Written by Ariana Bowman, WWF’s Gift Planning Senior Development Officer

As we navigated through the lush forest landscape on horseback and then on foot, a sense of excitement built, an anticipation for the breathtaking sights that awaited. We were on Nat Hab’s Kingdom of the Monarchs adventure in Mexico’s Central Highlands, and we were about to enter the butterfly’s magical realm.

Meeting the Monarchs

El Rosario Sanctuary promised a mesmerizing experience: trees blanketed with countless monarch butterflies, like living, fluttering tapestries. Despite an overcast sky, moments of sunlight pierced through, casting a radiant glow upon the wings of millions of monarchs. The air was alive with the gentle rustle of their delicate movements, creating a symphony with the beating of innumerable wings. It was an immersive encounter that deepened my connection to our natural world.

Monarch butterflies flying in the distance

© Ariana Bowman / WWF-US

At the Chincua Sanctuary, we were fortunate to witness the monarchs’ flight path unfold before us, akin to a bustling airport runway along a serene open field. The weather was ideal, with just enough sunlight to prompt the monarchs to venture from their clusters on the Oyamel Fir trees in search of shade, conserving energy for the imminent migration north in early spring. Witnessing this delicate dance in the forest underscored the monarchs’ crucial need to preserve energy as they prepared for their journey.

On our third day, we headed back to El Rosario, arriving early to watch the monarchs wake up with the morning sun. It was another enchanting day and made even more meaningful by the role of local communities. The efforts of community members who help maintain the sanctuaries and take care of the horses and the paths to make it more accessible to tourists overall help uphold and foster sustainable livelihoods.

Culture, Community and Conservation

Monarchs hold profound cultural significance in these highlands, and it was heartening to see communities benefiting from conservation efforts. Supported by organizations like World Wildlife Fund and Natural Habitat Adventures, initiatives to reforest Oyamel Fir trees and promote sustainable tourism have enriched both the environment and the local economy.

Mural in Mexico on Monarch trip

© Ariana Bowman / WWF-US

The town of Angangueo is steeped in rich history and captivating beauty, with its charming cobblestone streets and colorful architecture, it exudes an old-world charm that harks back to its mining heritage. The town boasts a vibrant culinary scene that reflects Mexico’s diverse culinary heritage. As we traversed between monarch sanctuaries and indulged in delicious meals within the most charming accommodations, we witnessed the interplay of tradition, culture and natural beauty.

Shortly after returning from our journey, monarch colony numbers were announced, and, unfortunately, the news was bleak: a 59.3% annual decline. The decline highlights the urgent threats they face, including the lack of milkweed plants as food sources for larvae in their summer breeding habitat in the US, and the need to increase and preserve feeding sites of nectar-rich flowers along the Mexican Flyway, joined with climate change.

Despite these challenges, our dedicated team in WWF-Mexico is working tirelessly to protect these fragile creatures and their habitat. On this trip, we traveled alongside experts like Adriana Valera, WWF-Mexico’s Pollinator Officer, and Nat Hab’s Court Whelan and Diana Lopez, who provided invaluable insight into the monarchs’ plight and the importance of conservation efforts. For instance, 20.2 million trees are produced in the community-based nurseries, and 20,572 hectares (50,834 acres) are reforested with those trees.

Marvelous Migration

Standing amidst the monarchs in their ancient hibernation grounds, I could not help but marvel at the monarchs’ resilience and determination. Their epic migration, spanning over three thousand miles for an almost weightless species, symbolizes the triumph of endurance over adversity, inspiring awe, and reverence for the wonders of nature. The pilgrimage to the Oyamel forests served as a poignant reminder of the interconnectedness of all living beings and the profound impact of our small actions.

For me, the journey to the volcanic mountains of central Mexico marked a poignant turning point. It began with a simple endeavor in the spring of 2020: I created a monarch butterfly garden filled with milkweed and other pollinator-friendly flowers. At the time, it served as a welcome escape from the relentless cycle of pandemic news. As I tended to the native milkweed garden, aiming to provide a waystation for monarchs and hands-on learning for my three young boys, I had no inkling of the profound connection it would foster.

By late summer, our garden had transformed us into amateur naturalists. We delighted in discovering tiny white eggs and eagerly observed as the caterpillars underwent their remarkable metamorphosis, growing from small larvae to robust creatures within a couple of weeks. The sight of vibrant orange and black butterflies emerging from their emerald jewel-like chrysalises were moments of pure joy. Watching them unfurl and dry their delicate wings and take flight into the balmy summer breeze was pure magic.

How You Can Help: Milkweed for Monarchs

Having dedicated 15 years to WWF, this conservation issue resonates with hope and practicality unlike any other. Experiencing the meticulously tended and communal sanctuaries in Mexico served as a powerful catalyst for action. It’s time for the U.S. and Canada to do our part and plant more milkweed.

Butterfly on top of milkweed plant

Monarch butterfly on top of milkweed plant. © WWF-US / Clay Bolt

According to Court, we need 1.8 billion more stalks of milkweed to start seeing monarch numbers rebound as milkweed is the Monarch’s host plant and crucial to their survival. By planting native milkweed species suited to our regions, we can provide vital breeding habitat for monarchs and help reverse their decline. Visit our website to find the right milkweed for your area: milkweed finder – WWF.

However, it’s crucial to choose the right milkweed variety, and not all nurseries stock the correct species, underscoring the importance of informed decision-making in conservation efforts.

Visiting the monarch butterfly sanctuaries is more than a tourist excursion; it’s a transformative journey in the heart of nature’s grandeur. The awe-inspiring beauty touches the soul and instills a deep appreciation for the delicate balance of our planet. And, you’ll be traveling alongside kindred spirits, who share in your passion, forging meaningful connections and creating memories that bind you together long after the journey has ended. 

Whether you make this memorable trip or not, consider your role in protecting these sanctuaries and the monarch migration. Support local conservation efforts in your own backyard by planting the right milkweed, raising awareness, and becoming a steward of this fragile species and its migration.

Learn more about Nat Hab and WWF’s Kingdom of the Monarchs trip to Mexico.