El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Reserves

The average lifespan of a sunset-orange Monarch Butterfly is 2-7 months. So why do they possess an embedded instinct to migrate like birds for winter? It's a question that has baffled lepidopterists in Michoacán, Western Mexico – the homing spot of Monarchs, whom migrate from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and New Mexico as winter approaches. It's estimated that up to 1 billion of the species make the flight from the Rockies annually, and the 124,000 acre Biosphere reserve near Angangueo,has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to it's conservation efforts.

The Monarch Butterfly Reserves of Michoacán lie just 67 miles (100 km) North West of Mexico City, yet the scenic topography of mountainous terrain, sprinkled with dense coniferous forests, ancient mining towns and meandering rivers could not be more of a contrast. The reserves are divided into two recognizable “sanctuaries” known as Sierra Chincua and El Rosario. Enveloped by thick-set forests of Fir, Pine and Cedar, Sierra Chincua tends to be the most visited, due to parking proximity to the natural butterfly habitats. Angangueo, the tiny former silver mining village is sandwiched between the two sanctuaries, surrounded by the forested Chinjua and Sierra de Angangueo mountains.

The populace of Angangueo is a mixture of indigenous Indians and Spanish-descended Mexicans, all overwhelmingly friendly and determined to show off their fascinating mariposas (butterfly) haven. The heart of Angangueo reflects that of many a former mining town – decidedly rustic and sleepy, yet with a few historic buildings of note dotted throughout it's core. Accommodation choices are surprisingly varied, with options ranging from camping in the foothills of the bioreserve, to well equipped hotels like Don Bruno in the center of town. Angangueo offers little by way of deliberate attractions, save for the Inmaculada Concepción cathedral which dates from the 16th Century, along with the Casa Parker Museum. Once a former train station, the house was adapted as the abode of Bill and Joyce Parker – Bill being the last administrator of the American Smelting and Refining Company. Today, it is filled with the relics of the town's mining era. Peddlers selling their wares within the Plaza de Constitucion, coupled with a chi-chi, yet colorful town market are the qualities that bring this colonial hideaway to life.

Michoacán's Monarch Butterfly Reserves have become subject to increasing levels of security and evaluation in recent years, due to illegal logging and poaching practices threatening conserved habitat. All visitors must be accompanied by a guide, whether opting for a horse-riding trek or embarkation on foot. Sierra Chincua is the most accessible reserve from Angangueno, situated on the Eastern road signposted for Mexico City. Just 15 minutes by car, the reserve entrance is clearly visible from the main road, and features several ticket booths where both a car, and per person fee are charged. Guides are assigned via one of the several on-site car parks, as are horse-riding tours should the prospect of walking seem too daunting. It's highly recommendable to pack light and wear warm clothing, since the altitude temperatures within the forest can drop to around 8 Celsius – even during the warmer periods.

El Rosario is situated in the opposite direction of Sierra Chincua, farther along the Ocampo Road from Angangueno and at higher elevation. Visitors often report the climbs to be far more challenging, since the habitats are congregated at semi altitudinous levels – Angangueno sits upon a peak ridge of about 8,300 feet, however the butterflies tend to be found at altitudes above 10,000 feet. Opened in 2000, El Rosario is the newer of Michoacán's two recognized reserves, and is far more modern in it's trail distribution. Hewn steps make some of the steeper rock ascents far easier for families, while an abundance of signposts in English and Spanish prominently mark out different routes.

December to February marks the best part of the “warm season” to hike among the lofty canopies of El Rosario's forests, for it's then you'll see fiery carpets of Monarchs basking in the sunshine on the paths, ridges and logs. They also congregate within the branches of Pine and Cedar trees in their thousands, looking like a plethora of orange bows upon the boughs. Such is the combined weight of hundreds of thousands of mariposas, it's not uncommon to see the slender branches snap under their weight! Don't be too alarmed should a swarm of Monarchs engulf you either – this is part of the mating dance, and actually quite a fascinating finale to any reserve trip!

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