Monarch Butterfly Photography Tour in Mexico: A Natural Habitat Adventure
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Nature is at its most magical when animals in the millions, without the means to communicate, all perform the same action at the same time. How else could you describe the monarch butterfly which en masse make their way from Canada to the mountains of central Mexico and cluster together on the same evergreen trees even though not one of them has been there before? One of my greatest joys is seeking out these wonders of nature and so during the first week of February I too traveled from Canada to Mexico, with camera in hand, to gaze upon the monarch butterflies in their overwinter sites.
Given the remote location of the reserves and the need to know Spanish, my spouse and I opted to join a group tour. These are generally more expensive than when you do-it-yourself, but in exchange you often get better access to sites because the tour operators have established relationships with the local people. The trip itinerary is already outlined on the Natural Habitat (NatHab) site so I won't rehash it. However, I'll throw in some observations and highlights. Everyone is different and we all like different things, but hopefully some of what I write here will help you confirm that this tour is a good one for you too.
Day 1 – Getting There
The day started with a lot of snow in my departing city of Toronto, Canada. The airport check-in line was long and the security line even longer. We thought we were going to miss our flight. No worries though, because our flight was delayed for 6.5 hours due to technical difficulties! Ugh.
To pass through Mexican immigration, in addition to our passports, we needed to complete a tourist card, also called the Tourist Migration Form. This form should be provided to you on your flight, but if not the immigration authorities when you land. Be sure not to lose it, as you need to surrender it when you check-in for your return flight. If you do lose it, you'll need to complete a new form which is done somewhere other than where you check-in.
Despite our late arrival in Mexico City, our drivers (there were 2) were waiting at the airport to take us to our hotel. We said our hellos and then we were off. The drive was smooth and fairly quick given we were well outside rush hour. And upon stepping into the hotel, the NatHab guides for the tour, Eric and Fernando, were there to greet us and to help us get checked-in. It was too late for dinner, but they gave us a quick rundown of the next day especially where and when to meet for breakfast.
The hotel, Camino Real, was comfortable, but finding the room was tricky. There were multiple hallways and the numbering system was different than what we were used to. Of course, we were also tired after a long day.
Day 2 – El Rosario Sanctuary & Angangueo
We began the day with a buffet breakfast in the hotel. Eric was already seated at the table when we arrived, but we were otherwise the first. Coffee came quickly and then we were off to fill our plates.
I highly recommend taking a little of everything. There will certainly be something new to try; even the fruit was different. However, if you're just not into trying new foods, don't worry as you can order an omelet and grab some bacon.
After breakfast and meeting some of the other tour participants, we boarded the bus. The bus was one of those commonly used by transportation companies like Greyhound. With just about a dozen people, that meant 2 seats and possibly a whole row to yourself. Plenty of room to spread your gear out and we all know that photographers carry a lot of gear.
The morning drive to Angangueo is somewhat long and becomes windy, so if you're prone to motion sickness grab the front seat. Seating isn't assigned and the guides don't care where they sit.
In the afternoon we made our way riding in the back of pick-up trucks, to the El Rosario Sanctuary. Even if it's warm when you leave, I recommend dressing for the return trip which will be after the sun sets and likely much colder. If the timing works, you'll be in a good spot to admire the sunset on the return trip down the mountain.
When we got to the sanctuary, we mounted horses and started to make our way up to the butterflies. Previous horseback riding experience is not required as each horse is led by a trail guide. The trail might be dusty so if you're allergic to dust, request to be in the front. Again, the guides will be more than happy to make this happen. Be sure you can carry your camera gear on your back or shoulders so that your hands can hold onto the horse.
The horses didn't take us all of the way, but the walk once dismounting was fairly short and easy for us. A few tour participants were senior and were somewhat challenged by both the walk and the horse ride so be warned. Dismounting the horses, in particular, can cause injuries especially if you don't take BOTH of your feet out of the stirrups first.
At last the butterflies came into sight. The trail was cordoned off to prevent anyone from getting too close to disturb the butterflies. It had been raining a bit and it was cool which meant the butterflies weren't moving. Instead, they formed dense clusters in the evergreen trees. While the sight of all of the butterflies was impressive, we couldn't help but feel a bit of disappointment at how dark it was and how far away they were. No doubt the guides were concerned too, but they kept their spirits high. Spoiler: the butterflies didn't disappoint on any of the other days. Phew!
Once back in Angangueo, we sat down for dinner. Don't expect the food to be like what is known as Tex Mex. Do expect the food to be good. Also, Angangueo grows a different avocado from what is available in the US which is creamy. It tasted better than any avocado or guacamole we've ever had.
That evening was quite chilly and we were told in advance that our rooms were not heated. We got spoiled as our thoughtful guides prepared hot water bottles for each of us before we turned in for the night. In addition, we returned to our room with the fireplace nicely started for us. It quickly warmed up both the room and us. Be sure the fire is set in the back of the fireplace (and not in the middle or front) so the smoke escapes up the chimney (and not into your room). We were so warm that we even had firewood to spare the next morning.
Day 3 – Chincua Sanctuary & Angangueo
Eric, a long-time photographer, started us off with an early morning photo talk. He left the topic open to whatever we wanted to talk about so this was a great opportunity to pick the brain of a professional. And at 7:00am on a cold morning, it became obvious who the shutterbugs really were! Those that attended were rewarded with coffee.
After the chat, the entire group gathered for breakfast. I began to realize that there would be no shortage of food on this adventure. Each meal was huge; one meal was equivalent to what I might eat all day at home. Not that I'm complaining.
After breakfast we boarded the bus and made our way to the Chincua Sanctuary. The drive isn't particularly long, but the roads are windy so again prepare if you're prone to motion sickness. As before, we mounted horses and were led to where the monarchs had gathered.
Upon arrival it was readily apparent that this would be a different photo experience than the day before. The day was warmer and the sun was out. We still had to deal with shadows in the trees, but the amount of light increased during the morning. What's more, as the temperature increased, so did the activity level of the butterflies. Multiple times we saw a large mass take flight. Difficult to capture in a photograph, but wonderful to see.
The return down the mountain was by horse.
After lunch and much avocado, we walked around Angangueo. The former mining town is pretty and photogenic, but nature is my thing so I don't have much insight to offer.
That evening Fernando gave a presentation outlining the monarch butterfly lifecycle. The discussion helped to explain how the monarchs come to overwinter in Mexico and return to North America in the spring/summer. While this event is optional, it was quite beneficial background for us to understand the context for the phenomenon we were witnessing.
Day 4 – El Rosario Sanctuary & Valle de Bravo
We began the day with another photo chat with Eric. Again at 7:00am and again coffee was welcomed. I highly recommend you sleep-in some other time and instead soak up as much as you can from these chats. Just 1 tip and you'll find the effort worth it.
The morning's main event is a second visit to El Rosario. The first visit, if you recall, was late afternoon while this one is mid-morning. The opportunity here is to make full use of the sun while the monarchs are resting and then shift to taking photographs of butterflies in-flight as their wings warmed up.
Like before, we took horses on the way up and walked down. The walk down this time was made more enjoyable by the numerous hummingbirds that would zip in and out of view. Back at the hotel we had lunch. More avocado!
Day 5 – Avandaro & Valle de Bravo
The Hotel Avandaro has well maintained grounds (it's a golf course) and a number of birds visit. Our guides organized a morning walk for those who wanted to look at and / or photograph birds. Again, I recommend joining and leaving the sleeping-in for when you return home. Along the way we came across a number of photo-worthy flowers.
This was a no monarch butterfly day. Instead, we headed out to photograph Bridal Veil Falls. If you haven't taken photos of waterfalls, here's your chance to try out the water smoothing technique using a slow shutter speed. Again, having a professional photographer such as Eric nearby will be helpful if you get stuck.
In the afternoon we headed into Valle de Bravo to walk through a cemetery and check out Artisan craft and food markets. Even in the cemetery we saw birds, so be sure to bring your long lens. Afterwards, we walked to the waterfront to photograph the sunset.
After dinner at a local restaurant, we headed back to the hotel restaurant where Eric gave a presentation on story telling via photography, including composition. Another optional event, and regardless of how tired you may be, it was valuable to hear his experiences and suggestions.
Day 6 – Piedra Herrada Sanctuary and Toluca
This morning was free of any formal event. This is a good chance to stroll around and look for photo opportunities. I lucked out and saw a hummingbird and even managed to take a couple of shots with my point-and-shoot (my “real” camera was elsewhere).
Around 9:00am we all gathered to head out to the last of the monarch butterfly sanctuaries we'd be visiting, Piedra Herrada. Again we rode horses up the trail and then walked a short distance. It became obvious that things would be a little different today because it was a Saturday and the locals were as excited to see the butterflies as we were.
And boy was there a crowd! Using a tripod wasn't possible and our stay with the butterflies was shorter than it otherwise would've been. Still, it was another great experience and the butterflies were particularly “friendly” here.
Next we drove to Toluca and visited the Cosmo Vitral Botanical Gardens. The gardens were beautiful and the building itself was quite unique with the world's largest of their kind stain glass mural. Fortuitously, a hawk trainer was present to remove a couple of pigeons in the building and generously agreed to let us photograph ourselves holding the hawk. It was an unexpected treat! Finally, we visited the Toluca Cathedral and were lucky enough to watch a wedding ceremony. Again, I'm more of a nature photographer, so I didn't take many shots in the city. Regardless, it was nice to walk around to see how life might be in Mexico.
Day 7 – Heading Back Home
Not much to say about this travel day. The one thing worth mentioning is that if you partake of the buffet in the hotel, check on the cost first. We went for the convenience and because we knew the food was good, but even so the price was surprisingly high at 800 pesos for 2 people.
And so we returned to Toronto; a trip none of the monarch butterflies we saw would make themselves. As we settled into our regular routine we would occasionally think about the monarchs and look forward to seeing them moving from flower to flower in the later months of our summer.
Looking for more? Check out my photography-specific post with tips and a gallery of monarch butterfly photos.