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 probably have seen photos of the beautiful Hidden Beach or Playa del Amor floating around on the internet and Instagram for awhile now. The islands can be accessed by boat with a official tour operator from Puerto Vallarta or Rivera Nayarit.
Considered Mexico’s Galapagos Islands, they consist of two islets and two islands. The Mexican Military used the islands as target practice in the 1960’s but in 2005, they were finally declared a National Park. And its a good thing. The islands are home to more than 44 species of plants and animals. Visiting them gives you the opportunity to see 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.
A Home for Whales
During the months of December through May, the Bay of Banderas is also 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. I was there in February and the bay was full of humpbacks.
As 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.
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. They have reopened the area to licensed tour operators but have stricter and limited visitation policies, including being closed entirely on Mondays. The islands are open on Tuesdays but with restricted access to certain areas
As of the writing of this post, it is still possible to visit Hidden Beach. It’s just more difficult. Only licensed, chosen tour operators are allowed to go and the number of visitors is restricted to 120 a day. As luck would have it, Hidden Beach was closed on the Tuesday of my tour. When you book your tour, make sure to ask what’s included. Policies and rules can change quickly. If you happen to go on a day that its restricted you can still get a pretty good look at the crater and the beach from out in the the bay.
Another reason that travel is restricted is because the islands are very 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 the Hidden Beach.
Visiting the islands should be at the top of your list of fun day trips when visiting the area. It’s an opportunity to see a fascinating piece of Mexico that according to scientists, may not be around in the years to come.
How To Get There from Puerto Vallarta & Punta Mita
For my tour from Puerto Vallarta, I used Vallarta by Boat. This is an all day tour that heads out around 9 am and returns at 5 pm. You will be required to be at the marina by 8 am to pay your park 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 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 if you felt you needed to snack. 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 and the fee to SEMARNAT, which is the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources, for preservation of the park. I can’t remember exactly what I paid, but it’s the entrance fee to the park that everyone is required to pay and it’s minimal. Once you pay, they will give you a bracelet that you are required to wear while on your tour.
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 boats 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 that will abide by the regulations that have been set up. You should also remember “leave no trace” principles are 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. Planning on visiting any nearby beaches in the area? Check out my post about Sayulita, Nayarit. Have fun!
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