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Archives: Volume 3 - Issue 18 - January 2002
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El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary
--Barry Thomson--

Locating this amazing natural wonder can be a real challenge and that can make your experience of this spectacle, the sight and sound of millions of “golden” Monarch butterflies, all the more worthwhile. That can also be half the fun. I first came to this relatively remote reserve in 1998 and have been drawn back to it twice since.

The principal open reserve is El Santuario del Rosario. An estimated 20 million North American Monarch Butterflies gather annually at this site alone. There are six other such internationally protected reserves within this region where the physical and natural conditions are very similar. These butterflies return here from as far north as Canada during November and December. They stay for 4 months to hibernate and breed. In March, the newly bred flutter the 2500 miles (4,000 kms) north again. January and February are the best months to visit but also the most popular and thus accommodation may be hard to find. However, November and December and March are fine too, even April apparently. In any event, it is best to visit during the weekdays as there can be large numbers competing for the limited resources during weekends and holidays.

These sanctuaries are located in the rugged highlands of the altiplano (Mil Cumbres), along the boundaries of the states of México and Michoacán at around and above 10,000 feet (3200 m.) a.b.s.l., i.e. 3000 ft. (1000 m.) higher than Mexico City. This is a very green, fertile, and fascinating region of México with clear blue skies and attractive scenary.

The 1st step is for you to get from Zihuatanejo – Ixtapa to a base such as Morelia, Mexico City or Toluca, or if possible Zitácuaro or even preferably Angangueo, both in Michoacán. This “excursion” can be an add-on to trips to those cities or Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Taxco or Cuernavaca as well. Having been able to get yourself to “Paradise”, you have displayed the necessary skills to get yourself to those centres.

If travelling by car or taxi, or with an organised tour group, you can get to the principal base town of Angangueo (pronounced < an _ gan _ g m eow >), a small colonial and former mining town in the remote south east corner of the state of Michoacán, within 3 hours from either Mexico City, or 2 hours from Morelia or Toluca. It is then possible, but taxing, to visit the reserve during the afternoon and return at the end of the same day. Although efficient, these modes can be expensive. Further, in my experience, these larger cities lack the ambience that can be found in this very natural, but out-of-the-way, part of Michoacán.

If travelling by bus from those major cities you should allow at least a ½ day to arrive at Angangueo and then budget to stay overnight. (NB. It is cold there during winter.) The inter city buses (mostly 1st class) will get you to (Heróica) Zitácuaro from where a local bus takes you the 30 km (1 hour) up the winding road to Angangueo. In November and December, you will see many plant nurseries that are awash with the red and green of poinsettias being grown for the Christmas market in Mexico City. This contrasts with the fields of drying maize. Burros and horses pulling carts are a common sight.

The variances in available accommodation may give another perspective of México. Although it should be kept in mind that while Angangueo is an isolated town that tries hard to host its visitors and that while accommodation quality may be reflected in the price, the hospitality there is warm.

As you will soon discover, the butterflies need time in the sunshine to “warm up”. Thus, in the morning, it is suggested that you do the same by climbing around and exploring quaint Angangueo. Then, early in the afternoon visit El Sancturio del Rosario, to allow you to return in time to bus out to your next destination before dark.

There is a very steep and long (approx 10 km) track to this sanctuary from Angangueo. On my visits, I have yet to find this route sign posted. The location appears to be just as secret, and known only to the indigenous, as it always had been, for thousands of years, until brought to world’s attention in 1975. Only the very fit and hardy, and adventurous with an astute sense of direction should try it. Further, you may need all day to take on this test but it can be done in less. I came across such a person with those skills (plus) who arrived this way at the entrance to the sanctuary within 2 hours even though a guidebook suggests 3 hours.

Be rest assured though that you will be recognised, as soon as you arrive in Angangueo, as needing a helpful escort (to the reserve only and, inevitably, not one with a 2nd language). You may need your survival skills to settle on a well-informed one. My preferred escort, named German, has “Span - ingles” as a confusing tool. However, he is extremely good-humoured, enjoys his role, and is enthusiastic. He is extremely proud of this gift from El Señor and knowledgeable about the local history as well as that of the Monarchs and the sanctuary. If you are “lucky” enough to sit with him in the cab of his pick-up as it crawls up this tortuous track in first gear, he will launch into his loquacious repertoire for the entire 1-hour he takes to get there and the 45 minutes to return. A nod at the right time encourages the next chapter whether you comprehend him or not. Having been first indoctrinated in 1998, I now prefer to tough it out on the caged deck to enjoy the spectacular views uninterrupted. You too may fancy this mode on the return downhill. The fee for this returnservice is, last was, $MX 400.00 ($US 40.00) regardless of numbers of persons sharing the ride. It is possible to negotiate, and it is not difficult to find other tourists willing to share, the cost.

Your escort is only permitted to deliver you to the sanctuary boundary but it is an easy downhill stroll for the 3/4km to the entrance. At last, there you are; .... you MIGHT think. At least, at this point, you will begin to see the Monarchs drinking at the edge of a stream, or merely milling around. Depending on his own agenda, German will either wait, or definitely come back, for you at an agreed time. He has never let me down.

The relaxed informality at the park entrance belies the pending, astounding, sight you will see in about 20 minutes, or much longer (up to an hour trek) if the Monarchs are roosting a lot higher up. Last year the entrance fee was $MX 20.00 ($US 2.00) and an official, but compulsory, guide accompanies you for “free”. The guides are local mountain people. They also act as the guardians of the park. There are sensible protective rules to respect within the reserve. e.g. no eating nor drinking, no flash photos, no collecting, no smoking, etc.

Try to seek out an English-speaking guide although I have not been able to find one yet. Their recompense comes from both the board that administers this sanctuary and tips from visitors. An idea may be to try to encourage the guide to keep the group together. The young and fit will tend to move ahead and separate. The guide seems to be able to supervise more easily from the front. Consequently, he keeps up with them. By the time the stragglers amongst us reach a rest stop, the front group has had their rest and their talk from the guide all of whom are then ready to move on again. The steady but sure may thus miss out on both. It may be more practical to split the group and arrange for a second guide.

One should avoid rushing up the park track as it is steep and the altitude will affect you. Also, you will have to cautiously avoid stepping on the many, many, Monarchs that have floated down to rest or search for water on the ground by tiptoeing around them. Regretfully, innocent, forgivable, accidents do happen. When you reach the brooding site, you may wish to allow a couple of hours to observe and reflect upon the impact that this phenomena may have on you.

As you approach the site, the Monarchs begin to “flutterby” in increasing numbers …. then around the next corner …… we ARE there. …. Dramatically there. The whole large nesting area, about 30 to 40 feet up in the pines, is awash in “leaves” of “golden” yellows and oranges, dependent on the cast of the sunlight, with lashes of brown y white. The branches and needles are no longer green as the thick and numerous clusters of Monarchs, clinging to the trees, the branches, and the needles, have miraculously created this transformation. Others have fluttered off and the air is thick with these exquisite creatures. So much so that you can actually hear the combined “whirry rustle” of their wings. They carpet the ground near water sources. They “playfully” flutter around, and onto and off, you. This truly is a Magic Moment in México. I could continue with the superlatives … awe inspiring …”there you go”.

The shear number, millions and millions of beautiful butterflies, amplifies the blissful ambience. Apparently, occasionally, the branches have snapped because of the weight. This mountain setting is such that the scientific can analyse; the philosophers can ponder; engineers can scheme; and, the artistic can design; the romantics among us can sit all day here in contemplative wonderment amidst this graceful breed. Efforts made to arrive here are quickly forgotten while one experiences this grand privilege to share one of nature’s wonders. One is left just wondering about it all, marvelling at it.

There are theories as to how and why these delicate, beautiful, animals migrate to these sanctuaries and continue to thrive and survive this life style. There are of course many sources of this information. Also, there is a summary in the official pamphlets(English and Spanish) produced by the Michoacán State Tourist Department (“MSTD”) which also contain a brief history of the “discovery” of these reserves. The MSTD has easy to locate offices in the major tourist regions of Michoacán; in particular at Morelia, Pátzcuaro, Zitácuaro. Unless you have good Spanish and thus able to understand the local guides you should endeavour to locate and read this background material before you visit. The MSTD also has a web site at and they can be emailed to at There are other references in various guidebooks. The most pragmatic advice, in my view, is that published in Lonely Planet’s guidebook, “Mexico”. Mexico Connect has links through

This peaceful spot is a must-see for all nature lovers. I continue to be awed, so much so that I would be happy to accompany, if needed, as an escort, for the cost of my expenses only. The shared experience would be sufficient reward for me.

Barry Thomson is a New Zealander who continues to stumble his way across and through the many magic moments to be found in Mexico and who has just published the new glossy photo booklet, souvenir, of the Zihuatanejo – Ixtapa region, Magic Moments in Mexico.

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