Michoacán's Monarch Migration
A visit to the winter nesting grounds of the monarch butterfly, high in the mountains of northeast Michoacán, is a stirring experience. It might be the highlight of your trip. The season lasts from mid- to late November to March. Tour operators in Morelia offer a day trip to see the butterflies for 650 to 750 pesos per person. The tour takes 10 to 12 hours and involves hiking up a mountain at a high altitude. You shouldn't consider doing this if you're not in decent physical condition.
The best time to see the butterflies is on a sunny day, when they flutter through the air in a blizzard of orange and black. At the center of the group, the branches of the tall fir trees bow under their burden of butterflies, whose wings undulate softly as the wind blows through the forest; it's quite a spectacle.
From Morelia, you'll have no difficulty finding a tour; most hotels and all travel agencies can put you in contact with one. I particularly recommend Luis Miguel López Alanís (tel. 443/340-4632). He speaks English, is federally licensed, and belongs to a small cooperative of guides called Mex Mich Guías (www.mmg.com.mx). The easiest way to contact him is through the website. Most tours provide transportation, guide, soft drinks, and usually lunch. A good guide is important, if only to answer all the questions that these butterflies and their strange migration provoke.
A few butterfly sanctuaries are open to the public. (The monarchs congregate at nine sites, but five are closed to visitors.) The sites with the best access are El Rosario (admission 40 pesos; daily 10am-5 or 6pm) and the newer Chincua (same admission and hours as El Rosario). It is less of a drive, but usually more of a walk to the nucleus of the butterfly group -- but not always. Throughout the season, the groups shift, moving up and down the mountains and making for a longer or shorter climb. A good guide will be aware of which is the shorter walk.
If you're driving, take the autopista to Mexico City, exit at Maravatío, and go right. Keep right after going through Maravatío and take the narrow two-lane road toward Angangueo. When you get to a T-junction, go right, toward San Felipe. Enter the town of Ocampo and look for a small sign pointing left to get to Rosario, where you will find a parking lot near the trail head. If you want to make this a leisurely trip, spend the night in the nearby town of Angangueo at Hotel Don Bruno (tel. 715/156-0026; 600 pesos per night). It's a pretty hotel but a little overpriced, so you should ask to see the room before you accept it.
Travel agencies from San Miguel de Allende also book monarch tours, which take 1 or 2 days.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.