This post was updated October 2019
Just five miles off the Pacific ocean, near Puerto Vallarta and Punta Mita lies a group of uninhabited islands called las Islas Marietas or the Marieta Islands in English. Even if you aren’t familiar with the name of the islands themselves, you’ve probably seen photos of the crater like Hidden Beach or Playa del Amor, floating around on the internet. I had a chance to visit the islands as part of a trip to Puerto Vallarta and Sayulita. Even though the Hidden Beach was closed to the public the day I visited, I saw way more wildlife than I expected on my tour of the islands. Here’s how to successfully take an Islas Marietas tour while you are visiting Puerto Vallarta or Riviera Nayarit.
The History of las Islas Marietas
Just at the edge of the Bay of Banderas, las Islas Marietas are made up of two islands, Round Island and Long Island. Long before anyone visited for pleasure, fisherman fished the waters around the island and in the early 1900’s the Mexican army used the islands for target practice. It was actually the bombing that either revealed the Hidden Beach or could have created it.
In the 1960’s las Islas Marietas caught the eye of famed explorer and man of the sea, Jacque Cousteau. He stepped in and called for protection of the islands. Although many years went by, in 2005, the islands were declared a National Park. In 2008 they were added the list of UNESCO sites.
Today the islands are home to more than 44 species of plants and animals. Visiting las Islas Marietas gives you the opportunity to see marine life including sea turtles, manta rays, tropical fish, dolphins and whales. Bird watchers will be thrilled to spot birds from over 100 species. Including the blue footed booby. Because the booby and several other endangered species of birds live there, the islands have been described Mexico’s Galapagos Island.
The World vs las Islas Marietas
Enter social media and everyone wants to see the Hidden Beach. After observing the destruction that thousands of visitors was causing the islands and the coral reefs around the islands, the government closed them in 2016. They initiated a huge clean up that lasted several months and is still ongoing. However, they have reopened the area to licensed tour operators but with much more stricter and limited visitation policies.
As part of that policy, all the islands are closed on Mondays. They are open on Tuesdays but with limited access. This is the reason I was not able to explore Hidden Beach the Tuesday I went.
It is still possible to visit Hidden Beach on other days. It’s just more difficult. Only specific, licensed tour operators are allowed to go. The number of visitors per day is also restricted. Instead of thousands, I was told that only 120 people are allowed to go but I’ve seen lower numbers other places on the internet.
The restricted access also protects the islands because they are very susceptible to erosion due to the structure and the type of volcanic rock they were formed from.
The Best Time to Take an Islas Marietas Tour?
Tours run year round but the months of December to May are some of the best months. That’s because of the whales. During this time, humpbacks and gray whales come into the bay as part of their yearly migration and to give birth. And they are amazing!
Since we had a schedule and our tour was not a whale watching tour we couldn’t stop every time we saw one but there were a few times the captain changed course to let us get a better look.
There was hardly a time you looked around and didn’t see one breaching or a portion or splash of a whale. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any gray whales but we did see manta rays and turtles.
Getting to las Islas Marietas from Vallarta
There’s a couple of different options for taking a tour to las Islas Marietas, but the most common one is to leave from Puerto Vallarta.
When you book your tour, make sure you ask what’s included. Policies and rules change quickly. Looking at some tour operator websites, it’s not very clear what’s included.
If you booked online or at a tour desk through out the city, you will probably be asked to be arrive at the marina by 8 am to get everything you need and pay for your park fees. This fee goes to government department of SEMARNAT, which stands for Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources. This is your national park fee and it helps preserve the park. I can’t remember exactly what I paid, but it’s minimal and required if you are going.
Once you’ve paid, they will give you a bracelet that you are required to wear while on your tour. There is also a port fee of less than $2 that’s also not included in your tour ticket.
Breakfast and lunch were included in the price of the ticket my ticket. The breakfast was a continental breakfast which in Mexico usually consists of yogurt, fruit, toast and coffee. Arriving early also gives you time to get something more substantial if you want. There are a few open air counter service type restaurants where you can pick up something hardier. My breakfast of champions included a grilled cheese and a cold Pacifico. When in Mexico……
The Boat Ride on Your Islas Marietas Tour
The ride to the islands takes about an hour and half because the boat travels at a slow leisurely pace. Which is great. One, because even though the bay is usually smooth, you don’t have to worry much about getting seasick. Two, it gives you the chance to take in your surroundings. Which if you are lucky, might include other wildlife.
The crew will go over all the safety and life jacket information and tell you a little about the boat. The boat I was on had one deck with chairs. Some of the chairs were under an awning if you didn’t want to be in the sun. If you are wondering: yes, there is a bathroom on board.
The boat stopped in Nuevo Vallarta to pick up more passengers from the marina there. Then the official tour is begins. Our crew was bilingual, providing history and info about what we were seeing and giving fun facts about the birds, fish and the islands.
Since coral reefs are extremely sensitive to the chemicals found in sunscreen, they will also ask you to go ahead and apply your sunscreen if you are going to be using any. Doing so in advance gives the sunscreen plenty on time to absorb into your skin and not slide off into the water and eventually make it’s way to the coral reefs.
The Islands & Hidden Beach
Once you arrive at the islands, and the boat is anchored along side the islands, the crew brings out the kayaks, stand up paddle boards and snorkeling gear. While some people are doing these activities, others, in small groups, are taken to see the beach and some caves on the side of the island.
It’s mandatory to wear your life preserver but shoes, sunglasses or cameras are not allowed. They don’t want anything added to the ongoing clean up. However, I think a GoPro would be acceptable if it’s secured correctly. No drones are allowed.
Since no one was allowed to go to the Hidden Beach on that day, they did, at least, move the boat closer to the entrance where you would normally access it to get a look at the opening.
Hidden Beach can only accessed at low tide. If you do get the chance to go and see it, remember: you need to be a good swimmer to get there. You will be swimming from the boat, through a cave like entrance into the crater area. The water is a bit rough at the opening. Also no one under 12 is allowed to go.
If none of the water activities interest you and you don’t want to get off the boat, you don’t have to. There were plenty of people that didn’t swim and stayed on board and no one made you feel like you had to participate in anything you didn’t want to.
Lunch and the Return Ride to Vallarta
After all the all the activities were over and everyone was back on board, they opened the bar and served lunch. This doesn’t mean there was nothing to drink until now. They just didn’t serve any alcohol while people were still in the water.
Lunch was ceviche, which is fish pickled in lime juice, with tortillas and three different types of salad. The ceviche was very good but the salads were just adequate. You could also purchase other snacks but in my opinion they were pricey. The bar offered Mexican beer, margaritas, some other tropical drinks, soda and water.
As we made our way back to the marina, there was music, dancing and some games for those that wanted to participate. Once again though, they didn’t make you feel like you had to. The music didn’t bother me but I’ve read other reviews where people didn’t like the afternoon activities.
Getting to the Islands from Punta Mita
As far as I know there aren’t any tour operators that leave from Punta Mita. If you are in Rivera Nayarit or in Punta Mita, you might be able to hire a panga, or small boat to take you to the islands. You should be able to find someone next to the Si Senor restaurant in Punta Mita, where all the boats are tied up.
There is also a Cooperativo de Turismo office nearby so you can ask there about hiring someone and you can purchase a SEMARNAT bracelet. The trip out to the islands takes about fifteen minutes from Punta Mita. This would probably just be a tour to the islands themselves but not to Hidden Beach.
You should always choose a reputable, ethical company that will abide by the regulations that have been set up to take you on your Islas Marietas tour.
What to Pack for Your Islas Marietas Tour
Since access to the islands is limited, the tour is more of a boat tour instead of a lay in the sun beach day. As you can see you will not be pulling up to some beach and everyone getting off the boat. All activities will be done from the boat anchored in the bay. The crew utilizes smaller boats to carry people around.
If you plan on swimming, obviously, you need a swimsuit. The morning air can be chilly on the boat so you might want to pack a hoodie or a long sleeved shirt. I was happy I had thought about taking a sweater with me that morning because I did need it.
Some other helpful items you might want to take would be:
- small bag or backpack
- change of clothes
- lip balm
- hand sanitizer or wipes
- some bills or change for tips