There aren’t many experiences in life that you can say are once in a lifetime, but experiencing the monarch butterflies of Mexico is undoubtedly one of them. Each year millions of monarch butterflies make the long trek from Canada and the northern part of the United States to Mexico where they stay for winter months.
Today, visitors can visit several sanctuaries to get up and close to millions of monarchs and witness the monarch migration. If you’re planning a trip to Mexico this guide will explain how to see the monarch butterflies in Mexico.
The monarch butterfly migration in Mexico
Each fall, millions of Monarch butterflies instinctively start their travel to Mexico to overwinter. They fly anywhere from 25 to 30 miles a day traveling around 3,000 miles in total to reach one of the three butterfly sanctuaries in Mexico.
The journey is long and challenging. In order to survive, the monarch morphs into a “super” monarch that is able to make it to Mexico in just one lifespan. The Oyamel Fir trees found in Michoacan and Estado de Mexico are the perfect sanctuary for the Monarchs in winter.
The monarch butterflies will live here for several months, resting, eating, and reproducing fluttering around when the sun peeks out. Come March, the butterflies start their voyage north again.
However, unlike the super Monarch that made it to Mexico in just one lifespan, the butterflies returning home will go through as many as four generations before reaching home. Many places in the United States see large numbers of monarch butterflies stopping to rest and eat their beloved milkweed on this journey.
Sadly, due to diminishing food sources, increased pollution, and car traffic. Fewer and fewer monarchs are making this migration. Numbers of the monarch butterflies are consistently dwindling. With millions of fewer butterflies being recorded here each year. Getting to witness this experience as the population is dwindling makes it even more of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
When to see the monarch butterflies of Mexico
The Mexico monarch butterfly migration begins in October, and most butterflies don’t arrive in Mexico until around late November or December. January to early February is the peak season for witnessing the monarch butterfly migration in Mexico.
The best time to see the butterflies out and about is midday. Since the butterflies are in Mexico for warmth, they huddle together on branches in clusters to keep each other warm until the sun comes out.
We went around 11:00 am and were able to witness huge groups of the Monarchs “waking up”.
It’s also suggested you go on a weekday if at all possible. This is a very popular attraction (for good reason). And while the top of the mountain is extremely quiet and peaceful, the weekends can get very crowded.
Where to see the Mexican monarch butterfly
In Mexico, there are three sanctuaries you can visit in Mexico and Michoacan state. Both of these areas are home to Oyamel fir, pine, and oak trees. The perfect habitat and climate for the butterflies to survive and reproduce during the cold winter months.
All of the butterfly sanctuaries in Mexico are protected, which means you are only allowed to enter with a designated tour guide.
- Santuario Piedra Herrada is in Mexico State. This is about 45 minutes outside of Valle de Bravo and is where we went. It is also the most popular of the three. To get to the sanctuary you will need to climb up a very steep mountain. Or you can ride a horse. We paid $70 pesos for our entrance fee to walk with a guide. The horses were $250 pesos more.
- Santuario Mariposa Monarca El Rosario is in Michoacan state. This is roughly 2 hours outside of Mexico City. We met a couple on our trip to the butterfly sanctuary that also went here. They said the experience was vastly different. This is less of a forest and more of open field where the butterflies fly around in the thousands. They also said they took horses and lunch was included in the field.
- Santuario de la Mariposa Monarca Sierra Chincua is in Michoacan state. To get there you’ll need to drive about 3 and a half hours from Mexico City. This is the least visited out of the three sanctuaries. You can hike or ride a horse to view the butterflies in addition to other activities like suspension bridges and zip lining.
What to bring
Mexico State and Michoacan can be quite chilly in the morning. So it’s a good idea to wear layers and have a warmer jacket with you if you are visiting the monarch sanctuary in the early morning or evenings. Check the weather during your visit and plan accordingly.
It’s also highly recommended that you wear sneakers or sturdy shoes (like hiking shoes). If you aren’t riding a horse, you will be hiking up a mountain, and it definitely helps with footing.
Always bring your own reusable water bottle. We recommend this Camelbak that has a life straw in it to help filter and remove any unwanted chemicals like chlorine, lead, and organic matter. The sanctuary we visited had bathrooms on site ($10 pesos to use). And had vendors selling food and refreshments.
We highly recommend getting lunch from a vendor after your tour. The food was super affordable and fantastic. Try a huitlacoche quesadilla or sope. This is a special mushroom that grows on corn and is a delicacy in Mexico.
What to expect when viewing the monarch butterflies
The butterflies are very active when the sun comes out, and will likely be flying overhead, munching on some milkweed, or mating. Once the butterflies mate and lay eggs, they die so don’t be surprised to see dead butterflies all around. It’s a part of their life cycle and one of the reasons they come to Mexico over winter.
Everyone was extremely respectful of the Sanctuary and remained quiet during their time on the mountain. All we could hear was the breeze and the flapping of the butterfly’s wings. Watching the monarch butterflies of Mexico fly all around you is truly magical. When you’re there, it’s easy to understand why silence is revered.
I personally am very thankful one of the friends we traveled through Mexico with knew about the migration and made a point to reroute us before they returned home. If you’re planning to travel Mexico during peak migration months, I highly encourage you to build a visit to one of the butterfly sanctuaries for this breathtaking experience.