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Monarch Butterflies in Mexico: My 2024 Guide

The migrating monarch butterflies in Mexico are a natural phenomenon well worth seeing! Here’s my complete guide on how to experience them at their best.

Every autumn, millions of monarch butterflies from Canada and United States flood to the rugged forested mountains of central Mexico. The boreal forests of Michoacán and Estado de Mexico provide respite for more than a billion monarchs. The trees turn a glorious shade of orange, when veiled with monarchs, literally bending their branches under their collective weight.

This annual migration of monarch butterflies is one of the natural wonders of Mexico, and a phenomenon every traveler should experience at least once in their lifetime. Besides offering an awe-inspiring wildlife experience, these forests in Michoacán are set against some of the most beautiful mountainscapes in Mexico. Here’s a comprehensive guide to help you experience the annual monarch butterfly migration.

Monarch Butterflies in Mexico

Why do Monarchs Migrate to Mexico?

The mountain hillsides in Michoacán and Estado de Mexico provide an ideal microclimate for the butterflies. Here temperatures range from 0 to 15°C (32 to 59°F). The migrating Monarch butterflies travel in colonies of about 20 million insects and will travel between 150 – 222 km (80-120 nautical miles) per day, depending on the wind and other weather conditions.

This incredible journey is completed over four generations. The first three generations live for only one or two months, but the fourth generation, known as Methuselah for its impressive longevity, lives for a remarkable eight months.

Milkweed plants, an essential food source for the monarchs’ caterpillars, contain a chemical that is toxic to many species – but which Monarchs can, uniquely, store in the cells of its outer skin. This in turn provides the butterfly with a powerful defense ‘shield’ against potential predators and thus assists the insects in their 3,000 mile journey to Mexico.

monarch butterflies in mexico

Best Time to See Monarch Butterflies in Mexico

The best time to observe the butterflies is between November and March. January and February are the most popular months for visits, as it’s during this time that the butterfly population is at its peak. This is also when the sanctuaries are their busiest with tourists.

During the colder days, you will need to hike higher to see the butterflies; as the weather warms up, the butterflies move down the mountain. We went to the monarch butterflies sanctuaries in the last weekend of January and saw millions of them all over the forests.

If you come on a dull, gloomy day, you’ll most likely see them huddling around the top of trees and staying still. Our friends went to see the butterflies just two weeks before we did, and because it was chilly and grey, they only saw very few butterflies. How far up the mountain you have to climb also depends upon the time of year. 

TIP: Avoid visiting during weekends, as it can get busy with school kids and daytrippers from Mexico City. Keep your eye on the weather reports; if your plans are flexible, try and choose a couple of days when the weather will be warmer, for the best experience. 

monarch butterflies in mexico

Where to See the Monarch Butterflies ?

There are four official sanctuaries across the states of Michoacán and Estado de México. To preserve the habitats of the monarch butterflies, these protected sanctuaries are protected by the government agency, CONANP (Comision Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas).

These monarch butterfly sanctuaries together form a UNESCO World Heritage biosphere reserve, covering an area of over 560 square kilometers. The sanctuaries are open to the public between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. seven days a week. W

Michoacan sanctuaries: 

  • El Rosario* 
  • Sierra Chincua Reserve*
  • Senguio

Estado de Mexico sanctuaries: 

  • Cerro Pelón 
  • Piedra Herrada
  • La Mesa

*The two most popular sanctuaries are El Rosario and Sierra Chincua in Michoacán. We visited those two, and they are the ones that are the most accessible and visited. In this article, I’ll share our experience specific to these two sanctuaries below.

Map of Butterfly Sanctuaries in Mexico

Here’s a map of all the monarch butterflies sanctuaries in Mexico:

How to use this map: Click on the top left of the map to display the list of locations, then click on the locations to display further information. To open a larger version in a new tab, click on the top right corner of the map. Star the map to save it to your own Google Maps.

Which Butterfly Sanctuary to Choose?

The two most popular sanctuaries – El Rosario and Sierra Chincua in Michoacán – are very near each other and I recommend visiting both on one trip. 

El Rosario is the largest, best known, and most visited butterfly sanctuary. During our visit, it was really crowded, jampacked with busloads of people on day trips from Mexico City. But we did see more butterflies here than in Sierra Chincua (this depends on the weather and even time of the day you’re visiting so my experience can be different from yours). The observation point at El Rosario is a steep 1.5-hour hike up the hillside from the entrance.

See also  20 Natural Wonders of Mexico

On the other hand, Sierra Chincua is stunning and the hike up is more picturesque than that of El Rosario. To reach the observation point, it’s just a 40-minute hike along the mountain ridges where miradores (viewpoints) reveal spectacular views of the valley.

The sanctuaries in the State of Mexico are actually nearer to Mexico City but they are more rugged and less accessible (with steeper trails where you have to scramble with your hands at certain parts). That said, all the reserves will offer the option of hiring horses to bring you closer to the observation point – even though a short walk is always necessary towards the end.

monarch butterflies in mexico

Should You Book a Tour or Visit Independently?

This depends on how much time you have, but I STRONGLY recommend spending at least 2-3 days in the area. This way you get to visit a few sanctuaries, not just one, and experience the different terrains and landscapes. One day is not enough to see the area – considering that the closest big cities to the butterfly sanctuaries, Morelia or Mexico City, are a couple of hours’ drive away.

Observing monarch butterflies is after all a wildlife experience – it can be unpredictable and you never know if you’ll get to see them or not. Each year, the butterflies concentrate on different parks of the sanctuaries, depending on the weather conditions. So it’s best to give yourself more time to keep that into consideration. 

I recommend renting a car and driving yourself – like we did. We drove our own car from San Miguel de Allende (where we currently live) to Sierra Chincua (which took 3.5 hours each way) and it was an easy and relaxing drive. With your own transport, you can drive from one sanctuary to another, visiting the pueblos mágicos and archaeological sites along the way.

monarch butterflies in mexico - horse hire

Mexico Monarch Butterfly Tours 

There are plenty of monarch butterfly tours that leave from from the big cities of Mexico City or Morelia. But as mentioned, it’s a very long day trip from Mexico City – with a 2-hour drive each way and a steep hike thrown in. Plus, you’ll only have time to see the butterflies and not much else.

Please also keep in mind that the local communities won’t be benefitting much from group tours. Your money goes a longer way when you stay in the villages nearby, eat at local eateries and pay for a guide or horseback ride. [More details below]

Regardless, if you only have the time for a day trip, here are some tours that have great reviews:

monarch butterflies tour mexico - crowded el rosario

How to Get to the Butterfly Sanctuaries

By Car

If you’ve driven abroad and are confident driving in Mexico, I highly recommend renting a car from Mexico City. This part of central Mexico is rather rural and not quite as accessible as other areas. You’ll be staying in small villages where there’s no public transport to the butterfly sanctuaries.

I always book my car rental from Discover Cars as they offer the best prices and customer service. An economy rental car in Mexico City, with pickup and dropoff at the airport, costs around $200 for a whole week, which is less than $28 a day. The current price for gas is 23.50 MXN (around $1) per liter.

Driving Distance to the Butterfly Sanctuaries

From Mexico City

  • From Mexico City to El Rosario – 118 miles (190 km); 3h45m driving.
  • From Mexico City to Sierra Chincua – 106 miles (170 km); 3.5 hours driving 
  • From Mexico City Senguio – 144 miles (231 km); 3h25m  hours driving

From Morelia

  • From Morelia to El Rosario – 199 miles (160 km); 2h50 hours driving.
  • From Morelia to Sierra Chincua – 106 miles (170 km); 2.5 hours driving 
  • From Morelia to Senguio – 82 miles (132 km); 2 hours driving

Driving Tips in Mexico

  • In Mexico, you drive on the right side of the road.
  • Always keep your driving license, car rental papers, and proof of insurance handy.
  • The main road hazards are reckless drivers; they tend to go very fast, changing lanes as and when they like without signaling. Be wary of these drivers and keep calm!
  • Instead of speed cameras, they have speed bumps to regulate your speed. They can be hard to spot sometimes, so be prepared to slow down.
  • Avoid driving at night as you won’t be able to see the speed bumps and drivers go even faster than usual.
driving into michaocan - monarch butterflies in mexico

By Bus

We recommend an overnight stay at Angangueo to visit the three sanctuaries in Michoacán. Angangueo is a picturesque old mining town surrounded by the mountains of Sierra Chincua and it was founded because of minerals that were discovered in the area. Today it’s a pueblo mágico worth visiting, especially if you’re coming to see the monarch butterflies. 

If you are traveling from Mexico City, catch the bus from the eastern terminal (known as Observatorio). There’s a direct bus to Angangueo, that leaves regularly, and it takes fours. You can also take a bus from Morelia to Zitácuaro, the third largest city in the state of Michoacán; the journey takes about three hours. From Zitácuaro you can board a local bus to the town of Angangueo and then a taxi to reach the trail head of El Rosario.

How Much Time to See the Butterflies?

I suggest planning 3 days to explore the butterfly sanctuaries in Michoacán. It’s such a magical experience walking amidst millions of butterflies fluttering about, that trust me, you would want to visit more than one sanctuary. Since it takes a few hours to explore each sanctuary (as you need to hike to reach the observation point), plan to visit one sanctuary per day.

See also  El Chepe Train: My 2024 Guide to Copper Canyon by Train

It’s also a good idea to combine your trip to the butterfly sanctuary with a visit to Morelia, the capital of Michoacán. Morelia is one of the most beautiful and dynamic cities I’ve been in Mexico, and yet it’s completely gone under the tourist radar. There are so many things to do in Morelia, from visiting the plethora of museums and cultural institutions to the nearby hot springs and lakes. 

If you have time, I’ll recommend doing a Michoacán road trip, like we did, to visit the various pueblos mágicos famous for their Day of the Dead celebrations (which take place on 1 and 2 November). I highly recommend visiting Patzcuaro and Isla Janitzio for their Purepacha traditional celebrations. This part of Mexico is under-visited and has so much to offer in terms of traditions and culture.

TIP: The best time to see the monarchs is in the late morning (around 11am when the sun shines on the forests).

morelia- base to see monarch butterflies

Do You Need to Be Fit to see the Butterflies?

The monarch butterfly sanctuaries stand at an elevation of 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) above sea level. At this altitude, it can be harder to breathe and hiking can feel more challenging than usual. A basic level of fitness is required, but almost everyone can do the hike. My 8-year-old daughter had no problems. I also saw lots of Mexican families carrying tiny babies and toddlers up the trail.

Thankfully, horses are available for hire at all of the butterfly sanctuaries. They’re not expensive to hire (starting from 150 MXN or US$7.50) and they’ll get you close to the observation points. The only thing is that you’ll still need to hike 15-35 minutes the rest of the way, as horses can’t tread the narrow, rocky trails.

Chances of getting altitude sickness are pretty low – but still, climb slowly and take regular breaks. Be sure to take water; vendors sell bottled water at the trail head if you forgot to bring your own.

mexico monarch butterflies - sierra chincua

Are the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuaries Safe to Visit?

Michoacán used to be plagued by cartel activities, but it is generally considered a safe area to visit these days. The butterfly sanctuaries are located in a rural, mountainous part of Michoacán that is calm and peaceful. I spoke to a few of the horsemen and they all claimed that the area is very safe.

While incidents can occur, violent crime rates here are comparatively lower than in the big cities. As always, it’s advisable to exercise common-sense precautions, such as being aware of your surroundings and safeguarding personal belongings. 

monarch butterflies in mexico - road to sanctuary

Can You Bring Kids to See the Monarch Butterflies in Mexico?

Visiting the monarch butterfly sanctuaries is a great adventure for families looking to experience Mexico’s nature with their little ones. We brought our daughter to see the monarch butterflies and she loved it! At 8 years old, she’s pretty outdoorsy and enjoys hiking, especially if it’s uphill and involves lookout points and rocky trails.

The trails are pretty steep, but the hikes are totally doable for kids from age 4 and above, especially if they’re covering most of it on horseback. Note that even if you do choose to hire a horse, you’ll still need to hike 30-45 minutes in El Rosario and 15 minutes in Sierra Chincua to reach the observation points.

If you have little ones that need carrying, it’s wise to bring a hiking baby carrier backpack .

mexico migrating monarchs - monarch butterflies in mexico

Cost of visiting the Butterfly Sanctuaries

The admission fees for each of the butterfly sanctuaries in Michocán are 100 MXN (US$5) per adult and 80 MXN (US$4) per child

The price for horseback rides differ from one sanctuary to another; we paid 170 MXN (US$8) per horse at El Rosario and 150 MXN ($7.5) at Sierra Chincua. They allow kids to ride with adults and the horses are led by horsemen who are all family. 

At Sierra Chincua there’s also ziplining (150 MXN or $7.5) which brings you across the valley and back; it’s real fun for kids!

Where to Eat at the Butterfly Sanctuaries

All of the butterfly sanctuaries in Michoacán have local eateries and kiosks by the main entrance. They usually serve up Michoacán specialties and traditional Mexican foods like carne asada (grilled meat), cecina (roast marinated meat), and tlayudas (a giant tortilla topped with frijoles beans and cheese).

Prices here are slightly higher than in the villages, but they’re still affordable. Alternatively, you can find more options in the villages of Angangueo or Ocampo. Check out our guide to Mexican antojitos (street food) for a better understand of what to eat in Mexico.

monarch butterflies in mexico - what to eat

Where to Stay near the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuaries

The nearest village to El Rosario and Sierra Chincua is Angangueo. It’s a small pueblo, so there aren’t many choices when it comes to accommodation. Adjust your expectations and prepare for cold nights. If you’re not willing to sacrifice your creature comfort, head further to the city of Zitacuaro (1 hour from El Rosario) and you’ll find more comfortable hotels there.

Cabañas La Palma

We stayed at this charming wooden lodge just outside of Angangueo, with loft-style cabins and a mountain resort feel. Prices are affordable and the wooden log cabin feel definitely adds to the whole experience. Check rates here.

Plaza Don Gabino

A simple guesthouse at the edge of Angangueo, this place offers an affordable option and those seeking a local experience. Yes it gets chilly in the morning, but the host’s welcoming attitude and big spread of breakfast makes up for it. Check rates here.

See also  30 Best Things to Do in Morelia

Rancho Cumbre Monarca

This family-style ranch in La Ciénega is a popular choice for those traveling in group tours. Rooms are outdated but they are heated up at night with a fireplace. The lush garden and play area make it a great spot for families with kids. Check rates here.

Hotel Casa Iturbe

If you don’t mind driving further to stay in Zitacuaro, you’ll find more restaurants and things to do here. This comfortable hotel is probably the nicest place to stay in the area. It’s steps from nice restaurants and a few blocks from the city’s main square. Check rates here.

Things to Do near the Butterfly Sanctuaries

Explore the Zirahuato Pyramids

The  Pyramids of San Felipe de los Alzati ruins are located on the southern slopes, near the base, of Cerro Zirahuato. It is believed that the ancient city was built by one of the indigenous ethnic groups in the Toluca Valley around 600 AD.  Because the Aztec term for the Toluca Valley was Matlatzinco, those who inhabited that valley came to be known as Matlatzincas regardless of which of the four native languages they spoke.

Wander the Mining Town of Angangueo 

The mining town of Angangueo has an old train station that was recently restored as the beginning of the newly-installed Monarch Green Way, a 4-kilometer trail connecting two stations, this might be the beginning of a national rails to trails network in Mexico. Any one can bike it but there is no bike rental.

The price of silver bottomed out in the early 1980s, forcing many residents of Angangueo to look for work elsewhere. The town currently has 5,000 residents, down from 18,000 in 1987. Tourism hasn’t been enough to restore the town’s former glory, but each weekend from November to March, the town is full of tourists who come to see the monarchs.

angangueo - butterflies in mexico

Soak up Christmas Atmosphere at Tlalpujahua

Tlalpujahua is a small town with a mining past, but today it’s mostly known as the Christmas capital of Mexico. It’s known throughout Mexico for the production of Christmas spheres. Every fall, thousands of people come to the Villa de Santa Claus to buy Christmas decorations handcrafted in hundreds of workshops. If you’re spending Christmas in Mexico, you should definitely add this to your itinerary.

tlalpujahua - monarch butterflies in mexico

What to Pack for a Monarch Butterfly Trip

This is definitely a hiking trip, that involves traipsing up some steep slopes. You’ll NEED sturdy hiking shoes or running shoes to visit the monarch butterfly sanctuaries. The sun is also pretty strong at this altitude, so pack a hat/cap, sun screen, and sunglasses. We brought our hiking poles, and they were definitely useful.

Remember to bring a lightweight down jacket as it can get cold in the morning during the monarch butterfly migration season (November to March). The sanctuaries are located at high altitude so be prepared for the cool mountain air. It’s best to pack layers as you’ll need to peel them off when the sun hits and it gets warmer.

Also make sure to bring a small hiking backpack to carry water, sunglasses, snacks and your belongings. Of course, don’t forget your water bottle. Be sure to read my guide on what to pack for Mexico for more details.

Packing List 

what to pack for monarch butterflies in mexico  trip

Rules at the Butterfly Sanctuaries in Mexico

  • Stick to the designated hiking trails, please do not veer off the path or walk in the forest. You can easily step on the butterflies.
  • Noise can be a source of stress for the butterflies; all visitors are asked to keep silent when approaching the observation points. There are signs everywhere to remind you and rangers making sure everyone stays quiet.
  • Do not touch the butterflies, even the dead ones that are on the ground.
  • Always keep your children close to you and make sure they don’t wander off the trail.
  • No food allowed on the hiking trails or observation areas – there are lots of food stands and eateries at the park entrance.
  • Pets are not allowed in the sanctuaries
monarch butterflies in mexico

Final Tips to See the Monarch Butterflies in Mexico

Thank you for reading this far! Observing the monarch butterflies in Mexico is a truly magical experience. I felt so privileged to have the opportunity to witness such a spectacular natural phenomenon. Plus, the mountains of Michoacán have an incredibly stunning setting and offer such a distinctive experience from other places in Mexico.

If you’re a wildlife lover and enjoy immersing in nature, the monarch butterflies in Mexico will be sure to impress you. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments field below. I’ll be more than happy to answer them!

For those who are planning to travel more of Mexico, check out other articles I’ve written on Mexico:

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links i.e. if you book a stay through one of my links, I get a small commission at NO EXTRA COST to you. Thank you for your support!

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