Every autumn, monarch butterflies begin their annual 3,000-mile migration from the forests of the United States and Canada to the mountains of Mexico. There they group by the millions, so the landscape flickers like embers and tree branches sag from the weight.
It's no wonder travelers follow in pursuit.
The monarchs begin arriving in Mexico around mid-November and remain through March, and the Mexican government has set up a number of protected sanctuaries to ensure the habitats are preserved, year after year.
Recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve covers 350 square miles in the state of Michoacan and Mexico. Two of the sanctuaries within the reserve are open to the public: El Rosario Reserve, near the town of Ocampo, and Sierra Chincua Reserve, near Angangueo.
If your groups are making their own migration to the monarchs' winter haven, here's what you should know logistically to help make the most of your tour.
- The best time to see butterflies in Mexico is between late January and the end of March, when the population reaches its peak and the warmer weather renders the butterflies more active. These are also the busiest months to visit, so be prepared to beat (or tolerate) crowds.
- Sanctuaries are open daily to the public between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., but weekends are busier than weekdays.
- Butterflies are more active on warm and sunny days, so keep an eye on the weather. Cold fronts tend to sweep the region once or twice a year in the biosphere, and can last anywhere from a few days to a week. Yet sometimes, you just can't work around clouds and cold. Rest assured: The view is spectacular, no matter the weather.
- An uphill hike to nearly 10,000 feet above sea level is required to see the spot where the butterflies congregate. The trails are narrow and steep, and the terrain can be rough. Visitors should be physically fit for the journey, be prepared with good hiking shoes, and take it slow to ease the affects altitude has on the body. Horses are available for an additional cost, but can only go so far up the mountain.
- Mexico's mountains have a microclimate that can be unpredictable. Visitors should dress in layers so their bodies can warm up or cool down as required on the hike.
- Visitors must stay to the trails to help protect the butterflies and their habitat. On warmer days, monarchs seek cooler air and moisture—flying lower and settling on the ground. Watch your step!
And don't forget to look up! The monarch migration is one of North America's mysterious wonders.
Written by Cassie Westrate, staff writer for Groups Today.