Sierra Chincua Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary: how to see millions of migrating butterflies in Mexico
Every year, more than one billion monarch butterflies make the 5,000km journey from Canada to Mexico, arriving into high-elevation forests just outside of Mexico City to “overwinter” in near-constant sunshine.
The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is a pocket of true magic amongst the sacred firs at 3,200m, and witnessing millions of butterflies floating through the air is truly indescribable. Of all the things we’ve done in mainland Mexico so far, this was indisputably the highlight.
Here’s absolutely everything you need to know about seeing the monarch butterflies in Mexico, including when to visit, which sanctuary offers the best experience, how much it costs, details of the hike, and heaps more about the monarch butterfly migration.
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About the Monarch Butterfly migration
As part of what is perhaps the most intriguing natural phenomenon in all of North America, an estimated one billion monarch butterflies leave their summer home in Canada and migrate 5,000km (3,000mi) to the high-elevation forests of Michoacán in south-central Mexico every single year, returning with almost laser precision to a place they’ve never been themselves— instinctively draw to the sacred oyamel fir trees that have provided ideal overwintering conditions to generations of monarch butterflies before them.
It’s all part of a grand migratory cycle that has been spinning for thousands of years.
Northern Migration: summer mating in Canada
After enjoying a pleasant winter in south-central Mexico, monarch butterflies begin their journey north in March, travelling in colonies of around 20 million and laying eggs in northern Mexico that will eventually become the “1st generation.”
Amazingly, it takes several generations of monarchs to travel north to Canada for the summer, a constant cycle of birth and death that revolves around availability of the milkweed plant.
Each of these new butterfly generations lives just 5-7 weeks in their steady journey towards warmer weather, so the butterflies who eventually arrive in Canada are often the great-great-grandchildren of the last butterflies who ever visited these summer breeding grounds. And yet, they are entirely guided by instinct!
Southern Migration: overwintering in Mexico
When the 2nd or 3rd generation of monarch butterflies arrive in Canada each summer, they proliferate rapidly and a new generation of monarchs is born— one with the strength to fly the entire 5,000km to southern México and with a lifespan long enough (8 months) to begin the cycle anew the following March.
Due to shortening days at this time of year, these monarchs develop much later than previous generations and spend most of their time in Canada consuming nectar, which eventually provides the fuel they need to migrate 5,000km and overwinter in Mexico.
What is it that draws the butterflies to the exact forest and the same trees that their ancestries once hung from, clustered by the millions until even the branches themselves appear orange? Indigenous Mexicans have recorded the arrival of the monarchs for thousands of years, always in the same place and at the same time, and because this arrival coincides with Día de los Muertos, many believe that the monarch butterflies are the souls of their ancestors returning home.
Scientists, on the other hand, have theorised that the butterflies can sense their position relative to the sun and that this influences the timing and trajectory of their migration, down to the metre. It’s a complex cycle that remains largely mysterious, even to leading researchers. However beautiful the monarchs may be (and they REALLY are), it’s this incomprehensible journey that makes them so special.
Once the butterflies (typically the 4th generation) arrive to the cool mountain air and near-constant sunshine of Mexico’s high forests, they refuel from their long journey before moving north and beginning the cycle again each March.
When to see Monarch Butterflies in Mexico
Monarch butterflies arrive to Mexico at the end of the year, but usually don’t become active until January when the temperatures start to rise. By early- to mid-March, depending on the year (in 2021, it was 12 March), the butterflies are already on their way north towards Canada.
The best time to see the monarch butterflies in Mexico is from January to February, and the end of February is a particularly active time (these photos were all taken 19 Feb 2022). The butterflies like dry, warm days, so you’ll have the best experience visiting between 11am-3pm on a sunny day!
* I’d also strongly recommend visiting the butterflies midweek. This is an incredibly popular day tour or weekend excursion from Mexico City, so you’ll have a far more intimate experience with the butterflies if you visit the sanctuary on a weekday.
Where to see monarch butterflies in Mexico
Each winter, one billion monarch butterflies journey to the Sierra Madre mountains in south-central Mexico, between Michoacán and the State of Mexico, several hours west of Mexico City.
There are only a few sanctuaries open to the public where you can see the monarch butterflies during their stay in Mexico, and all of these sanctuaries are protected within the Reserva de Biosfera de la Mariposa Monarca.
About the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve
The Reserva de Biosfera de la Mariposa Monarca, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, protects over 56,000 acres of pine and oyamel fir forest in south-central Mexico where the monarch butterflies overwinter. The greatest portion of the reserve is within the state of Michoacán, but some also extends into the neighbouring State of Mexico.
Although the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is quite large, the actual areas populated by monarch butterflies in the winter are a mere fraction of this— a large buffer zone ensures better protection for the species, so a visit to any sanctuary involves a bit of a hike up into the mountains and deep into the forest.
Which Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary to visit
There are about a dozen known areas within the Reserva de Biosfera de la Mariposa Monarca where millions of monarchs congregate, but only 3 butterfly sanctuaries in Michoacán and the State of Mexico are currently open to the public (as of Feb 2022, Cerro Pelón is still closed):
- Piedra Herradura, State of Mexico
- El Rosario, Michoacán
- Sierra Chincua, Michoacán
Sierra Chincua, the less touristy and more rugged of the two sanctuaries currently open in Michoacán, is a little bit farther from Mexico City but well-worth the journey. We visited on a Friday in February 2022 and had a very intimate experience with the butterflies!
*How to visit Sierra Chincua Monarch Butterfly Reserve
Getting to Sierra Chincua
Although there are some tours that will take you from Mexico City to Sierra Chincua in Michoacán, the best and most affordable way to get here is in your own vehicle.
Sierra Chincua Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary is 3.5hrs and 170km west of Mexico City, near the Pueblo Mágico, Angangueo. To get here, you’ll drive from CDMX into the State of Mexico and finally a short distance across the state border into Michoacán.
It costs 50 pesos to park at Sierra Chincua, but we arrived in the evening and camped in a nearby meadow (which we’d highly recommend as a safe, scenic spot!), so there was no one collecting parking fees.
Cost of entry to Sierra Chincua
As of February 2022, entry to the Sierra Chincua Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Michoacán is just 80 pesos per person ($4USD). Based on my research, the other butterfly sanctuaries charge a similar price.
Sierra Chincua Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary is open seasonally every day from 8am-5pm, but to experience the most butterflies with the fewest tourists, I’d recommend arriving between 10-11am (which will get you to the sanctuary itself around 11am-noon). The butterflies are most active from 12-3pm, but you’ll notice significantly more people after 2pm.
Local guides at Sierra Chincua
You have the option to take a private guide with you to the sanctuary, which can be a great option if you don’t know much about the butterflies (although you should after reading this post!), but it will be at an additional cost. A group of local guides is always ready and waiting at the entry to the butterfly sanctuary, so there’s no need to coordinate this in advance.
We opted not to take a guide, correctly presuming that it would give us the freedom to move at a slower pace and therefore more time for photography. It’s also worth noting that all the guides we saw ONLY spoke Spanish.
Hiking to Sierra Chincua
From the Sierra Chincua carpark and entrance, it’s a leisurely 40min undulating hike to reach the actual Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary (and you’ll start seeing your first monarch around 20min in).
The hike is entirely on a dirt trail, although it does alternate between a wider horse track and a more narrow boot path— anyone with a reasonable level of fitness will find this a pleasant walk, with a mix of up and down.
There’s an option to take a horse for part of the hike, which is a good option for those with reduced mobility, but note that the horse does NOT take you all the way to the sanctuary, so there’s still about 10min of hiking (not counting the walking you’ll do at the sanctuary itself).
The only part of the trail that gets a bit rough is once you reach the butterfly sanctuary, and we watched several people slip on the loose dirt and short hills (nothing serious). I’d definitely recommend comfortable, close-toed walking shoes!
What to expect at Sierra Chincua
Once you reach the sanctuary, there are signs instructing you to be quiet, as loud noises can disturb the butterflies, and to avoid flash photography for the same reason.
These same signs provide arrows for a short one-way loop through the trails that make up the sanctuary. It is forbidden to step off these trails and when we unknowingly did so (passing a rope that had been cut), there was a volunteer on the spot within seconds to advise us of our mistake.
To walk through the entire sanctuary at a normal walking pace would only take a few minutes, but you’ll want to allow around an hour (if it’s not too crowded, you can continue going around the loop multiple times for photos, which is what we did).
Other things to know before you visit Sierra Chincua
- WHAT TO PACK: daypack with water and snacks (not to be eaten within the sanctuary itself, but ok on the trail); jacket for the early morning; comfortable walking shoes; a camera and zoom lens!
- BE RESPECTFUL: It should go without saying that this is a fragile environment and every care should be taken to minimise human impact on the monarch butterflies. Respect signs that instruct you to whisper, avoid all flash photography, stay on the marked trail, and don’t leave anything behind but footprints!
- RESTAURANTS: There are a dozen rustic eateries at the entrance to Sierra Chincua and these are an excellent place to eat after visiting the butterflies! Ask for something unique to Michoacán— we got an amazing share-platter of meat, rice, beans, cactus, and blue corn tortillas for 120 pesos ($6USD).
- CAMPING: We camped just outside of the parking lot to Sierra Chincua, boondocking in our van in a beautiful grassy field. We spoke to several local vaqueros, who were happy for us to be there, and the Michoacán Police even gave us a friendly wave— this is a safe, comfortable spot to spend the night before and after seeing the butterflies!
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