Las Mariposas Monarca (The Monarch Butterflies)

Trip Start Jul 29, 2012
Trip End Aug 01, 2013

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Flag of Mexico  , Central Mexico and Gulf Coast,
Sunday, March 17, 2013

In my view, one of the best parts of being a parent is getting to see the world through my kids' eyes. They help me untether my sometimes dormant Sense of Wonder (Rachel Carson) and to see and appreciate all of the amazing things around us.  Take, for example, Monarch butterflies.  Last week, I took Micah and Zola out of school for a few days for an adventure to the Mexican forests where millions upon millions of Monarch butterflies overwinter.  It was an experience of a lifetime. 

The seed for this adventure was actually planted months ago when Micah and Zola watched a Wildkratts episode on PBS called "Voyage of the Butterflies" (  The twenty-six minute segment tells the story of the butterflies’ 2,500 mile migration from Canada to Mexico.  It piqued Micah and Zola’s interest, so we spent some time online together, learning about Monarch butterflies.  The Monarch story goes something like this:

Monarchs would not be able to survive the cold winter in the Northern United States and Southern Canada where they spend their summers.  Nor would there be sufficient food to support them.  So, they fly south every October-ish to a handful of forests in Southern California and Central Mexico.  The long flight, powered by milkweed and the nectar from flowers, takes about three weeks (Can you believe a little butterfly can fly an average of over 100 miles per day?  Super cool!).  After their epic journey, they arrive in the exact same forests where last year’s generation-thrice-removed overwintered (When the Monarchs fly north in the spring and summer, it takes three generations of Monarchs to reach their northerly limit.  Every fourth generation flies south again.).  If you’re scratching your head and wondering how a brand new generation can find the exact same forests where their great-grandparents hibernated, you’re no different than a lot of scientists who study Monarchs.  Hypotheses abound, but it is still a mystery how Mother Nature pulls this one off.   See what I mean about a Sense of Wonder?  Pretty incredible.
The Monarchs that make it to Mexico congregate in forests in the states of Michoacan and Mexico.  The resting places were discovered by scientists in 1975.  In these forests, millions of Monarchs hibernate for four months or more.  Between November and March, they clump together for warmth and save their energy.   When they wake up in March, they mate and begin the cycle once again by flying north, following milkweed patches along the way.

Now, back to our story. 

In February, when we decided to make a concerted effort to venture to the Monarchs’ overwintering hideouts, we knew that the clock was ticking.  We were nearing the end of their hibernating period; soon they would be flying north again.  After the kids went to bed each night, I spent time on my laptop doing research and trying to determine our best logistical options.  I honed in on an overwintering location in the mountains surrounding the resort town of Valle de Bravo called Piedra Herrada, about two hours west of Mexico City.  I concluded that we should visit Piedra Herrada during the week to avoid the weekend masses.  And, after a long debate, we decided to drive our car rather than take a series of busses to our destination.  Staying mostly on toll roads, a Mexican transportation website estimated the driving time at 7 hours 38 minutes. 

Trying to work around Leah’s busy work and travel schedule proved a challenge.  She had three speaking engagements on her calendar in February and March.  She also needed time to prepare for her talks while continuing work on her book.  After trying in vain to shoehorn our butterfly trip into her schedule, we decided it would be best for the kids and me to go alone while she was traveling.  So, this past Tuesday, after Leah headed to the airport to fly back to the States to give a talk, Micah, Zola, and I jumped into the car to begin our adventure.

I had printed out detailed directions, I had maps, I had a GPS unit, I had snacks, and I had borrowed some CDs from our friends (Irish Fairy Tales and Legends).  We were ready for an efficient drive.  Buying the kids each a big glass of freshly squeezed orange juice at one of our first rest stops didn’t help our cause.  We stopped every twenty minutes for bladder-emptying for the next hour and a half.  While straying off course in the big city of Puebla was interesting, that added another half an hour to our drive.  Construction projects along the way and another diversion in Ceurnavaca added more time.  Much of the drive was absolutely beautiful.  Micah and Zola named one area “Cactus Valley”; one region reminded me of the black hills; I especially enjoyed driving on narrow, winding roads through mountainous, pine-studded forests.  Through it all, the kids did great.  We checked into a hotel in Valle de Bravo almost eleven hours later, giddy about the prospect of seeing the Monarchs.

Up early the next morning, we gobbled pastries, bananas, yogurt and chocolate milk in our room while watching Spanish cartoons.  Shortly after 8 a.m., we were back in the car, driving through beautiful forests in the early morning light.  By 9 a.m., we were paying our entry fee at the park office (US$4 for adults, and US$3 for kids) and being led to the trailhead by a park employee.  The kids were prepared for the two to three kilometer hike up the mountain, but we had discussed another alternative – riding horses.  So, at the trailhead, I hired two horses and guides.  Micah and Zola were in heaven.  The guides led the horses, I walked and took photos, and the kids smiled and smiled. 
After about thirty minutes, our guide told us we had arrived at the point where horses were not allowed.  Micah and Zola dismounted and we followed one of our guides through the woods.  The other guide stayed with the horses.  One Monarch here … another one there … then more and more … then our guide pointed up into the trees.    Thousands!   All bunched together on branches, on tree trunks, and flittering about.   Micah and Zola thought the butterflies looked like bunches of big grapes hanging from the tree branches.  Soon, we were stepping around them, feeling them land on us for split-seconds, and watching them mate. 

Our guide showed us how to tell the males from the females and told us the story of their migration.  I occasionally looked to Micah and Zola for help understanding the vocabulary.  Not surprisingly, they also didn’t know the meanings of what I guessed were words related to butterfly anatomy.   As the sun rose higher in the sky and warmed the clumps of butterflies, many of them took flight.  Hundreds at a time.   We soaked in the scene for half an hour and then walked to a sunny, open field, where Micah and Zola wandered around, watching Monarchs and playing with each other. 
On weekends, our guide told us, they usually had 200-300 visitors per day.  Tourist numbers began to tail off as Monarchs started heading north.  Many butterflies had already left, but there were still an impressive number of them on the mountain.  Because we were there early on a Wednesday morning, we had the whole mountain to ourselves.  At one point, I took some time to explore the forest by myself while Micah and Zola stayed with the guides and horses.  Wandering through the forest alone was magical.  I was awed by the sound of wings, gently drumming, breaking the silence.  It sounded like the faint pitter patter of light drizzle on the canopy overhead.  When I returned to the kids, they said, “Can we get back on the horses?”  So, after a few snacks, we headed back down the mountain. 
I opted to take a different route back to Oaxaca, skipping the speedy toll roads and driving on the “free” roads instead.  The result was a more direct route at lower speeds.   Before leaving the mountains, we pulled off the road and found a spot for a picnic.  A few hours later, we found a hotel in Cuernavaca, where the kids got to swim in a rooftop pool.  After a dinner of shrimp soup, ceviche, and tortillas, we Skyped with Leah before calling it a night.  The next morning, I ignored any concern about impending potty breaks as we all enjoyed freshly squeezed orange juice and a breakfast quesadilla.   The drive was pleasant.  We sang lots of songs together.  I sang as much of the Widjiwagan song book as I could remember.  When the kids took the lead, we dove into Christmas Carols.  Imagine “Silent Night” sung in English, German, and Spanish amidst cactus trees and beautiful mountainous terrain. 

A couple of hours from Oaxaca, we stopped for lunch.  Much to the restaurant owner’s surprise, Micah and Zola requested chicken with mole.  I asked him what he recommended.  Did he have a house specialty?  He said something I couldn’t understand.   Without revealing my cluelessness, I said, “That sounds good to me.  I’ll have one.”  (Ok, I actually said, “Esta bien”.)  It turned out to be cow tongue in a red mole sauce.  Not what I would have chosen, but not bad. 
We arrived home road weary, but with a great feeling of satisfaction.  Micah and Zola are great travelers.  I’m looking forward to our next family adventure – a drive to the beach.  Leah's super happy to get to be in on this one.  She was sad to miss the butterflies.
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Uncle Bob on

I admire your adventures. What an incredible outing this was. Muy bien!

Dina Kountoupes on

OMG I actually took my first trip away from my oldest daughter Kiki when she was 2 years old for work for a week in Piedra Herrada to do a monarch workshop with the trail guides at the reserve! I was working with Karen Oberhauser in the Monarch Lab at the U of MN and I couldn't pass up the opportunity. What a magical place huh? So cool and inspiring that you took the kiddos.Since the moment I got back I've been promising Kiki (now almost 7 yrs old) that I would take her with me next time...

todd hoitsma on

Finally caught up on some of your adventures! It sounds awesome down there and remember it is mud season here in Montana...not the best time of year... and it makes your stories seem all the better! Your blog is good timing: I just read a great story on the Monarchs and how over the last 10 or 15 years one Monarch refugia area had stopped logging that was devastating habitat and they had gradually overcome resistance from locals - as now they benefit from tourism..

Hunt on

What a great thing Steve. I'm envious . During those 4 winters we were in very nearby Cuernavaca we never went to the mariposas... so it was enjoyable for me to see your pics!! Thanks and what a great trip for the kids ...they are lucky and will have super show-and-tell reports. when they come back!!

Diane Rushing on

What wonderful adventures.... and memories.... you are creating with your children. Such fun!

Patricia Arend on

Wow! What an amazing, once in a lifetime adventure. I adore the pic of Zola and Micah looking up at the butterflies. Beautiful.

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