Every year around the Day of the Dead, swarms of monarch butterflies flock to the pine forests of Michoacan, Mexico. Silence and peace reign, with the only sounds being the enthusiastic sighs of tourists.

I am in the middle of Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Over 56,000 hectares of forest, on inconspicuous slopes covered with oyamels, or Mexican sacred fir trees, have been turned into sanctuaries. These are temples to the Monarch butterfly, a species now considered to be in danger of extinction.

Entrance to the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Mexico
Entrance to the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Mexico © Sylwester Oziemba

It’s a journey through an enchanted forest. This natural wonder attracts tourists from all over the world. Some stare speechlessly at the butterflies, while others sigh with delight. Juan, a guide at the reserve, puts his fingers to his mouth to indicate that any noise will scare the insects away.

Each one weighs only half a gram and is extremely delicate. “And now imagine it flying over four thousand kilometres in around 33 days to find shelter in the Mexican forests from the winter temperatures of Canada and the United States,” says Juan.

Welcome to Michoacan, a Mexican state more commonly associated with cartels, violence and avocado plantations, where a natural wonder and the story of an epic journey halfway around the world await us.

Plan your trip to Mexico for fall!
View of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico
View of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico © Sylwester Oziemba

The phenomenon of butterfly migration

Born somewhere in the Great Lakes region on the border of Canada and the United States, monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico; during this extraordinary journey, they gain up to 100 mg in weight. When they finally reach Mexico, usually in the first days of November, they lose their strength.

For several months, the butterflies hibernate, reducing their metabolic and respiratory rates in order to survive this difficult period, using the energy reserves accumulated in their bodies during the previous months. At night and in the early hours of the morning, monarch butterflies hang from the branches of oyameles, or sacred firs.

The best time to see them is in the morning, when they form large clusters on the branches. As the sun’s rays begin to warm the forest, the butterflies set off in search of food and water and the whole area looks like it has been dyed orange –- the colour of their wings, with which they persistently fan the air.

Butterflies settling on branches in the reserve
Butterflies settling on branches in the reserve © shutterstock

For many years, the exact location where butterflies hibernated was a mystery. It was only in 1975 that Ken Brugger and his wife Catalina Aguado found a butterfly that had been marked by scientists from Canada in Cerro Pelón, Mexico. This discovery would not have been possible without the many years of tireless work by Fred Urquhart, a Canadian zoologist who began his research in 1940.

Catalina and thousands of volunteers tagged butterflies in Canada and the United States, then placed advertisements in American and Mexican newspapers encouraging people to check the butterfly tags. Thanks to her, we now know that their arduous journey covers a staggering distance of 4,000 km. In 1976,Catalina appeared on the cover of National Geographic, posing for a photo surrounded – naturally – by monarch butterflies.

The moment of arrival of monarch butterflies
The moment of arrival of monarch butterflies © shutterstock

Scientists now know much more about this unusual species. Four to five generations of monarch butterflies are born each year in Canada and the United States and each lives for 15 to 45 days.

But there is one special generation that is born in September and lives for nine months. During its lifespan it travels to Mexico, hibernates in pine forests, and begins its journey back in the spring. After a few months of hibernation, representatives of this unique generation will fly north; the males will die first, then the females, who will manage to lay eggs and give life to the next generations. Their offspring will grow and migrate towards the Great Lakes until winter finally returns and the next “chosen generation” will experience the miracle of one of the world’s longest migrations, following in the footsteps of their great-grandparents, whom they have never met.

A mural symbolising the relationship between monarch butterflies and the dead
A mural symbolising the relationship between monarch butterflies and the dead © Sylwester Oziemba

Butterflies that link the world of the living and the dead

“Our ancestors believed that butterflies were the souls of the dead who came back once a year, around the Day of the Dead, to meet their loved ones and see how their lives were going,” says guide Juan, and some of the tourists smile to themselves. It turns out that the local indigenous people have been celebrating the arrival of the butterflies for thousands of years. But with the arrival of colonisation and Catholicism in Central America, this extraordinary time took on a new character in Mexico.

Today, All Saints’ Day is a must for any tourist itinerary through Mexico. That’s why it’s worth going to Michoacan at the end of October to kill two birds with one stone – see the extraordinary arrival of the butterflies in the sanctuaries, when, as the locals often say, the sky turns orange with them, and at the same time experience other attractions related to the Catholic faith.

A traditionally decorated cemetery on Janitzio Island, Mexico
A traditionally decorated cemetery on Janitzio Island, Mexico © shutterstock

The Day of the Dead in Mexico

On the island of Janitzio, on the Day of the Dead, the locals organise a water procession of fishing boats, often with photos of the deceased they wish to visit. The sky is lit by candles and the air is scented by cempaxóchitl flowers (traditionally used to decorate graves) and the favourite dishes of the deceased.

In the town of San Andrés Mixquic, the culmination of the celebrations is the so-called Alumbrada, when the cemetery surrounding the main church is lit by thousands of candles and the air fills with the smell of incense. A unique experience!

This is a great time to observe local traditions related to All Saints Day in Mexico City. People gather at almost every cemetery to feast, sing or pray together for their deceased relatives, and enjoy plenty of tequila. Tourists travel through the canals behind the weeping woman in traditional trajineras boats, commemorating death as ancient pre-Hispanic cultures did. This is a show of the weeping woman in Xochimilco, in which actors reenact the most famous legend of Mexican culture, “La llorona”. This is an interesting and unique event, although in recent years it has become much more associated with mass tourism.

It is also customary in almost every traditional Mexican home to keep the door closed. Who knows, maybe the souls of the dead will fly in. Or perhaps just monarch butterflies.

Monarch butterfly on a hat, El Rosario reserve
Monarch butterfly on a hat, El Rosario reserve © shutterstock

Butterflies losing out to the climate crisis

And although butterflies metaphorically bring the souls of the dead, in the real world they face many existential threats. According to World Wildlife Fund Mexico, which has been monitoring the species in the country since 1993, their populations are declining every year. They are now considered an endangered species.

Juan explains, “People say it’s the climate crisis and weather extremes –  huge downpours, prolonged droughts that the butterflies encounter on their journey. But humans are behind the crisis: putting concrete in cities, building highways, drying up wetlands and leaving insects without safe shelter or food.”One of the main reasons for the butterfly’s decline is the development of large-scale agriculture. In the United States, grasslands – natural habitats for insects – are being lost to huge plantations of corn, soybeans and other crops. In modern agriculture, milkweed (Asclepia Curassavica), the basic food of butterflies, is cut down or treated with pesticides. As well as being a source of nectar for butterflies, milkweed flowers also provide a safety net. The toxins they contain make the butterflies indigestible to natural predators, so they can travel in peace all the way to Mexico.

The disappearance of the forest is also a major problem in Mexico. Illegal loggers, often in the service of drug cartels who see timber as one of their most profitable and semi-legal businesses, are rapidly cutting down the forest. It is estimated that five hundred hectares of forest are destroyed every year. The popularity of avocados has also had a major impact on deforestation. This fruit, known as the common sweetberry in Poland, has become an extremely popular Mexican export. Plantations are springing up like mushrooms after a rainstorm, and new areas are being sought, especially in the state of Michoacan, which is famous for its ideal avocado-growing climate. 

“That’s why responsible tourism is even more important, “ says Juan, continuing, “When you come to Mexico, look out for these butterflies. Thanks to your ticket fees, we can fight for their future generations. When you are in Mexico, it is worth helping the butterflies. The three best sanctuaries for tourists are El Rosario and Chincua Sierra in the state of Michoacan, and the nearby Ejido El Capulín Sanctuary in the state of Mexico. Have a good flight!”


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