of my favorite Mexican destinations, including how to get to each city, where to stay, and the best things to do in each city. I also include tidbits of useful information like things to know before going to Mexico, as well as my favorite party destina…
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