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.