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Piedra Herrada Mexico: The Magnificent Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary

The most dramatic insect migration in the world.

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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.

 

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Thousands of monarch butterflies on an Oyamel Fir Tree.

 

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.

 

Piedra Herrada

 

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Thousands of monarch butterflies nestling together.

 

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.

 

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A lonely butterfly resting on a branch.

 

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.

 

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Directions from Mexico City to Piedra Herrada.

 

Ultimately, I was very happy with our decision. Piedra Herrada Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary was a lovely spot.

 

Tour Options

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 jd160675@gmail.com or his cell phone is info@happinesstours.com.mx.

 

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Directions from Mexico City to Valle de Bravo.

 

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.

 

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Lake Avandaro in Valle de Bravo.

 

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Beautiful homes with a view of the lake in Valle de Bravo.

 

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The central square in Valle de Bravo.

 

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.

 

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A view of our two rooms, pool, and open living and dining rooms at the Casa Chichipicas.

 

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The open plan living room of Casa Chichipicas.

 

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.

 

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The view of Lake Avandaro as we go to Piedra Herrada.

 

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.

 

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A view of the entrance to Piedra Herrada.

 

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The beginning of the trail into the forest and up the mountain to see 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.

 

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Getting ready to ride horses up Piedra Herrada.

 

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.

 

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The gentle slope of Piedra Herrada.

 

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.

 

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The top of the oyamel trees in Pierda Herrada.

 

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.

 

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A beautiful monarch butterfly resting on the ground.

 

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.

 

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Clumps of monarch butterflies dragging down branches of the trees.

 

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The butterflies love the warmth of the sun and fly towards it.

 

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.

 

Conclusion

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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Every year, millions of monarch butterflies fly from Canada to the forests in the Central Highlands of Mexico. It is considered the most dramatic migration of insects in the world. We visited Piedra Herrada, one of the monarch butterfly sanctuaries, a couple of hours outside Mexico City. We were surrounded by thousands of butterflies deep within the forest and loved it. #travel #familytravel #gofargrowclose| Michoacan, Piedra Herrada, Tours By Locals, Valle de Bravo, Unesco World Heritage Site

18 Comments

  • If I visit Mexico City, I will book a day trip to this butterfly sanctuary. Maybe I’ll listen to the Screaming Trees song on the way too!

  • I’ve never heard of this and was intrigued by your journey. 2 hours from the airport isn’t that bad of a ride and also glad you picked the one that didn’t have a travel advisory. I also like that you can go horseback riding on this hike. I would probably prefer that option as well 🙂

    • Yes, the horseback riding was an unexpected surprise. The horses seemed well taken care of and the journey up the mountain didn’t seem too bad for them.

  • I never knew there was a specific place monarch butterflies migrated to! That’s awesome that you got to visit it. I like the idea that you spent two days getting to Piedra Herrada, instead of having one really long day.

    • I had never heard about this before either. I don’t know why it isn’t more well known because it is such a special natural phenomenon. We really enjoyed our two days and I’d recommend doing it over two days as well.

  • You witnessed a fascinating wonder of nature! I would love to visit the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary one day. The horse ride in the forest sounds like an amazing thing to do as well. Great experience!

    • You are right! We did witness a wonder of nature. It was truly lovely. Hopefully, you will get there one day.

  • I was never aware of this place. It’s a totally new thing now that I know. It’s amazing to see how nature works. Spending a day at the Pierda Herrada Monarch Sanctuary in winter will be a great idea to know more about the migration of this typical species of butterflies.

  • I remember watching a documentary about Monarch Butterflies and their migration. I didn’t realise there was a sanctuary in Mexico! I would have loved to visit the sanctuary on one of my previous visits to Mexico – it looks like a great experience.

    • It’s nice to have something very different to look forward to when visiting Mexico. We all know about the Aztec ruins, and amazing beaches. But, don’t know so much about ecotourism that it offers. After seeing this, I realize there is a lot more interesting experiences to have in Mexico that I didn’t know about before. I can’t wait to figure them out!

  • This brought me back to my elementary school days of learning about the monarch butterfly and its migration! This is something I’d love to see. I bet it’s amazing seeing all those butterflies at once!

    • I love that you not only learnt this in elementary school but remember! It is truly amazing to see thousands of butterflies all together like that.

  • Woah! That is significant. I have never seen that many butterflies in one place. I would love to go around there with my camera.
    I wonder if there is something similar in Europe than I think I can easily visit.

    • I don’t know. I just heard about the monarch butterfly migration a couple of years ago. However, I think if you go to the Unesco World Heritage sites, they would list the natural wonders, such as this. That might be one of the ways to find out.

  • Oh wow, that looks absolutely beautiful. I’m a sucker for the Monarch, so it must have been amazing to be there!

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