Mountain of Butterflies

Mexico's Monarch Butterlies

They arrive a few at a time, bright familiar butterflies alighting in the upper branches of a fir grove.  As the threat of winter chills the north, the sky over mountainous central Mexico fills with tiny flecks of buoyant color.  Tens of millions of butterflies descend from on high, completely draping the trees in an astonishing tapestry of black and orange.  As the sun warms the late morning air the monarchs begin to flutter about—countless shimmering wings dancing in the sunlight and shadows of their forest retreat.  It is one of nature’s most colorful and photogenic pageants.

The butterflies have migrated from eastern North America to tiny patches of oyamel fir forest high in the Transvolcanic Range in the state of Michoacan. Traveling from as far away as Canada, for some a 3,000-mile odyssey, these delicate creatures instinctively Iocate their ancestral wintering sites. Because of their relatively short lifespan, each butterfly will make the arduous journey to these rugged Mexican mountains only once.

Monarch butterflies Michoacan MexicoIn recent times, the monarch’s wintering habitat has been under tremendous pressure from logging and agriculture, and the winter massing of the monarchs is considered an endangered phenomenon. In 2008, UNESCO designated nearly 140,000 acres in the area as the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. Here, ecotourism has benefited the local farmers on whose land the butterflies congregate, providing the farmers with a vested interest in protecting the forests from logging.

We photograph the monarchs in three different sanctuaries that have been set aside to protect the overwintering butterflies. Visiting the colonies at different times of the day allows us the opportunity to photograph a variety of butterfly activity in changing light. While photographing the butterflies is our main focus, we also take time to explore charming local villages and capture landscape images of the mountainous terrain. Each night we stay in comfortable local lodging a relatively short distance from the sanctuaries.

Join us as we follow the sun-dappled trails leading high into the mountains where, each winter, the forests erupt with dazzling color and spectacle. The world’s greatest butterfly display, one of the most beautiful mysteries of nature, awaits our adventurous group of photographers among the high mountains of Mexico.

Tour Itinerary

Day 1 (Jan 13)
Fly from home to Mexico City and transfer by taxi to our hotel in the Santa Fe district.  We meet in the hotel lobby at 7 PM for an orientation and dinner. (D)
Monarch butterflies gathering in Michoacan MexicoDay 2
Early this morning we depart for our first butterfly colony, the Piedra Herrada Sanctuary, and our first experience photographing this remarkable spectacle.  Depending on the location of the colony, a hike of approximately two miles—partly done on horseback—brings us up the mountain trail to the butterflies. In the warm rays of late morning sunshine, the monarchs begin to stir.  Periodically, they seem to explode from the trees into blizzards of colorful stained glass, or a million autumn leaves wafting on the air currents, never falling to earth.  At times their collective flight can sound like a gentle autumn rain. Following our shoot, we hike down the mountain with hundreds of images and unforgettable memories.  Around dusk, we arrive at our lodging for the night in the Spanish colonial town of Valle de Bravo. (BLD)
Day 3
We have a day to photograph in Valle de Bravo where vibrant street scenes unfold, and the crafts and foods displayed at the local market provide a photogenic palette of color and pattern.  Later in the afternoon we drive to our comfortable hotel in the resort town of Agua Blanca where we settle into our hotel, swim and enjoy the local cuisine at dinner.  This evening we hope to call in a pygmy-owl and, perhaps, encounter some of the area’s nocturnal wildlife. (BLD)
Days 4-5
Over these two days we visit two of the world’s largest overwintering clusters of migratory monarchs, Rosario and Sierra Chincua Butterfly Sanctuaries.  Here, the population is, at minimum, 20 million butterflies—with estimates as high as 50 million. Our daily routine is to depart our hotel by van and drive to the base of the trail, where, depending on the location of the colony, we travel by horseback or hike up a winding path for about a mile or two into to the heart of the butterfly colony. We return to our hotel in Agua Blanca each night. (BLD)
Fir forest in MichoacanDay 6
We depart for Mexico City. This afternoon we have time to visit the National Museum of Anthropology and Chapultepec Park, one of the world’s great urban parks. (BLD)
Day 7 (Jan 19)
Depart for home at any time today. (B)
Note: The monarch butterfly overwintering sites are located at elevations between 9,000 and 11,000 feet. Persons enrolling in this tour should be aware that hiking of up to three hours round-trip (approximately one mile each way) may be required to reach the butterfly sites, depending on seasonal formation of the colonies. Some of the hiking is uphill and, at that altitude, can be strenuous.  Persons with heart, respiratory or weight conditions should consult their doctor before enrolling. We travel by horseback on the uphill hike for a portion of the way.  Due to the small stature of these horses, 260 pounds is the maximum weight they are capable of carrying.  Porters will be available for you to hire to carry camera gear.
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Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris Enrollment Information

Mountain of Butterflies

Jan 13, 2019 - Jan 19, 2019

A deposit and completed and signed Registration Form are required to reserve a place for you on a Joseph Van Os Photo Safari.


All prices are quoted in US dollars and all payments must be paid in US dollars. For deposits only, we accept Visa, MasterCard or American Express. Final payment of the trip fee is due 120 days priors to departure and must be paid by check or bank transfer. Trip deposits are non-refundable and non-transferable.

We must receive written notice of your cancellation, at which time cancellation fees in the following amounts apply:

If Written Cancellation is Received:
90 days or prior:
89 to 61 days prior:
60 or fewer days:
Cancellation Fee:
100% of deposit
50% of trip fee
100% of trip fee

No partial refunds are made for unused portions or services of a trip for any reason whatsoever. Trips are sold as a package only. This policy also applies to tour extensions and independent travel arrangements. Cancellation fees are not transferable.

Protect your travel investment and purchase a trip insurance policy that includes emergency evacuation coverage. A trip insurance brochure will be sent with your enrollment confirmation.

Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris are within the capabilities of average people in good health. Some of these trips require the capability of walking for several miles over uneven trails, stepping from a small boat to a wave-washed rocky beach, flying in small planes and helicopters, and occasionally hiking at high elevations—all while carrying an assortment of camera equipment. If you have concerns about your own capabilities and/or fitness as it relates to a trip, please inquire with our office before reserving a space. By forwarding a signed Registration Form and trip deposit, you certify that you do not knowingly have any physical or other conditions of disability that would create a risk for you or other trip participants and you agree to inform our office in writing if changes in your health occur any time prior to the tour. We reserve the right to request a doctor's statement of good health. The company's or trip leader's judgment shall provide the ultimate determination of an individual's ability to embark upon or to continue a trip. Once a trip has been confirmed, medical circumstances will not be considered as exceptions to our cancellation policy. We assume no responsibility for medical care or for special dietary requirements. “Meatless” meals are normally available at most locations. Due to the remote nature of many photo locations, and the growing diversity of today’s dietary trends, participants requiring special food items are encouraged to bring their own.

Tour members are asked to refrain from smoking with or near the group.

Participants will receive three emails before the trip departs: 1. Initial Tour Information sheet confirms the deposit and provides pre-departure information. 2. Invoice/Practical Information provides clothing and photo gear recommendations, climate data, applicable health advisories and reading list. Visa information will also be included (if applicable). 3. Final Tour Information includes arrival instructions, itinerary revisions (if any), hotel addresses, trip telephone contact information and participant list. We provide the trip leader's telephone number(s) and/or e-mail address with final documents so you can inquire about special photographic questions you may have regarding your trip. We welcome your calls or e-mail messages to

Information supplied upon enrollment describes the specific costs that are included in your trip fee. Generally these costs include lodging in double room occupancy, all meals (specified in the itinerary as BLD denoting breakfast, lunch or dinner), ground transportation during the trip in vans or small busses, air transportation as specified, meal and baggage tipping, and guide services provided by the trip leaders. Not included are airfare or other transportation from your home to the trip staging location, airport departure taxes, insurance, alcoholic beverages and bar expenses (plus bottled water and soft drink expenses on international tours outside of North America), tips and gratuities to local guides abroad, phone calls, passport or visa expenses, laundry or items of a personal nature. Gratuities to Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris trip leaders are optional and always appreciated. Rates are based on group tariffs; if the trip does not have sufficient registration, a small party supplement may be charged.

Single accommodations are available for a supplemental cost in many locations; see the pre-departure trip information or call our office for details. You will be charged the single supplement fee if you desire single accommodations or if you wish to have a roommate, but one is not available. In some remote locations, clients with single rooms are infrequently compelled to share a room due to circumstances beyond our control. In such cases, appropriate per diem refunds will be made reflecting the direct cost of the single room at the facility where clients are required to share. There is no additional single supplement fee on ship-based cruises, if you request a roommate and one is not available.

Cost increases may occur unexpectedly due to rising costs of airfares, ground transport, fuel surcharges, accommodations and currency fluctuations, among others. Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc. may be compelled to amend prices, and we reserve the right to do so without prior notice. An increase in trip prices shall not be sufficient grounds for any refund of funds paid for the trip other than as determined by the terms of our cancellation policy.

Whenever possible, our trip participants are lodged in comfortable, modern hotels. We select among the best available accommodations, but refrain from extravagance. Some interesting photographic destinations are far removed from modern amenities, however, and where necessary we will be accommodated in rustic country inns, cabins or tented camps.

Meals are always a special part of our trips for the camaraderie they engender and the opportunity they provide to try new foods from different areas. Depending on the trip and specific locale, participants order restaurant meals from the full menu or, less frequently, table d'hôte. Some trips include picnic lunches in the field. Fruit juice for breakfast and coffee or tea are included with the meals. Soft drinks are included with meals on tours within North America. Participants are responsible for their own bar tab (including bottled water, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages on tours outside of North America) at restaurant lunches and dinners.

Our itineraries are intended as examples only. Participants should allow for flexibility due to changes in weather, natural history or cultural events, or other logistical arrangements deemed necessary by Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc. or our leaders.

The second tour leader (and any subsequent additional leaders) listed for each trip on the website will be added as the group size warrants. If only one space remains on a trip, and logistics permit, we accept two persons traveling together, even if it exceeds the trip maximum.

Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc. and/or their Agents act only as agents for the passenger in regard to travel including, but not limited to, sightseeing, meals, lodging, transportation, and all other services whether by railroad, motorcar, motor coach, boat, ship or aircraft and they assume no liability for injury, damage, loss, accident, delay or irregularity which may be occasioned either by reason of defect in any vehicle or for any reason whatsoever, or through the acts or default of any company or person engaged in conveying the passenger or in carrying out the arrangements of the trip.

They can accept no responsibility for losses or additional expenses due to delay or changes in air or other services, sickness, weather, strike, war, volcanic eruption, terrorist acts, political unrest, quarantine or other causes. All such losses or expenses will have to be borne by the passenger, as trip fees provide for arrangements only for the times and locations stated. Baggage is at the owner's risk entirely.

The right is reserved to 1) substitute hotels of similar category for those indicated and to make any changes in the itinerary or transport where deemed necessary, or caused by changes in air schedules or equipment substitution; 2) cancel any trip prior to departure, in which case full refund of the paid trip funds will be given, but Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc. is not responsible for any other trip preparation expenses such as penalized or non-refundable air tickets, visa fees and medical related expenses; 3) substitute trip leader(s) for the leader(s) originally specified, in which case the substitution is not a basis for participant cancellation or refund other than provided by our normal cancellation policy; or 4) accept or retain any person as a member of any trip.

Trip prices are based on tariffs and exchange rates in effect at the time of publication and are subject to adjustment in the event of any change therein.

A Registration Form including the Release and Assumption of Risk section must be signed by each participant prior to the commencement of the trip. Participation by any trip member will be declined in the absence of the signed Registration Form including the Release and Assumption of Risk section, with no trip fee refund. No modification to the Registration Form including the Release and Assumption of Risk section will be accepted.

Should Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc., or anyone acting on their behalf be required to incur attorney's fees and costs to enforce this agreement, the enrolling trip participant(s) agree(s) to indemnify and hold them harmless for all such fees and costs. In the event a lawsuit is filed, the enrolling participant(s) agree(s) to do so solely in the County of Lewis in the State of Washington. Certain ship owners require the use of pre-printed ticket forms that limit the ship owner's and operator's liability. When such tickets are used, the passenger is bound by the terms of these tickets with respect to the passenger's legal relationship to the owners and operators of the ship, their agents (Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc.), and the ship's crew.

Mountain of Butterflies
  • Photograph the incomparable natural phenomenon of millions of migrating monarch butterflies 
  • Massive clusters of orange and black wings blanket tree trunks—and rise in the air to fill the blue sky
  • Visit three monarch colonies in the remote high-altitude oyamel fir forests of Michoacan
  • Explore colonial towns, fascinating cultures and dramatic volcanic landscapes
Jan 13 - Jan 19, 2019
Fee: $3,795 from Mexico City, Mexico
Deposit: $800
Limit: 12
Tour Leaders
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