Communing with monarchs on a Mexican mountaintop

It is a mystical, almost spiritual experience

Butterflies swirl above El Rosario.

Each week, we spotlight a dream vacation recommended by some of the industry's top travel writers. This week's pick is El Rosario in Mexico.

(Image credit: Courtesy image)

"I didn't just see the butterflies — I felt them," said Terri Colby at the Chicago Tribune. "A wing brushed my cheek, a pair landed on my shoulder, a few more on my hat." I was standing on a forested mountaintop in Mexico, mesmerized by the thousands of monarchs that were swirling around me and darting between pockets of sunlight and shade. I could hear the sound of their wings, and it was "like a whisper on the breeze." More than luck had brought me to the spot: Every fall, monarchs that are born in Canada and the northern U.S. fly 2,500 miles to the mountaintops of Mexico and remain there through March. At El Rosario, the largest butterfly reserve in the state of Michoacán, anyone — for now — can see what I saw. And it is "a singular experience" — "mystical, and almost spiritual."

Monarchs have interested me ever since I was a child chasing the orange-and-black butterflies through my Chicago backyard. Like many people, I've noticed there are far fewer monarchs around these days. Conservationists warn that monarch populations could soon dip so low that they won't recover. Habitat loss is the main culprit: Monarchs only lay their eggs on milkweed, a plant being chased from U.S. farmland. Meanwhile, illegal logging threatens the butterflies' wintering sites in Mexico. That's why I felt so grateful to get to El Rosario while it's still a monarch mecca. To reach the reserve, we rode horses — a good thing, because I was hit hard by the 10,000-foot altitude. Our excitement built as we came upon a sunlit opening in the forest occupied by dozens of fluttering monarchs.

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But our jaws didn't drop until we reached the summit and ducked into a forest where butterflies blanketed the trees, covering their trunks in orange and black. There were monarchs by the thousands — not just on the 100-foot oyamel firs but also clustered on flowers, swarming in mountain streams, and flying into the bright blue sky. The scene was overwhelming, and all the more awe-inducing when I thought about the death-defying journey each butterfly had taken to be here before landing on my outstretched hand. As they tickled my skin, "I felt the joy of touching nature and whatever is spiritual in this world."

Read more at the Chicago Tribune, or book a stay at the nearby Rancho Cumbre Monarca. Doubles start at $50.

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