By Sarah Garrett, Butterfly Pavilion Lepidopterist
Out of scientific curiosity I traveled to Mexico to see monarchs in their overwintering habitat, but what I experienced exceeded all expectations and I left with many thoughts, feelings and emotions I can only try to describe. Upon emersion into a colony of monarchs I realized no amount of reading or research could have prepared me for the amazing phenomenon before me. The smell of the oyamel firs, the silence but for the gentle flapping of the monarch’s wings and the visual of millions of butterflies within such a small space (about one acre) made the experience almost unbelievable. To top it off, the rich Mexican culture and encounters with the people who own the sanctuaries made the trip a once in a lifetime experience.
Some background on the monarch butterfly – each year, beginning in August, millions of monarchs migrate south from Canada and the United States (US) to Mexico. The butterflies gather as colonies in forests northwest of Mexico City. These forests provide a microclimate that allows monarchs to survive through the winter (November to March). Dominated by oyamel fir trees, these forests are located at high elevations (about 9,000 feet), provide cool – but not freezing – temperatures, consistent moisture and few predators. The monarchs stay in Mexico until March, at which time they make their way north to the Gulf Coast states of the US. Here they will mate, lay eggs and pass away. The next four generations of monarchs will continue this pattern of migrating north and reproducing. The fifth generation will follow in their great-great grandparent’s wing beats and migrate south to Mexico to overwinter. Unlike the previous four generations, which live on average of two to four weeks as adults, the fifth generation will live for around nine months and migrate, round trip, about 500 miles!
Butterfly Pavilion’s five day trip started in Mexico City, the country’s capital, where we were able to experience the culture and history through a walking tour of Chapultepec park and a visit to the the Museo Nacional de Antropologia. Some people chose to fly in a day or two earlier to do more sightseeing within the city or to take day trips outside the city. On day two we made the two hour drive to our first monarch sanctuary, Piedra Herrada. The drive was a great opportunity to see the outskirts of Mexico City and the adjacent countryside. Upon arriving at the sanctuary we were acquainted with our local guides, who would take us on the one mile trek into the sanctuary via horseback or on foot. It took us about 45 minutes to get to the heart of the sanctuary where the monarchs were roosting by the millions. We were able to get within 25-30 feet from the closest cluster (guests are prevented from getting too close and physically disturbing the butterflies). It’s hard to put into words what it is like to first see the massive clusters of monarchs dripping from tree trunks and branches! We spent about 45 minutes watching the monarchs from various vantage points and then headed back to our van and to our next destination – Valle de Bravo.
Known as one of Mexico’s Magical Villages, Valle de Bravo has a very rich history and is scenically located on the shores of Lake Avándaro. We would spend two nights here and enjoyed many lovely meals and the chance to explore the town in our free time. The artisan markets were a huge hit for most of the travelers, including myself!
On day three we traveled to El Capulin, the second monarch sanctuary we would visit. As a more remote location it took almost the full day to do this trip but was well worth it to see the monarchs in a different setting. This was a unique landscape as we got to see monarchs flying in an open field. Everyone was required to take a horse on this trip because of the rocky terrain. Afterwards I came upon a quote from a Mexican butterfly conservationist Carlos Gottfried who said, “When you stand in a monarch sanctuary, your soul is shaken and your life is changed.” I couldn’t agree more.
On the fourth day of our trip our group split up and some stayed in Valle de Bravo where they took in local history, made a spa date or went for an outing on the lake. The other half of our group went back to Piedra Herrada for our third viewing on the monarchs. I was with the latter group and it was interesting to be at the sanctuary at a different time of day and to see monarch behavior when the skies were clear and they received lights of ambient heat, causing them to take flight. Late that afternoon we regrouped and headed back to Mexico City together. Once there we checked into a hotel in the zócalo (main square) of the historical district and had some free time to explore the area by foot before meeting as a group for dinner. We dined on the hotel’s rooftop restaurant overlooking the Catedral Metropolitana and ended the trip by taking the time to share our final thoughts with one another on our amazing journey. Most people would head back early the next morning, day five, while others would extend their trip for more adventures in Mexico!
Butterfly Pavilion is planning another monarch trip in 2019 in coordination with Reefs to Rockies. If you have questions about my trip or a potential trip of your own, please feel free to contact our Community Programs Manager Marissa Copan at MCopan@butterflies.org.