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Monarch butterflies

Thursday, September 18, 2008
Morelia is the capital of the Mexican state of Michoacán de Ocampo. It was founded in 1541 and is in the region of the Guayangareo Valley, surrounded by the Punhuato and Quinceo Hills.

The city is the birthplace of José María Morelos after whom it was renamed in 1828, and who, along with Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, began the Mexican War of Independence from Spain in 1810. It was also the birthplace of Agustín de Iturbide, the first emperor of Mexico.

Morelia is characterised by the magnificence of its colonial monuments. Among the remarkable buildings are the baroque cathedral (completed in 1744), the convent of San Francisco (1513), the convent of San Agustin (1550), and the college and temple of La Compañia de Jesus founded in 1580.

To add to Morelia's beauty and interest, each autumn, around 250 million monarch butterflies migrate south from Canada and the United States. They hibernate and mate, blanketing the Oyamel fir trees in the mountain forests in orange and black.

It is one of nature's greatest mysteries, unrivalled anywhere in the animal kingdom. The delicate butterflies are guided to the area 5000km away by an inexplicable internal clock known scientifically as the circadian rhythm.

The winter-resting place of the monarchs was only discovered in 1975, when zoologist Fred Urquhart ended his 37-year search for them, and so began the slow trickle of tourism.

Incredibly, four to five generations separate the monarch populations making the long and dangerous migration. The butterflies journeying to Mexico are the great, great grandchildren of previous generations to have made it.

People living south along the monarchs' route are frequently exposed to the site of enormous groups of butterflies flying overhead.

They tend to congregate in a small town in Michoacan called Angangueo. There are other monarchs that choose to winter in Cuba or California, but whatever their destination, the long flights pose great danger from predators.

Those that go to Mexico don't make it easy for you to find them. They are high in the hills, around four hours from Mexico City. Once they reach the Oyamel forests, they cluster together in the thousands, weighing down branches and making the forests glow with the bright orange of their wings. The Mexican government has spent millions of dollars paying locals to stop cutting down trees and to preserve the butterfly habitat.

The butterflies spend the entire winter there, finally mating in spring and returning north, exhausted and with tattered wings, laying eggs along the way.

Several sanctuaries are open to the public, including Sierra Chincua and El Campanario, also known as El Rosario, the original and largest. It is the most frequently visited.

When you climb to see the butterflies, take it slowly. They are a long way up, but you have the added breathtaking altitude working against you. Paths are well-signposted, and you must keep your voice down so the butterflies aren't disturbed. It is important that their energy is preserved.

You will see carpets of dead butterflies — usually male — but locals have a great superstition of anyone removing a butterfly, dead or alive.

Visitors are advised to stay the night in Angangueo, as the best time to see the monarchs is in the morning and transportation to the nearby sanctuaries departs from there.

The Butterfly Festival runs from the last week of February to the second week of March with celebrations every weekend.


Morelia, 303km from Mexico City.


GAP Adventures Mexico Monarch Butterfly Trail 10-day tour go from Mexico City to Uruapan, Angahuan, Patzcuaro, Morelia and Angangueo. They depart weekly during January and February and cost $755, plus a local payment of US$200 ($250) per person twin share. Tours include accommodation and transport in Mexico, GAP Adventures leader, guided tours of Janitzio and Tzintzuntzan, guided tours of El Rosario and Sierra Chincua Butterfly Sanctuaries, Morelia city tour and Angahuan by horseback.

Air New Zealand has flights to Los Angeles.

Fares from:

  • Sydney $2154
  • Melbourne $2242
  • Brisbane $2260
  • Perth $2440
  • Adelaide $2455

Valid for travel between November 1 and December 9, 2008. Conditions apply.

Connections are available to Mexico City.

Prices correct at September 18, 2008.

For further information

GAP Adventures
122 Hardware Street
Melbourne 3000
Ph: 1300 796 618

Air New Zealand

It is recommended travellers to Mexico see their doctor at least six weeks before departure as there are specific vaccinations recommended. Other health precautions and preventions may also be recommended and are best discussed with your doctor. For further information visit

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