One of the amazing wonders of animal world is just a few hours drive from Mexico City – monarch butterfly migration. We drove to the forests where the monarch butterflies spend their winter after having flown for thousands of kilometres from Canada and the US, and then also explored the magical village of Valle de Bravo.
Monarch butterfly sanctuary
Monarch butterflies travel thousands of kilometres every year between the great lake area in Canada & United States and central Mexico. It is an enormous feat for such a small animal. They spend the winter, between November and March, in the hills of Mexican states of Michoacan and Estado de Mexico (EdoMex), where they can be observed in their thousands.
There are three main butterfly sanctuaries, two in Michoacan and one in EdoMex. The most known and most visited one is called El Rosario, close to the village of Angangueo in Michoacan. Unfortunately, the state of Michoacan has serious security issues and travel to Michoacan is generally not advised (e.g. US State Department). However, we found the area of the sanctuary safe enough.
The way there. El Rosario is only a short way inside Michoacan and I was told that during the day it should be fine (well we were OK). For precaution we took the road from CDMX to Toluca and then to Zitácuaro. Until there the road is actually quite fine, but from Zitácuaro to the sanctuary the road is very small. One needs to pass through the village of Ocampo and there were several police check-points (not sure if that’s a good thing or not). The drive from CDMX takes about 3.5h, depending on how much you stop on the way.
Breakfast on the way. I recommend stopping for breakfast at La Marquesa – a highway stop between CDMX and Toluca, which is famous for quesadillas, huaraches, and other things from the comal (Mexican flat griddle to cook tortillas). I love to stop there every time I leave the city in that direction. The food is good and very local, though, I have to say, it tends to be rather greasy and foreigners might not be used to it.
The sanctuary. On a Saturday, there were plenty of tourists at the sanctuary. The main parking is some 500m away from the ticket office and you need to walk on a paved trail full of restaurants and shops to get to the ticket office. After paying entrance fee ($50) there is a steep climb up, first on steps and then on a dirt road. They said it’s about 45min hike, but we made it in 25min. Instead of walking you can also take a horse for about $100.
At the top you have an observation area where the butterflies gather and you can see them from close up. Their activity depends on the weather. If it is clouded they rest on the trees close together to keep warm. You can see the branches folding under their weight and the whole trees covered with orange colour. However, when the sun shines, they become active and start flying around. All of a sudden there are a thousand butterflies flying in between of the trees. You can see the branches raise up again as the weight of the butterflies has been lifted from them. Unfortunately, my phone camera doesn’t do it justice 😦
If you’re very lucky, some of them can come very close and even sit on you. From close up you can see that they are actually quite big. Honestly, I thought they were much smaller.
Lunch at the sanctuary. After descending from the sanctuary we did some shopping for butterfly-themed crafts and went for a lunch. There are plenty of places to chose from, so we just went to one that look OK. I have to say that if we weren’t hungry at that point, I would have preferred to eat somewhere else, but after hiking up and down you’re not left with much choice. We had some quesadillas, tlacoyos, chiles rellenos, etc. The food was decent, but nothing special.
After the sanctuary we drove to Valle de Bravo to spend the night there. The drive took us about 2h, since the roads are not the best.
Valle de Bravo, EdoMex
Valle de Bravo is a cute little village on an artificial lake created by building a dam to produce electricity. It is about 2h drive from CDMX and a popular weekend destination for chilangos (people from CDMX). The village is also listed as a Pueblo Mágico (magical village) and it deserves the denomination.
As in most Mexican towns there is a zocalo at the centre of the village where most of the local life happens. On the zocalo and in the surrounding streets there are plenty restaurants and nice little shops. The village is very pleasant to walk around and soak up the nice weather. Los Alpes on zocalo also has some delicious ice-cream. They’re particularly known for their mantecado, but that’s not my favourite one, I preferred the pistachio and gunabana.
Downhill from the zocalo you get to the malecón (the part of the village along the lake) where there are plenty of boats that can take you for a ride around the lake. Some of the boats are also restaurants that are moored there and some are floating restaurants. In my opinion, they all look very tacky and not that interesting.
What to do in Valle de Bravo?
Kayaking. There are several places outside of the centre where you can rent a kayak (about $150 per hour) and explore the lake yourself. The views from the boat is great and you can see all the fancy houses just on the shores of the lake.
Paragliding. Valle is famous for paragliding. There are plenty of shops in the village that will take you up the hill, provide you with an instructor and the gear to enjoy the views from the air.
Climbing up the Peña for the views. Peña is a rock on the outskirts of the village. The road takes you quite close to the summit and then it’s a short (10min) climb up to the top. Really worth for the views over the whole lake and the village.
Velo de Novia. A waterfall on the other side of the village. You need to drive 15 min across the village and after parking there is another 10min walk to the waterfall.
Restaurants in Valle
If you’re going with a group of friends it’s really nice to rent a house and have a BBQ there. The climate is perfect for that. Some restaurant selection could be:
Tlayuderia La Chiquita: We had lunch at this tiny Oaxacan place, which serves very nice tlayudas and other Oaxacan specialities. The restaurant is very simple, but very nicely decorated.
Restaurant La Michoacana: This restaurant is only worth for its terrace with some spectacular views over the lake. Is it also very close to the zocalo. However, the food is nothing special and the service is really slow.
In Valle de Bravo I recommend airbnbs or houses (cabañas) that will allow you to prepare the food at home with your friends.
We stayed at Cabañas Las Lagartijas, where we had a cabaña (cottage) with 3 bedrooms and a kitchen / living area. Outside there was a large garden with a pool overlooking the lake. The setting was really beautiful and they also had several BBQ places where we made dinner. On the downside the house is entirely made of wood, so you can really hear everything going on and in the morning when the sun comes up it becomes unbearably hot inside. In the upper room there were also no curtains, so it was impossible to sleep after sunrise. It is also quite far from the village so you really need a car.