Cheapest Destinations Blog is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Visiting El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary in Michoacan, Mexico

Every year, millions of monarch butterflies start heading south for the winter, migrating like birds and ending up at El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary in the state of Michoacan. There are several other places they land where you can visit and see them in their natural habitat, but El Rosario is the biggest one and has the most places to stay in the area. You can get there from Mexico City or Morelia.

el rosario butterfly sanctuary in Michoacan, Mexico

The reserve that I visited is part of a much larger protected area of around 350 square miles stretching across two states. The overwintering sites area is filled with the fir trees that the monarchs like and at the altitude where they like to stay, they get the right temperature range for the months that they’re in the country. 

I was blown away by how many butterflies were whirling all around us during our visit in late February. Read on to find out what the Michoacan butterfly experience is like, how to get there, and where to stay. 

What’s It Like to See the Butterflies at El Rosario?

Even though I’ve lived one state north in Guanajuato off and on for more than a decade, for whatever reason I had never made it down to see the monarch butterflies of Michoacan. Even though I had heard a lot of people rave about it, I was fuzzy on the details and had it in my mind that there was a very short window when you could go see swarms of monarch butterflies at the top of a mountain. 

It turns out that while most monarch butterflies only live a few weeks, this last generation in their migration cycle switches genes and gets to live for months instead so they can make the long trek—up to 2,800 miles in total from the northern USA and Canada—to have a nice winter break in Mexico. This is the “Methuselah generation” in the monarch life cycle and this group gets to grow old while frolicking in the sun. 

So it turns out that you can see the butterflies in El Rosario monarch butterfly sanctuary from as early as November and as late as April. If you want to get the best odds, the best months are between mid-January and mid-March though. The migration season can shorten or lengthen depending on the daily temperatures that particular year. Once you get past the end of March, they could be gone if it’s a warm year.

If you’ve got a little time, this video I made will give you the whole experience, from the parking lot to the peak and back, and you’ll see thousands and thousands of butterflies swirling around. It was really much more intense than I expected, partly because I had this idea that they would all be clustering in the trees at the top. Instead, on the sunny day that we were there, we started seeing them as soon as we started the trek up to the top and as you’ll see in the video, they get more and more numerous as the altitude increases.

At the top, there were just masses of butterflies swarming around everywhere I looked. Some people just stood silent in awe, others started crying with emotion, and some tried (in vain mostly) to take a selfie to capture the moment. I shot this video so I could slow down the footage here and there though because these insects are tough to photograph on a sunny day: they’re moving around too much and too quickly. 

I have seen photos from other visitors where the butterflies are clustered together on trees by the thousands, however. Apparently the cooler the day (or the earlier in the day you arrive), the more they are clustered on the fir trees to stay warm instead of flying around. Here’s what it’s like on a warm and sunny day like when I was there: 

monarch butterfly migration to Mexico

If you can stay in the area and come in the morning, you’ll beat the tour buses and the trail will be less crowded. This is especially a concern on weekends and Mexico holidays: most of the tourists are domestic, not foreign. Bring water to drink (don’t forget to pack a travel water purifier for Mexico) and dress in layers. You’re hiking up past 3,000 meters, more than 9,000 feet, so it can get chilly. But then you can get hot from the exertion.

This hike is no joke if you haven’t acclimatized, so it’s not advised to come here straight from sea level. Work your way up by staying in Mexico City or Morelia first. 

How to Get to the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuaries in Michoacan

There are a few protected monarch butterfly grounds across two states in Mexico and they’re all part of one UNESCO-protected reserve set up in 2008 that spans them all. The ones in the state of Mexico are Piedra Herrada, El Capulin, and La Mesa. You’re more likely to see swarms of butterflies and see them more reliably though in the two larger Michoacan state protected areas: Sierra Chincua and El Rosario.

I was on a group tour connected with the Adventure Travel Mexico conference and we went to El Rosario butterfly sanctuary on our way from Mexico City to Patzcuaro. Most of the group kept going and got into Patzcuaro very late. About a dozen of us stayed at a hotel instead and got to have a little more time in nature. 

A lot of people do come to see the butterflies on some kind of group tour. The area is not really close to much of anything, just some small towns, and some of those groups end up staying an hour or more away like we did, at Agua Blanca Hotel. If you book a butterfly tour, then someone else ends up taking care of all the logistics. You just show up and enjoy.

We did our tour with a company called Tzitzeje that has an office in Morelia. Unfortunately, they’re nearly impossible to find on the web, with just a Facebook page and a gmail address coming up when you do a search: no website for tour listings or booking.

See this link for other tour options from Morelia and then below are some options from Mexico City. 

Powered by GetYourGuide

The two other ways to get there would be by rental car or bus. I don’t advise driving in Mexico City unless you are used to chaos and get easily slide into that aggressive and stressful style of driving. It would be much easier to rent a car in Morelia and go from there. 

You can get most of the way by bus as well and the buses in Mexico are quite nice until you get to the very local level. They’re air-conditioned, have comfy seats that recline, have a bathroom on board, and will often even have a place to recharge your phone. Your best destination for El Rosario is the town of Angangueo. This is one of Mexico’s magic towns and this pueblo magico is a pleasant place to spend the night, with a pretty church in the center and some interesting butterfly murals around. 

You can get a bus to Angangueo from Mexico City’s central bus station, known as Terminal Central de Autobuses de Poniente. You can go directly from the Mexico City airport to there in a pre-paid taxi with posted prices inside the terminal. Or if you’re already staying in Mexico city prior to going to see the monarch butterflies of Michoacan, then you can just take an Uber to the bus station.

Alternatively, you can catch a bus from the Morelia station (unlike in Mexico City’s there’s only one of them in Morelia).

No matter how you get to Angangueo, you’ll then have to get to the El Rosario butterfly site from there, which is another 9 kms. That doesn’t sound like much, but the area is quite mountainous, so it takes about a half hour to get there. If you’re on a budget, ask around about a local combi van that’s less than $3, if not just negotiate a taxi ride and pay between $10 and $15 each way. It may be better to work out a round trip with the taxi driver and have him wait than to try to negotiate a taxi back afterwards when you’ve got no leverage.

If you want to visit both sanctuaries from Angangueo, you would head north instead of south to Sierra Chincua sanctuary, which also takes about a half hour to reach. I think that’s what I’ll do when I go back with my wife, checking out the other reserve to get a different experience. If you think you will have trouble hiking at high altitude, I’ve heard that the Sierra Chincua trail is not as steep.

Be advised that with any of the options, it’s a very long day trip. It could easily be a 12-hour or 14-hour day if you do a tour that returns to the same city instead of going for an overnight stay. Plus the hike up wears out a lot of people, so you might want to build in a stay somewhere and help the local economy.

What Does it Cost to See the Butterflies in Michoacan?

El Rosario monarch butterfly park Michoacan

The admission price for El Rosario sanctuary at the admission gate is 100 pesos. At the current exchange rate as I write this, it’s US$6. The price for children is 70 pesos, a tad more than $4. There’s also a small charge for parking a car in a lot that has stores and restaurants.

If you don’t think you can do the whole climb, you can ride a horse up for about $10. Just be advised that the horses aren’t allowed to go all the way to the top. The horseback ride stops in a clearing that’s about 2/3 of the way to the final viewing area. So you’re still going to do some climbing, just not as much and it’s on a path at that point, not stairs. 

Either way, the admission cost is a small percentage of what you’re going to spend overall, quite reasonable considering how amazing this experience is. 

riding a horse to see the butterflies at El Rosario reserve

Lodging in Anganguero and elsewhere in the area ranges from $45 to $200. A bus to there from Mexico City is around $32 and one from Morelia should be less.

If you go on an organized tour, expect to spend $200 to $350 from Mexico City, $150 to $250 from Morelia. Naturally the tours with an overnight hotel stay or two are going to be more. 

Where to Stay Near El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary

As mentioned earlier, Anganguero is the best place to stay if you want to be in a real town with some character where you can walk around and find a restaurant. It’s an easy trip from here to El Rosario butterfly area, or the alternative one to the north. 

There is an area with some rental apartments close to El Rosario, a set of villages with “Manzana” in their names, but based on my experience riding through this area twice on a bus, there’s not much to keep you occupied. 

After that, when you pull up a hotel site, you start getting places that are 10 miles, 15 miles, even 30 miles away. This isn’t a dealbreaker if you’re in a rental car or on a group tour like I was when we stayed at Agua Blanca Nature Resort, but it would be tough to stay so far away if you’re on your own, relying on public transportation. If you do have your own car Zitacuaro is the closest real city in Michoacan, more than an hour away. 

Each of the booking sites has a smattering of places listed, so it’s best in this case to check hotels on TripAdvisor and if there’s no booking link, scour the web for the name of the hotel and see if you can book direct. Just be sure to check the actual location—the first place that came up in my search was 30 miles away from El Rosario butterfly sanctuary, in Valle de Bravo!

monarch butterflies migrated to Mexico

Monarch Butterfly Migration Tidbits

A few things to know if you want to feel smarter about this subject:

– The Latin name for the monarch butterfly is Danaus Plexippus.

– The principle food source for these butterflies is milkweed, a plant that is toxic to most other living creatures. It keeps that toxicity when it is excreted from their wings, serving as a deterrent for predators. The females also lay their eggs on the leaves of milkweed plants. 

– Studies show that the number of migrating monarch butterflies has declined some in recent decades and there is strong evidence that this is directly tied to herbicides from Monsanto and others that farmers use, herbicides that kill off milkweed not just on the farms, but in surrounding areas where the wind takes the chemicals.

– On the plus side, dedicated workers and volunteers have made great reforestation strides in the UNESCO World Heritage Site areas, planting new fir trees for the butterflies in areas that had lost evergreen trees because of illegal logging. In some years, they planted more than a million trees, which earned carbon credits for the local communities.

– If you want to see large numbers of monarchs without pulling out your passport, the butterflies west of the Rocky Mountains migrate to southern California in the United States instead. The ones in Mexico are from east of the Rockies.

– Young butterflies don’t waste much time before getting some action if they’re born in the spring or summer: they start reproducing within days of coming out of their chrysalis. If they’re born in the fall though, they’ll migrate instead.