Day 1: Mexico City, Mexico
Our Monarch butterfly tour begins upon arrival in Mexico City, where we transfer to our hotel in the upscale Polanco district downtown. Gather this evening for a welcome dinner with our Expedition Leaders, 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
From Mexico City, we drive into the Central Highlands past dramatic vistas of the snow-capped volcano Nevado de Toluca towering over the pine forests. In a few hours we arrive in the mountain village of Angangueo, where we'll enjoy a traditional lunch of homemade Mexican fare before checking into our rustic local inn. 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 steep, narrow cobblestone streets that hug the steep mountain slopes.
This afternoon we make our first foray into the monarch kingdom at El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary, driving high into the hills via an open-topped truck offering panoramic views of the countryside. As we arrive, a few butterflies flit about, a hint of what awaits ahead. Mounting small Mexican horses provided by the local community, we ascend the trail through the forest, hummingbirds and red warblers accompany us en route to the heart of the monarchs' migratory resting place. What we find is an almost surreal sight: millions of butterflies cover the oyamel fir trees in a delicate, quivering blanket of black and orange, at first glance resembling autumn leaves. Boughs bend beneath their numbers, though each butterfly weighs less than half an ounce. When the sun warms their parchment-thin wings, they take to the air in a whirling cloud of color, 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. Sometimes the stream along the forest floor is covered in orange as the butterflies descend to drink. The beauty of the butterflies 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
We drive today to Chincua Butterfly Sanctuary for another magical encounter with the monarchs. Riding horses most of the way, we hike in the last bit to see the mariposas.
During our visit we hear about efforts to preserve the fragile forest ecosystem that is the key to the monarchs' survival, learning about what WWF-Mexico is doing in conjunction with the local community to protect the butterflies' habitat. Our visit is one way to assist, demonstrating to the local people that ecotourism can be as viable a source of economic sustenance as logging. As Mexican butterfly conservationist Carlos Gottfried said, "When you stand in a monarch sanctuary, your soul is shaken and your life is changed." This afternoon, there's time to discover more of the village of Angangueo.
Day 4: Angangueo—El Rosario Sanctuary / Avandaro
This morning we return to El Rosario to observe the butterflies in the morning light. The largest of the monarch sanctuaries in the region, El Rosario offers the best opportunity to view great numbers of monarchs in one location. After lunch in Angangueo, we travel to a vacation resort in the hamlet of Avandaro, which means "dream place" in the Tarascan Indian language. There's time this afternoon to indulge in a spa treatment if you wish, before coming back together for dinner.
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 waterfall hike before driving to nearby Valle de Bravo, an inviting colonial resort town on a tranquil lake. White stucco houses with red-tile roofs are covered in bougainvillea while brilliant flowers in the Plaza Independencia attract a multitude of birds. Enjoy lunch overlooking the lake and join your Expedition Leader on a walk through the town center and its lively market—a bustling meeting point for locals and visitors alike. This afternoon, as we begin our return journey to Mexico City, we'll stop in Toluca, originally a 13th-century Indian settlement, to visit Cosmovitral Botanical Garden. The building, which houses 500 plant species from Mexico and around the world, glows in the light of stained-glass panels created by Tolucan artist Leopoldo Flores. Say farewell over a Mexican feast before returning to the capital this evening for a late check-in to our hotel.
Day 6: Mexico City / Depart
Our monarch butterfly tour concludes with a transfer to the airport for flights home, or to Puerto Vallarta for our Humpback Whale Watching Extension. Guests visiting the Pyramids of Teotihuacan will remain in Mexico City.