When I heard there was a place on earth that millions and millions of monarch butterflies fly to in the winter, I knew that one day I had to see it. Apparently, tree branches bend, trees turn orange and the sky becomes obscured by the sheer number of them. Thankfully, the stars aligned and I found myself with four days in Mexico City. With great excitement I learnt that some monarch butterfly reserves were within a two – three hour drive from Mexico City. After that, I put all my energy into trying to figure out how I could go see one of these reserves with my family of 5 (3 teenagers aged 14, 15 and 17 years old). In the end, my efforts lead us to the pretty Mexican town of Valle de Bravo and Piedra Herrada Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary.
The Migration of the Monarch Butterflies
Every November, millions and millions of monarch butterflies arrive in Mexico from as far away as Canada. They flee the cold weather to bask in the warmth of the Oyamel fir forests of Mexico’s central highlands. They cluster in small sections of the forests. Currently, there are 14 such colonies. In the spring, these butterflies begin an 8 month migration back, during which time four successive generations are born and die. Nobody knows how the monarch butterflies find their way there and back again year after year.
This phenomenon is considered the most dramatic demonstration of insect migration in the world. The Monarch Buttefly Biosphere is a World Heritage Site that protects eight of these colonies. It is 56, 259 hectares (or 139,000 acres) and is located 100 km north of Mexico City in the forested mountains.
Why Piedra Herrada Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary
There are several monarch butterfly sanctuaries that people are allowed to visit. They are located in two states – Michoacan or Mexico. The country of Mexico is comprised of 31 states and one Federal district. Michoacan and Mexico are two of the states.
Initially, I found it difficult trying to determine which monarch butterfly reserve would be the “best” to to visit. When I read reviews or blogs about other people’s experiences, it seemed that every reserve had both positive and negative attributes. Some were very busy, others had a difficult hike to reach the colonies, while others felt that the guides at the reserves took advantage of them.
In the end, I chose to visit Piedra Herrada Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary for two reasons.
1. Piedra Herrada is located in the state of Mexico. When we were in Mexico, there was a travel advisory warning that it was dangerous to travel in the state of Michoacan. This was ultimately confirmed by the travel company that we hired to take us from Mexico City to Piedra Herrada.
2. Piedra Herrada is the easiest monarch butterfly sanctuary to access from Mexico City. It is 120 km from the Mexico City International Airport. Depending on traffic, it can take as little as two hours to reach.
Ultimately, I was very happy with our decision. Piedra Herrada Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary was a lovely spot.
There were several tour companies offering one day tours from Mexico City to a monarch butterfly reserve. Typically, these tours were 12 hours long, leaving at 7:00 am. However, this didn’t appeal to us. We had already spent the last 10 days touring Guatemala. I knew that my kids would be tired and cranky if we took a 12 hour tour. Truthfully, I had no interest in spending hours in a car either. Instead, we decided to break up this experience into two days.
This was not an easy task to accomplish at a reasonable cost, but ultimately I found our amazing guide, Jesus Duran on Tours By Locals. He and his brother picked us up at Mexico City International Airport when we landed. They drove us to a Valle de Bravo, a beautiful little town 30 km away from Piedra Herrada, where we spent the night at the gorgeous Casa Chichipicas hotel.
If you are interested in contacting Jesus directly, his email is firstname.lastname@example.org or his cell phone is email@example.com.
Valle de Bravo
Valle de Bravo is 145 km away from the Mexico City airport. It takes between 2 to 3 hours to reach, depending on traffic. Valle de Bravo is a very popular weekend destination with wealthy residents of Mexico City. It is located on Lake Avandaro and surrounded by mountains and trees. The streets are cobbled stone, narrow and windy with many well preserved colonial buildings in the centre of town. We saw lots of beautiful private homes.
Casa Chichipicas was a small modern hotel in Valle de Bravo, tucked up the mountain above Lake Avandaro. It was stunning. We stayed there mid-week in early January and we had the hotel to ourselves. With the beautiful pool, hot tub, open air living and dining rooms, it felt more like our private home than a hotel. We had a delicious dinner and breakfast the following morning. I would highly recommend staying there.
Visiting Piedra Herrada
The following morning, Jesus and his brother picked us up from our hotel and we drove approximately 30 minutes to Piedra Herrada. The drive was lovely. We initially curved up a mountain and around the lake with spectacular views of it. After awhile, we headed inland and saw beautiful farms and forests everywhere.
We paid 70 pesos or $4 USD to enter Piedra Herrada Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary. At the entrance, there were snacks and drinks for purchase, clean modern toilets (that required a few pesos to use), and a playground. From there, it was around a 45 minute to one hour hike into the forest and up to the mountaintop to reach the butterflies.
Renting A Horse
We decided to rent a horse for the climb. It only cost 250 pesos or 14 USD for a return trip. This also included a Spanish speaking guide who walked beside the horse. Most reviews that I had read had highly recommended doing this. They described a challenging hike for which they were ill prepared to handle. I didn’t want to take any chances. I had already subjected my kids to a couple of pretty intense hikes during our time in Guatemala.
However, I don’t agree with this assessment. For the first 30-40 minutes of the hike, the path was on a gentle slope. It was very wide and level, free of rocks and tree roots. It would have been a very pleasant walk. Nevertheless, the last 15 minutes of the hike was tough. This was on a severe and slippery slope with rocks and roots everywhere. The trail was not wide or easy to navigate. Despite that, the horses were not allowed on this part of the trail. I think that young children and people with mobility issues would have a tough time finishing the hike. However, there aren’t any time constraints. You can take as much time as you need to reach the top.
Regardless, we really enjoyed riding the horse in the forests. It was truly beautiful, quiet and calm. For that reason alone, I would recommend renting a horse.
The Monarch Butterfly Colony
When we reached the top, we stayed still, quiet and watched with amazement. There were butterflies everywhere! We had to be careful where we stepped as they were all over the path. The bushes were littered with them, some completely still while others casually batted their wings slowly and lazily.
It is forbidden to touch any of the monarch butterflies, unless of course, they land on you which did happen. Nonetheless, it took everything in my power not to reach out and touch these beautiful creatures who seemed fearless and as curious about us as we were about them.
Above us, we spotted tree after tree with thousands of butterflies next to and on top of each other, seemingly cuddling or nesting together. As the sun moved out of the clouds, the butterflies flew high towards the sun. When the sun disappeared, they returned to the trees. What looked like thick branches bending with clumps of leaves were in fact, thousands of monarch butterflies lumped together.
We remained at the top for around 30-45 minutes watching these exquisite creatures. It was amazing.
Things to Remember When Visiting Piedra Herrada
- The monarch butterflies are there between November and April each year. The best time to see them is between January and March.
- Avoid weekends or national holidays. The experience would be diminished with a large noisy crowd.
- Bring cash for the entrance fees, to rent a horse, use the bathroom or to purchase items.
- Wear closed-toe shoes. Running shoes with a tread would be enough. Hiking boots would be nice but not necessary;
- If you plan to rent a horse, wear pants.
- Wear a fleece or a jacket. It is cool in the trees.
- There are washrooms and a store at the entrance. There is nothing else along the trail or at the mountain top.
- High elevation could be a factor for some. The parking lot at the entrance to Piedra Herrada is at 9350 ft or 2850 m. The hike is approximately 1 mile (or 1.6 km) up another 1000 ft (or 300 m). Plan on giving yourself extra time to reach the top if you think the elevation will effect you.
- Most of the guides do not speak English. It is unnecessary to have an English speaking guide to help you reach the monarch butterflies. The trail is well laid out and you follow the guide. However, we enjoyed having Jesus, our English speaking guide, who provided lots of information and insights about our experience.
- Do not arrive too early. The butterflies prefer the sun and the heat. The warmer it is, the more likely you will see the monarch butterflies flying.
We loved setting aside a couple of days from our time in Mexico City to visit Valle de Bravo and the monarch butterflies at Piedra Herrada. Valle de Bravo was a beautiful colonial town while Casa Chichipicas was a stunning hotel in which we took great pleasure in staying. Spending time in the forest at Piedra Herrada was an unexpected treat. We thoroughly appreciated our horseback ride in the forest and up the mountain. And of course, we were absolutely delighted being completely and utterly surrounded by the breathtaking monarch butterflies. This is an experience that I hope that one day you can share with me.
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