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The Guardian's Simon Burnton follows in the footsteps of Prince Charles in discovering Michoacán, Mexico - and its other monarchs.

The state border between Mexico and Michoacan lies just a couple of hours’ drive from Mexico City, but is like a gateway to another world.

Where the country’s capital is a sprawling mass of hectic humanity, a step away across the state border life could barely be more different. Michoacán, an Aztec word meaning 'place of the masters of fish', is a peaceful mix of scenic lakes, sweeping mountains and unspoilt colonial towns. The most commonly visited of the lakes is the beautiful Lago de Pátzcuaro, in the historical heart of the state. Each year on the first day of November, thousands of largely Mexican visitors descend on the area for the two-day Day of the Dead celebrations. For the rest of the year visitors are less numerous.

From the shore of the lake, I took a boat to Isla Janitzio. The island itself is unspectacular, but the rather strenuous walk to its peak is well rewarded. At the top there is a statue of José Mariá Morelos y Pavón, a local independence hero, and you can climb up into his raised fist for the best views of the surrounding area.

The town of Pátzcuaro is reckoned to be one of the most picturesque in Mexico, and it certainly passed my exacting standards. It has not one but two beautiful squares and the state’s only basilica. Its streets, lined with old mansions barely touched since their 16th century colonial heyday, make the perfect place to stroll for hours. The town is small and lacking perhaps in happening night-spots for the young folk, but a dinner of tortillas bought from street vendors, followed by a couple of restful beers on the Plaza Vasco de Quiroga made for a splendid evening as far as I was concerned. Here, there is no need to feel hurried.

Like much of Mexico, Michoacán is a mountainous area, and it is the inhabitors of a few isolated peaks which draw the largest number of tourists into the area - even our very own Prince Charles once paid them a visit. They are monarch butterflies, a natural phenomenon to rank with any in this extraordinary country. Even Morelia, the state capital and UNESCO World Heritage Site for its wonderful colonial architecture, is butterfly-mad: taxis are painted with them, adverts feature them and the football team, the Monarcas, was renamed in their honour in 1997.

Each year the monarchs of Canada and much of North America, creatures with a wingspan of some six inches, fly up to 3,500 miles to winter here with 250 million or so of their friends. No one knows why they come here. Indeed, it took until 1974 for the outside world to discover them at all. But between November, when they start arriving, and March, when they head back north, they are a truly astonishing sight. Flaming orange wings fill the skies and shroud the trees, sometimes so thickly that whole branches snap off.

Butterfly hunters usually stay in the small towns of Zitácuaro or Angangueo, near the main butterfly sanctuary of El Rosario. The butterflies rest each night on the mountain-tops before sweeping down into the valleys as the day warms to find nourishment. The best time to catch them is early, when they are at their most dense. The sanctuary opens at 9am and your 15 peso entrance fee will give you the services of a personal guide.

The walk up to the top of the mountain is not long, but is not easy either. El Rosario stands some 3,200m above sea level, with the final climb equivalent to walking up 38 floors. If you take your time it will not be a problem, but once you reach the peak you may not know whether it was the altitude that took your breath away, or the butterflies.

Probably both.

Last updated: 15 Jun 2017

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