Kingdom of the Monarchs
6 days with Natural Habitat Adventures Rating:
Day 1: Mexico City, Mexico
Our monarch butterfly tour begins on arrival in Mexico City, with a transfer from the airport to our downtown hotel in the upscale Polanco district. Gather this evening for a welcome dinner with our Expedition Leader, followed by an orientation to the wonders that lie ahead. One of the world’s most astounding natural events occurs each year in North America, featuring one of its most unlikely creatures: the delicate monarch butterfly. Every autumn, tens of millions of monarchs set flight on a remarkable 3,000-mile journey from the northeastern U.S. and Canada to their ancestral wintering grounds in the volcanic mountains of central Mexico. The location of their breeding grounds remained a mystery until 1977, and how an infant generation of butterflies finds it anew each year is still an enigma. Filled with anticipation, we look forward to tomorrow's journey into the mysterious kingdom of the monarchs.
Day 2: Angangueo—El Rosario Sanctuary
Leaving Mexico City, we drive into the Central Highlands past vistas of the snowcapped Nevado de Toluca volcano, bound for the small mountain town of Angangueo. Once a copper and silver mining town, Angangueo today thrives on butterfly tourism and local agriculture. The village is very picturesque, a tumble of pastel buildings set along narrow cobblestone streets that hug the steep mountain slopes. Enjoy a hearty lunch of homemade Mexican fare before making our first foray into the monarch kingdom at El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary, one of 12 sanctuaries that comprise the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.
As we drive high into the hills in an open-topped truck, a few butterflies flit about, offering a hint of what awaits ahead. Riding small Mexican horses provided by the local community (and led by your own caballero, so no horse experience is necessary), we ascend the trail through the forest as hummingbirds and red warblers accompany us to the heart of the monarchs' migration site. What we find is an almost surreal sight. At first glance, they look like autumn leaves, but we soon realize we are looking at millions of butterflies, covering the oyamel fir trees in a delicate, quivering blanket of black and orange. Boughs bend beneath their numbers, though each weighs less than half an ounce. Massed together in a colony, they cling to the trees in huge clusters to survive the cool winter temperatures. When the sun warms their parchment-thin wings, the monarchs take to the sky in a fluttering cloud of orange—so many that the air hums with their movement. Mexico's sanctuaries are the only place in the world where you can actually hear butterflies' wings beating. Their beauty is so ethereal that many Mexicans still hold the Aztec belief that the souls of the dead are reborn as monarchs.
Day 3: Angangueo—Chincua Sanctuary
At Chincua Butterfly Sanctuary, another magical encounter with the monarchs awaits. Riding horses along the established trail most of the way, we hike in the last bit to reach the mariposas. Sometimes the stream along the forest floor appears to flow orange, covered completely by butterflies as they descend to drink. As Mexican butterfly conservationist Carlos Gottfried said, "When you stand in a monarch sanctuary, your soul is shaken and your life is changed." During our visit, we hear about efforts to preserve this fragile forest ecosystem that is the key to the monarchs' survival, learning about what WWF–Mexico is doing in conjunction with local communities to protect the butterflies' habitat. Our visit is one way to assist, demonstrating to the local people that ecotourism can be a more viable and sustainable source of economic sustenance than logging. Later this afternoon, there's time to discover more of the village of Angangueo, known for its magnificent murals celebrating the importance of monarchs to the community.
Day 4: Angangueo—El Rosario Sanctuary / Valle de Bravo
This morning we return to El Rosario to observe the butterflies in the early morning light. In contrast to our previous afternoon visit, we'll witness the monarchs as they awaken for the day, hoping the sun will shine and warm their wings, prompting lively activity. As the butterflies take flight, we may see them descend to drink nectar from flowers or even alight on an arm or shoulder. The largest of the monarch sanctuaries in the region, El Rosario offers the best opportunity to view large numbers of monarchs in one location. After lunch in Angangueo, we travel to Valle de Bravo and the vacation resort of Avandaro, which means "dream place" in the Tarascan Indian language. Set on a lush hillside overlooking the valley, the hotel offers a relaxing setting in which to enjoy the fresh air and panoramic views from your casita, and a soak in the hot tub or pool.
Day 5: Valle de Bravo / Toluca / Mexico City
Early risers may wish to join our Expedition Leader on a bird walk in the forest before breakfast. Later this morning, enjoy a short waterfall hike before driving to the nearby resort town of Valle de Bravo on tranquil Lake Avandaro. White stucco houses with red tile roofs are covered in bougainvillea, while brilliant flowers in the Plaza Independencia attract a host of birds. Have lunch overlooking the lake and join your Expedition Leader on a walk through the colonial town center and its lively market—a meeting point for locals and visitors alike. This afternoon we begin our return journey to Mexico City, stopping en route in Toluca, originally a 13th-century Indian settlement, to visit Cosmovitral Botanical Garden. The building's interior, which houses 500 plant species from Mexico and around the world, glows with the ethereal light of stained-glass panels created by Tolucan artist Leopoldo Flores. Say farewell over a classic Mexican feast before returning to the capital this evening for a late check-in at our hotel.
Day 6: Mexico City / Depart
Our monarch butterfly tour concludes with a transfer to the airport for flights home, or on to Puerto Vallarta for our Humpback Whale Watching Extension. Guests visiting the Pyramids of Teotihuacan will remain in Mexico City tonight.
All This Included
As we crest the ridge and enter a grove of evergreens, the air is still. Could this be the butterfly sanctuary we seek on a fir-forested mountaintop in Mexico’s Central Highlands? From a distance, the trunks and branches appear to be blanketed with rusty autumn leaves. A closer look reveals that they’re quivering. And then, as the sun emerges from behind a cloud to warm the air, tens of thousands of monarchs take to the sky in a flutter of orange—so many butterflies that we actually hear the beating of their gossamer wings, which glow translucent orange as they are backlit against a blue sky. Sometimes, the monarchs even float down to alight on our hats and shoulders. Join our small group to experience this moving phenomenon, enhanced by Mexico’s premier naturalist guides.
Mexico City: Camino Real Hotel
Angangueo: Posada Don Bruno or Hotel La Margarita
Valle de Bravo: Hotel Avandaro
Pre and Post Add-ons
Humpback Whale Watching Extension
4 Days / Jan - Mar, From $1595
Enjoy thrilling encounters with humpback whales off the coast of Puerto Vallarta! Hundreds migrate here annually, entertaining observers as they breach and spy-hop. See them on three different excursions.
The Pyramids of Teotihuacan
1 Day / Jan - Mar, From $425
Just outside Mexico City, discover the history and mysteries of Teotihuacan, exploring the Sun and Moon Pyramids and other ruins revealed by archaeologists.
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