We have all seen on television or on social networks, a video or a photo of thousands of monarch butterflies resting on tree branches. I didn’t think I would ever be able to admire this spectacle one day, thinking it was deep in an inaccessible forest. But the dream came true because we were able to see them in Mexico, where we are present at the right season. Excellent timing.
To explain the phenomenon: every year, around November, the winter migration of monarch butterflies begins: they come from Canada and the United States and land quietly in Mexico, between the state of Michoacan and the state of Mexico. These small insects of 0.5g each are able to undertake a journey of 2000 to 5000 KM! If their life span is a maximum of 6 weeks outside the migratory period, they can live up to 7 months during the migratory period.
Thus, between November and March (but it depends a lot on the climate), we can observe these monarch butterflies by the thousands. The Biosphere Reserve of the Monarch Butterfly extends for kilometers and there are specific biospheres: Sierra Chincua, El Rosario, Sierra Campanario, Piedra Herrada etc.
Part 1: Travel Diary
How to go and see the monarch butterflies from CDMX?
There isvery little information online. And the tours proposed by the agencies from CDMX are out of price (2950MXN = 146€ for 2 days, food excluded) !!
So, after having read, reread and searched in all directions, I shortlisted two reservations, at 3h20-3h40 from Mexico City :
- Sierra Chincua
- El Rosario
These two reserves are accessible from a small village, a Pueblo Magico (the equivalent of the most beautiful villages in France): Angangueo. This village is itself accessible by bus from Mexico City, which facilitates the trip. For the rest, we will see on the spot.
JB’s big cousin C. is on vacation in Mexico right now, and we decide to go together, with one of her Mexican friends P. It’s more fun for 4, we have only one date in common: the weekend of February 15th, take it or leave it. We cross our fingers so that it does not rain. C. and P. speak Spanish perfectly well but they trust me 100%, letting me do the program as I see fit. For my part, I’m inspired by a travel agency program, adding an extra pueblo magico, and leaving us more time at the butterfly reserve.
CDMX -> Angangueo by bus
The D-day arrived, we take a bus at 6 am from the Observatorio terminal (also named Poniente) with the company Zina Bus. The tickets were bought online a few weeks earlier, and so much the better because there is no place left on the bus. The tickets are numbered but in reality, everyone sits where they can. We got on the bus a little late and have to be satisfied with the last seats not far from the (stinking) toilets. Fortunately, they were locked very quickly, so the smell isn’t too annoying anymore. Here is the route taken by the bus: not necessarily the fastest 🙁
At 9:19 am we arrive in Angangueo. It is a local bus that passes through all the small towns – so it only stops if someone asks for a stop. With the GPS of the phone, we manage to find our way around and ask for a stop at a street of the central square.
Angangueo is at 2750m of altitude, I am very surprised that I don’t have mountain sickness (aka vomito), knowing that I had mountain sickness from 2500m, in Chamonix and Chile. C. explains my feat scientifically by saying that my acclimatization has already started in Mexico City 10 days ago, because the city is at 2250m of altitude.
Angangueo is a pueblo magico (the equivalent of the most beautiful villages in France). This town isn’t known for its handicrafts, and the old mines of the town have been destroyed. Its main interest is its peacefulness and its incredible viewpoint. On the other hand, it is so peaceful that even the market is only open at 10am (normally markets close at 10am in small Mexican villages lol). The villagers struggle to find work outside of tourism during the migration period of the monarch butterflies.
Good, we are well in Angangueo but we must go to one of the reserves of the monarch butterflies thereafter.
Sierra Chincua or El Rosario?
It is the 15th of February, a Saturday and the day after Valentine’s Day, there are a lot of tourists.
Monarch butterflies like warmth. When it’s cold, they stick together on trees, but when it’s hot, they fly – so what we want is sun and warmth. I checked the weather forecast the day before:
- the Sierra Chincua reserve will be at 15-17°C around noon – it will never be hotter there, the conditions are already optimal
- the El Rosario reserve will be at 25°C around noon
Conditions are optimal for both sites. Which site to choose?
According to the information found online, the difference in altitude in Sierra Chincua to go and see the butterflies is only 150m. The route is rather easy.
For El Rosario, it is a more touristic site, the difference in altitude is 900m, the course is more difficult and the butterflies are on trees much larger than in Sierra Chincua. Moreover, El Rosario is 40 minutes from Angangueo while Sierra Chincua is only 20 minutes by car and will be closer to the village where we have to sleep tonight : Tlalpuljahua. So I slice rather quickly: it will be Sierra Chincua.
Angangueo – Sierra Chincua by truck or cab
We’re learning about transportation and it looks complicated! The information changes according to the villagers that we question, the schedules are very random.
Apparently, on the weekend, there is a truck that leaves Angangueo at 8:30 and 10:20 am to Sierra Chincua. This same truck will return to Angangueo at 11:30 am and 3:00 or 3:30 pm. The trip costs 30MXN/person. There is a similar truck for El Rosario but I don’t have the schedule.
We decide to take a cab instead of waiting until 10:20 a.m.
The driver announces us
- 600MXN to take us all 4 of us from Angangueo to Sierra Chincua. 3 hours of waiting. Then it will take us to Tlalpujahua (where we sleep tonight)
- Or 200MXN just for the way Angangueo – Sierra Chincua (that we could negotiate at 150MXN).
The bus of this morning passes in front of the junction leading to Sierra Chincua, but I did not want that we stop there because it would mean that we have to go up 2km, until the entrance of the reserve. What can prove to be very tiring at this altitude. So we prefer to go first to Angangueo then to opt for a cab or a truck from Angangueo to Sierra Chincua, like that we will be deposited in front of the entrance.
Thinking that we could do Sierra Chincua – Tlalpujahua by public transport, we decide to take the cab only for the Angangueo – Sierra Chincua trip (the mistake not to make, I will explain why).
I’m sorry to take so much time explaining the different modes of transportation but there is so much information missing that I wanted to clarify all this.
The Sierra Chincua Reserve
As you can see on the map, there are two paths: sendero a caballo, reserved for horses, with a lot of stones, uphill and downhill. And the sendero a pie, reserved for pedestrians, with a small difference in height. The two paths meet at one point. And then the horses stop and it is obligatory to continue on foot (small denivelé) for 20 minutes until you can see the butterflies.
The villagers explain that the decrease in butterfly numbers is clearly visible. Before, in the 80’s, you didn’t have to walk so much to see them, they were right at the entrance of the reserve. Now, it is a minimum 40 minutes walk in total to reach 3300m, where they are. All this is linked to climate change but also deforestation, use of pesticides etc etc. etc.
Butterflies, in addition to being pretty, help, just like bees, to pollinate plants. By feeding on nectar, their bodies are loaded with pollen and they do their job without knowing it. They are also part of the food chain and serve as food for frogs, spiders, etc. They are also part of the food chain. Their disappearance disrupts the ecosystem, and we have to be concerned about them.
We pay 50MXN/person for entry to the reserve. Contrary to what is indicated online and marked everywhere, guides aren’t mandatory (they are paid with a tip), we can visit the reserve independently, just follow the people, the way isn’t well indicated but it is impossible to get lost.
As C. and P. have some minor health concerns, they prefer to take the horse and out of solidarity I do too. JB follows us on our walk, the poor guy, having also opted for the course reserved for horses, has to go up and down a lot more vs. the pedestrian course.
I would say it’s not that necessary to take the horse, at least for the outward journey – because we go down more than we go up, and as we go down, our body is shaken in all directions. Horseback riding tires me a lot more than walking 🙂 But good, the advantage is that we took advance on other tourists and we arrived on the places earlier than the others.
In any case, prices are displayed and non-negotiable: 100MXN/return. Payment in cash. The horses seem to be well treated, not too fat, not too thin. Some horses are really very very beautiful.
Once you arrive at the “parking lot” of the horses, everybody gets off and you have to continue on foot for 20 minutes (in case the butterflies are on the ground, the horses might crush them). The path is well marked out, it’s rather easy on paper, but with the altitude, I advance at the rhythm of a turtle … At one point, I start to have a little trouble breathing.
The “theme” of this reserve is undoubtedly monarch butterflies, we see panels, souvenirs … butterflies, even the restorers have earrings shaped butterflies. It’s so cute!
We are impatient because we still haven’t seen any butterfly. Then we see 1, 2 then 3…. then a tree trunk covered with butterflies !!! Vlam, like that! National Geographic way, like the cover that makes you buy ASAP magazine. Note: I zoomed in to get these pictures. On the spot, we’ll see a little less well.
In the distance, we see branches completely bent under the weight of the butterflies. I remind you that each butterfly is 0.5g so imagine the number of butterflies needed to have an impact on the branches! Insane!
The yellow traces on the trees aren’t dead leaves, but butterflies !
We are supposed to stay a maximum of 18 minutes in the area. But in reality, we stayed 40 minutes because we were only about fifty on the spot. There is a pre-defined path and the guards are there to kindly remind, every 5 minutes, the tourists to advance to leave the place.
There is a little ambient noise, like the sound of bees, but it is the beating of butterfly wings. From time to time, we hear a fall… it’s a butterfly falling, dead. The poor, their wings are very fragile, each flapping of their wings damages them a little more, each rubbing with a flower, a leaf… damages them too. When the wings are too damaged, the butterfly can no longer fly and dies.
I wore white on purpose (you can “pass for a flower” by dressing in white and red) and a butterfly actually landed on my white pants. I was reassured to see that it was not dying because a few minutes later it flew away again, very high. Most of the dead butterflies you see on the ground are males, they are a little bit bigger than the females.
I don’t think we can have a better time. When we arrived, the sky was overcast so the butterflies were huddled together – on the trees. But as soon as there was a ray of sunshine, they flew away and the sky was filled with thousands of butterflies, what a sight! Contrary to what we thought, they did not fly around us like Snow White, but high up.
We take the opposite way back, C. and P. take the horse (it goes up for them so it hurts less in the back), while we take the pedestrian path (very easy because there is only a small rise), to look at the flowers, admire the trees and reach a watchtower. There are a lot of flowers at the moment, the conditions are ideal to feed the butterflies.
Arrived at the restaurant level, P. shows us the restaurant “Sofia” something. Sofia is the mother of the little boy in charge of P.’s horse. On the way, he asked P. to teach him some basics in English to tell the tourists “my horses are quiet”. Not only does he need English lessons but I think he needs marketing lessons too. This isn’t an argument that convinces me 100% to opt for his services, it would be more like “my horses are hungry”, “my horses only work for 10 minutes a day”… right? When we leave the reserve, there are a lot of children who offer to clean our shoes soiled by dust.
Still, Sofia’s restaurant is the best of the lot because it’s the only one where the smell is irresistible. The tacos are very good, the pollo consommé (a kind of soup) is delicious. We get by for 500MXN for 4, very reasonable therefore!
Sierra Chincua – Tlalpujahua : the galley
Since our arrival in the reserve, everyone has been asked how to get to Tlalpujahua by public transportation and the answers and schedules are as varied as the Pantone color chart. So, when two people recommend us to walk down to the main road and stop a colectivo, we consider it the right answer. Error!
We walk (go down) 2km to the main road, trying to hitchhike on the way. We split in 2 groups of 2 to have more chance to have someone to hitch-hike us. But most of the tourists are Mexicans and Mexicans do not take anybody in hitch-hiking for safety reasons. So in spite of many free places, nobody stopped for us :'(
Arrived to the main road, we see about ten guides of the reserve. They stop the cars that arrive to offer their services. They tell us that it is too late, the last colectivo passed at 3 am (and it was full anyway). We do not receive here (neither the telephone nor the 4G), therefore our only chance would be to hitch-hike. However, we saw that even since the reserve, nobody took us by hitch-hiking. The truck supposed to pass at 15h-15h30 of the reserve until Anganguo, well we did not see it. So one of the easy solutions for us would be to bribe these dealers to take us to Tlalpujahua.
But this trip isn’t free. One of the guys has a truck but offers it to us at 800MXN, so the trip is very long (40 minutes) and he has a big car. He also understood that we are stuck without alternative solution. We try to negotiate at 500MXN without success. At one moment, he proposes 700MXN. We refuse, we aren’t especially in a hurry. In the end, he proposes us to play a coin toss. If we win, we pay 600MXN and neither we lose we pay 700MXN. C. dedicated himself to toss the coin and …. we lost 😀
The misunderstanding is total because even the smallest villages are well served, there are regularly colectivos. But in this area and this section, maybe because it links two cities of two different states??? colectivos and public buses are super rare. I have indeed read comments that warned us about the rarity of transportation on this section but I never thought it was that rare: almost impossible. In 2 months of traveling in Mexico, we always found solutions very easily, except today!
Well, the ride isn’t very pleasant when you sit in the back (it stank of gas) but the two ladies sitting in the front were delighted with the ride. We are deposited almost at the foot of our hotel. The driver is very happy to have lightened us by 700MXN.
We really should have accepted the proposal of the cab this morning to wait for us on the spot. But, thanks to our learning, you won’t make the same mistake as we did 😀
If you are really stuck and the reamers aren’t there, here are the possible solutions:
- there is a guard on the reserve not too far from the main road, you can ask him to call someone for you
- cabs waiting for customers in the parking lot may have a radio and may be able to call a cab for you
- the nearest village Garatachea is only 23 minutes walk away
Our next article in Tlalpujahua in the next article…
Part 2: Practical Tips
We don’t pick up anything there, remember to download offline your Google Maps before coming.
The transports are detailed in a separate article, you can consult it here
- Bus Mexico City – Anganguo: 233MXN/person
- Horse: 100MXN/go or return per person
- Cab :
- recommended : Anganguo – Sierra Chincua – 3h waiting time – Tlalpujahua : 600MXN (up to 4 people)
- or if you visit Sierra Chincua and return to Mexico City the same day: Anganguo – Sierra Chincua – 3h wait – Anganguo: 400MXN (up to 4 people)
- what we did: Angaguo – Sierra Chincua: 150MXN then Sierra Chincua – Tlalpujahua by truck: 700MXN = 850MXN (failed)
- Access to the reserve: 50MXN/person
- Lunch: about 125MXN/person
- Dinner: about 125MXN/person
So here is the budget of this day, so you can compare with the prices proposed by the organized tours, including 2 meals.
Some extras not taken into account :
- Count 100MXN more if you take a horse (round trip) or 200MXN for the round trip
- Count 135MXN from the city center to the bus terminal in Uber (you can pay less by taking the subway)
|Scenario||Group of 2 people||Group of 4 people|
|Round trip from Mexico City in one day||833MXN||683MXN|
|Mexico City – Butterfly Reserve – then Tlalpujahua||966MXN||866MXN|
Mexico City and surroundings :
- Attend a soccer game at the mythical Estadio Azteca in Mexico City
- Evening of Lucha Libre (Mexican wrestling) at the Arena Mexico City
- Mexico City or Ciudad de México
- We visited a Monarch Butterfly Reserve in Mexico – Sierra Chincua
- Visit of two old mining towns: Tlalpujahua and El Oro
- Pyramids of the Sun and Moon in Teotihuacán