How to visit the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Mexico
At the beginning of winter every year, somewhere between 60 million and a billion Monarch butterflies make an amazing migration over 2,500 miles. The beginning of the monarch butterfly migration coincides with Dia de Los Muertos, and Mexican fables say that the Monarchs represent the dead souls returning to earth during this important holiday.
If you have seen a monarch butterfly on the East coast, Southern US, or the Midwest, chances are they migrate to one of two sites on the border of the states of Michoacan and the State of Mexico (Estado de Mexico) – the sanctuaries include El Rosario, Sierra Chincua, Cerro Pellon and Piedra Herrada.
I had the pleasure of visiting the Rosario sanctuary last December, so here is my guide if you decide to visit as well.
It’s fairly tough to find the entrance to Rosario on your own, especially if your Spanish is as weak as mine, so I absolutely recommend hiring a local guide or driver to help you find the way. Locals in the neighboring town of Ocampo are very friendly and helpful, but most (understandably) only speak Spanish.
In fact, fluent Spanish is no guarantee of getting in, so allocate an extra hour or so just for mishaps and getting lost on the way in. The entrance is through a mix of back streets, small cobbled towns, and mountain roads and isn’t always regularly marked. The occasional helpful Rosario Monarch sign is visible, but they are few and far between.
Most bathrooms are clearly marked sanitarios and have a small maintenance fee of 5–10 pesos.
When you find parking in the mountain sanctuary, there is a 15 minute uphill walkway through a bevy of local shops and artisans with rock bottom prices selling local goods, monarch butterfly migration themed items, and beautiful lace. You probably won’t be too interested in shopping on the way up, but make sure to check them on the way down to support local artists.
At the entrance there is a small fee and a notice that you need a local guide (which wasn’t enforced at all). Then begins the hike
Off to the left there is the option to hire a horseback ride, which we skipped, but you can take them for a fee (about $20USD) if you decide not to go on foot.
The hike uphill is about two hours or so if you are modestly in shape, or maybe an hour and fifteen minutes if you are in great shape. It starts off with large stone steps but eventually turns into a dirt road, so wear appropriate shoes. During the winter when the Monarchs are there, the climate becomes a bit chillier than the usually desert temperature, so make sure to bring a medium weight coat to stay warm at the 11,000foot elevation where the Monarchs are.
The Monarchs themselves are very beautiful at the end of the trek. If you want to get a good picture, make sure to visit early enough in the day that they aren’t backlit (like I did), since you view them looking towards the west.
On your way down, you will undoubtedly be hungry, so make sure to pack a few snacks and feel free to stop by one of the food stands for some carne asada or chile rellenos (very country Michoacán style and delicious). If you’re really lucky like us, you can see a beautiful multi-layered mountain sunset as you eat up. Make sure to eat before 6pm, as most places serving food close up after that time.
Enjoy your visit to one of the most amazing UNESCO natural heritage sites out there while the monarchs are still healthy and populous, and let me know in the comments if you decide to visit!
When to go
Anytime between November through February should yield great views of the monarch butterfly migration, with peak times being the end of December through January.
How to get there
The sanctuaries are located about 3 hours from Mexico City, and about 1.5 hours from the lovely Morelia, capital of Michoacán (and completely worth it’s own visit!).
You can take buses from the nearby Ocampo or Agangueo or hire a private driver or tour guide who speaks English.