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Mingle with the monarchs: Wintering butterflies enchant groups in central Mexico

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The butterfly is a symbol of many things for many different cultures and religions. The beautifully fragile insect is often synonymous with transformation and rebirth. Some say if a butterfly lands on you, it symbolizes the need for a change.

Elly DeVries with monarch, Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, Michoacan, Mexico

Group Tour Media/Christian Laffey Elly DeVries with monarch, Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, Michoacan, Mexico

But what if three butterflies take up temporary residence in both hands? I’m no expert, but I think that’s a metaphor for a life-changing experience

I’ve visited my share of butterfly houses and conservatories in my lifetime, and each time was as mesmerizing as the last. But, those experiences could never have prepared me for my time at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacan, Mexico.

My visit to the biosphere was part of a seven-day itinerary created by A Closer Look Tours, a family-owned tour company that specializes in unique, guided tours of Mexico’s heart. 

A natural phenomenon

Located about 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Mexico City, Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is a 350-square-mile (560-square-kilometer) site that lies within rugged, forested mountains. Every fall, millions of monarch butterflies return to the UNESCO World Heritage Site from breeding areas as far away as Canada. Upon arrival, the monarchs land in close-packed clusters in the oyamel fir forests, where they collectively weigh down the branches and pepper the trees with their vibrant orange coloring. When the sun shines through the trees, the butterflies take to the skies in enormous numbers.

Come spring, these butterflies begin an eight-month migration that takes them all the way to Eastern Canada and back. During which time, four successive generations are born and die. The mystery that remains is how the new generations find their way back to the overwintering site year after year.

An experience to remember

After spending several days in Mexico City, my group’s itinerary took us to Tlalpujahua, a town that lies in the forests of Michoacan. Its architecture, famous Christmas ornaments, mining history and charming cobblestone streets are a draw for groups even when monarchs aren’t around. Luckily for us, we were able to experience it all. The town was our base while we mingled with the monarchs. The group consisted of seven people, plus our tour manager, Sergio.

Elly DeVries with monarchs, Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, Michoacan, Mexico

Photo: Group Tour Media/Christian Laffey Elly DeVries with monarchs, Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, Michoacan, Mexico

Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve includes four sanctuaries open to the public: two in the state of Michoacan and two others in the state of Mexico. My group and I traveled to the two most frequented sanctuaries, El Rosario and Sierra Chincua, both in Michoacan.

Our first encounter with the monarchs was at El Rosario. From the welcome center, we rode horses up the mountain before hiking the rest of the way, to an elevation of 12,000 feet. The brisk, 40-degree January morning had all of us bundled up from head to toe. At times, the altitude left us short of breath.

The morning chill wasn’t lost on the monarchs. When we finally reached their forest home, we found most of them in the trees, huddled together for warmth. It was amazing to see the butterflies clustered together by the thousands hanging on tree trunks and branches, but it wasn’t exactly what we had hoped to see. Fortunately, we had one more opportunity to see them take flight the following day.

Christmas ornaments, Tlalpujahua, Michoacan, Mexico

Photo: Group Tour Media/Christian Laffey Christmas ornaments, Tlalpujahua, Michoacan, Mexico

A revelation of orange splendor

The next day, we ventured to Sierra Chincua. In a similar fashion, a guided horseback ride and hike along mountain trails led us to the winter home of thousands of monarchs. On this particular day, low 50-degree temperatures and sunshine joined us on the journey. Entering this sanctuary was a completely different experience. The monarchs seemed to dance in midair; thousands of butterflies flew freely around us in a colorful display.

The monarch show I was seeing was almost overwhelming because of just how incredible a sight it was. In the midst of taking in the once-in-a-lifetime experience, I felt something soft brush my hands. Not one — but three monarch butterflies had landed in my palms. Each time a monarch chose me as its resting place, I felt even more in awe of my surroundings.

Some might call it mystical, others spiritual, but me? I’m sticking with life-changing. I think I’ll take a cue from the monarchs and pass my experience on for generations. 

A Closer Look Tours provided this itinerary.

Day One

Arrive in Mexico City, the nation’s capital, where the contrast between the ancient and the modern is striking. Visitors are transferred from the airport to the hotel for a welcome dinner and overnight.

Day Two

After breakfast, visit two charming suburbs, San Angel and Coyoacan, with many quiet streets lined with old and expensive mansions.

Frida Kahlo Museum, Mexico City, Mexico

Group Tour Media/Christian Laffey Frida Kahlo Museum, Mexico City, Mexico

The first stop is the Bazaar del Sabado, a market with a festive atmosphere showcasing a great display of arts and crafts.

From there, head to Coyoacan, a place with a great identity of narrow, colonial-era streets and plazas with a lively quality. Visit the home of Frida Kahlo, now an art museum.

Have lunch in Coyoacan and then return to the hotel.

Day Three

Travel to Michoacán, a state where one can admire many native traditions, as well as arts and crafts. It’s a state full of natural beauty and the destination for the monarch butterflies.

Cosmovitral Botanical Garden, Toluca, State of Mexico, Mexico

Group Tour Media/Christian Laffey Cosmovitral Botanical Garden, Toluca, State of Mexico, Mexico

The first stop is the city of Toluca, the capital of the State of Mexico. Toluca has the attribute of a large, modern city, but still maintains an element of colonial splendor. Admire the Cosmovitral, a botanical garden that contains thousands of different species of native plants and flowers. A former marketplace, the garden is located in a 19th-century building with magnificent stained-glass panels.

After an on-your-own lunch, continue to the hotel, Mision de San Antonio, located near the town of Tlalpujahua in the State of Michoacán.

Day Four

Discover and experience the enchanting beauty and grace of the small, but approachable monarchs at the El Rosario sanctuary. Traverse mountain trails by foot and possibly horseback to witness the exposition in all of its grandeur among the forest streams, clouds and fog of the mountain peaks.

Picnic in the reserve and then return to the hotel for a relaxing evening evaluating the local mescal. 

Day Five

Embark on another monarch adventure and explore the Sierra Chincua sanctuary.

Have lunch at the park and then visit the town of Tlalpujahua to learn about its historical mining industry and its world-famous Christmas ornaments sold across the globe.

Day Six

Return to Mexico City and visit the Historical District, including the National Palace, the Cathedral and the Templo Mayor. The group also will visit the new Plaza Garibaldi and the Tequila Museum.

For more information call A Closer Look Tours at 877-938-0951 or visit acloserlooktours.com.

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Elly DeVries is the Publisher at Group Tour Media.  

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