Any visit to Mexico bears a promise of turquoise waters, stunning beaches, all-inclusive resorts, and awe inspiring Mayan ruins. But it’s Mexico’s biodiversity and ecosystem that draws millions of monarchs, thousands of sea turtles, the world’s largest congregation of whale sharks–and makes for an unforgettable adventure.

Here are some of the enthralling wildlife experiences in Mexico that’ll inspire the ecophile in you.

Migration of the Monarch butterflies

In one of the most fascinating natural phenomenons, autumn marks the arrival of as many as 60 million to one billion Monarch butterflies from Canada and United States to the forests of Mexico. The spectacle is almost spiritual and a big draw for nature lovers. The Monarch butterflies spend their winter hibernation clustered in forests of pine trees and fir in the Reserva de la Biosfera Mariposa Monarca (Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve), a 200-square-miles national protected area and nature preserve about 60 miles northwest of Mexico City.

Where to go: A World Heritage Site, the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is sectioned off into separate areas, several of which are open to the public from November through March.  The most common access points for visitors to the reserve include the butterfly sanctuaries at El Rosario, Sierra Chincua, Cerro Pellon and Piedra Herrada.

When to go: The butterflies are most active during the mating season in February and March, making it one of the best times of the year to visit the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.

Monarch-butterflies-pacific-grove-By Agunther - CC BY 3.0 via commons - 1024 x 683

Cluster of Monarch butterflies Photo by Agunther – CC BY 3.0 via commons

Swimming with Whale Sharks

In the open waters just off the Yucatan Peninsula’s coast, docile whale sharks gather every summer for feeding. Averaging 40 feet long and weighing 15 tons, these gentle giants are not whales at all, but actually the world’s largest fish. Boat tours can take you close enough to swim, snorkel and dive with these jaw-dropping creatures.

Where to go: The fishing community of Holbox Island off the northern coast of the Yucutan Peninsula has transformed from a shark-fishing village to a premier whale shark-watching destination.

A 25-minute boat ride from the mainland over a shallow lagoon, this little island at just 26 miles long, is the opposite of resort town Cancun, just 60 miles to the south.

When to go: Tours depart daily from June to September, with July to August as peak season.

Whale Sharks in Isla Mujeres-Photo by Brian Lauer-CC2.0 via Flickr

Whale Sharks in Isla Mujeres-Photo by Brian Lauer-CC2.0 via Flickr

Baby Sea Turtles Hatching

There are seven species of Sea Turtles, and six of these arrive to lay eggs each year on beaches across Mexico. A sea turtle’s nest may contain up to 200 eggs, which will incubate for about 50 days before the eggs hatch and baby turtles are born. You can participate in the magical experience of watching tiny hatchlings emerge from their shells and make a journey across the bumpy beach and into the sea.

Fun fact – Sea turtle females return to the precise location where they themselves were born to lay their own eggs.

Where to go: Sea Turtle hotspots include on the Pacific Coast stretch of Baja California Sur coastline and the Yucatan Peninsula including-

Pacific Coast

  • Puerto Vallarta
  • Manzanillo
  • Oaxaca

Baja California Sur

  • San Jose del Cabo
  • Cabo San Lucas

Yucatan Peninsula

  • Rio Lagartos
  • Akumal Bay
  • Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.

Mexico runs a number of key conservancy projects, to protect Sea Turtles – an endangered species world-wide – from natural predators and human poaching. Volunteer groups and local police work toward protecting nesting areas. Lucky travelers will have the rare opportunity to observe the arribada – what the locals call the mass nesting of turtles.

Sea Turtles-By Dawn Childs, USGS- CC via Flickr - 1024 x 591

Sea Turtles- Photo by Dawn Childs, USGS- CC 2.0 via Flickr

Walking with Flamingos

If it’s quiet time away from Cancun’s crowded beaches you seek, head for some bird watching featuring the fabulous American flamingos over turquoise waters. Wintering in Mexico, these vibrant crimson and pink creatures with impossibly long legs and neck, can be found along the northern coastline of the Gulf of Mexico.

Where to go: The Celestun Biosphere is a protected reserve spanning 146,000 acres and home to mangrove forests, crocodiles and brimming with more than 300 bird species.

At the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula and 140 miles northeast of Celestún, Parque Natural Ría Lagartos, is a 123,500-acre refuge for North America’s largest nesting flamingo population. It also hosts 300 other species of birds,

Both the biospheres are near villages where the local fishermen are also licensed guides who can take you into the estuaries.

When to go: The best time to visit is April through July, but non-breeding flamingos stay year round.

Mexico Holbox- Wild Flamingos-By Raq_escobar-CC 2.0 viia Flickr - 1024 x 614

Wild Flamingos at Isla Holbox- Photo by Raq_escobar-CC 2.0 viia Flickr

Whale Watching

Each autumn, migration from the frigid waters of the Arctic brings hundreds of whales to the warm, calm waters surrounding the Baja Peninsula. From December to March, you can savor this spectacle at Los Cabos, where ideal climate, shallow waters, and abundant marine life make the bays and lagoons the perfect place for whales to birth and rear their young.

Of the 11 species of whales found worldwide, eight venture into the waters off Los Cabos, including minke, bryde, fin, sei, humpback, gray and blue. This six-month long, 12,000-mile migration is the longest trip made by any animal in the world.

Where to go: There are several ways to observe these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat. Local tour companies offer whale-watching trips on boats. Magdalena Bay Whale Sanctuary and San Ignacio Lagoon are among the hotspots for sightings.

When to go: The whales make their way south by late December, staying until late March when they repeat their journey northward.

Mexico-Whale watching Baja California Sur-By ryan harvey CC 2.0 via Flickr - 1024 x 683

Whale watching Baja California Sur-Photo by ryan harvey CC 2.0 via Flickr