Updated for 2021 – Just a few miles off Mexico’s Pacific coast, near Puerto Vallarta, is a group of islands called the Marieta Islands or las Islas Marietas. 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. After researching and visiting the islands when I was in Puerto Vallarta, I realized the internet is full of vague information about what you can and can’t see on a tour. If you want to visit las Islas Marietas, here’s what you need to know.
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Where Are las Islas Marietas?
Las Islas Marietas are two uninhabited islands, Round Island and Long Island, and are part of Mexico. They are located just off the Pacific coast of the Mexican states of Jalisco and Nayarit. The best place for an Islas Marietas tour is Puerto Vallarta or Punta Mita.
The History of las Islas Marietas
Even though the islands are rich with fish and wildlife, sadly, the Mexican army used the islands for target practice in the early 1900’s. In fact, the bombing could be what caused or at least revealed the Hidden Beach.
In the 1960’s, famous conservationist Jacque Cousteau campaigned for protection of the islands. Years went by before anything was done but in finally, in 2005, the islands were declared a national park. And in 2008 they were added the list of world UNESCO sites.
What Makes the Marieta Islands Special?
The islands are home to more than 44 species of plants and animals. While that may not sound like much, for islands this size, it’s huge. In fact there are so many the islands are frequently referred to as Mexico’s Galapagos Islands.
Taking an Islas Marietas tour gives you a chance to see some of the wildlife on and around the islands. If you’re lucky, you should see tropical fish, sea turtles, manta rays, dolphins and even whales. Every year, hundreds of humpback and gray whales make their way into this area and the Bay of Banderas to mate and give birth.
Additionally, birders will have the opportunity to spot some of the many bird species. The most famous is the blue footed booby.
Closing the Islands
As the islands and Hidden Beach gained popularity, visitation began to get out of hand. The islands are made of a volcanic rock that’s very susceptible to erosion so with no real regulations, visitors caused a lot of damage and destruction to the islands themselves and the coral reefs.
So, in 2016, the islands were closed to the public. The government began a huge clean up and restoration. The closure lasted several months. I was told tons of garbage, diapers and tires were pulled from the area.
When it came time to reopen the islands, there were stricter guidelines in place. These days, only licensed tour operators have permission to visit. Also, as part of the new policy, ALL of the islands close on Mondays. On Tuesdays, you can tour the islands but Hidden Beach isn’t accessible. On the days it is open, only a certain amount of visitors are allowed. Now, instead of thousands, only around 120 people are can visit.
When to Visit the Marieta Islands
You can tour las Islas Marietas year round. However, if you want to see whales, which is definitely an added bonus, then the best time to go is during the months of December to May. If you time it just right, you can see humpbacks and maybe even gray whales in the bay.
I went in February and there were so many whales, there was hardly a time, looking around the bay, that you didn’t see a one breaching or the movement of a tail. It was pretty incredible. It’s the most whales I’ve ever seen anywhere and I’ve been out on the water and whale watching in Cabo, La Paz and Costa Rica. If you only want to take a whale watching tour, there’s a link below to some good ones.
Booking Your Islas Marietas Tour
When you book your Islas Marietas tour, make sure to confirm exactly what is included. After looking at some tour operator’s websites, it’s unclear if their tours include Hidden Beach or not. It also appears they leave out the important information about Hidden Beach beach being closed on specific days.
I recommend booking directly with a tour operator or a reputable third party. There are plenty of people on the malecon in Puerto Vallarta and on the beach selling tours but buyer beware, it might not end in a good experience. If you need help picking a good tour operator for your Islas Marietas tour, look at the ratings and read the reviews. It’s also a good idea to check out the cancellation policy before you book.
For my Islas Marietas tour, I went with Vallarta by Boat. Their reviews aren’t great on Google. But after reading some of the the complaints, I realize that people complain about things the tour operator has no control over. Things like weather, waves, sea sickness. Those are not the fault of the tour operator. So don’t just look at the rating. Read the reviews to actually see what the people complain about. It’s also helpful to check a couple of different travel sites too. I’ve found completely different reviews for companies on Google than on Tripadvisor for instance.
The only day I had for my Islas Marietas tour was a Tuesday. So that meant Hidden Beach was closed. However, I knew this in advance and I still had a great time on the tour.
Checking In For the Tour
The tour I chose is an all day tour that leaves from the cruise ship terminal in Puerto Vallarta. The tours departs at 9 am and returns around 5 pm.
Even if you pre-pay for your tour, it’s a good idea to get to the marina early. Most all water tours leave from this marina so there will be a crowd if it’s high season or there’s a cruise in port..
Be prepared, there’s a couple of other fees the government requires, that aren’t in price of a tour ticket. One is a park fee of $6 USD for the government department of SEMARNAT. (This stands for Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources and the fee helps preserve and maintain the park) Once you pay this fee, you’ll be given a wristband to wear for the duration of the tour.
Also, the port is a federal property, so there’s also a port fee that’s a little less than $2 as well.
Most tours include lunch and possibly breakfast. If it includes breakfast, that probably will be a light continental breakfast. In Mexico, that usually means yogurt, fruit, toast and coffee. If you want something more substantial, there are a few counter service type restaurants in the port, where you can order a hardier breakfast. And yes, there was alcohol for purchase as well. Nothing like
Pacifico coffee in the morning.
The Boat Ride to the Islands
Once everyone is onboard for the Islas Marietas tour, the crew will go over all the safety and life jacket information. Different tour companies utilize different types of boats but ours was just one deck with chairs. Some of the chairs were under an awning in case you don’t want to be in the sun. There’s also a bathroom on board the boat.
The trip to the islands takes about an hour and half from Puerto Vallarta. The boat travels at a nice slow pace, which is good because then you don’t have to worry as much about getting seasick. It also gives you the chance to relax and look for whales.
Our tour stopped in Nuevo Vallarta to pick up a few passengers. Once on board, the official tour is begins. The crew was bilingual and presented good information about the area and the islands throughout the tour.
One important thing they ask that you do, is apply your sunscreen at the beginning of the tour. Since coral reefs are extremely sensitive to the chemicals found in sunscreen, applying it early gives the sunscreen time to soak into the skin instead of sliding off into the water and causing more damage to the coral reefs.
When you arrive at the islands, the crew anchors the boat and brings out the kayaks, stand up paddle boards and the snorkeling gear. Anyone that wants to stay onboard the boat is welcome to do so. For everyone else, the crew splits you up into groups. While some people are kayaking, others, in small groups, are visiting a beach or checking out the caves on the side of the island. There was plenty of equipment and everyone that wanted to, got a turn snorkeling or kayaking.
For anyone that wants to go in the water, a life preserver is mandatory. However, shoes, sunglasses, cameras and drones are not allowed. They don’t want to add any objects to the ongoing clean up.
Southerner Says: Obviously some tours allow cameras because I see photos of Hidden Beach all the time but on this tour it was not allowed.
If your tour includes Hidden Beach, to access it, visitors have to swim through a opening in the island’s rock to get to the crater-like beach. Honestly, it looks a little scary and the water is a bit rough at the opening. Anyone that wants to access the beach needs to be a good swimmer and no one under 12 is allowed. The tide and the weather have to be just right to enter, so fair warning, even if you book a tour with Hidden Beach access, there’s a chance you might not get to get to go, even if you paid for it.
Since the beach was closed on the Tuesday of my tour, when we left the area, the captain did at least move the boat closer to the opening in the rock so that we could get a better look.
Lunch is Served
Once the tour and water activities are over, the crew serves lunch and they open the bar for margaritas and local beer. Water and juice were available the entire cruise but they don’t serve alcohol until everyone is out of the water.
Lunch was ceviche and two other kinds of salads. Ceviche is fresh fish that “cooks” in lime juice and is a specialty of the area. The ceviche they served was pretty good but the other salads were just adequate. There were other snacks available for purchase onboard but they were kind of pricey. My advice is to bring your own snacks.
Heading Back to Vallarta
This tour is not what I would consider a party tour at all but to try and keep it fun, there was music and games for guests that wanted to participate on the way back to the marina. The music didn’t bother me but I’ve read reviews of people didn’t like the afternoon activities. If this is something that concerns you, then book a smaller more private tour. In addition to just a boat tour, you can also book a snorkeling or diving Islas Marietas tour.
What to Pack for Your Islas Marietas Tour
Since access to the islands is limited, the tour is much more of a on the water tour instead of a lay in the sun beach day. You won’t be pulling up to some beach and everyone getting off the boat all at once to lay around. All activities are from the boat, as it anchors in the bay.
If you plan on swimming, obviously, you need a swimsuit. The morning air, especially in winter, and even in spring at times, can be chilly on the boat, so you might want to pack a light jacket or a long sleeved shirt. Some other useful items you might want on your Islas Marietas tour are:
- lip balm
- hand sanitizer or wipes
- pesos for tips
Las Islas Marietas Tour
Along with day trips to Yelapa and Mismaloya, an Islas Marietas tour is a must when visiting Puerto Vallarta or Nayarit. Getting out on the water in the Bay of Banderas and with this tour is a great way to see wildlife and Puerto Vallarta from a different perspective. Scientists also think that the islands might not be around forever, so enjoy them while you can. If you do visit the islands, don’t forget to practice leave no trace principles and tip your guides.
Are you planning a trip to Puerto Vallarta or Punta de Mita? Some of my favorite trip planning websites are Expedia.com for plane tickets and hotel rooms. I usually compare their accommodations prices to Booking.com prices. Rentalcars.com is a necessity for renting a vehicle. Tripadvisor.com is excellent for reviews and planning tours. Last but also one of the most important things – besides a good set of ear buds – is travel insurance. Check out TravelInsurance.com to see a variety of plans for your next Mexico trip. Happy traveling!