Visiting Mexico’s Islas Marietas National Park

Just five miles off the coast of the Mexican State of Nayarit in the beautiful Bay of Banderas, lies a group of uninhabited islands called the Marieta Islands or las Islas Marietas in Spanish. Even if you aren’t familiar with the islands themselves, you have probably seen photos of the beautiful Hidden Beach or Playa del Amor floating around on the internet and Instagram for awhile now. They can be easily be reached by boat with a tour operator from Puerto Vallarta.

These islands are considered Mexico’s Galapagos Islands. There consists of two islands and two islets. Once used as target practice by the Mexican Military in the 1960’s, they were declared a National Park in 2005 by the government. The islands are home to more than 44 species of plants and animals. Visiting them gives you the opportunity to see much marine life including sea turtles, whales, manta rays, lots of tropical fish and dolphins. The islands are also home to thousands of birds, including the blue footed booby.

Whales

December through May, the Bay of Banderas is home to hundreds of whales. Humpbacks and gray whales come into the Bay as part of their yearly migration and to give birth. While there are tour companies that offer specific whale watching tours, you might be lucky enough to see them on your Marieta Islands tour as well.

Beaches

As I mentioned, the islands are home to one of the best known and photographed beaches, Hidden Beach or La Playa del Amor. Accessible only at low tide and to a certain number of people on specific days, visitors will be allowed to access a crater type beach inside the island. You can only enter by kayak or by swimming into the cave.

Only some of the features can be visited. In 2016 the government closed all features of the islands due to over use of the area and destruction of the coral. They initiated a huge clean up that lasted several months and is still ongoing. The islands have since reopened but have stricter visitation policies. They are closed entirely on Mondays and on Tuesdays, only certain areas are open.

As of the writing of the post, It’s still possible to visit Hidden Beach. It’s just more difficult since only specific tour operators are allowed to go and visitors are kept to a restricted number on the days that it is open. As luck would have it, Hidden Beach was closed on the Tuesday of my tour. Make sure to ask what’s included when you book your tour so you won’t be disappointed. Even if you don’t get to swim all the way inside, you can still get a pretty good view of it from the bay.

Travel to the islands has also been restricted because the islands are susceptible to erosion due to the structure and the type of rock they are made from. This is why you cannot set foot on them with the exception of special permission on Hidden Beach. It’s really a fascinating place and an great opportunity to see a piece of Mexico that according to scientists, may not be around in years to come.

For my tour, I used Vallarta by Boat. This is an all day tour that heads out around 9 am and returns at 5 pm. You should be at the Marina by 8 am to pay your fees. Breakfast and lunch are included in the price. Breakfast was a continental breakfast of yogurt, fruit and coffee. If you want something more substantial, there are vendors and some small restaurants in the marina. I picked up a grilled cheese and a Pacifico. When in Mexico…

The ride to the islands takes about an hour and half. It might take a little longer if you stop in Nueva Vallarta to pick up more passengers. The tour is offered in Spanish and English. Even though this a tour to the islands and not a whale watching tour, since there were a lot of whales that day, they stopped frequently to let us get a better look.

Once at the islands, kayaks and stand up paddles boards were available for use while other groups were taken to see the beach and caves. If you choose to swim by the caves, be careful to watch for sea urchins. You are not allowed to take your sunglasses or cameras with you when you get off the boat because they don’t want anything else left in the water with the ongoing clean up. However I think a GoPro would be acceptable if it’s secured correctly.

Lunch was served after the activities. It consisted of three different types of salad and ceviche with tortilla chips. Snacks were available for purchase on board but they were a bit expensive. I would suggest taking chips or crackers with you that you bought somewhere else. There was also a free bar that opened once the activities were completed.

The return ride back was music, dancing and a few games for those that wanted to participate. It wasn’t too loud and you didn’t feel you had to participate. Again, we stopped a lot to see the whales.

Tip: Remember to carry some small bills to tip the crew and staff. If you are wondering, there is a bathroom on the boat.

Expect to spend around $80 USD for your ticket. This excludes a port fee of $25.50 pesos or roughly $1.40 USD depending on the exchange rate. There is also a fee to SEMARNAT, The Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources, for preservation of the park. I cannot remember how much I paid for this, but it’s your entrance fee to the park that everyone is required to pay and it’s minimal. They will give you a plastic bracelet to wear showing that you paid.

If you happen to be in the Rivera Maya or Punta Mita, you can hire a panga, or small boat to take you to the islands. You should be able to locate someone next to the Si Senor restaurant in Punta Mita, where all the pangas are tied up. There is a Cooperativo de Turismo office nearby where you can purchase the SEMARNAT bracelet as well but you should not have to pay a marina fee. The trip out to the islands is about fifteen minutes.  From Punta Mita the price of going out to the islands would have to be negotiated on an individual basis.

When planning to visit, please choose a reputable, ethical company or person that will abide by the regulations that have been set up. You should also remember the “leave no trace” practice is not restricted to borders.

If you are planning a trip to Puerto Vallarta, check out my post What’s the Best Area to Stay in Puerto Vallarta. For other fun things to and beaches in the area, check out my post about visiting Sayulita, Nayarit. Que disfrute!

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