Mexico’s Great Monarch Butterfly Migration

“Happiness,” said the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, “is like a butterfly which appears and delights us for one brief moment, but soon flits away.” If that’s true, then being surrounded by ten million butterflies must be sheer ecstasy.

Each year as winter gives way to spring, monarchs leave the safety of their wintering grounds in central Mexico and fly north to places such as Texas or Louisiana. They mate, lay eggs on milkweed plants, and die. The caterpillars hatch, form a chrysalis, and emerge as butterflies, ready to continue journeying north. It takes four or five generations before monarch butterflies arrive in the northeastern U.S. and Canada by summertime, each hatching, living, and dying in just six or seven weeks.

Then, the last generation—a single “super generation” of butterflies—flies 3,000 miles back to Mexico, where they spend the winter in the very same forests inhabited by their great, great, great, great (you get the idea) grandparents just one year earlier. Nobody really knows why the monarchs migrate this way, or how they know where to go. Often, they can wind up in the exact same cluster of trees as their ancestors.

This annual migration is one of nature’s greatest spectacles, and the best place to witness it is at the start of the journey, among the “sacred” oyamel fir trees of the Central Mexican highlands. With the help of local conservationists and expert wildlife biologists, you’ll enjoy a butterfly expedition unlike any other while enjoying a relaxing journey through the Mexican countryside. 

Expedition Highlights:

  • Join your guides for an informal walking tour in Mexico City, starting at the gourmet food market Mercado San Juan. Ever tried eating a stink bug, queen leaf cutter ant, or scorpion? This is your chance to be gastronomically adventurous. But don’t worry — we’ll follow that up with a taste of some of the world’s best street food: blue corn quesadillas stuffed with cheese, chicken, pork, cactus, or huitlacoche!

  • Visit three different butterfly sanctuaries, all within Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, officially declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.

  • Mount a horse or hike up the mountains to wander among the oyamel fir trees. Upon first glance, the trees here may appear orange—but take a moment to look closer. The coloration is provided by millions of butterflies, whose collective weight can actually make the branches sag. We’ll arrive at each sanctuary early, before the morning chill has worn off, when the butterflies are still clumped to their trees. Once the sun warms the air, the butterflies take flight—millions of them.

  • Spend a day in the lakeside community of Valle de Bravo. Once a little-known mountain town, it was the so-called “Woodstock of Mexico” in 1971 that put it on the map. It’s since become a favorite weekend getaway for Mexico City’s celebrities, like what the Hamptons are to Manhattan. We’ll take an easy hike to see the “Bridal Veil” waterfall and enjoy a short cruise around the lake to look for the area’s bird life.

Traveler Feedback:

  • “Standing in the mountains observing the millions of butterflies - it was magical!” —Vicki Kenyon

  • “Sitting quietly and waiting for the butterflies to warm up was my favorite experience. Watching them transform from drab butterfly pine cones to a beautiful whirlwind of orange in the morning sun is an unforgettable experience. The delicate rustle of thousands of wings, like a gentle breeze through the treetops, heightened the sense of wonder.” —Jennifer Cross

  • “You have to go and see the butterflies to truly grasp the magic of seeing millions in one place. The guides do a great job leading the trip, from running ahead to scout good locations to sharing their knowledge and teaching you about what you are seeing.”

  • “I was extremely pleased with both [guides]. The were accessible, responsive, flexible, hands on, substantively competent, and well prepared.” —Jonathan Shils