Butterfly Sanctuary Tours (Mid-November thru Mid-March)
Butterfly Guide Joel has been going to see the butterflies since he was a toddler. His father and uncles have worked as forest rangers on the Cerro Pelon reserve his whole life, and Joel has been leading tours to this reserve and others for the last four seasons. His resume also includes many years of working in customer service in English. Joel’s siblings Rogelio, Vicente and Ana and U.S.-born spouse Elena also help with tours. Rogelio and Vicente spent many years in the U.S. where they learned rudimentary English. Ana studied English formally as part of a degree in tourism. Our team members will help you with your horse (should you chose to take one), carry your food and water, and tell you as much as you would like to know about Mexico’s monarch butterfly migration and the history of the reserve. We let you set your own pace, so you can take as little or as much time as you like on your butterfly tour.
Our tours have been featured on the Spokane evening news, on the Belgian reality TV show Bartel’s Beard and in several forthcoming documentaries, including one about about cookbook author Diana Kennedy and the struggle for environmental sustainability and another about community organizing against illegal logging.
There are four sanctuaries open to the public, which are described below. All tours are $75 per person, except for Piedra Herrada, which is a bit more, because of the time and distance involved. All tours begin at 10 am and take anywhere from 5 to 7 hours. Most tours end around 3 or 4 in the afternoon. All of the colonies are at high altitude, about 3,000 m, or almost 10,000 feet.
Cerro Pelon Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary Tour
The entry to this sanctuary is a 5 minute walk from our front door. Cerro Pelon is a historic site: it’s where scientists first confirmed that the butterflies that left Canada every year were the same ones that overwintered in the oyamel fir tree forests of the Sierra Madres. It is also, according to many butterfly enthusiasts, the loveliest and most pristine of Mexico’s butterfly roosts. Tour price of $75 per person includes entry fee, horse rental, bag lunch, and a bilingual guide.
Depending on the season, the Cerro Pelon colony is usually the least accessible of all of the butterfly sanctuaries, which is probably why it is the least developed and least visited site. Going to see the butterflies here requires a moderate level of physical fitness, or the ability to tolerate riding on the back of a horse for a several hours. This season it takes an hour to ascend to the butterfly colony and about that long to descend, making this a 5-6 hour long activity (depending on how much time you want to spend with the butterflies once you get there). The trail is mostly shady, winding through a mossy forest of fir, pine, cedar, and encino trees. Many say the loveliness of the forest itself is worth the visit.
El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary Tour
When scientists figured out in the mid-seventies that the butterflies that arrived in Mexico every winter were the same ones that left Canada every fall, funding for butterfly tourism followed soon after. Joel’s grandfather was in charge of the ejido at the time, and for better or for worse, he refused tourism development funds, and the money went to the creation of El Rosario Biosphere Reserve instead. Unlike the unmarked trail that winds up the mountain on Cerro Pelon, here you’ll find larger tour groups, concrete steps, interpretive signs, and a lot more park rangers making sure you don’t get too close to the colony. In recent years, El Rosario has been the most populous of the butterflies’ overwintering sites. Seeing millions of butterflies flutter back and forth from an open meadow to their treetop clusters is truly impressive. The hike up to the colony is mostly on a paved trail and it takes 30-45 minutes each way, depending on your speed and acclimation. For a faster trip, horses are also available, and they take a separate trail. El Rosario is about an hour and a half from our place. Tour price of $75 each includes transportation, entry fee, bag lunch and a bilingual guide.
Piedra Herrada Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary Tour
The trip from our place to Piedra Herrada takes you through the small farming villages of the State of Mexico on a road lined with fields of fruit trees and nopal cactuses. Then the road descends into the cosmopolitan colonial gem and weekend resort town, Valle de Bravo. The sanctuary is another half hour down the road from here. The trail begins with a stone path with a separate trail for horses. The hike takes from 45 minutes to an hour each way, and is not so steep until the very end when you approach the colony. Often the colony is situated in such a way that you can get closer to the butterfly-laden trees of Piedra Herrada than you can at El Rosario or Sierra Chincua. Tour price of $85 US per person includes transportation (at least 2 hours each way), entry fee, bag lunch, and an English-speaking guide. Add $15 per person to include a stop-over tour of Valle de Bravo.
Sierra Chincua Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary Tour
After El Rosario, Sierra Chincua is the second most visited butterfly sanctuary and the most accessible of all of the colonies. Most of the ascent is done in car on a road that passes through the scenic village of Angangueo. The trail leading to the butterflies is relatively level, paved in white gravel, and a 30-45 minute walk each way. Unlike the varied foliage on Cerro Pelon, the trees here are almost all oyamel fir trees, making for uniformly dark green vistas. Sierra Chincua’s infrastructure is the most attractively designed of all of the colonies; it features many souvenir stands. Tour price of $75 US per person includes transportation (1.5 hours each way from our place), entry fee, bag lunch and an English-speaking guide.
Butterfly Day Trips from Mexico City
If you are in Mexico City and really want to see butterflies but don’t have time for an overnight stay, talk to us about arranging a day trip. Buses leave the Observatorio terminal (also called Poniente) in Mexico City for Zitácuaro every hour. Buy a “directo” ticket with the company called La Linea. The ride takes 2 hours. We can meet you at the terminal and take you to see either Cerro Pelon, El Rosario, or Sierra Chincua. Tour price of $115 US includes pick up and drop off at the terminal, as well as sanctuary entry fee, horse rental (if so desired), lunch, and guide. Add $75 for each additional person.
Mexican Cooking Class with Doña Rosa
Joel’s mother Rosa has been running a restaurant for over ten years. People come from far and wide for her tasty homemade fare. In this class, Doña Rosa, assisted by one or more of her five daughters, explains her food philosophy and takes you step by step through the preparation of the classic Mexican dish of your choice. Regional versions of mole rojo, mole verde, and pozole are popular options, as well as any item on the restaurant menu. Chile rellenos make a good vegetarian option.
Price of $60 USD per person includes simultaneous translation to English (if so desired), all the cooking ingredients, a copy of the recipe, and a sit-down dinner served with rice and tortillas to sample the dish you prepare. Add $10 for a meal that features homegrown, free-range organic chicken. Free-range turkey priced by weight.
This activity is a good alternative if you are traveling with family members who are unable to make the steep trek up Cerro Pelon: they will have a hot meal prepared for you when you return from the mountain. Note that doing a cooking class on the same day as undertaking a butterfly tour can be logistically challenging; this activity is better combined with a less ambitious hike or horseback ride around the village.
If your class includes free-range poultry, give us a little heads up so Rosa has time to track down the plumpest fowl in the village. After its slaughter that morning (your participation is optional but welcome), it will take several hours to stew the broth for a mole or pozole dish. Once we start cooking in earnest, meal preparation may take several hours.
Other Things to Do in the Area
Most of our visitors come from mid-November until mid-March when the butterflies are with us. But Macheros offers activities that can be enjoyed year round if you appreciate fresh air, scenic mountain vistas, horseback riding, hiking, birdwatching, bright night skies, or relatively technology-free peace and quiet.
Our peace and quiet is periodically punctured by boisterous observances of the religious calendar in our fervently folk Catholic small town. Day of the Dead (November 1 & 2), the Virgin’s birthday (December 12th) Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, Holy Week (especially the Passion on Good Friday) and the Patron Saint’s Day fiesta on May 14 & 15 are festive times to visit. These observances seamlessly combine the orthodox with the pagan, and usually include flowers, processions, special seasonal foods and terrifying/exhilarating amateur fireworks displays.
Mushroom Foraging (summer)
The summer rainy season means that mushrooms start sprouting all over the hillsides around us beginning in mid-July through October. Locals live off of fungi during the lean off season when there’s no income coming in from in butterfly tourism. Varieties available change every few weeks. Joel’s siblings Vicente and Ana are experienced and enthusiastic edible mushroom foragers. Price of $20 USD per person includes the foraging trip as well as sautéing and seasoning what you find and serving it up with fresh tortillas.
Guided Horseback Rides (year round)
Macheros, the name of our community, translates as “stables,” and almost every household has at least one working horse on hand. All of these horses work carrying tourists up the mountain during the butterfly season, and so they are docile and accustomed to carrying unfamiliar riders. On this tour you will be led by Joel’s brother Vicente through the shady, gently-sloping trails that meander through the forested foothills that surround our village. Vicente is an experienced forest forager, skilled at harvesting wild mushrooms during the rainy season and tree resin year round. He can take you to see the field where the family grows their corn, or to the building that belonged to the hacendados who ruled this territory before the Mexican Revolution, or to the ruins of a mysterious pre-Colombian pyramid on the hill that overlooks the B&B. Tour price of $60 US each includes guide service, horse wrangling, and a picnic lunch.
Guided Hikes (year round)
Our mountains are working mountains; they are filled with trails used periodically by sheep herders, mushroom hunters, wood gatherers and the resineros who collect tree sap to sell. Unfortunately this labyrinth of trails can be confusing to the uninitiated. We are working with a cooperative of local volunteer guides to clear and design hiking trails of varying lengths and difficulty. Hiking options include the mountain Cerro Pelon and large hills Guacamaya and Cerro de la Silla, as well as a more level trail to our neighboring villages. Tour price of $20 USD per person means that a local guide will accompany you and make sure you don’t get lost (as has happened on a few too many visitors’ self-guided hikes).
Zitacuaro Walkabout (year round)
See the highlights of heroic Zitacuaro, an important market and supply center for the surrounding rural communities. We start off at the bustling food market in the center of town where Mexican food expert Diana Kennedy does her food shopping. Multiple mole pastes, staggering arrays of chiles, and the traditional sweets of Michoacan are on offer. Then we head for the ruins of San Felipe on the outskirts of town. These pyramids command a magnificent view of the surrounding mountains and valleys—we’ll point out Cerro Pelon, the butterfly mountain, to you. $50 per person. This tour can easily be combined with bus station pick up or drop off.
We are visited by a wide variety of birdlife throughout the year: the orioles and grosbeaks that feast upon monarchs, mountain trogons that nest in the hills above us, and the white-eared hummingbirds that check every single blossom in the agapanto in our yard every day. Then there are the wide variety of hawks, tanagers, flycatchers (vermilion and silky grey), warblers and thrashers that love the edges of fields and forests in our town. We are still in the process of educating ourselves about birding, so at this point, all birdwatching trips are self-guided.