Imagine a forest surrounded by blankets of monarch butterflies so thick that their orange hues obscure the horizon, foliage, and trees. The butterflies flutter around you, and some willingly land on your shoulders. The monarchs’ winter refuge in Mexico is not easily accessible to tourists, but it is well worth the travel.

For Egyptian, Aztec, and Greek cultures, the butterfly symbolizes the human soul. Other societies prize the butterfly as a symbol of human life: the caterpillar state signifies our life on earth, the chrysalis represents the tomb, and the butterfly implies a life after death that is lively and free. These symbols of the butterfly unite for the people of Mexico, who esteem the butterflies as the souls of loved ones who have passed. For them,each butterfly houses an ancestor, a friend, or a soldier. This Mexican lore is rooted in the millions of monarch butterflies that migrate each year to Mexico’s protective countryside.

The trees and mountains of Michoacán, Mexico, provide a temporary habitat for the monarchs each year as they migrate from Canada and the United States to a warmer climate down south. From November to March each year, spectators can marvel at the millions of butterflies in the El Rosario and Sierra Chincua sanctuaries, accessible from Mexico City.

Each of these sanctuaries is located approximately four hours from Mexico City. For the ambitious tourist, it could make an exciting day trip; for the leisurely traveler, the hikes and sights can comfortably fill two or three days’ time. Travelers must take a bus from the capital and then endure a long, uphill hike. Though inconvenient, the trip is appropriately symbolic, as it simulates the migration of the butterflies. The forests hold a reverence that must be earned through perseverance.

As the visitors ride horses or hike up the mountains, the butterflies’ sanctuary begins to materialize. As the weather gets colder, the butterflies ascend higher and higher up the mountain, and the visitors must follow. Migration numbers—of both butterflies and tourists—reach their peak in January and February.

Along with the many ruins and museums in Mexico City, the monarch sanctuaries are a perfect addition to a longer vacation to Mexico. In fact, the butterflies are worth a weekend getaway all on their own.

Sydney Cobb

Featured image courtesy of Adam Jones (image modified). cc