The monarch butterflies have no set flight pattern. Some dive-bomb from trees, others flutter down like fall leaves. Against the clear sky, whole colonies swish back and forth, orange marbles sent skittering across a tile floor. We think these things, but we do not say them aloud. We’ve been asked to stay quiet. It’s one of the conservation rules at Piedra Herrada Butterfly Sanctuary in Valle de Bravo, three hours outside of Mexico City.
My husband, David, and I have come to do some major monarch-spotting. Twenty to 30 million butterflies migrate to this sanctuary between November and March each year. They’ve flown south to escape the North American winter in Mexico’s highlands, some traveling as far as 3,000 miles.
Our path to the monarchs isn’t short either. The summit is an hour’s hike, or 45 minutes on horseback. “Steep” and “strenuous” are words that autofill when you Google the park, so we opt for horseback, knowing we’ll still have to dismount and walk the last 10 minutes to the peak.
Through the Hotel Rodavento, we arrange a lift to the sanctuary and an escort, Alejandro. On arrival, David and I tumble out of the van and chase butterflies to a grassy divot. They lay in a sunbeam, occasionally taking a bobbing lap around our heads as we snap photos. Alejandro laughs, clearly thinking, This is just the parking lot! Wait until the forest. He arranges for our park guide, Gustavo, and three petite horses.
“Not to worry,” Alejandro jokes. “These are automatic horses.”
He’s not wrong. Riding skills are not required. The short mares can be mounted as easily as a porch swing, and the reins are handled by a señor who walks beside us.
Before we set off, we tour the spotless base camp, with its bathrooms, food stands, and tchotchkes like hats embroidered with plastic monarchs. But I’m eager for the real thing. We saddle up.
“Andale!” I shout.
The trail starts out paved and fenced, but reverts to a dirt path as we climb. Much of it is shaded by oyamel fir trees, the monarchs’ favorite hideout. Occasionally, a lemon wedge of sunlight breaks through the forest canopy and the butterflies cluster there. Gustavo, who leads our equine parade on foot, takes off his sombrero, fanning them off the path.
“We are custodians for these butterflies,” Gustavo explains in Spanish. “Imagine if we trampled over them!”
As the monarchs get shooed away, I’m struck by their fragility—they’re flimsy as two-ply Kleenex. How have they traveled the distance of a high-powered jet plane?
Our troop continues its ascent. Behind me, Alejandro calls a booming “buenos dias” to the people we pass—young sweethearts hiking, fathers and sons on horseback, and one executive-type taking a cellphone call mid-trot. Despite our differences, we’re all seeking this one wild marvel.
After 40 minutes, we arrive at what Alejandro calls our “horse parking lot.” We dismount and climb with Gustavo the rest of the way. It’s slow going, twisty and—as Google warned—steep. But the butterflies, just a trickle at the bottom of the park, flow freely around us.
Here Gustavo announces the final rule: We must whisper. No more booming buenos dias.
As we reach the top, the canopy of trees cracks open and daylight floods in, heating the powdery earth and infusing the air with a pine-needle scent. The flip-book sound of a thousand beating wings surrounds us. Monarchs are everywhere now, spilling from trees—swooping, falling, shimmering. Waves of them pinwheel through the sky, climbing up into blue infinity, before falling back down to earth in a whoosh. The four of us stand in silence, faces tipped to the sky. I feel the same awe I’ve had in grand cathedrals.
Alejandro reads my thoughts. He leans over to whisper, “You sense God is in this place.”
On our descent to base camp, Gustavo grows somber. “We’ve seen fewer and fewer butterflies,” he says, echoing what scientists have discovered: Monarchs have suffered an 80 percent decline since 2000. Global warming, as well as the loss of milkweed (the monarch caterpillars’ only food), are to blame.
“We can’t control climate change, so we try to control the little we can,” Gustavo says.
He tells me that because the butterflies arrive in November, during the Day of the Dead celebration, many believe them to be souls of loved ones returning. I can’t ignore the subtext: If these butterflies disappear, part of this country’s soul will be lost, too.
Back at base camp, we return our horses to their hitching posts, then head back. For the first mile, the butterflies surf the jet-stream peeling off our van.
At home months later, I spot a flattened monarch on the pavement and stop to wonder what else was stamped out.
If You Go
Our writer’s tour was arranged through the Hotel Rodavento. Tours can also be booked through Viator, starting at $60, or on arrival directly with park guides. Fees for guides and horses are 250 pesos per person (approximately $13 USD). Note that park guides tend to speak limited English, and package tours have translators. The entrance/parking fee is 70 pesos ($3.50 USD), which is included in pre-booked tours. Clean bathrooms are on site with paid access of 5 pesos ($0.25 USD). Gift shops and food vendors are also on the grounds. Sturdy walking or hiking shoes are recommended.