Mountain of Butterflies

Mexico’s Monarch Butterflies

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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.

In 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 (Feb 25)
Fly from home to Mexico City and transfer by taxi to our hotel. We meet in the hotel lobby at for an orientation and dinner. (D)

Day 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)

Day 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 (Mar 2)
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 to three mileseach 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

Feb 25, 2024 - Mar 02, 2024

A deposit and completed and signed Registration Form are required to reserve a place 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 we accept Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Final payment of the trip fee is due 120 days prior to departure and may be paid by check or bank transfer. If you wish to make your final payment with a credit card a 3% convenience fee will be charged.

We must receive written notice of your cancellation. Based on the cancellation date the following apply:

Trip deposits are non-refundable.
150-91 days before the trip start date: We will refund any payments made exceeding 50% of the total trip cost.
90-61 days before the trip start date: We will refund any payments made exceeding 75% of the total trip cost.
Within 60 days of the start of the trip: No refund.

If, on the trip start date, your space has been resold and the tour is full—as designated by “Limit” number of travelers on the tour website page—we will refund your payment, minus the non-refundable trip deposit and any discounts given to resell your space.

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

We strongly encourage you to protect your travel investment and purchase a comprehensive travel insurance policy that includes emergency evacuation coverage. We can provide travel insurance options, or it can be purchased online. A CANCEL FOR ANY REASON policy is available. Trip participants without travel protection insurance are considered “self-insured.” Without insurance you assume all risks and losses for any conditions requiring your cancellation.

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, including viral illnesses, 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. 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, and applicable health advisories. 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 email address with final documents so you can inquire about special photographic questions you may have regarding your trip. We welcome your calls or email messages to

Information supplied upon enrollment describes the specific details that are included in your trip fee. Generally, these 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, internal tour 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, 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.

Most of our trips are priced in double occupancy (shared) accommodations. Single accommodation is 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 accommodation 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 is 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, as well as 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 people 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 (trip participant) in regard to travel including, but not limited to, sightseeing, meals, lodging, transportation, and all other services whether by railroad, motor coach, automobile, van, boat, ship or aircraft or any other conveyance, and they assume no liability for injury, damage, loss, accident, delay or irregularity which may be occasioned for any reason whatsoever, or through the acts, bankruptcy 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, cancellations or changes in flights or other tour services, and by force majeure including sickness, weather, strike, war, volcanic eruption, terrorist acts, political unrest, quarantine, epidemics, pandemics and outbreaks, 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 flight schedules or equipment substitution; 2) cancel any trip prior to departure due to low enrollment, 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, travel insurance premiums and medical related expenses; 3) At the company’s sole discretion, suspend or postpone any trip due to force majeure or disease outbreak in which case the trip may be rescheduled, or a refund issued less any non-refundable deposits paid to tour component providers on behalf of the passenger, or a travel credit 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; 4) 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 5) 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 signed Registration Form with the Enrollment Conditions and Release and Assumption of Risk sections must be returned 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.

I have read, understand, and agree to the terms, conditions, and provisions of the enrollment information, as stated on the Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris website and the Enrollment Conditions section of this form, especially noting the policy on cancellations, refunds, and limitations on responsibility.

I am aware that during any trip or tour that I am voluntarily participating in under the arrangements of Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc., a Washington corporation, and its employees, agents and associates, certain risks and dangers exist while traveling in the United States, foreign countries, and wilderness areas in any country or territory that include the possibility of property damage, bodily injury, and death. There is a possibility of accident or illness occurring without access to immediate or timely medical treatment or facilities. There is a risk of tropical or communicable diseases that may require quarantine and removal from the tour at my expense, food-related illnesses, the risk of personal injury and property damage or delay or inconvenience by forces of nature, wildlife or wildlife models, quarantine, political instability, acts of terrorism, strikes, government restrictions or regulations change, thefts, and the risk of accidents during travel while on foot or by aircraft, train, automobile, van, bus, boat, ship, or other conveyance. I understand that such risks cannot be eliminated without jeopardizing the essential qualities of this trip or tour. In consideration of, and as part payment for the right to participate in such trips, tours and/or other activities and services arranged for me by Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc., its employees, agents and associates, I have and do hereby assume all risks, and hereby release Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc., its employees, shareholders, agents and associates, and will hold them harmless from any and all liability, actions, causes of actions, debts, claims, and demands of every kind and nature, howsoever caused, which I now have or which may arise of or in connection with any of my trips or tours and participation in any activities arranged for me by Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc., its employees, agents and associates.

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, I agree to indemnify them and hold them harmless for all such fees and costs. In the event a lawsuit is filed, I agree to do so solely in the County of Lewis in the State of Washington and further agree that the substantive law of that state shall apply in that action without regard to the conflict-of-law rules of that state. The terms hereof shall serve as a release and assumption of all risk for myself, my heirs, executors, and administrators, and for all members of my family.

If any part, article, paragraph, sentence, or clause of this Agreement is not enforceable, the affected provision shall be curtailed and limited only to the extent necessary to bring it within the requirements of the law, and the remainder of the Agreement shall continue in full force and effect.

I acknowledge that if anyone is hurt or property is damaged during my participation in this activity, I may be found by a court of law to have waived my right to maintain a lawsuit against Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc., its employees, shareholders, agents, and associates, based on any and all claims from which I have released them.

Mountain of Butterflies: Strenuous Activity Level

On this tour participants hike and ride horses on portions of some trails at elevations up to 10,500 feet on steep and uneven terrain. The distance of each day's activity will depend on the formation of the butterfly colony clusters from day to day. These hiking/horseback distances can vary from one to three miles each way depending on the location visited. Due to the small stature of the local breed of horses, the maximum weight they carry is 260 pounds. Usual local mountain weather consists of cold nights and pleasant daytime temperatures requiring a jacket in the morning. Dust and agricultural smoke combined with high elevation can make breathing uncomfortable for people with breathing problems. Due to the physical demands of this trip, travelers concerned about their physical capabilities are urged to consult with their physician regarding their fitness for accomplishing this itinerary before enrolling.
Trip Details
Feb 25 - Mar 02, 2024
Fee: 4,295 from Mexico City, Mexico
Deposit: $1,500
Limit: 12 participants
Activity Level: StrenuousStrenuous
  • 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
Tour Leaders
Melissa Scott

Melissa Scott