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.
The History of las Islas Marietas
Even though the islands are rich in 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.
Finally, in the 1960’s, famous conservationist Jacque Cousteau called for protection of the islands. Many years went by before anything was done but in 2005, the islands were declared a national park. And in 2008 they were added the list of UNESCO sites.
What Makes the Marieta Islands Special?
The islands are home to more than 44 species of plants and animals. Which may not sound like much but for islands this size, it’s huge. Taking an Islas Marietas tour gives you a chance to see some of the flora and fauna up close. If you are lucky you might see tropical fish, sea turtles, manta rays, dolphins and even whales. Every year hundreds of humpback and gray whales come into this area and the Bay of Banderas.
Birders will have the opportunity to spot birds from over 100 species. Including the blue footed booby. Because the booby and several other endangered species of birds live on there, the islands are frequently referred to as Mexico’s Galapagos Island.
Closing the Islands
As the islands’ popularity grew, visitation got out of hand. Because Hidden Beach is so unique, everyone wants to visit. With no real regulations, this caused much damage and destruction. Scientists began to notice the impact that thousands of visitors were having on the islands 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 new, stricter guidelines in place. These days not just anyone is allowed to go. Only licensed tour operators have approval.
As part of the new policy, ALL of the islands close on Mondays. On Tuesdays, you can tour the islands but Hidden Beach is not assessable. And on the days it is open, only a certain amount of visitors are allowed per day. Instead of thousands, only around 120 people are allowed to go.
Since the islands are very susceptible to erosion due to the type of volcanic rock they are made from, hopefully, these restrictions will protect them and the reef from further damage.
When to Visit the Marieta Islands
You can take an Islas Marietas tour year round. However, if you want to see whales, definitely and added bonus, then it’s best to go during the months of December to May. If you time it just right, you’ll see dozens of humpback and maybe gray whales in the bay.
I was in Vallarta in February for my tour and there was hardly a time you looked around the bay and didn’t see a whale breaching or a tail or at least a splash. It was incredible to watch. Our tour wasn’t even a whale watching tour but it was 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. You can book tour just for whale watching if you don’t care to go to the islands. I’ve linked to some below.
Booking Your Islas Marietas Tour
When you book your Islas Marietas tour, make sure you confirm exactly what you are paying for. After looking at some tour operator’s websites, it’s unclear what their tours really include. It appears they leave out the important information about Hidden Beach beach being closed on specific days.
I also 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. There are plenty of tour operators to choose from for your Islas Marietas tour. Always read the reviews and the cancellation policy before you book.
My Tour Company
For my Islas Marietas tour, I used Vallarta by Boat. Their reviews aren’t great on Google. But after reading some of the the complaints, I realize that people seem to complain about everything. Even things the tour operator has no control over. Things like weather, waves, sea sickness, etc. So don’t just look at the rating. Read all the reviews to actually see what the complaints are. Check on a couple of different sites too. I’ve found completely opposite reviews on Google than on Tripadvisor for instance.
The only day that I could go on my Islas Marietas tour was Tuesday. So that meant Hidden Beach was closed. However, this is not the fault of the tour operator and I did at least I know this information in advance. I still had a great time.
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 tours leave from this marina so there might be a lot of people.
There’s also a couple of fees you’ll need to take care of. 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, you will be given a bracelet that you need to wear while on the tour.
Because the port is a federal property, there’s also a minimal port fee of less than $2 that your tour ticket doesn’t include that needs to be paid.
Most tickets have breakfast and lunch included in the price. Breakfast is probably a continental breakfast. In Mexico that usually means yogurt, fruit, toast and coffee. If that’s not your thing, there are a few simple 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 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 if you didn’t want to be in the sun. And for those wondering, there is a bathroom on board the boat.
Getting to the islands takes about an hour and half. The boat travels at a slow leisurely pace. This is good because even though the bay is usually smooth with not much waves, you don’t have to worry about getting seasick. It also gives you the chance to take in your surroundings and hopefully see whales.
The boat stopped in Nuevo Vallarta to pick up more passengers from the marina there. Once they are on board, the official tour is begins. Our crew was bilingual, providing history and info in English and Spanish. They were very knowledgeable about the area and the wildlife we saw as well.
Since coral reefs are extremely sensitive to the chemicals found in sunscreen, they ask that you to go ahead and apply your sunscreen asap. The gives it plenty on time to absorb into your skin and not slide off into the water and damage the coral reefs.
The Islands + Hidden Beach
When you arrive at the islands on your Islas Marietas tour, the crew anchors the boat and brings out kayaks, stand up paddle boards and snorkeling gear. They split us into groups so while some people are kayaking, others, in small groups, go to another beach to see 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 you to lose or add to the ongoing clean up. No drones are allowed.
Since Hidden Beach wasn’t open, they did at least, move the boat closer to the entrance to the beach so we could get a look.
Hidden Beach is only accessible at low tide. To get to the beach you need to be a good swimmer. You have to swim 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.
Anyone that wants to stay on the boat and not swim is welcome to do that too.
Lunch is Served
There was water and juice available the entire cruise but once all the water activities wer finished, they served lunch and opened the bar for margaritas and beer.
Lunch was ceviche and two other kinds of salads. Ceviche is fresh fish that “cooks” in lime juice. It’s a specialty of this area. The ceviche was good but the other salads were just adequate. There did offer other snacks for purchase but they are pricey. My suggestions is take a few snacks of your own.
Heading Back to Vallarta
On the return trip to the marina, the crew tries to make the trip fun, so, there was music, dancing and games for guests that want to participate. The music didn’t bother me but I’ve read other reviews where people didn’t like the afternoon activities. If this is something that concerns you, then book a smaller private 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. All activities are from the boat as it’s 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, especially in winter and even 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