There are four main sanctuaries for tourists, El Rosario, Sierra Chincua, Piedra Herrada, and Cerro Pelon. Based on interviews and personal experiences, I’m going to rank them for you. I invite your feedback, and I will post updates based on your opinion.
If you are going to travel all the way to Mexico to see the overwintering monarchs, and I think you should, you ought to see at least two sanctuaries. Two will be enough for most people. It’s worth going even if you can see only one, for example, on a day trip from somewhere you happen to be staying in the area.
- El Rosario It is the most popular, because it is truly the best. There is a meadow for you to see the monarchs close up, drinking from the creek. You’ll be rewarded for your hike to the peak with the most and biggest clusters of monarchs, tens of thousands at every glance. If you are in good shape, you can take the well groomed trail and stairs uphill for about three quarters of an hour to the meadow, rest, and walk another 15 minutes to the top. It is a beautiful walk, but just as much fun is taking the horse, and you support hard working people there. There are clean toilets at the base, an enclosed gift shop, and a presentation center with a must see movie. While some think El Rosario is too commercial, I see it more as a small town craft show. There are two rows of primitive booths, displaying hand made crafts and t-shirts that you’ll want to take home. Leave time to have a meal there, and watch it being cooked on a wood stove. The food is delicious and inexpensive. The tourist season is short, and every penny you can spend there supports the people who care for the forest. Avoid the crowds by NOT going on the weekend, and by arriving early. Spend the night in Angangueo. Admission is less than $5, and the horse is less than $10.
- Sierra Chincua. The location of the roosts changes from year to year, but the monarchs are always beautiful and bountiful. The walk the first year I went was doable for reasonably fit people; the second time, a guide chose to bring his horse and walk behind me. He was correct. Within 10 minutes, I was on his horse. If you go to El Rosario early to beat the crowds, come later in the day to Sierra Chincua, when the afternoon sun warms the air and the monarchs are more active. Bring your own plastic container and pick up some tortillas to eat along the way. You choose your own fillings, and watch the whole thing being cooked from scratch over the fire, for about a buck. No need to speak Spanish; just point. There are a couple of small rows of vendors where you can buy snacks, drinks and souvenirs. Washrooms are clean, right beside the parking lot. Spend the night in Angangueo.
- Cerro Pelon. Not for the faint of heart, this sanctuary is two hours up, and two hours down. The trail is narrow, rocky, rooty and dusty. Take the horse unless you are extremely fit. You will have the lookout to yourself when you arrive at your final destination, after being humbled by your heavy breathing during the 20 minute hike at high altitude after you leave the horses. I didn’t really understand what ‘thin air’ meant, until I took a breath, and immediately needed another one, or 10. Sometimes there is cell reception at the top. It can be exciting to try to share the moment with a loved one. You’ll do it for only a few seconds, and quietly, because this is the place to sit and just BE with the monarchs, in silence, for 15 minutes. Take lots of water and food. There are no vendors or washrooms, but after the hike, you can drop into Rosa’s restaurant and enjoy fresh caught trout from the nearby trout farm. In fact, it’s worth the short walk to the trout farm, where you will see a wide variety of butterflies nectaring and drinking. If you decide to do this trip, make it on your last day, as you’ll be sore and exhausted after it, even if you take the horse. Remember how it feels the day after being on a horse, on a wooden saddle, for three hours?
- Piedra Herrada. This ranks equal to Cerro Pelon, with different pros and cons. The best part may well be the road before you ascend. On a sunny February or March afternoon, you may be lucky enough to see thousands of monarchs coming down the mountain in search of water. It is a breathtaking spectacle. Vendors. Be sure to avoid weekends, as this sanctuary is the closest to Mexico City, and hordes of buses come for day trips. Spend the night in the upscale resort town of Valle de Bravo, where the locals come to spend time at the lake. You’ll find some better quality monarch paraphernalia made by local artists.
Next week, I’ll discuss traveling on your own, and I’ll review your group tour options.
I’ve been to 3 of the 4 (your 1st 3) and I like all 3 equally. The only other thing I would add is on the 3rd to stay at JM Butterfly Bed & Breakfast which is just up the street from Rosa’s in Mancheros (Rosa is the owner’s Mom).
I agree with staying at JM Butterfly B&B at Cerro Pelon… they did a wonderful job taking us up to see the colonies and provided a nice box lunch for us. You take the horses to the meadow, which brought me to tears as they were everywhere…in the sky, on the ground… and that is where we left the horses and began the steeper, rockier hike up. I probably would not have made it, but they gave us walking sticks that were a huge help and the guides were very patient and kind. It was worth it to see the colonies…beautiful! I would suggest hiking boots with a good tread and ankle support (which my scoutmaster husband wisely encouraged me to buy) and biking shorts for extra padding on horseback. I didn’t remember that someone suggested that and one of our friends had issues with that. Make sure you ask for your stirrups to be adjusted to your leg length. I actually had more trouble with El Rosario because we had traveled the whole day before and I was just getting used to the thin air. By the time I realized I should take a horse, none were availble (we went early in the season and on a weekday so the crowds were not as big – but we didn’t get there until after noon time). I did make it to the top with frequent rests at little spots to sit along the way and the path was very walkable with some steps. Just FYI, most public restrooms charge you to use the facility and even at the bus station there was a turnstile and you needed pesos to put in. I dont’ recall the amount, but we only had paper money that first day we traveled, so try to get some change to have on hand as soon as you arrive in Mexico. We only visited those two sanctuaries and I liked them equally as well because they were different experiences. I think there were more monarchs in the trees at El Rosario that particular day, but I loved the “meadow experience” at Cerro Pelon. I think it varies from day to day, but for sure you will see something that will be a wonderful experience of a lifetime!
PS… Thanks, Carol, for this great review and having provided advice before our trip. I would also like to add that I loved buying items from the people at El Rosario…I purchased a scarf, T-shirt, wooden laser-cut butterfly keychain, and basket woven of pine needles. I wish I had been able to sample the food there, but didn’t work with our schedule. When you visit Cerro Pelon, Rosa’s restaurant has a number of items…I purchased a cute ceramic pitcher. My favorites are the wooden ornaments and rocks painted by the students at the nearby school where I had arranged a special visit with Ellen. It may not be open to public visitors, but there should be items they have made available to buy at Rosa’s. I’m looking forward to returning in a couple years to see the other two sancuaries and re-visit the wonderful people I met this time, too! Thanks again, Carol!
I have been to all four sanctuaries and have visited them three times in the last three years except for Piedra Herrada which I visited twice. It would depend on which year I visited in the ranking of them. The first year (2015) I would rank Cerro Pelon as the best with Sierra Chincua as very good. The weather was great and each one gave us time to relax in the midst of many Monarchs! Cerro Pelon was a great experience mostly because of the Moreno family, their B&B, restaurant and the people I now know and love. Sierra Chincua was like a forest you walk through and can hear God speak. In 2015, El Rosario wasn’t quite as commercialized as it is today. It was still a nice sanctuary. Piedra Herrada was where I had a bad experience with a horse that was very sick. This horse had green drainage coming from it’s nose and it coughed the entire time I rode it up the mountain! The next time I went to this sanctuary(2017), I made sure I had a good look at the horse before I mounted it and again found an unhealthy horse. As for the clusters there, they were nothing compared to the other sanctuaries. The 2016 trip brought cold weather to the sanctuaries and the climb at Cerro Pelon was very tough. After dismounting the horses in the meadow, we had to climb, sometimes almost a vertical incline! We were grabbing young tree trunks to pull ourselves up. It was a lot of work and it was much colder compared to the year before. I still enjoyed my visit with the Moreno family though! El Rosario was much colder as well and not as nice as the year before. Monarchs landed on us to warm up! Each year the Monarchs move and the experience can be different at each sanctuary. Sometimes the experience can be cold and difficult and other times wonderfully inspiring! I really miss going this year!
Thanks so much for your helpful observations!
Thanks for taking the time to add to our collective knowledge.
Thanks for sharing your experience! 🙂
Thanks for you input, Gerry!