Home Activities How To See the Monarch Butterflies in Mexico

How To See the Monarch Butterflies in Mexico

by Andrea Titzer

You may see monarch butterflies in Canada or in the U.S. You’ve likely heard that the monarchs migrate to winter in Mexico. But how, when and where can you see them? Here, we will cover how you can experience the monarch migration in Mexico.

If you have the opportunity to make this trip to the mountains of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve which covers Western Mexico State and Eastern Michoacán State, it is truly an extraordinary experience. The mountains in this part of Mexico are beautiful, the woods of the Reserve are peaceful and seeing so many butterflies all at once is a privilege.


The Monarch Butterfly Migration

The Monarch Butterfly, or Danaus Plexippus in Latin live for 3-4 weeks. But the migration of monarchs is an incredible phenomenon made possible by a “Methuselah” generation. Generally, Monarchs live 3-4 weeks. But at the end of summer, in the North, this special generation, the “Methuselah” generation, which can live up to 9 months, is born. The caterpillars feed on Milkweed plants which are toxic to most species. But the Monarch caterpillar is able to use it and store it in the cells of its outer skin. The Milkweed nutrients provide a strong defense for the Monarch against predators as they travel south.

This generation stores up nectar from flowers and uses it as fuel to travel to their wintering grounds. The journey can be 3000 miles or 4800 kilometers long. Traveling from Canada and the U.S., the monarchs winter mainly in mountains to the west of Mexico City. They travel between 80-120 nautical miles per day (92-140 miles or 150-225 kilometers) in colonies of about 20 million. They fly up to 2 miles high. They only travel during the day and roost in trees at night.

The butterflies begin their migration when temperatures begin to get colder. They can’t fly at temperatures below 55F or 12 C. And they feed on flower nectar so need to follow their food source.  

The butterflies begin arriving in Mexico mid-November, sometimes in October. The mountains in Western Mexico State and Eastern Michoacán State are full of Oyamel fir trees. The butterflies cluster in different areas of the woods each year on the fir trees. On warm days, they will flutter around and return to the cluster when it gets cool.



When to see the monarch butterflies in Mexico

Many say the best times to see the butterflies are usually from late January until late March. But you can also travel from end of November on and see many butterflies with less visitors.

In February, the butterflies begin mating and will lay their eggs on the Milkweed plants. They lay around 400 eggs per female. Around mid-March, the same “Methuselah” generation that arrived in November, will begin their flight back north after feeding on nectar from flowers to fuel up. During the same period, the new generation of butterflies from the mountains of Mexico, will begin their trip north. Their trip will become a relay of several “short-life” generations. Renewing the migration cycle, this year’s “great-great grandchildren” will return to Mexico in November.

This new “Methuselah” generation instinctively knows the path to travel south. It is part of their genetic coding. It has also recently been discovered that monarchs have an inner compass or clock that allows them to navigate according to the location of the sun in the sky.


The butterfly life cycle

The butterflies go through 4 stages in one life cycle and 4 generations in one year. The life cycle stages are: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa and adult. The monarch development cycle from egg to adult takes about 30 days.

Monarchs generally weigh less than a gram, have a wingspan of about 4.5 inches or 11 centimeters. They are essential pollinators playing a critical role in our eco systems.


Where to see the butterflies

Hundreds of millions of monarchs make the journey every year. The mountains where they arrive in Mexico have been classified a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2008. The area is classified as a Biosphere Reserve. This protected area covers over 200 square miles or 320 square kilometers.

Within the Reserve area, there are several access points. In Eastern Michoacán, you can visit El Rosario Santuario de la Mariposa or Sierra Chincua Santuario de la Mariposa Monarca. You can reach these either as a long day trip from Mexico City or Morelia, the beautiful colonial capital city of Michoacán. You can also stay overnight in the village of Angangueo or Zitácuaro. The sanctuaries in Western Mexico State are Piedra Herrada and Cerro Pelón. They can be reached as a day trip from Mexico City.


Traveling to the Reserve

If you have a car or are renting a car, you can reach the Reserves easily. From Mexico City traveling through Toluca to Ocampo and Angangueo. Or traveling from Morelia, you travel through Araró and Maravatio.

You can access the reserves also by bus from Mexico City from the Terminal Centro Poniente (Metro station Observatorio). You can take a direct bus to Angangueo or Zitacuaro and then take a colectivo or local transportation to the Reserves. Both Angangueo and Zitacuaro have accommodations and restaurants.

If you are traveling from the Oaxaca Coast, go to Mexico City, go to the Observatorio station. From here, 1st class buses leave almost every half hour to Morelia. You can rent a car in advance directly at the bus station in Morelia. Or visit the historic city center of Morelia and then take a bus or rental car to the butterfly reserve.

Another option is to book a day trip tour from Mexico City or Morelia.


Visiting the Sanctuaries

You can go directly to the Sanctuaries to visit. Depending on where the butterflies are roosting in the Reserve, you will walk to get to them. Sometimes, the walk is straightforward, and guides will be around the viewing area. Sometimes, a shuttle will be required to approach the butterflies, then a walk with a guide. The butterflies change locations each year, so the procedure is a bit different according to the access points and the locations of the butterflies within the reserve. However, you can arrive at any of the above-mentioned access points and you will be guided to see the butterflies. You will pay an entrance fee and the guides will let you know what the particular procedure is for the year.

You will usually have to walk over a mile. Horses may be available at some sites. The sites are at approximately 2500-3000 meters in altitude. So, dress warmly and in layers. Wear comfortable walking or hiking shoes. Take water. If you go on a weekend, go early in the day. Always start out early.

The area of forest that the butterflies cover in Mexico varies yearly. The lowest was 1.66 acres (0.67 hectares) in 2013-2014 and has been up now for 2 consecutive years to 14.95 acres (6.05 hectares) in 2021. Scientists estimate that it would take a coverage of about 15 acres for the Monarchs to survive. Devastation of habitat, use of fertilizers and pesticides have all contributed to generally lower numbers.

Many activist groups recommend planting Milkweed in your garden in Canada and the U.S. if you are on part of the monarch route. Read more about planting Milkweed in your garden.

Journey North tracks migrations and seasons of the monarchs. Find out more about this year’s migration here.


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