From November to March each year, you can be witness to one of the most spectacular natural phenomena in the forested mountains west of Mexico City: Monarch butterflies over-wintering in Mexico.
The very special Methuselah generations of butterflies migrate each year, leaving the colder northern climes of the U.S. and Canada to take winter refuge and breed in Mexico.
These migrating Monarch butterflies travel in colonies of about 20 million insects and will travel between 80-120 nautical miles per day, depending on the wind and other weather conditions. The butterflies take advantage of ascending warm-air currents, gliding in the thrust they provide, needing only to flap their wings when the air current diminishes a little or when they change their flight path. This technique uses their energy efficiently, and physically enables them to undertake the long journey.
The butterflies usually start arriving in early November, and between mid-late November and the end March, it’s possible to visit one of the sanctuaries open to visitors and witness these remarkable insects in their natural habitat.
The Monarch Butterflies settle in the Oyamel fir tree forests which are situated west of Mexico City; along the eastern perimeter of the Mexican state of Michoacán, also bordering the State of Mexico. Once here, the butterflies cluster on the tree trunks and remain in the region for the winter.
As the sun heats the day, some of the butterflies will flutter in the forests and return to the tree trunks when the air cools in the evening.
Peak viewing season is between mid-January and the end of March. Before the mid-January, the air temperature on the mountain is colder and the butterflies don’t flutter as much.
The Mexican government has set up a number of protected sanctuaries within a biosphere reserve to ensure that the important habitats required by the Monarch Butterflies are protected and preserved, while still allowing visitors to witness these remarkable insects amidst some of Mexico’s most breath-taking landscapes.
You can learn more about these butterflies, their migration, their breeding cycle, and their journey back north on our detailed travel guide to Monarch Butterflies in Mexico. Watch the PBS video below for a glimpse of this extraordinary experience.
Make your next travel experience in Mexico something special
Our travel consultants create custom tours that enable you to get the most from a visit to the Monarch Butterfly sanctuaries in Mexico. Contact Mexperience to arrange your tour: Plan Your Mexico Trip
The Cold Comes in Snaps and Waves
Cold weather in the temperate areas of central Mexico comes and goes throughout the winter months in a series of “numbered fronts” that bring icy gusts which may also cause early frosts for a few days at a time. Then it warms up for a while before the next numbered front makes its way down from the US—Mexico’s principal trading partner and supplier of cold fronts.
One practical result of this polar disorder is that the interior climates in Mexican homes are usually a day behind the frequently-changing outdoor weather; remaining warm when it’s actually near freezing out, and vice-versa.
It’s therefore not surprising occasionally to see people dressed for the North Pole on relatively mild days, or shivering in shirtsleeves on cold days.
The timing of the cold fronts is uncertain, but there’s almost always one in the week of November 20, which apart from being the anniversary of the start of the 1910-1917 Revolution, is when the tree-farms on the hilly fringes of Mexico City usually start selling Christmas trees that you can cut down yourself.
Evidence that it can get quite cold in the central highlands is to be found in supermarkets, which each year set out an array of portable electric heaters at the front of the store, clearly visible as you step-in from the chill. And early risers in the capital know how fridge-like the first Metro trains out of the shed can be on those nippy mornings, so it’s not unusual to see some particularly assertive commuter walking through the carriage slamming the windows shut—although this habit is less-frequent now as people prize fresh-air above warmth during the flu season.
Cold spells across Mexico’s central highlands can be felt anytime from late autumn through to early spring, although by mid-to-late February temperatures usually begin to rise appreciably, creating some windy days in March, as spring returns bringing back the warm days, and more light during the evening hours following the clocks change.
Kings’ Day Gifts and Kings’ Loaf Traditions in Mexico
Never a country to shirk its festive responsibilities, Mexico traditionally closes out its Christmas and New Year celebrations on January 6th, Día de Reyes or Three Kings Day.
Also known as Epiphany, the date marks the visit of the Magi to the Christ child: they are traditionally considered to have numbered three wise men, corresponding to the three gifts mentioned in the Bible.
For many years, Three Kings Day was the date when gifts would be given to Mexican children, who would put shoes out before going to bed on the evening of January 5th. Although this was gradually and inexorably taken over by the imported tradition of Santa Claus, families here maintain the tradition of giving children toys on Three Kings Day. Rather than the main course, this is for many a complement to the excesses of modern-day Christmas; “Por no dejar” —for the sake of keeping it— as some may say.
The continuation of Three Kings Day celebration is notable in the commercial world — toy prices in Mexican stores aren’t discounted to unload leftover inventory until around the second week of January, and the days leading up to January 5th can often see shoppers out late at stores and markets desperately seeking to fill last-minute orders.
The extravagant meals taken at Christmas and New Year are not repeated on Día de Reyes, but instead Rosca de Reyes (“Kings’ Loaf”) is eaten, usually with hot chocolate. The large oval-shaped cakes — sweet bread topped with crystallized fruit and sugar — are interspersed with little plastic dolls representing the baby Jesus. Whoever gets a doll in their slice, and you have to cut your own to avoid feelings of being cheated, is supposed to buy the tamales on February 2nd — Día de la Candelaria: a Catholic tradition celebrating the presentation of Jesus in the temple.
How many of the people who get the slices with dolls actually end up buying the tamales themselves is an open question. But you probably don’t want to gather for Rosca with people who insist on further slicing each slice horizontally to inspect for dolls: not the spirit you’d want to start out the year with.
There are other ways in which Día de Reyes marks the end of the long holiday season, sometimes referred to as Guadalupe-Reyes to describe the slow month between Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th and the grade schools going back for the new term around January 7th.
It’s also the time to start taking down Christmas trees, festive lights, and other seasonal decorations. But there’s no rush.
Candelaria on February 2nd isn’t a holiday in the sense of having the day off work, but it does come a few days before the Constitution Day holiday, which is celebrated on the first Monday in February. That is also an official holiday, and for U.S. sports fans it has the added advantage of usually being the day after Super Bowl Sunday.
So tamales and American football. It doesn’t get much more convenient, or neighborly, than that.
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Elevation: Why 7,000 Feet Can’t Deliver a Free Lunch
Mexico is a mountainous country, and many of its towns and cities away from the coasts are situated at elevations of least 5,000 feet above sea-level.
If you plan to live in Mexico, or visit here on a self-catering or camping vacation, a consideration to take into account is that the elevation (the land’s height relative to sea level) has an effect on food preparation, because water situated at higher elevation boils at lower temperatures.
The science is quite simple. The atmosphere surrounding Earth creates pressure against all objects within it. Barometric pressure at sea level equates to a little less than thirty inches of mercury, or 14.69 pounds per square inch. At this pressure level, water boils at 100 degrees Centigrade, 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
However, the density of the air becomes thinner at higher altitudes (which is why it’s harder to breathe at higher elevation) and the pressure continues to drop constantly until you reach space, where there is no air, no density, and no pressure.
Water thus boils at a lower temperature because the pressure on the water molecules is lower at higher altitudes, requiring less energy for the molecule bonding threshold to be reached (the point at which molecules break away and coalesce into steam). And so, because less heat (energy) is required to break up the molecules, the water boils at a lower temperature.
Boiling water, cooking, and baking at high elevation
Water doesn’t always boil at 100C/212F: For example, at 5,000 feet above sea-level water will boil at 94.9C (202.9F); at 6,000 feet water boils at 93.8C (200.9F); and at 7,000 feet water boils 92.7C (198.9F). This online calculator works out the figures.
Tea and coffee: Some tea-drinking connoisseurs argue that coffee is a better beverage option when one is situated in high elevation, because tea requires a high water temperature to “steep” properly. That’s probably more a matter of personal taste than science, but as staying well-hydrated is important when you’re situated at higher elevations, it’s worth noting that tea quenches thirst whereas coffee aggravates it.
Baking at high elevation in Mexico: If you’re accustomed to baking cakes and pastries in places situated at lower elevations, you’ll discover that the proportions of ingredients and the timings needed to complete the bake will need to be adjusted. This article shares some useful tips about baking at higher elevations.
General cooking: In terms of everyday cooking, you won’t experience an energy gain, i.e. use less fuel, to cook your meal because although the water reaches boiling point sooner, you need to leave your food cooking for longer. An example is preparing a hard-boiled egg. If it takes five minutes to hard-boil an egg at sea-level it will take proportionally longer at higher elevations; so any gain realized through lower boiling points is lost in the longer while it takes for the heat-energy transfer to take place.
This is another way of demonstrating that there really is no such thing as a “free lunch”—not even in high places.
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