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Land of The Monarchs

December 28, 2011

We completely mis-timed our journey to the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary at El Rosario and the 250km or so from Patzcuaro took us 7.5 hours. The sanctuary is located between Morelia and Mexico City. The final 20 km was slow going up a steep mountain and the sanctuary itself is at over 3000m. The road in is cobbled and covered in topes so the going was painfully slow. As we were ascending the mountain night was falling and we finally arrived at the car park of the sanctuary in complete darkness.

The life cycle of the Monarch butterfly is amazing. These butterflies spend their summers in the Great Lakes region of North America but the whole species migrates South to highland Mexico in the winter. They begin to arrive in mid-November and leave again in March. The butterflies usually only have a lifespan of 3-5 weeks but during this migration they suspend their breeding cycle and the same butterflies travel all the way South and then breed before their offspring head Northwards. It is a distance of around 4500 miles.

We spent the night here (this was our first free camping night in mainland Mexico) and as soon as the sanctuary opened in the morning we were ready to go. The route from the lower car park to the actual sanctuary takes a winding path up the hill which has maximised the number of vendors that can build huts to hawk their wares from. We were bombarded by children singing for us (which was actually quite cute) and locals offering us their wares.

We reached the entrance to the sanctuary and paid our entrance fee of 40 pesos each (this includes the services of a guide). There weren’t any English speaking guides though!  The actual butterfly areas are around 2k from the entrance – straight up a steep hill. There is around another 600m of climbing all above 3000m so it is hard work and we had to stop frequently to catch our breath. However we soon worked out that a slower pace was best and made our way up the hill.

When you arrive at your destination there is yellow tape showing you how far you can go and then a bunch of trees. At first glance you can’t see anything but as you look at the trees you realise that what you thought were clumps of leaves are in fact massive clumps of butterflies. As you continue to look you realise that the trees are literally covered in millions of butterflies hanging on the trunks, branches and each other.

As a result of the altitude the nights are cold up here and we had passed patches of frost on the way up. This means that the butterflies huddle together for warmth in the nights and only begin to wake up when they are thawed out by the rising sun in the morning.

As the sun pierced the canopy sections of the sleeping butterflies woke up, stretched their wings and began to flutter around – filling the air with brightly coloured shapes.

The scene before us was mesmerising and we stayed over an hour to watch increasingly large numbers of the monarchs take to the wing.  It’s the type of place you could stay all day and not get bored but we knew we faced another long drive and so made tracks back down the hillside.

The journey down the hill back to the Beast was much more pleasant and quicker than the journey up.  We were visiting at the weekend and we had been warned that the sanctuary could be very busy but we only saw two other people at the top. However on our way back down the mountain we saw 10 or more other people making their way up the hill very slowly. You can hire a horse to do the climb – I don’t think it is any faster but it is less tiring!

After leaving the Monarchs we started driving towards San Miguel de Allende to the North of the butterflies. The road took us up through the mountains and was slow going. We topped out at around 3300m on a mountain road where there was a police checkpoint which only took a couple of minutes. This was the first policeman to ask to see my driving licence though. After crossing the pass the going was much quicker and there was a gradual downhill across a highland plateau. However we didn’t reach San Miguel de Allende and stopped for the night at the major town of Querataro.

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