Royal Refuge: A Visit to Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary

I had been intrigued ever since I heard it described as a blizzard of orange snow.  So when a friend came down to visit for her birthday, I said, “Let’s go see the butterflies,” and we headed south to the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary.

Cluster of monarch butterflies. Photo by Scott Clark.

The driver we have hired guides the car slowly up the steep dirt road. Through the windshield we begin to see the butterflies- first one or two, then a handful, then maybe dozens.

Life Cycle and Migration of the Monarch Butterfly

The monarch butterfly, like all butterflies, goes through four stages of metamorphosis – egg, larvae (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and adult butterfly.  This in itself is rather amazing.  But even more awe-inspiring is their multi-generational migration.  Every year millions, tens of millions of butterflies come to the central Mexican highlands to pass the winter. They rest here, hibernating until February or March, when it’s time to wake up and find a mate.

Having mated, they begin the journey north and search for a suitable place to lay their eggs – on a milkweed plant somewhere in Texas or Oklahoma.  A few days later the eggs hatch into tiny caterpillars. After a couple of weeks of eating, the caterpillar is full-grown and ready to transform into a chrysalis.  Hidden in this silken shell – the humble caterpillar takes about ten days to become the beautiful monarch butterfly.

The butterflies that emerge continue the journey north during their short six weeks of life.  They lay eggs for the next generation that will be born in May or June.  The cycle repeats with a third set of eggs hatched in July and August, each generation migrating north towards Canada.  A fourth generation is born in the fall, but instead of dying after a few weeks of life, this monarch butterfly flies south and finds a warm place (like the El Rosario Sanctuary) to over-winter.  And so the cycle begins again.

Every year, which is to say, every fourth generation, the monarch butterfly returns to the same place.  Exactly how they do this is one of nature’s mysteries.

It is cold here in the mountains and the hike is more strenuous than I expected.  Plus you have to watch your step as even the ground is littered with butterflies. There is a faint humming in the air – the sound of how many thousand little wings?

Visiting the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary

The El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary is located about three hours east of Morelia in the state of Michoacán, Mexico.  From the town of Angangueo, a bus will take you to the village of El Rosario.  From there, you can hire a taxi to take you to the Sanctuary.

The Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary is open to tourists from November until March (exact dates vary).  For a truly spectacular experience, try to visit at either end of this time window when the butterflies are moving around. Contact the Sanctuary for more information.

Monarch Butterfly - photo by Jeff Kramer.

Monarch Butterfly – photo by Jeff Kramer.

Looking up, we see the boughs of pine trees sagging under the weight of the butterflies.  How many butterflies could I hold in my hand before I felt their weight?  I remove my glasses to clean them and squint up towards the sky.  “Joan,” I say, “Take you glasses off!” Without  focus, the fluttering orange is now everywhere.

Published in Ecotourism, Mexico

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Seasoned traveler, avid reader, over-eater, clumsy but determined hiker and wannabe Spanish-speaker.

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