Mexico’s Million Monarch Migration – Valle de Bravo, Mexico


As another season of epic annual monarch butterfly migration comes to an end here in Mexico, we started thinking about our accidental encounters with the fluttery masses last year.

And we do mean accidental.

One of the more exciting road signs in Mexico.

We were driving along  hwy 134 from Mexico City toward Valle de Bravo just minding our own damn business. Our first hint that something was in the air came when Mexican police cars suddenly veered into traffic and slowed all cars to a crawl. As a growing convoy of frustrated drivers crept around a corner the reason for the hold-up came into view: swarms of monarchs flying down the road in a slow-mo river of gold and black. These “butterfly cops” (as we dubbed them) were there to ensure that moving vehicles didn’t hit too many butterflies—or each other—in the winged confusion.

This monarch, and millions of others just like it, fly thousands of miles from the US and Canada to Mexico every year.

Most drivers kept going but we pulled over into the first turnout we saw along the highway. Soon we were hiking up a steep, dusty trail into the forest behind a handful of Mexican visitors in pursuit of what we could only hope was the home roost of the monarchs we’d just seen along the road.

Something in the air in Mexico.What looks like gently falling confetti is actually swarms of flitting butterflies.

Every year, between November and March, hundreds of millions of monarchs somehow navigate their way to the exact same areas of Central Mexico —some flying 5,000 miles or more from where they were born in Canada and the northern US. Scientists say they’re drawn to Mexico’s fir trees, but can’t provide a more complete explanation than that. Once the butterflies arrive, they rest and eat then mate like crazy before attempting the return flight home. Most never make it.

It’s one of the most puzzling, fragile and mind-boggling migrations on the planet and it gives those lucky enough to visit Mexico’s dozen or so protected monarch migration grounds the unique opportunity to see millions of butterflies in one place. There are so many of the orange and black beauties that the air is alive with the sound of their wings. Tree branches bend to the ground under their collective weight. They even begin to give off a not-so-beautiful smell, not to mention their aforementioned ability to stop traffic.

Thousands of butterflies rest in their beloved fir trees, cumulatively weighing enough to bend the branches down as if they were covered in snow.

Some of Mexico’s better known butterfly havens, like El Rosario, are becoming less of a haven as the hiking boots (and the horse hooves of those who take for the “easy” way up) of thousands of visitors churn up the hiking trails into dust bowls and encourage hillside erosion and fir tree loss.  That many humans also create noise and movement that stresses the colony.

But thanks to the Mexican police force we’d stumbled upon the Piedra Herrada site roughly 15 miles outside Valle de Bravo. This newly opened viewing area is one of a handful of migration locations in Central Mexico which attract one third of the world’s monarch population every year.

The hike was steep (prompting some potty-mouthed grumbling from a woman dressed for brunch, not for hiking) and the weather was hot. Some visitors opted to ride up on one of the handful of petite horses-for-hire, a proposition that looked even more uncomfortable than walking.

At the end of a 1,100 foot climb into the mountains there were still no butterflies in sight but we plodded on winding our way up through the thick forest and the thin air above 7,000 feet.

An hour later we were met by two uniformed local men, trained as official monarch monitors. They collected 23 pesos per person and admitted only a dozen or so people at a time into a roped off hillside viewing area roughly 50 feet from the pulsating colony. We were all under strict orders to move slowly and talk quietly and we remained under the watchful eye of these monitors for as long as we remained within the roped off area. It’s one of the few times we’ve felt grateful for being supervised as the monitors shhh’d and admonished with responsibility, care and obvious respect for the butterflies.

At the Piedra Herrada site, thousands of butterflies rest on the fir trees that they love, weighing down the branches like snow. Those dark clumps are all butterflies.

Yep, all those dark patches are monarch butterflies.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-V3qouQYguY[/youtube]

Encouraged by the good conditions and manageable crowd size at Piedra Herrada we committed to finding an area even more pristine and private. And we succeeded.

The next monarch meeting place we visited was an area called Cerro Pellon outside a town called El Capulin which is about 25 miles from Valle de Bravo. The trail here was less steep and a bit shorter than the route up to the first sanctuary and our obligatory local guide allowed us to stand within 20 feet of the butterflies.

Karen on the trail to see the monarchs at Cerro Pellon.

The best part, however, was that we were there along with just five other people (three of which were guides). Plus, the trail was less steep.

Monarchs warming up in the sun at Cerro Pellon.

Thousands of monarchs but only five humans at Cerro Pellon in Mexico.

Thousands of monarchs but only five humans at Cerro Pellon in Mexico.

You'd never know that thousands of monarchs were camped out less than half a mile up this hillside at Cerro Pellon in Mexico.

Thousands of monarchs but only five humans at Cerro Pellon in Mexico.

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It’s true that the future of Mexico’s monarchs is far from certain. Loss of habitat through persistent illegal logging, insufficient funding for the 124,000 acre Monarca Biosphere Reserve which straddles two states and encompasses most of the migration points and over-visitation threatens the butterflies.

To address some of those issues Mexican President Felipe Calderon pledged to add $4.6 million to the $36.4 million annual budget for the Biosphere Reserve (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) back in 2007. However, illegal logging (it’s a felony) and even clear cutting within protected monarch habitat is an ongoing problem as a quick Google Maps overview of some areas brings into stark relief.

Monarchs enjoying Mexico's sunshine

Our advice? Get yourself to Valle de Bravo, a charming Pueblo Magico (they don’t call it the Switzerland of Mexico for nothing) in time for next year’s migration. And note that later in the monarch season (late February and early March) warmer temperatures lure the butterflies lower down the hillsides shaving distance off your hike up to reach them.

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18 comments on “Mexico’s Million Monarch Migration – Valle de Bravo, Mexico

  1. I love monarch butterflies, I have a butterfly bush in my backyard and could spend hours watching them. This is incredible, I wish I could see it in person.

  2. Awesome! I missed the migration this year when the monarchs stopped here in Florida. Up in St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge there is a annual festival centered around the migration. Amazing stuff!

  3. It is a beautiful story you got there. It’s terrible to see these holy forests are getting lodged. Hope they can cope with the problem. In deed I will put this on my list of things to do.

  4. I read your blog after watching the 3D film today, and very inspired to travel to Valle de Bravo. Are there any tours or groups I can travel with to the wintering grounds?
    …Thanks. Nanu

  5. Pingback: Travel Mexico: Karen & Eric of the Trans-Americas Journey - travelinksites.com

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