I've read that there are now 12 areas that they've discovered in the mountains west of Mexico City that are wintering grounds for the monarch butterflies. We visited the most popular one at El Rosario in December of 2010. But we had heard about two smaller ones close to Valle de Bravo, and we wanted to visit one of them.
GPS co-ordinates of the parking lot are 19.174518, -99.958604
Driving up to the parking lot from Valle de Bravo, there are two parking areas that are before the official parking lot. Having never been there, we didn't know about the "official" parking lot, and stopped at the second one, figuring we had arrived. There were people with horses, and an official sign, so we assumed this was the spot...and to a certain extent, it was. But had we continued around the corner we would have got a better price. A woman came up to us, and explained the prices saying you need to have a guide. We weren't surprised by this because that's the way it was at the El Rosario sanctuary. Just to confirm, I asked about tickets and she said you get them half way up the mountain where you pay your entrance fee. And so we set off...
Our guide Maria. She carries her 2 year old son Misaei up the mountain with her!
Maria only speaks Spanish so we enjoyed practicing with her. Turns out she's been doing this for 12 years and climbs the mountain at least once per day during the winter. The parking area is at 9,300 feet and the butterflies are at 10,800 feet so it's quite a steep climb. They rent horses if you like, but even then you have to hike the last steep section on your own two feet because the horses aren't allowed close to the butterflies. It took us about 50 minutes to do the hike.
About half way up, there was a sign and a couple of guys who collect the fees. It was 50 ($4.00) pesos per person entrance fee, so we handed him 100 pesos. But then Maria says we have to pay for her too. Okay, so I handed him another 50 pesos, figuring that's her fee or something.
Uphill, every step of the way.
These monarch wintering grounds are a very strange sight. First of all, they're VERY localized. Considering there are hundreds of thousands (maybe millions?) of butterflies, you don't really see very many of them until you actually arrive at the site. Sure, one or two along the path...but then all of a sudden...thousands!
These pine trees are literally covered with butterflies! And yet, a tree 20 or 30 feet away has none at all. Very strange.
There are butterflies everywhere. You have to watch wherever you put your feet because there are so many on the ground. They land on you, and they don't seem afraid like when you try and get close to one in Canada. I suspect part of that is because they're cold. At this altitude, it gets pretty chilly at night and even at 12:30pm our hands were a bit cold.
They land on your hand.
On your clothes.
And on your head!
It was a bit cloudy when we first got up there, and apparently it takes five minutes of sunshine at that hour of the day in order to warm them up enough that they start to fly. We took quite a few pictures while we were waiting for the sun, and it appeared for a minute of two at a time but then went behind the clouds again. Eventually, just before we were getting ready to leave, the sun came out and stayed out long enough that the butterflies started flying. What a site!
Huge clumps of butterflies.
Can you count them?
The trees are covered in them.
It is one of the world's great mysteries how the butterflies know to come to these spots every winter. Even more astounding is that it's not the same butterflies returning year after year, it is second or third generations of the ones that were here the year before. Amazing stuff!
Maria took the time to explain a few things about the butterflies and showed us the difference between the males and the females.
This is the pine forest where they hang out for the winter. Every one of those clumps is thousands of butterflies.
Totally covering the bark of the trees.
Heading back down the hill.
When we got close to the bottom, we tried to give Maria a 50 pesos tip, figuring that her fee was the 50 pesos we had paid to the entrance guys. Turns out that her fee is 250 pesos ($20) and that all we had paid previously was her entrance fee. It took a while to sort out the confusion, but we paid the price she asked. Our fault for not understanding it to begin with. Besides, she was really good and we enjoyed her company. Having said that, if you go to the main parking lot and entrance, your guide is assigned to you and is included with your entrance fee...then, you tip your guide. If you want to ride a horse, it's another 150 pesos ($12) per person. So it cost us 400 pesos ($32) which is pretty expensive. We should have paid only about 250 pesos ($20) total, which is about what we paid when we went to El Rosario two years ago.
Even so, we had a great day. Seeing the monarch wintering grounds is a special experience and now we've seen them twice. We think this should be on everybody's "things to do before I die" list!