Sunrise from where we were parked this morning near Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia.
Where are Kevin and Ruth now? Una National Park, Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Where are Kevin and Ruth going next? South towards Montenegro.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Monarch Butterflies at Piedras Herrado

Yesterday, we drove about 35 kms (22 miles) through the town of Valle de Bravo, and then uphill all the way, into the mountains south of the city of Toluca. Our destination? The Piedras Herrado Butterfly Sanctuary.

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.

Butterflies everywhere.

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!


  1. How can you tell the difference between the males and the females?


    1. You can tell by the bottom of their bodies, the male is bigger and has specks of white at the bottom and the female is smaller and is just a blackish-grey also the bottom wing colours and design are slightly different.

    2. Thanks, now I just have to figure out how to get close enough to one to tell.

  2. So if you break the 400 pesos down by how many butterflies you got to's not much on a per butterfly basis!

    Very cool...we'll have to make sure to see this next winter.

  3. It is definitely on my list! Hopefully someday... thanks for sharing the pics, my kids love them.

  4. Coincidentally, I visited the butterflies yesterday, too, at Sierra Chincua. According to my guide, they even come back to the same exact trees each year!

  5. How frustrating to get the extra fees when you thought you had asked all the right questions.

    1. Yep, but it was our fault for not being more thorough and fully understanding. Hopefully by our mistakes others will head to the correct location and pay the correct and cheaper price. Having said that we did have a great time and enjoyed practicing our Spanish with Maria.

  6. Wow, When I first looked, I thought I was seeing a fall picture of leaves still on the trees. Reading further down was when I realized those were all butterflies. Incredible and beautiful!!

  7. How interesting - that's neat - love those butterflies!!!

  8. We love following the Monarch migration and most recently visited the grove in Pismo Beach, CA:

    You might really enjoy reading Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior, very insightful!

  9. I really applaud you guys for mentioning the little details for us prospective tourists. $20 seems like quite a handsome fee IMHO. Buy hey, look at the bright side, it could have been worse---you didn't have to shell out an extra $4 for the two year old :)

  10. Thanks for sharing, that had to be an awesome experience!!!!

  11. Amazing...thanks for the tour. We hope to see it in person one day.


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