Mexico: Kingdom of the Monarchs

The inner sides of my calves hurt as I slid off the horse. I had ridden from the entrance to the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary along a steep and rocky trail to the point from which we would hike to where the Monarchs were clustered in the trees. I nearly toppled over after dismounting, not used to the high center of gravity that my backpack of photo equipment gave my body.

It was the second day of our Monarch Butterfly Adventure in Mexico. The previous night, Susanna and I joined a group of ten other fellow travelers and three trip leaders/guides from the Natural Habitat Adventures (Eric, Karel and Andres) at the upscale Camino Real Polanca Hotel in Mexico City. From here we would begin our week-long foray into the Butterfly Sanctuaries some four hours west on the following day.

Angangueo Hillside
Town of Angangueo

We arrived in time for lunch in the rural town of Angangueo in the State of Michoacan. The mountains around Angangueo and further south are home to the single, super generation of Monarchs that travel from Canada for the winter. This town would be our base for two nights where we would venture in the El Rosario and Sierra Chincua Butterfly Sanctuaries. Our hotel, La Margarita, was basic but comfortable, and like other lodgings in the area, had only fireplaces in the rooms and restaurant to melt the freezing winter night chill at 8,400 feet elevation.

After lunch, we hopped into two pickup trucks outfitted with bench seats for a 30-minute cold and windy ride to the entrance to El Rosario, southeast of Angangueo. Here we would mount our steeds for the first leg of the trip to Monarch colonies, clustered in the Oyamel fir trees unique to these high mountainous areas.

El Rosario 15
Swarming Monarchs

The horses, led by local wranglers whom we hoped had our safety in mind, took about 20 to 25 minutes of hard exertion reach our destination. My horse was breathing so heavily I thought he might have a heart attack. My inelegant dismount was in a meadow which was swirling with Monarch butterflies that had awakened to the unusually warm and cloudless afternoon. Rivers of butterflies drank from the small streamlets of water that ran from the mountainside, and clouds of them took to flight as we walked past them.

El Rosario 16
River of Monarchs

Here we began our 30-minute trek up to the butterfly colonies at about 11,000  feet elevation. Butterflies were everywhere…on plants, trees, the ground, and in the air. Photographing them was a challenge. Watching them was a joy, and stopping to watch them as we ascended muted the strain of the steep trail . The walk back to the entrance involved retracing our hike back to the meadow followed by a 45 minute steep decent on more than 600 concrete steps, instead of returning by horseback. Our calves and knees complained strongly.

Sunset Near Angangueo
Sunset near Angangueo

Bouncing back to the hotel in our pickup trucks, we stopped at an overlook, taking in Angangueo and the surrounding mountains at sunset. The views soothed our aches…or maybe it was the wine and cheese.

On the following morning we again ventured into mountains surrounding Angangueo, to the Sierra Chincua Sanctuary, situated some 20 to 30 minutes northeast of the village. Sierra Chincua is smaller than El Rosario and somewhat more remote, but access also involved 30-minute horseback ride, followed by a 30+ minute uphill trek to the area of the butterfly colonies. The horseback and walking treks were a bit more rugged and steeper than at El Rosario. The hike down was similarly more rugged and knee-wracking (or is that knee-wrecking?).

Sierra Chincua 4
Single Monarch

Flying and perching Monarchs were more prevalent on the hike than in El Rosario, possibly because it was morning and the butterflies were just beginning to leave the colonies as the day warmed. The vegetation was also more varied providing a range of flowers and branches for them to alight, but on any given resting point, the groups were smaller: one, two, or a few.

That afternoon was dedicated to walking the village of Angangueo, a welcome respite from the hikes. It’s a charming village with preserved colonial architecture and modern murals depicting its history…and lots of sleeping dogs “guarding” the streets.

Primary School Angangueo
Primary School in Angangueo

One of the local primary schools welcomed us, where we spent some time with a class participating in a Monarch butterfly activity. Great kids!

The next morning’s return to El Rosario presented a contrast to the afternoon visit of the first day. Like in Sierra Chincua, the Monarchs were just beginning their downhill flights as the Sun and blue sky warmed the air. In the meadow where we originally encountered a storm of flying butterflies, there were fewer in the air and the streamlets had not the density of them drinking the water. On the hike, they were more plentiful, and the flowers and branches supported large groups, flittering on, then off again.

Mating butterflies could be found on the ground, as the warm weather and clear skies hastened their sexual maturity. Upon return to the meadow, the Monarchs had once again filled the air and the streamlets.

In the evening, we arrived at our next base, Hotel Avandaro, near the resort town of Valle de Bravo in the State of Mexico, located about two to three hours west of Mexico City. This hotel would be our base for a visit to what would be the most strenuous trek in search of the Monarch colonies. The hotel was charming, comfortable, and upscale, with an excellent restaurant…quite a welcome contrast to our basic lodgings in Angangueo.

We spent our first day in Valle de Bravo with a low-key hike to the nearby Bridal Veil Waterfall, and a stroll though the craft and food markets and into the central plaza, admiring the colonial architecture and watching the local residents. The goal was to repair our bodies from the previous Monarch hikes as much as possible and prepare for the next day’s hike to find the colonies in the nearby Piedra Herrada Sanctuary.

Our start in the morning was earlier than usual, as the horseback ride and subsequent hike would be considerable longer and more demanding of our bodies than our experiences at the previous sanctuaries.

We were not sure we would attempt this adventure until we left for Valle de Bravo because the early reports of the Monarch colonies in Piedra Harrada had them so high up the mountain that it would had been nearly impossible for us to reach them in any reasonable time. However, the warm, sunny weather brought them down to within striking distance.

The horseback ride took about 40-45 minutes to the staging point for the hike to the colonies. Few butterflies were visible, probably because they had not yet awakened in the cold morning air. The ride was the steepest we had encountered, and the trail one of the roughest. Riding down from this point could be an option, but we all decided it wasn’t an option for us: too scary.

From here it was another 30 to 40 minute hike to the colonies, but the trails were very primitive, and in some cases they were so ill-defined that it felt like bushwhacking. The foliage was very dense, not very conducive for clear photographic shots.

Sierra Chincua 6
Cushion of Butterflies

The trail was cushioned by layers of hibernating butterflies, and it was impossible to move forward without walking on them.

As the sun warmed the air under clear blue skies, the Monarchs awakened and began to flutter all around us. The scene was surreal and incredibly beautiful. The trails were crowded, as this sanctuary was the closest to Mexico City and was a popular weekend holiday, but our guides led us through small simple trails that helped us avoid the crowds when we came close to the colonies covering the tree branches and trunks. This was a case where enjoying and remembering outweighed any photos that could be taken.

The extremely steep, 1 hour 30 minute, hike down to the entrance was knee wrenching and difficult, but the experience more than well worth it, but we knew that it would be not nearly as arduous as the Monarchs’ return flight to Canada in early spring. That trip would require three to four generations to complete, with each generation connecting with breeding sites along the way until the final generation reaches its summer site in Canada, where they begin the cycle over again.

Botanical Garden Toluca
Window at Vitral Botanical Garden

The afternoon focused on the drive back to Mexico City with a stop in Toluca where we hobbled through the small but spectacular Cosmo Vitral Botanical Garden. Surrounded by amazing stained glass windows that were lit by the late afternoon light was an experience to behold. And from there, we returned to Mexico City for overnight back in the Camino Real Polanca Hotel before embarking on the next phase of our journey.

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4 thoughts on “Mexico: Kingdom of the Monarchs

  1. I enjoyed the photos you posted during your trip, and even more with your journal placing them in context. Thanks so much for sharing!

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  2. This has been on my bucket list for a long time. We are in good health and bike 25 miles a day, but your comments about the toll this took on your knees is of some concern. The downhill part of hiking does not favor creaky knees, so I wear knee supports. Did you arrange this trip through a company that you would recommend?

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