Every year, beginning in November, the entire North American monarch butterfly population, east of the rockies, migrates to one specific forest in the Mexican state of Michoacán until mid-March. Here is where they will spend winter until it becomes warm enough to return to northern Mexico, United States, and Canada.
There are four sanctuaries open to the public. My mom and I chose to visit the less touristic and harder to get to sanctuary, Cerro Pelón. Since we opted for the more rustic experience, we booked our hotel and butterfly tour through J&M’s Butterly B&B in the tiny village of Macheros. J&M is the main and best way for you to experience the millions of monarch butterflies at the Cerro Pelón sanctuary. When you go on one of their tours you are supporting both the conservation of the butterflies and their environment as well as the economic development of the local people in a sustainable way.
J&M Butterfly B&B is the only form of accommodation in Macheros. Before the B&B was built tourists would have to take day trips from Mexico City or elsewhere, making for an exhausting day. With the establishment of a bed and breakfast, local villagers were given an additional source of income through ecotourism.
One restaurant has opened in the village to feed hungry tourists after a day’s adventure in the mountains. Local farmers’ horses are for hire to take tourists up the mountain a couple days a week as part of J&M’s butterfly tour. During high season, J&M employs up to twenty people to help run the B&B and is able to compensate employees year round for their nonprofit thanks to the business the tours generate. With these sources of income locals now resort less to the illegal logging that was once a more common way to generate revenue, meaning that the monarch’s habitat is now more protected from harmful deforestation. Even Internet connection didn’t exist until the establishment of the B&B. Now J&M are able to subsidize Internet to the local school. The efforts of a few individuals to help foreigners experience the wonder of the monarch migration has led to countless benefits for their community and their neighboring monarch butterflies.
The tour begins at 10am and lasts roughly until 3 or 4pm. You start by meeting your horse and handler a few minutes walk from the B&B. From there it’s about an hour and a half ride up the mountain. The first hour I’m on my horse, very relaxed, taking in the beautiful surroundings. I admire the glimpses of towering peaks through the dense forest. The air has that crisp distinct mountain quality to it. After about an hour I’m brought to full alert as we start ascending the steep, narrow, and rocky path. And I’m thinking, “If this horse slips up once we are going to come crashing down and either I am going to be crushed by its massive body or my head is just going to crack open on one of these rocks.” If my horse could read my mind she would have scoffed at my doubts in her ability because she could read the path like you and I read a children’s book. The horses maneuvered expertly up the steepest last thirty minutes of the trail, avoiding boulders and keeping steady on loose rocks. One minute I was holding on for dear life and the next I felt my entire body exhale at the site of the open meadow with thousands of butterflies fluttering about.
We dismounted our horses and they spent the next couple of hours bareback and grazing in the meadow as we too enjoyed the meadow and hiked up to see the butterfly colony. Besides the six tourists that came in our group, there were only three other tourists with their guides. It was the warmest part of the day so the butterflies left their trees to stretch their wings and search for water. In the wide open space of the meadow you can really get a feel for just how many monarchs there are. Thousands flying about, most flying in the wind streams by the thousands. It’s so serene you can hear the flapping of their delicate wings, like tissue paper blowing in the wind.
After admiring a sky full of butterflies we take the forty minute hike to the butterfly colony situated at 3,000 meters (roughly 10,000ft). This elevation is the elevation that all of the monarch colonies across the reserve are located. Nobody is certain why they have chosen these trees or how they are able to navigate back to them year after year. Millions of them are clustered on the tree limbs. At first it appears that they are just dead leaves but after a closer look you will see millions of monarchs in the surrounding trees weighing the limbs down by their sheer numbers. We sat in silence marveling at this biological phenomenon taking place right before our eyes.
I devoured my packed lunch after reaching the meadow via maybe the steepest descent I’ve encountered. And it wasn’t the last. We came up on horseback meaning we had to go back down. I was gripping onto the horn of the saddle, all of my muscles fully engaged the whole way down. I had a stupid grin on my face which was partly from the excitement and partly from sheer terror. Once again, my horse was a master navigator and thoughtfully maneuvered us down the precarious path.
Once we returned to our starting point our horses were free to go home where they rolled around in the grass like a couple of puppies. As for us, we went back to the B&B and relaxed in a pair of adirondack chairs on the lawn until sunset.