About 15 years ago, my wife and I were in Mackinac Island, Michigan, for a long weekend, and one of our stops was at the Original Butterfly House and Insect World. Before we entered the enclosure to see the colorful butterflies, we’d been warned to pay close attention to where they were at all times.
I was fine for the first 15 minutes. Then, after taking a couple of photos, I let my guard down. When I backed up, I heard a delicate, disturbing crunch.
“You didn’t!” my wife said.
After lifting my shoe, I replied, “Uh, oh.”
Monarchs don't like Mondays, either, but they love Tuesdays
A Closer Look Tours' itinerary started and ended in Mexico City and featured three days in the high-altitude village of Tlalpujahua, Michoacán, near the monarch sanctuaries.
Our group of seven included another travel publisher and her photographer from Michigan, and four people from Phoenix—a father-son duo and a well-traveled couple. We were in the very capable hands of tour manager Sergio Garcia (not the golfer) and he was everything you’d want in a guide. It was an excellent and adventurous band, and I felt very fortunate to be traveling with such a hearty and humorous group. We enjoyed some wonderful hospitality and also got to experience the warmth and generosity of the Mexican people throughout our journey.
Unsurprising considering the tour’s theme, the time we spent on the trail of the monarchs was the most memorable for me. I definitely consider myself a nature-lover, although admittedly I’m more of a hiking and sunsets guy. But this experience seemed like a chance to do and see something totally unique, and that is right in my traveling wheelhouse.
The monarchs journey from all across Canada to one very specific section of Mexico each winter, a fact that begged a lot of questions. There are reasons why the beautiful and delicate creatures choose the mountainous Michoacán terrain as their November-to-March home, but I’ll spare you the fairly involved scientific explanation. The good news is that they do, and if you journey there to see them, it is spectacular (more in a minute).
Our touring included excursions on Monday and Tuesday to two different sanctuaries. Both visits included a horseback ride from the welcome center up the mountain, followed by hiking on up to roughly 12,000 feet, to the specific areas where the monarchs hang out.
The first day was windy and about 43 degrees, and the monarchs reacted by huddling together to keep warm. While we could see large clumps of them high up in the trees, very few flew close to where we were standing. It was cool to see them from a distance, but not quite the experience we’d hoped for.
That night, I sent an email to a few of my friends and family that read, in part, “Apparently the monarchs don’t like windy, overcast days. Hoping conditions aren’t that way tomorrow, which is our only other chance to see them, but guess what’s in the forecast?”
The good news: Tuesday brought sunny skies and temps in the early 50s, which brought the monarchs out en masse. The memory of turning the final corner and being welcomed by monarchs soaring freely through the trees as we arrived at our viewing spot is one that will stick with me forever. It still is hard to put into words what we experienced in our 30 to 40 minutes there, but it was awe-inspiring.
I was torn between snapping photo after photo of the majestic monarchs (occupational hazard) and just sitting and soaking in the moment. I balanced both, though the latter offered such a peaceful feeling and served as a great reminder of the one-of-a-kind experiences travel offers.
Most important, no butterflies were harmed/stepped on— that I know of—during our visit.
Mountain towns offer glimpses of the real Mexico
The nice side benefit of heading to the mountains in search of the monarchs was that it put us in some of the country’s rural areas. While previous Mexico trips had taken me to the Cabo and Cancun areas, this seemed like real Mexico, and it was very compelling.
Our first stop after we left Mexico City was Toluca, which is the capital of the state of Mexico. While by no means a small town, Toluca was an absolute gem. (If you don’t believe me, maybe take another look at this magazine’s cover). After we roamed the main plaza area that was anchored by two historical churches, we headed over to Cosmovitral, which is equal parts art palace and botanical garden.
The vision of artist Leopoldo Flores, the attraction opened to the public in 1980. It took Flores and his team three years to assemble the millions of pieces of glass from around the globe into a beautiful mosaic that represents the artist’s elaborate vision of good and evil.
I’m a sucker for blown-glass art, and it was impossible for me to stop staring at the depictions on the windows. Many times I wandered away from the group and our guide to take in the intricate details of the mosaics (and, of course, to take more pictures). The hundreds of plants and beautifully landscaped gardens, while overshadowed by the surrounding walls, are also impressive. I don’t know if Toluca is on the radar screen of many tour operators, but as home to a marvel like Cosmovitral, it should be.
After a lunch stop and another hour or so of riding, we reached our hotel in Tlalpujahua. In addition to being famous for its monarch sanctuaries, this village in the northeastern corner of Michoacán is known for its mining history and as the epicenter of the production of Christmas ornaments.
Working around our daytime visits to see the monarchs, we explored a number of places that offered excellent snapshots of local life. During our walking tour of Tlalpujahua, we encountered rows and rows of vendor booths where residents were selling (and buying) everything from fruits and meats for daily meals to crafts and home goods. I was surprised at how the small town teemed with life, especially for a Sunday afternoon, and being up at the Sanctuary of Carmen just before sunset was a treat.
That day we also checked out Dos Estrellas Mine. The mine flourished after gold was discovered at the turn of the 20th century, and it became the country’s top producer of gold from 1908 to 1913. A major landslide on May 27, 1937, left a portion of Tlalpujahua in shambles and ended its mining heyday.
The next afternoon we went to El Oro, a nearby town that traces its roots back to 538 A.D. In addition to walking the narrow streets and seeing the many brightly colored buildings and houses, we checked out its market. Seemingly every one of the town’s roughly 5,700 residents turned out to shop—or run—one of the more than 200 booths that featured an even wider array of items than we’d seen in Tlalpujahua.
Our last stop was at one of the factories that is part of Tlalpujahua’s bustling Christmas ornament trade. Area artisans annually produce millions of handcrafted ornaments, and Sergio estimated that accounts for around 70 percent of the town’s economy.
Meanwhile, back in Mexico City ...
Sandwiched around the monarch-and-mountain-towns main course was some very tasty Mexico City touring. Saturday was our first full day of exploration, and the morning took us to the Angel of Independence monument, to the city’s most famous bullfighting stadium and to the San Angel arts and crafts market in bustling San Jacinto Plaza.
Next we headed to the one of the Mexico City’s oldest areas, Coyoacán, to see the Museum of Frida Kahlo. The attraction, also known as Casa Azul (the Blue House), is where Kahlo lived for 25 years with her husband and fellow artist Diego Rivera. In addition to housing paintings and photographs of the influential artists, the complex includes hundreds of personal effects representing their lives together.
There also was plenty of local color to be had at the neighborhood’s epicenter, Plaza Hildago, where residents and tourists mingled seamlessly on a sunny Saturday. Hacienda de Cortes, our lunch stop, served up one of my favorite combinations—chile rellenos and margaritas—with a side of history; the famous Spanish explorer had lived on the grounds during the early 16th century.
When we returned to Mexico City from the mountains three days later, we focused our efforts on the many historical attractions in the Zócalo area of downtown. We toured the amazing Templo Mayor, which is an Aztec ruins site that dates back to the 1300s. We also saw Constitution Square, the iconic giant Mexican flag, the National Palace and the Metropolitan Cathedral, which is the largest basilica in the Americas.
One of my favorite memories of the trip came after our tour and lunch at the Museum of Tequila and Mezcal. There was a group of mariachis tuning up in Plaza Garibaldi, and, as we walked through, our guide Sergio huddled with them. Throughout the trip, he’d shown signs of being able to sing, but now it was showtime.
We were treated to a three-song set that featured his powerful vocals, as well as the musicianship of his impromptu bandmates. The enthusiasm with which he sang was captivating, and it mirrored the passion he’d displayed throughout the trip as he showed us his native country.
While I felt we got some good snapshots of Mexico during the tour, I left thinking there was a lot more to explore. And, based on what I experienced throughout the trip, I’d love to take a closer look at more of Mexico as part of another one of A Closer Look Tours’ other well-crafted small-group journeys.
To see additional photos from the Monarch Butterflies of Mexico tour, go to tinyurl.com/y7shhdbq. I also added on two days in Guanajuato, one of Mexico's Colonial Cities, and you can click here to see a recap of that visit.
Photos by Pat Henderson