Monarch butterfly migration vacations

By the end of October, when autumn colours start to show across Canada and the United States, the last of the monarch butterflies will leave its northern home and begin a 2,500km journey to the warm south. Every year, the entire butterfly population spends the winter months in the oyamel fir forests of central Mexico and, every year, they return to cluster in the same area; the 560km² Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve within the rugged leafy mountains 100km west of Mexico City. The result is an orange blaze of butterfly-clad forest, where branches sway beneath the collective weight of their residents.
This massive movement of monarchs from northern America to Mexico is widely considered to be one of the most spectacular natural phenomena in the world.
But what makes this migration so extraordinary is that, unlike the transnational crossing of the caribou or the cross-border journey of the jaguar, none of these monarch butterflies will make the return trip. Instead, the eight-month journey home will be made by the four following generations, each of which will be born and die along the way. Yet, when autumn rolls around again, a sort of super subspecies generation, that lives up to eight times as long, will somehow know to ride the warm air currents right the way back to that same tree in Mexico.
Read on to discover how you can see this extraordinary migration.

Where to see the monarch butterfly migration

Monarch butterflies migrate to a forest area in central Mexico that forms part of a protected biosphere, a two-hour drive west of Mexico City. There are a few places within the area that the public can go to witness the migration, accessible with a short guided hike or on horseback, including lesser-known El Capulin Sanctuary and the Piedra Herrada Sanctuary, in Valle del Bravo. A local guide will be invaluable when it comes to knowing the year’s best viewing spots, or if you want to make the excursion by horse.

What are the tours like?

Monarch butterfly tours are limited to small groups with a maximum of 10 travelers, led by local guides, and tend to last a week. Keeping groups small stops the butterflies from being disturbed and fewer people on the trails helps to preserve their important natural habitat. It also means you can enjoy the company of likeminded people, just as excited about the experience, and spend more time talking to your guide who will have a wealth of unique local knowledge. Tours usually visit two different butterfly sanctuaries and may include sightseeing in Mexico City and free time to discover the watersports and museums in the lakeside town of Valle de Bravo.
Kenneth Johnson, founder of our butterfly specialists Ecocolors Tours, describes getting to the monarch migration sites: “The hiking isn’t hard at all. People do need to hike up the mountain (around 1-1.5 hours), or there is the option to take a horse if people do not want to hike. We take our time so people do not get exhausted and can enjoy the climb, whether walking or on horseback.”

When to go

The best time to see the monarch butterfly migration is between January and March, when the colonies of butterflies are already established in the forests of Mexico. The temperature at this time of year ranges from 22°C to 26°C; cool enough to enjoy the short hike to the reserve, but warm enough to make the most of the lakeside setting while based in Valle de Bravo.

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Small group wildlife tour in Mexico

Small group wildlife tour in Mexico

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From US $2595 10 days ex flights
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2023: 13 Jun, 25 Jul, 15 Aug
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Threats to monarch butterflies

Kenneth Johnson, founder of our partners Ecocolors Tours, explains the main threats to monarch butterflies:

Ecosystem breakdown

“The main threats are basically ecosystem damage or loss. Monarchs migrate thousands of kilometres and obviously make several stops along the route, so when an ecosystem is polluted or destroyed that affects them. If not done in an appropriate way, tourism can also have a negative impact on the butterflies, but the sites where they arrive have been declared protected areas, so there is control over what activities are allowed.”

Positive tourism

“Fortunately, last year, we had a record number of Monarchs arriving in Mexico reserves. Tourism can have many benefits for butterfly conservation, since local inhabitants now see the benefit of working in tourism and this gives them an incentive to protect the monarch butterfly ecosystem. During this trip you can see a real benefit for the environment, wildlife and local population.”
Written by Bryony Cottam
Photo credits: [Page banner: pendens proditor] [Monarchs view to the sky: Adam Jones] [Tour: USFWS Midwest Region] [Butterflies close up: Rafael Saldana] [Butterflies on tree: Rafael Saldana]