Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve
The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve was created to protect the wintering habitat of the Monarch Butterfly.
The Monarch is perhaps the best known of all North American butterflies. It also is present in Australia, New Zealand and on the Canary Islands, the Azores, and Madeira. Its wings feature an easily recognizable orange and black pattern. The Monarch is famous for its southward migration starting in August until the first frost, and northward return in summer in the Americas which spans the life of three to four generations of the butterfly.
As of the winter of 2007-2008, there were twelve major colonies or sanctuaries of monarch butterflies wintering in Mexico, eight of these are located within the Biosphere. Perhaps a billion monarch butterflies land in close-packed clusters, bending tree branches by their weight, filling the sky when they take flight, and making a sound like light rain with the beating of their wings.
Map of Monarch Butterfly Biosphere ReserveLoad map
Visit January 2014
This is such a unique WHS, and my visit was all that I had hoped for. I stayed overnight in the nearest city, Zitacuaro. From there it’s an easy drive up into the mountains where the butterflies stay for the winter. The landscape around here is very un-Mexican, more Alpine or Nepalese. I had witnessed that already the day before when driving from Morelia to Zitacuaro via the mountain road #15.
There are varying reports about what is the best time to see the butterflies. Considering which month, February is supposedly the best with January and early March as alternatives. The little creatures stay “in bed” (huddled together hanging from a tree branch) when it’s too cold. They will fly out for the day when they feel the sun glowing on their wings, so a sunny day is better than a clouded one. Finally, the parks are the busiest in the weekends when Mexican daytrippers are visiting. My visit as described below was on Friday January 17, and I arrived at the butterfly viewing point at about 10.45 a.m.
I choose El Rosario for my visit, as it’s the most accessible park. Entrance to the park is now 50 pesos (about 3 EUR), for which you also get a (compulsory?) guide assigned to you. I was the third visitor of the day. We walked up the mountain slowly, stopping now and then to look for birds (many hummingbirds here) or catch breath. It’s a steep climb on a well-cared for forest path. At the top there is a pretty meadow,parts of the shrubs here were still frozen. You’re really at an altitude here, over 3,000 meters. The guide told me that there had been about 10cm of snow here in early January, it was very beautiful to see the oranje butterflies against the white background.
A little further into the forest I first noticed the butterflies hanging from the trees. Really a “Wow!”-moment. It looks just like the trees have lots of rotten leaves on them. But they are sleeping butterflies. When they sleep they have their wings together and you see the white/grey side of the wings. When the sun is out and they flutter about, you see them in full glory orange as that’s the colour on the other side of the wings.
The butterflies stay in a relatively small area, though they apparently cover 1,500 trees. You can watch them from behind a rope. The viewing point actually has come upward over the years, as the butterflies are now staying at a higher altitude than before. They may look close on the pictures, but there’s a distance of some 20 or 30 meters between you and them. Some of the butterflies however are loners and don’t want to huddle with the crowd: you’ll find them anywhere on the path or on a branch beside you. There also lots of dead ones.
We stayed for about 45 minutes, hoping that the sun would break through and the butterflies would depart en masse. Unfortunately it didn’t, but at every shade of sun I saw the “early birds” start fluttering about from tree to tree. The sheer numbers and the magic involved how they find their way here each year keeps you thinking though.
I am an entomologist, both amateurly and professionally. This means that my job is to study insects, but that I also collect insects as an amateur out of passion. In fact, the monarch is the first butterfly I got when I learned how to pin and preserve specimens. In addition, we have planted milkweed in front of the house (the monarch's host plant) and we follow the development of caterpillars and chrysalis every summer. It was therefore natural to visit them on their wintering grounds with the rest of the North American population. This WHS was definitely made for me and it was the main reason why I chose Mexico as my destination in 2019. My expectations were very high and, fortunately, I was not disappointed.
I landed in Mexico City from Montréal and took the metro to the Observatorio bus station, from where buses to Angangueo frequently leave. This small town on the border of the states of Mexico and Michoacán is the perfect base camp to visit the sanctuaries. I spent three nights there in mid-February, the first night to arrive and drop off my suitcases and the next two nights to visit two sanctuaries. It is also a convenient town to thereafter reach Morelia via Zitácuaro. Monarchs were already flying in the village when I arrived. On my first day, I met a very friendly guide and driver with whom I planned my two excursions. The price may have been too high, but I was not yet used to Mexican standards. However, I was happy with him, as he led me to the two sanctuaries that I visited and waited for me while I contemplated the butterflies, the guides of the sanctuaries having taken over for the visits.
We left relatively early the next morning for the sanctuary of El Rosario. The advantages of being there early were the solitude, the calm and being able to enjoy the heavy bunches of butterflies bending the branches while they are still clumped together to protect themselves from the cold. The disadvantage was having to wait for the mid-day heat to be surrounded by clouds of orange butterflies. The El Rosario sanctuary is rather small, but well laid out. The presence of a guide is obligatory. He makes sure that visitors follow the instructions and gives some information. However, my extensive prior knowledge and the language barrier prevented me from asking the more in-depth questions that inspired my visit. It is possible, however, that he would not even have had the answers (But don't get me wrong! I consider offering these jobs to city workers during the tourist season to be a great idea, a great way to involve the community in the management of the property and a good way to protect it since many of these workers could otherwise become loggers. They are simply not professional guides with a deep expertise in the subject matter.). So I went on a first tour of the sanctuary with him. At one point, he caught a hummingbird in his nest to show it off. I doubt the success of its breeding if it is disturbed like this frequently. When we returned to the entrance, I left by myself to contemplate the show again and again and wait for the butterflies to fly away. The oyamel fir trees on which the butterflies land are gigantic, but the masses of butterflies nevertheless manage to bend the branches (and not just one, but hundreds of branches in dozens and dozens of trees!). We are talking about millions of butterflies! The light conditions were harsh for my poor travel camera, but all the black masses you see in the photo are butterfly clusters, while all the pale dots are flying butterflies. In the course of the morning, rivers of butterflies began to flow down the mountain towards the village.
The next day, I visited the Sierra Chincua Sanctuary. This one, located closer to the town, receives fewer visitors, but also fewer butterflies. However, it offers a pleasant hike to reach the butterflies (as at any good Mexican site, horses are also available to ride a part of the trail). It takes between 45 minutes and an hour to reach the colony, depending on your walking pace. The trail offers several panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and allows you to observe many bird species, including several hummingbirds. I arrived early again and was led to the colony by the obligatory guide. The colony is much smaller than El Rosario, but it is still a nice sight. I again wanted to have a good time watching the butterflies fly away in swarms, but my guide seemed rather inclined to turn back. He even took me out of the permitted observation area to get a better view of the colony (I think that he wanted to satisfy me and convince me to leave, which failed. Don't do it yourself to avoid disturbing the butterflies, but my guide's transgression of the rules was well worth it!). It is only after I understood that he was waiting for his tip and didn't care much about letting me alone that I gave him his well deserved money and that he finally left me to my butterflies. This way I was able to take my time to enjoy the show and observe the abundant nature on the way back. The sanctuary's visitor area boasts several restaurants and craft stands to satisfy hordes of tourists (the capacity was far from being reached when I was there).
Although this site is not a geological wonder, nor does it have grandiose landscapes or a unique biological richness (it is only listed under criterion 7 after all), it is one of the most fascinating places I have ever seen. Many of the mysteries of this masterful migration have yet to be solved by science, but there is nothing to stop us from being amazed by the resulting spectacle.
In February 2020, I made my second visit to the small cloud forest reserves, about two hours northwest of Mexico City, where each year hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies from southeastern Canada and the northeastern United States spend the period between mid-November and mid-March. I took a bus from Terminal Observatorio in Mexico City to Zitacuaro, and then a taxi to JM Butterfly B&B in nearby Macheros (both the bus and the taxi cost MXN300, around US$15). JM Butterfly B&B arranged trips to Cerro Pelon (not very crowded and just a few minutes from the hotel) and El Rosario, the largest sanctuary, about 90 minutes from the hotel, but very crowded with visitors, although the most monarchs.
The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserves is one of those really unique world heritage sites. As far as I can tell there is nothing on the list that compares to it: a forest full of butterflies. Simply amazing.
With my mandatory guide, I hiked into the park. At first, there were scores of dying butterflies on the ground. Then we ran into larger clouds of butterflies swirling in the air. And eventually, we made it to the butterfly covered trees.
Unfortunately, I visited before lunch. The time wasn't perfect. The parks are in the mountains and before lunch, it's cloudy and potentially too cold for the butterflies to fly around. They even put up a sign (see picture).
The first question for getting there is not about the location: It's about the time. The monarch butterflies migrate North during summer and are only in the area during winter, roughly November to March. I came in December/January so this was not an issue. Visiting outside butterfly season does not count in my eyes.
I went on a day trip from Mexico City by bus. There are 1-2 daily connections to Angangueo. We arrived in Angangueo around 11 a.m. From there I took a cab (negotiate rate) to take me to El Rosario and back.
I had been in Morelia before and I am pretty sure you can arrive from that direction, too. But I was short on time and little information on bus connections was available, so I skipped.
On-site you have to pay a local guide. They provide some information and make sure you don't break anything, e.g. by touching the butterflies. But the main purpose is that they can make a living and do not have to resort to illegal logging which would hurt the butterfly population. And I am fine with that, especially as the fee was reasonable.
Inspired by the other reviewers I chose El Rosario to tick off this site. Google Maps does not know it, but once you are within the region it’s signposted, there are not too many roads and people are happy to point you into the right direction. I started my trip from Morelia at around 09:15, arriving on site just before 12. The roads are not great and it felt like there was a speed bump every 100 meters, but the site itself provided such a great experience that I would do it again. Do to my rather late arrival it was already quite warm and the butterflies were very active. Thousands of butterflies flew around me and made me feel like I was in a cheesy romantic movie. The area where the butterflies actually are is rather small, so the time you will spend on site is almost nothing compared to the time you need to go there and back. But still an unforgettable experience and among my favorite sites in Mexico so far.
This was one of those spine tingling locations that I never would have visited if it was not for the place on the world heritage list. Even with high expectations nothing really prepared us for the astounding moment when thousands of butterflies burst into the air, a real life enhancing moment!
After a wonderful night in front of a log fire in the highly recommended Don Gabino hotel in Angangueo, we had a knock on the door with a friendly local english speaking guide offering his services for the day. Delighted we set off for Sierra Chincua sanctuary, which he said offered an easier ascent and a better viewing experience, both seemed accurate to us. He said that the best viewing experience is at Cerro Pelón, however it is a more remote cluster and is a three hour hike each way to visit it. At Sierra Chincua We actually had the whole sanctuary to ourselves, only encountering other visitors as we were departing.
The initial view of the clusters of monarchs hanging in the trees showed them in giant clumps, looking like dead leaves. As we delved deeper there were more and more of these giant clusters the sheer quantity was staggering. It was still cool and they were mostly all huddled together but there were still a lot stretching their wings and flying around. Being the only people around I was amazed that I could actually hear the butterflies flapping their wings as they fluttered around the tree tops or came close to pay us a quick inquisitive visit.
Due to the cloud conditions our guide recommended a short break at a viewpoint, which showed the landscape of dormant volcanoes and gave us a chance to take in what we had seen. On our return to the butterflies our guides intuition proved precise, a small change in the micro climate meant that more and more monarchs were up and flying. Standing in amazement at the spectacle in front of us we weren't prepared for a small cloud briefly covering the sun, ... and then ... a burst of activity. From every tree thousands of butterflies all took off at once, filling the sky and leaving us awestruck. Everything else just stopped and for one brief moment the only thing that mattered was the spectacle in front of us.
A wonderful world heritage site and a life enhancing experience.
[Site 9: Experience 9]
We are keeping our fingers crossed that the Monarch Butterfly forests will be inscribed this year – not just because it will add to our “visited list” but also because it is clearly such a world class natural site! What can stop it? Well, IUCN often seems more concerned with “process” than the inherent value of a site so perhaps the buffer zones haven’t been adequately defined or else the management plan isn’t thick enough!
Actually, when we were there in Mar 2008, we felt that the Mexicans were doing quite a good job at balancing the “needs” of the butterflies with those of the large crowds who had come to see them. Down below at the bus station and car park and for some of the pathway up there was a carnival atmosphere – Mariachi bands and all sorts of Mexican food goodies. One got the feeling that a spring trip to see the butterflies was a traditional “good day out” for many and indeed some of the “oldies” looked as if they may have been doing the trip annually for many years – despite the steep climb (allow up to an hour given the crowds on the path)!.
As you approach the butterfly area, the ground becomes covered with the bodies of dead insects – one of the amazing aspects of this site is the way it brings home the sheer profligacy of nature. But there is a reasonable number of wardens to rope off the path and to guide tourists to the remarkably few trees where the millions (billions, trillions??) of the insects are gathered together for warmth. Their weight is such that the branches on which they settle are visibly sagging. Visitors are kept back from these trees but the views are perfectly adequate. Most only stay half an hour or so but there is a steady stream and usually a hundred or so people at each of the 2 main “tree areas” at any one time. Given the number of children who have come, a reasonable quietness is maintained. People are clearly entranced by the magic and mystery of this natural phenomenon.
We were there on a partly cloudy day but, every 5 minutes or so as a cloud moved away from the sun and the warmth filtered through the trees, countless butterflies would leave their branches and flutter up into the air filling it with their orange and black. So many wings were beating that you might feel that you could actually hear them - the Web site i refer to below describes it as "the whisper of thousands of voices". In its way this sight was as memorable as other great natural gatherings around the world such as the Wildebeest crossing the Mara or the massed King Penguin colonies on S Georgia.
There are a number of different destinations where the butterflies might be seen. We went to El Rosario – this is the most “famous” and we were more than happy with what we saw. We were self driving and the road is a bit bumpy and pot holed for the last 15kms up from Ocampo (we approached from Zitacuaro which is on the direct route from Mexico DF) but perfectly passable by saloon car with care – the locals do exact a toll of M$35 for use of the road (only collected in 1 direction). The entrance fee to the park was M$35pp. Allow around 3 hours from arrival to depart – the “Mexican atmosphere” of the crowds enjoying themselves is worth picking up on. There is a Park Information Centre but this was not USA and it was clearly lacking investment – a movie was showing (in Spanish only) but you are better advised to move on and see the real thing! You can find out more at this excellent WWF Website
2008 Advisory Body overruled
By IUCN (later overruled by Committee): integrity issues
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