It's a magical event to witness—and a great excuse to explore Mexico off the beaten path.
I don't remember when I first learned about the monarch butterfly's annual migration to Mexico, but the idea has enchanted me for at least a decade. With my six-year-old studying the monarch's life cycle in school, it seemed like the perfect time to get away and see the migration in situ. But when a first-grader's hopes are pinned on witnessing a magical event, the pressure is on—especially when that event depends upon factors entirely beyond your control. What if we got there and it was totally underwhelming?
Fortunately, I didn't need to worry. The monarch population is on the rebound after several seasons of flagging numbers. “This year, nearly three times as many monarchs arrived compared to last year,” says Homero Gomez González, an agronomist who specializes in forests and works at the El Rosario Sanctuary, one of two monarch reserves in the state of Michoacán (the other is Sierra Chincua). Gomez says the increase is thanks to ideal humidity and the sanctuary staff's forest conservation efforts.
Want to see this year's migration yourself? There's still time. Gomez says the season typically concludes at the end of March. With the Mexican peso the lowest it's been in years, you'll get tremendous bang for your buck if you can swing a last-minute getaway. For our group of seven (two kids, five adults), we spent a grand total of $1,940 (U.S.), which included rental car, tolls, and gas, luxurious lodgings, meals, and all of the entrance and guide fees (as well as tips) at the sanctuary. Here's how to pull it off.
ARRIVAL AND GROUND TRANSPORT
Fly into Mexico City's Benito Juárez International Airport (MEX) and pick up a car from one of the major rental companies (we used Thrifty). The daily rate for our minivan was just $23 and you can find single-digit rates for economy cars. Beware: insurance will add to the bottom line, so call in advance to get an estimate.
Head out of Mexico City toward Toluca, where you'll pick up Highway 15. Make sure it's the “cuota” (toll road) rather than “libre”; the cuota is well-maintained, has signage, and is well-lit at night. Have plenty of cash on hand for tolls, which range from 36 to 79 pesos. If you're making good time, it should take between 2.5 and 3 hours to reach your exit at Zitácuaro. From there, follow the signs to Ocampo (you will see intermittent signage with butterflies indicating the way) and onward to Santuario El Rosario.
Rancho Cumbre Monarca (known to locals as Rancho Givali) in Ocampo was our home base, and it was perfect in every way. As the only guests on site, we had our run of the place. Our two rooms, both of which were gigantic (“Luna” has four beds, ideal for a family or group of friends), included nightly fireplace service. My daughters loved the play area, stocked with games and toys, as well as the trampoline, hammocks, and geese they could feed. The adults in our group appreciated that the property had plenty of space for each of us to find a quiet, private spot to relax and recharge, including on-site walking paths, comfortable reading nooks, and balconies. We paid a total of $343 (U.S.) for lodging: two rooms, three nights.
We ate most of our meals at the rancho as there were no other options in Ocampo; breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all served upon request for an extra fee. Lunch (or “comida”) is the big meal of the day, as is traditional in Mexico, and the weather was perfect, so we ate outside each day. On days we took side trips, we ate at local restaurants or markets. The total we spent on meals at the rancho was $212 (U.S.).
VISITING THE SANCTUARY
El Rosario is the butterfly reserve closest to Rancho Cumbre Monarca, and is easily accessible via a 10-minute drive up a cobbled road. Do not park in the lower lot; instead, drive onward and follow the signs to the reserve entrance. It's a short walk to the ticket booth, where you'll pay a nominal entrance fee: 35 pesos for kids, and 45 for adults. You'll then choose whether you want to climb to the butterfly-dense hill (a strenuous hike) or summit on horseback; the latter costs 200 pesos round-trip. A guide will lead your horse and leave you at the top; a second guide will meet you at the summit to lead you onward to the concentration of monarchs and offer some commentary. Expect to spend 90 minutes to two hours at the top.
The sanctuary is busy and crowded with locals on weekends, when people come in by the hundreds on tour buses. If you can, visit during the week instead, when you'll likely be one among a much smaller handful of tourists and the occasional school group. Whatever day you go, show up early. The reserve opens at 8 AM, and being among the first visitors will ensure you get to see the monarchs in their full glory: first, hanging in strands on trees, and then, unfolding their wings and swooping gracefully through the forest as the sunlight floods into the woods. Stay quiet to hear thousands of pairs of wings greeting the new day.
The sanctuary's physical infrastructure has gotten an upgrade in recent months. Ground broke for a new artisan center last fall. There's a cafeteria, clean bathrooms, and craft and souvenir vendors on-site, as well as a media hall where you can watch a documentary on these magical butterflies.
Angangueo and Tlalpujahua are two side trips (about 40- and 90-minute drives, respectively) worth making. Both are designated “pueblos mágicos” (“magic towns”) by the Mexican government. The former is known for its history as a mining town; the latter is famed for craftspeople who make Christmas ornaments that are shipped all over the world. It also has a beautiful cathedral (del Carmen) that will make even non-religious folks want to go to church.
Banks and ATMs are non-existent in Ocampo; the nearest one is about 35 minutes away in the town of Aporo, so bring plenty of cash. Make sure that you have smaller denominations, as most businesses can't change large bills.
Shortly after this article was published, the butterfly reserves mentioned here experienced an intense late-winter storm that felled thousands of trees which are crucial to the monarch migration. Fortunately, the butterflies themselves appeared to be affected minimally by the storm, but experts will be tracking the impact of habitat loss on future migration seasons.