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So, what is the monarch butterfly migration and why should you plan your entire trip to Mexico around it?
If you don’t have an obsessive gardener in your life (hi, mom) you may have barely even heard of it, but the monarch migration is a crazy natural phenomenon that happens right here in North America.
Basically, these tiny, fearless beasts cycle through multiple generations in one year. The first generation is born in Mexico and flies 2,000+ miles to the Northern US and Canada in the spring, where they lay eggs for the second generation when they arrive.
The second generation doesn’t have quite as an exciting life and only lives for a few weeks in early summer. They lay eggs for the third generation, who again live for only a few weeks and repeat the cycle, laying eggs for the fourth generation before they die.
Now, it’s late summer and the fourth, super generation is born.
Instead of living for a few weeks like the previous generations, they’re able to live for a few months, which is great because they have a huge task ahead of them. The super generation flies all the way from the Northern US and Canada down to the state of Michoacan in Mexico, where they spend the winter.
Even though they’re super, they can’t live forever, and they lay eggs in Mexico for the first generation to repeat the four-generation yearly cycle again. What’s extra cool is that the butterflies born in Mexico know exactly where to return in the US even though they have never been there!
You can see these giant groups of migrating butterflies all winter long in Mexico, where millions hang out every year.
Dan and I visited one of these butterfly reserves in Michoacan and had an incredibly magical experience walking among thousands of flying monarchs. If you want to add this spectacular natural show to your Mexico itinerary, this is everything you need to know to make it happen!
Thousands of monarchs swirled around us at the Cerro Pelon reserve in Michoacan
7 Step Guide to Visiting the Monarch Butterfly Migration
Planning a trip to the monarch butterfly migrations in Mexico can be a bit daunting because it doesn’t happen in the typical tourist sites you’re used to visiting, like Cancun or Puerto Vallarta.
Instead, you need to travel to the much-less-visited central state of Michoacan.
The entire state has been designated a UNESCO site for their traditional cuisine and intangible heritage, and the nature is just as beautiful as the culture here. It’s certainly off the beaten path, but I promise a trip to Michoacan is worth the effort and I’m going to help you plan it in seven easy steps!
Step 1: Schedule your trip between November and March
The butterflies arrive in Mexico in the fall and the reserves in Michoacan typically open for visitors on November 1st.
Coincidentally, this is the same time as the Day of the Dead celebration in Oaxaca, so I would strongly recommend coming to Mexico for both and having your mind blown by the best vacation ever.
If you can’t time it for Day of the Dead, no worries. The butterflies are active all winter and you can come anytime in November, December, January, or February to see them. Many say that January and February are the best months.
Dan and I went on February 29th (just a coincidence, but I believe going on a leap day made the experience even more surreal) and there were so many butterflies. But our guide told us the pack had thinned out and started migrating already!
So, while you can even visit into early March and have an awesome time, January and February are the best.
Hiking to the overwintering site at Cerro Pelon, the most remote overwintering site in Michoacan
Step 2: Choose which butterfly reserve to visit
This part definitely tripped me up.
There are three monarch butterfly reserves in Michoacan and Dan and I only had time to visit one. Though they’re all located in a larger protected biosphere (named a UNESCO site in 2008) I agonized over the decision because each one is still so different.
The three most popular monarch butterfly reserves in Michoacan are:
- El Rosario – most visited
- Sierra Chincua – second most visited
- Cerro Pelon – least visited
El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Reserve is the easiest to visit, which means it’s also the most crowded. I dislike being around crowds of people in nature and pretty much immediately crossed El Rosario off my list because of this.
However, if you’re a first-time traveler and want the best tourist support structure, this is a good choice for you. The butterfly colony is easy to visit on foot on paved trails or on horseback in only 15 or 20 minutes.
If you choose El Rosario then the small town of Angangueo, a Pueblo Magico in the mountains, will be your base.
Sierra Chincua is less popular than El Rosario but still widely visited.
The benefit of adding Sierra Chincua to your itinerary is that it’s also accessible from the town of Angangueo, which means you can spend one night there and hit two of the reserves on your trip.
The hike to Sierra Chincua is tougher than El Rosario, but a horse will again take only about 15 to 20 minutes to get you to the top.
Cerro Pelon is the most difficult to visit and therefore the least crowded.
Dan and I visited Cerro Pelon and opted for the horses which took an hour to climb the mountain – by foot, it’ll take closer to two hours.
There were only a few other people on the mountain with us and the rugged natural beauty of the trails and towering pines was impossibly beautiful.
If you only have time to visit one site, I can say with certainty that you won’t be disappointed at Cerro Pelon. If you choose it, the town of Zitacuaro is the closest base to book your stay.
Note: All three of these reserves have guides for visitors whose services cost around 200 to 300 mxn / 10 to 15 usd per group. You do NOT need to purchase an expensive prepackaged tour for hundreds of dollars to see the butterflies!!!
My guide working hard to lead my extra moody horse up the mountain
Step 3: Book your flight
Since Michoacan is in Central Mexico, the easiest airport to fly into is Mexico City.
I recommend comparing flights on Skyscanner to find the best deals and then booking it directly through the airline to avoid the shenanigans that third-party bookers can get up to.
Step 4: Book your accommodation
Ok, now that you’ve decided which reserve you want to visit and pulled the trigger on your flight, it’s time to book your stay.
If you want to visit all three reserves, book your stay in the pretty town of Angangueo, which is about 30-minutes from both El Rosario and Sierra Chincua, and 1.5 hours from Cerro Pelon.
If you’re only visiting Cerro Pelon, book your stay in Zitacuaro, a very average city about 30 minutes from the reserve.
Alternatively, you can also make a long day trip of it and drive all the way out from Mexico City and back in one day.
Dan and I ultimately decided to do this (except we went from Queretaro which was even further) and drove four hours to Cerro Pelon, spent three hours at the site, and then drove four hours back to our Airbnb in Queretaro.
It was a long but totally doable day. If you go from Mexico City, the drive will be around 2.5 to 3.5 hours depending on which reserve you want to visit.
Rent a car and take a road trip to visit the monarch butterfly migration to make the experience even more fun!
Step 5: Decide on transportation
You can book a multi-day butterfly tour, but you’ll save tons of money and have a better time if you do it on your own.
Dan and I rented a car from Alamo and had zero issues.
A mid-size car with full-coverage insurance costs around $40 to $50 usd per day. And though driving times are long, the distances are actually pretty short (for example, it took us four hours to go 120 miles from Queretaro) so gas doesn’t add too much more to the cost.
The major perk of driving is that you can easily get to the remote butterfly reserves without having to rely on taxis or buses once you arrive in Angangueo or Zitacuaro.
If you have questions about safety or driving a particular route, the On the Road in Mexico Facebook group has tons of experience and can help you out.
If you’re hesitant about driving, you can take an Uber to Zitacuario from Mexico City, which should cost around 2200 mxn / 104 usd each way.
However, this still leaves you with the problem of getting to the reserves (you’ll need a taxi) and, more importantly, with getting back to Mexico City. My guess is that getting an Uber from Zitacuario or Angangueo all the way back to CDMX definitely won’t be as easy.
Finally, you can go by bus. Buses run from the Poniente bus station in Mexico City to Zitacuario on the Excelencia and La Linea lines and the ride takes two to three hours depending on traffic.
If you want to stay in Angangueo and visit multiple reserves, renting a car is the best and easiest way to do it. If you prefer to take a bus, visiting Cerro Pelon from Zitacuario is your best bet.
Step 6: Visit the Monarch reserve in the early afternoon
The butterflies love the warm sun, so the best time to see the monarch migration is the early afternoon, around 1 or 2 pm, when they’ll be most active. If you go on a cool or cloudy day, the butterflies will still be visible, but they’ll be roosting in the trees more rather than flying around.
If you have a car, drive to the reserve of your choosing, and if you don’t, negotiate a round trip ride with a taxi. (At Cerro Pelon they will need to wait around three hours for you but at the other two an hour will be about enough.)
When you arrive you’ll need to pay the entrance fee (usually around 50 mxn / 2.50 usd per person) and decide if you want to walk or ride a horse to the monarch migration site.
Riding a horse is kind of part of the experience and I enjoyed it, especially because the steep uphill walk to the Cerro Pelon sanctuary did not look fun!
If you go to Cerro Pelon I recommend at least hiring a guide because the trails were unmarked and split often, so it seemed very easy to get lost. The guides can also share some information with you but ours only spoke Spanish, so if you don’t it’s a good idea to read more about the butterflies and reserves before you go!
Walking through a fairy tale
Step 7: Enjoy the Magical Monarch Butterfly Migration in Mexico!
Ok, you booked your trip, you made the journey, and you’re finally at the monarch butterfly migration site. Take a deep breath and try to be present in the moment, because it’s about to be magical af.
I recommend bringing a camera to snap some unique photos and videos (I found that slow-motion videos and photographs looking up to capture them from below turned out the best for me), but I also recommend making a conscious effort to put it away and truly enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience!
You will start seeing more and more butterflies as you walk or ride out to the site, and anticipation will build. Then, you’ll wake the final few steps into the colony and be surrounded by them on all sides, above and below you.
Make sure to watch your step carefully so you don’t kill any, and make sure to look up to see the swarming numbers against the pale blue sky. Savor the moment! You can expect to spend about 20 to 30 minutes at the site itself before heading back out again.
Monarch Butterfly Migration FAQ
A couple more handy tips and bits of info to help you plan your trip to the monarch butterfly reserves in Mexico!
What to Pack?
Bring sunscreen, sunglasses or a hat, water bottles, comfortable hiking shoes or hiking boots, snacks and / or a packed lunch, a jacket or extra layers in case the weather changes, and cash to pay for your entrance, horses, and guide. You should also have a fully charged phone or camera on hand as well!
Only the essentials for our road trip to monarch butterfly migration!
What to Wear?
The mountains and forest can be chilly even if the city is warm, so make sure to wear or pack layers, long pants, and sturdy shoes or hiking boots, especially if you plan to make the two hour climb up to Cerro Pelon!
What to Budget?
Visiting the monarch butterflies can really be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be.
Dan and I spent $40 on the 24-hour car rental and about $20 more on gas. We didn’t spend any money on accommodation because we did it all in one day (but you can get a hotel or Airbnb for as little as $20 to $30 per night in the area).
At the Cerro Pelon reserve we paid:
- 50 mxn for parking
- 100 mxn for two entrance fees
- 500 mxn for two horses
- 250 mxn for a guide
- 200 mxn for tips (100 per horse handler, one of whom doubled as our guide)
In total, we spent 1100 mxn / 52 usd at the reserve and 60 usd more on gas, so our day trip to the monarch butterfly migration came out to 112 usd for two people.
List of prices at the entrance to the Cerro Pelon reserve
How to Help the Declining Monarch Population
Unfortunately, despite the millions of monarchs you’ll see in Michoacan, the population is actually facing a serious decline. Between the 80’s and today the population has decreased by 99%, mainly due to habitat destruction. They’re at risk of extinction, but there are many ways you can help.
- Spend money at the reserves. Take horses instead of walk, hire a guide even if it’s optional. Keeping the reserves profitable is the best way to keep them protected.
- Donate to NGOs that protect the monarchs, like Forests for Monarchs, the Monarch Butterfly Fund, or the Monarch Joint Venture.
- If you live in the US or Canada and own land, stop using round up in your yard and gardens. It’s killing all of the milkweed plants that the monarchs need to survive. Then, use this guide to grow a small monarch way station on your property.
Ready to go?
Then, check out more food, culture, and nightlife experiences in CDMX to round out your Mexico travel itinerary!
This article is part of the Miscellaneous Mexico City series. Read the rest below:
Or, check out the complete Mexico Series for 50+ more articles on what to see, eat, drink, do, and discover in the country.
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