El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary is home to millions of monarch butterflies in the winter months. These butterflies travel thousands of miles from the eastern parts of North America to meet up for hibernation. This remote safe haven is located high in the Sierra Madre mountains in central Mexico.
There are a few other butterfly sanctuaries in the area to visit. However, El Rosario is the largest and most magical place to experience the monarchs. At the top of the mountain, the butterflies will put on a show like you’ve never seen. It’s amazing!
About the Monarch Butterfly
The monarch is a large butterfly that is ornately designed with orange, black, and white markings. This species of butterfly is found throughout the Americas, Australia, India, and Western Europe. The only visual difference between the males and females is the larger black “vein” markings on the female. The Eastern Monarch numbers are on the rise due to strong conservation efforts.
Plant conservation efforts are essential for this species because the monarchs’ survival depends on the milkweed plant. Monarchs produce a toxin from eating the milkweed that aids in avoiding predators. When a monarch is eaten, this toxin, although not fatal, will make the predator sick enough to think twice before eating one next time.
The eastern monarch butterfly starts its long migration south in the late fall when it senses cold weather is approaching. Monarchs differ from other butterfly species because they can not survive the harsh winters of the northern climate. This is one of the greatest wildlife phenomenons because scientist still don’t know how this species knows where to go. Not only do they migrate to the same forest every year. But studies have shown that some monarch butterflies return to the same tree as their ancestors did. Keep in mind that this is not the same butterfly as the previous year, but the 4th generation. How do they know?
After making the long journey south, they gather in the trees and hang in colonies. When the temperature is above 50 degrees and the sun is shining, millions of monarchs flutter around with spectacular grace. Towards the end of winter, they mate. The male dies soon afterwards and the female heads back north, depositing her eggs along her route. She, then dies soon after her mission is complete.
About El Rosario
El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary is the most popular site for experiencing the monarch migration. This sanctuary is in the state of Michoacan, Mexico. This destination is centrally located between Mexico City, Morelia, and Toluca. El Rosario resides in part of the Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, which is a World Heritage property. Getting here is a few hours drive by bus or car from Mexico City.
There are two cute neighboring towns that offer limited accommodations and dining options. Angangueo, which is considered a Magic Town, is the closest town to El Rosario and Sierra Chincua Butterfly Sanctuary. Ocampo is the next closest to both sanctuaries.
The larger town of Zitacario offers more options, however, it is further from the butterfly sanctuaries. These towns depend on this ecotourism and host annual festivals to celebrate the butterflies.
Check out the post, “How to See the Monarch Migration” for more detailed information about expenses and travel tips. If you don’t want to join a tour group, take a Mexico road trip for a more adventurous excursion to see the monarch migration and pyramids.
Mountain Hiking Options
The elevation of El Rosario is around 10,000 feet above sea level. Several options are offered to get to the top of the mountain to see the butterflies.
- Ride horses up and down the mountain. This ride takes about an hour each way. Even though the horses take you the majority of the way, there is still some walking involved.
- Walk both ways. Walking up to the top could take around 2 hours, depending on your speed.
- Ride horses up, walk down. If you decide to ride horses up, your guide will walk on a separate trail and meet you. Another guide will lead each horse.
**EL Rosario is an ethical wildlife travel destination**
- The sanctuary’s main concern are the butterflies and their natural habitat.
- The guides limit viewing times to 20 minutes in order to not disturb the butterflies
- This time limit also keeps down the minimum human impact on their habitat.
- They advise you to stay quiet and watch your steps so not to walk on any butterflies on the ground.
- This wildlife tourism supports the local community
- Support the local people by purchasing food and souvenirs.
- Support locals when paying to ride horses.
- The local men and boys of the surrounding towns offer their horses for rent.
- They will guide your horse up and down the mountain for a small fee of 100 pesos each way per person. Most importantly, this is how they make a living, it is highly encouraged.
What to know before visiting El Rosario
Confirm a good weather forecast will be good for viewing the butterflies. The monarchs will only fly around if the temperature is above 50 degrees. A sunny day is optimal, especially for photographers.
Plan on spending at least 3 hours for your visit.
Entry cost $2.50USD/person. Parking is $3USD. Riding horses up cost $5USD/person one way. Add a few extra dollars for tips. Cash in pesos only.
After entry, you will be assigned a guide that only speak Spanish.
It’s a good idea to have water on hand for this journey. We like this backpack when traveling. It holds enough water for the entire family and has storage for snack.
However, there are local vendors that sell food, drinks, and souvenirs by the parking lot. This is a good place to have a fresh lunch after seeing the butterflies. The lovely children will greet you upon arrival.
El Rosario is very busy with tour groups during the weekends. Guests are restricted to 18 minutes of viewing time. This is a very important rule for the butterflies’ hibernation and habitat. However, if visiting during the week, you may be allowed to spend more time with the butterflies.
If time allows, visit Sierra Chincua Butterfly Sanctuary for a more raw and organic wildlife experience.