We’re off to see the monarchs! Of course, they’re at the top of the mountain. The butterflies move up and down the mountain depending on the temperature, therefore early in the season they’re at the top and as the temperature cools they move down to the lower elevations.
After yesterday’s ride we were sure we had reached the top, but the monarchs are another 2300 feet (700 meters) higher into the forest. We’re told it usually takes 2.5 hours to hike. It feels good though, to be off the bikes and hiking for a change.
A guide in the park is obligatory, costs 200 pesos ($15) and is worth every cent. Our guide didn’t talk much. His job was to make sure we found the butterflies and didn’t get lost in the process. The forest is a maze of unmarked trails. We were offered horses but opted to go by foot.
The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is 217 square miles of protected pine and oyamel fir forest in central Mexico, west of Mexico City. It was listed as a World Heritage Site in 2008. Every autumn, an estimated 1 billion monarch butterflies migrate here for the winter. Even though the park is large, the butterflies only inhabit a fraction of it, clustering in 14 colonies among the reserve. I thought they would be flying about everywhere and was getting nervous when we were riding to the park and only saw a few. They usually start arriving in November, but wonder if they’re late this year?
The reserve has multiple entry points. We chose to visit the Cerro Pelon site, via the town of Macheros. The butterflies are spectacular at all the sites. For us it was more a matter of logistics, we were looking for a town that was within walking distance of a park entrance that also had camping and a secure place to leave the bikes. During our planning, we found JM’s Butterfly B&B in Macheros which had opened last year and already had glowing reviews. We sent the owner, Joel, an email ahead of time and he confirmed he allows camping on his property and could look after the bikes during our day in the park.
The Cerro Pelon site is the most recently opened and gets a small fraction of the park’s annual visitors, and as such is the least commercial. The more popular location, El Rosario, has up to 250,000 visitors in the November to March season. Macheros gets at most 80 visitors a day during the height of the season.
Finding Macheros proved to be a bit of a challenge. It’s a tiny community of a couple hundred people. The town of Macheros doesn’t show up on GoogleMaps and our GPS doesn’t recognize it either. Luckily we were able to locate its neighbor a couple miles down the road, El Capulin, and map our route accordingly.
On the hike up the mountain I began to get nervous again because we were only seeing a few monarchs here and there. After a while the trail seemed to peter out, and Angel told us to look up. There they all were. High up in the trees, clustering together, the branches bending under their collective weight. It was still early in the day and they had not warmed enough to take flight. Their wings were folded up exposing their grayish muted undersides.
We waited for the sun to come out from behind the clouds and almost instantly the trees were colored orange as the monarchs fluttered their wings to dry. As impressive a sight this was, it was equally impressive to hear the sound of all those fluttering butterfly wings, similar to the sound of aspen leaves blowing in a breeze.
With a little wind, the monarchs took flight and the sky filled with butterflies.
It’s still early in the season, only about a quarter of the monarchs have arrived. I can’t imagine what this place looks like in February when there are 4x the number of butterflies!
We practically had the entire mountain to ourselves. We saw only one other group when we were heading back down. We appreciated being able experience the butterflies without the distraction of other people. It is truly a remarkable site.
Famished by the hike, we headed next door to Joel’s mom’s house for dinner when we got back. She cooked up some local trout stuffed with vegetables, which was delicious!
If you found our site because you’re planning a trip to see the monarch butterflies, we highly recommend going to Macheros and staying with Joel and his family. Macheros is a quiet little village, devoid of touristy commercialism. Joel’s hospitality is wonderful, he’s passionate about the butterflies, and his mom makes really delicious food!