Monarch butterflies begin their winter getaway

At this very moment, some 250 million monarch butterflies are arriving in the luscious volcanic highlands of southern Mexico. Guided to the area by an inexplicable internal clock, each year monarch butterflies travel up to 2,000 miles to the state of Michoacan, which becomes the butterflies’ winter getaway. Nature-goers can be visit the butterflies anytime between November and March, although the best time to see them is in February and early March, right before they head north again.

Originally from southern Canada and the northern United States, the orange and black monarchs hibernate during winter and mate in spring before returning back north. Each year from late October to early November, the delicate creatures flee the north’s freezing temperatures and embark on a month-long trip south, flying some 70 miles per day to reach the Oyamel mountaintop fir forests of the central Mexican state of Michoacan. Those fortunate enough to live along the monarchs’ route south are frequently exposed to the site of large groups of butterflies flying overhead on route to their winter sanctuary.

Once reaching the Oyamel forests, the monarchs cluster togetr by the thousands in pine trees, weighing down branches with their sheer mass and making the forests glow the bright orange of their wings. These butterflies spend the entire winter in Michoacan, finally mating in the spring and then returning north, laying eggs along the way. Witnessing this incredible sight is reason enough to follow the Monarchs down to Mexico.

In the easternmost part of Michoacan is an immense monarch butterfly reserve spanning nearly 100 square-miles. Decreed a special biosphere reserve by the federal government, thousands of butterflies cluster together in the early morning and nights, covering whole trees and weighing down branches. As the day warms up, they begin to flutter around, descending to the humid forest floor for the hottest part of the day. By mid-afternoon they may cover the ground completely, making it near impossible to walk around them.

Several of the monarch butterfly sanctuaries are open to the public, including Sierra Chincua and El Campanario. Sierra Chincua is about a 30-minute drive north of Angangueo, once an important mining town. El Campanario, also known as El Rosario sanctuary is much more frequently visited. It lies above the small village of El Rosario, almost an hour’s drive up some rough terrain from the village of Ocampo. Common departure points to the sanctuaries are Ocampo, Zitacuaro and Morelia.

It is a good idea to spend the night in Angangueo, from where visitors can secure transport to the reserve early in the morning, when the butterflies are still in the trees. A comfortable hotel is the Albergue Don Bruno (tel. 011-52-715-156-0026). Maruata (tel. 011-52-443-324-2120) runs 10-hour tours to the sanctuary including transportation, food and bilingual guide for US$60. For those spending the weekend, the 62-room Villa Monarca Inn (tel. 011-52-715-153-5362), located in the outskirts of Zitacuaro, is an ideal place to go.

Angangueo, Zitacuaro and the nearby towns of Maravatio and Ocampo hold a monarch Butterfly Festival each February, featuring traditional dance, music and craft markets, in celebration of their annual winter visitors.

Local tourist areas include the beautiful colonial town of Morelia, Michoacan’s capital and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, giving travelers yet another reason to visit. Other popular tourist stops, including Lake Patzcuaro, the quaint town of Patzcuaro, Janitzio Island and the Tarascan Indian ruins of Tzintzuntzan, are also nearby. >

More information:
Mexico Tourism,