How to Do Monarch Butterfly Ecotourism

Mexico is not a poor country, but its wealth is unevenly distributed. Half of Mexicans live in poverty, including the rural communities that lost their land after the discovery of the monarch colonies. Until recently, these communities lacked tourism infrastructure. Only outside operators benefited from butterfly tourism and locals continued logging the butterfly forest to get by. Butterflies need an intact forest to protect them from the elements. And people need other ways to make a living. Here’s how you can make tourism more sustainable for both the monarchs and their Mexican neighbors:

  1. Visit throughout the season, not just in February. The monarch butterfly season is short enough as it is. The monarchs arrive in early November and start departing by late February. The last of them usually leave by March 20th. Thanks to global warming, the monarchs take to the skies almost every day throughout the season. But because of the idea that only February offers “peak” butterfly viewing, the sanctuaries are packed for a few weeks of the year and almost empty the rest of the time.

    Carol and Jacqui of New Zealand stayed in Macheros an extra day and took a horseback ride with local guides.
  2. Tip generously. Some nations take care of their natural wonders by charging high entry fees for their preserves and reinvesting the profits in community development. That is not the case in Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Sanctuaries. I’m not necessarily saying that it should be: higher fees might make for more graft rather than more monarch conservation. But you should be aware that nationals and foreigners are charged equally to enter the sanctuaries, and few Mexicans can afford to pay more. You can compensate for low daily wages by tipping your guides and horse handlers decently. As of this writing, 20 MXN is insulting. 200 MXN is good. Tip more than that, and you will be fondly remembered for a long time.

  3. Consider traveling independently. Some tour groups up-charge you and then nickel and dime local businesses. See these sample itineraries to get an idea of how much it would cost to organize your own trip. Mexico is a friendly and manageable place to visit even for those who don’t speak Spanish. Don’t just drop in on a day trip organized out of a faraway city. Make more of a difference by coming to spend a night or two and learn about daily life and local culture in a Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve community.

  4. If you do opt for an organized tour, be a critical consumer. Look at how much time you will spend in butterfly sanctuary communities versus how many activities are planned for farther afield cities like Mexico City, Toluca, or Morelia. Which sanctuaries will you visit and how many? Many tours avoid Cerro Pelon because guides and horse handlers charge higher rates for their services. But the trail is longer, and workers only get one trip per day rather than the multiple journeys possible in the more compact El Rosario and Sierra Chincua sanctuaries.

    For tours that brand themselves as “ecotourism,” ask what local projects they’re supporting. For example, if your fees are said to fund reforestation projects, who owns the tree nurseries? Who is paid to plant the trees? And most importantly, how many of these seedlings survive one or two years after planting?

    Last February, Brenda Sattler Dziedzic’s group purchased supplemental horse-feed to give away to all of the horses that take tourists into the Cerro Pelon sanctuary. Their owners received a new pair of hiking boots.

    If you do prefer to travel in a group, there are several small-scale and grassroots organizations working to support forest conservation efforts through their tours, including trips organized by butterfly expert Brenda Sattler Dziedzic, Idlewild Butterfly Farm, and the International Butterfly Breeders Association.

  5. Visit butterfly sanctuary communities in the off-season. I love sharing the beauty of the forest bursting with life, the tumble of boulders slathered with furry mosses, the six varieties of ferns adorning the trunk of a towering oak. Help us keep these beloved elders in the ground during the time of year when our neighbors start getting desperate for money.

    Hiking companion Panda on Cerro de la Silla, a 5 minute walk from the B&B.

    Enjoy verdant green vistas, mushroom foraging and endless hiking trails. Appreciate endemic bird species such as Red Warblers, Mountain Trogons and Bumblebee Hummingbirds. If you know a lot about birds, mushrooms or wildflowers, volunteer to teach locals how to lead nature tours that could be offered throughout the year and not just during the short butterfly season.

The endemic Red Warbler. Photo by Patrick Gaines.

While we employ several people year-round in maintenance and construction, we could employ even more if we could attract a year-round trade in visitors to our village. If you care about the well-being of the monarch migration, consider planning an off-season retreat: writing, yoga, meditation, plein aire painting, a food tour… Put together your own hand-picked group for a workshop topic close to your heart and let us know how we can support you in your efforts.

The eco in ecotourism is meant to stand for both economy and ecology. The idea is that tourism benefits the local economy so that locals refrain from exploiting the local ecology in unsustainable ways. You can help us make ecotourism real by promoting and engaging in tourism in Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve communities throughout the year and not just in the short month of February.

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