Each fall, millions of monarch butterflies land in Mexico’s Central Highlands after a long journey to find respite from the cooling winter temperatures in the northeastern U.S. and Canada. For many folks in the U.S. and Canada, the ancestral hibernation grounds of the monarchs were a mystery until 1977. However, for generations of Mexican communities, the yearly arrival of monarchs signals more than just a change in seasons.
In North America, monarch butterflies are categorized by region and the location of their overwintering sites. The eastern monarch population breeds east of the Rocky Mountains and migrates south down to central Mexico in late summer and fall. The western population, which breeds west of the Rocky Mountains, migrates to coastal southern California, where they spend the winter.
The Unique Monarch Migration Journey
The highly evolved migratory path of monarch butterflies isn’t witnessed anywhere else in the animal kingdom. Most adult monarchs only live for about 5 weeks, and in that time, they look for nectar plants for food and milkweed to lay their eggs on. The last generation of monarchs born in the U.S. and Canada is the migratory generation known as “Methuselah.” These monarchs delay sexual maturity in order to undertake the journey of fall migration down to their overwintering grounds in Mexico, lands that that generation of insects has never seen. In fact, this final Methuselah generation of Monarchs often lives up to 7 to 8 months. These monarchs know the correct path to migrate even though they themselves have never made the long journey. They are guided by an internal compass and knowledge—this mysterious navigation method is one of the many attributes that makes monarch butterflies such a spectacular species. Scientists have yet to figure out how they have continued to accomplish such a feat for so many generations.
The journey from the U.S. and Canada to Central Mexico actually completes the monarchs’ annual life cycle. From late fall to early spring, the dense forest of Mexico’s Central Highlands, populated with fir trees, is where monarch butterflies overwinter until they begin their northern migration in March. Once migration begins, monarchs sexually mature, mate, and lay eggs on their sole caterpillar host plant, milkweed. After laying eggs, adult monarchs die, and their offspring continue the migration north. It takes about three to five generations of monarch butterflies to finish the annual migration and repopulate the eastern United States and southern Canada.
The transnational migration of the monarch butterfly not only signifies the marvel that is their migratory journey but also how our shared connections to this wondrous insect have no boundaries.
Wonders of Mexico
Mexican butterfly conservationist Carlos Gottfried is known to have said, “When you stand in a monarch sanctuary, your soul is shaken and your life is changed.” The journey of learning about another culture is not unlike the journey of the monarchs. The scientific name for monarch butterflies is Danaus plexippus, which in Greek means “sleepy transformation.” The name highlights the species’ miraculous abilities to both undergo metamorphosis and hibernate. Until you witness it firsthand, thousands of monarch butterflies—with their brightly colored orange and black wings—resting on every inch of every branch of every tree in a densely packed forest, you may also be in a stage of hibernation, not yet privy to the wonders of our natural world.
Not many travelers get to see the monarch butterflies’ remote winter hibernation sites in Mexico’s Central Highlands, and even fewer have the opportunity to experience three separate excursions dedicated to exploring Mexico’s best monarch butterfly sanctuaries. Nat Hab’s Kingdom of the Monarchs adventure begins in Mexico City, where travelers are immersed in the Polanco district for a night of fellowship and exploration.
The journey to El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary, one of the largest sanctuaries within the 129,000-acre Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, starts in the small mountain town of Angangueo. This picturesque village features rows of pastel-colored buildings along narrow cobblestone streets that lie beneath steep mountain slopes. On the third day of the trip, travelers explore Chincua Butterfly Sanctuary and return to El Rosario again the following day for a morning excursion.
Learning about the other people who fight to protect monarchs is just as important as caring for the monarchs themselves. Butterfly ecotourism provides avenues to connect and collaborate with rural Mexican people—travelers have the chance to learn about important Mexican cultural traditions as well as the generational connections to, and appreciation for, monarch butterflies.
Monarch butterflies hold special cultural meanings within Mexican culture. For centuries, the annual return of monarch butterflies in Mexico signaled to the indigenous Purépecha communities living in Mexico’s Central Highlands that they could start harvesting their corn crops. Monarchs were referred to as Parákata, or “harvester butterfly.” The Purépecha also believed that the monarchs returning each year were the souls of their ancestors returning. These traditions have influenced modern Mexican celebrations, such as Dia de Los Muertos.
Dia de Los Muertos is an ancient tradition in Mexican culture where families celebrate and honor the souls of their family members and ancestors that have passed. On November 2, families celebrate Dia de Los Muertos to welcome the souls of their deceased family members and support their transition to the afterlife. On November 1, families celebrate Dia de Los Inocentes, a day to honor children who have passed.
The monarchs return to Mexico around November 1 each year, and the fir forests become filled with so many butterflies that they weigh down branches, giving the appearance that the forest is dripping in monarchs. These forested highlands are the only place in the world where you can hear the beating wings of millions of butterflies. Witnessing such a transcendent experience has captivated Mexican communities and cultures for generations. The traditional ecological knowledge in this region makes it unique and even more important to honor and protect.
Though the monarch is a migratory insect whose home expands across towns, states and countries, we as individuals can help create and preserve habitats for monarchs right where we live. The monarchs that make their way to their ancestral hibernation grounds in Mexico during the winter are more than likely the children of the monarchs we provided homes and habitat for throughout the spring and summer. This connection emboldens our passion to protect monarch butterflies year-round.