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, it was still a wonderful tour. I saw way more wildlife than I expected to see. One thing I learned is there’s a lot of false and ambiguous info online about seeing the Hidden Beach. Some tour operators won’t tell you that they can’t take you there. Here’s how to visit Islas Marietas on a tour while you are in Puerto Vallarta.
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 go to the Hidden Beach. After seeing the destruction that thousands of visitors was causing the islands and the coral reefs around the islands, the government finally closed them in 2016. They began a huge clean up that lasted several months and is still ongoing. The area reopened to much stricter regulations and to only certified, licensed tour operators.
As part of that policy, ALL of the islands close on Mondays. On Tuesday you can tour the islands but Hidden Beach is not open. That’s why I wasn’t able to explore Hidden Beach the Tuesday I went on my Islas Marietas tour.
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
Islas Marieta tours run year round but the months of December to May are the best months because of the whales. During these months, 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 the bay 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 humpbacks, manta rays and turtles.
Prepping for the Tour
There’s a couple of different options for taking a tour to las Islas Marietas. The most popular tours leave from Puerto Vallarta.
When you book your Islas Marietas tour, make sure you ask the tour company exactly what’s included. Policies and rules change quickly. After looking at some tour operator websites, it’s unclear what’s they include on the tours and they leave a lot of information out.
If you book online or at a tour desk through out the city, they will ask you to arrive at the marina early to get everything you need and pay for your park fee. This fee goes to government department of SEMARNAT, which stands for Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources. This fee helps preserve and maintain 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.
Because the port is a federal property, there’s also a minimal port fee of less than $2 that’s not included in your tour ticket.
Once you pay your fees, you should have time for breakfast. Most tickets include breakfast and lunch in the price. The breakfast will probably be a continental breakfast which in Mexico usually consists of yogurt, fruit, toast and coffee. At the port, you’ll find a few 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 Marietas islands takes about an hour and half because the boat travels at a slow leisurely pace. This is nice because even though the bay is usually smooth, you don’t have to worry much about getting seasick. It also gives you the chance to take in your surroundings. There’s a lot going on and if you are lucky, you might just see other wildlife like I did.
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 a one deck with chairs. Some of the chairs were At least under an awning if you didn’t want to be in the sun. And yes, there is a bathroom on board.
The boat stopped in Nuevo Vallarta to pick up more passengers from the marina there. Once they get 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 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 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 on your Islas Marietas tour and the boat is anchors 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 access to to the Hidden Beach was off limits 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 Puerto Vallarta
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 three other type salads. Ceviche is fresh fish that “cooks” in lime juice. It’s typically served with crackers or tortilla chips and hot sauce. The ceviche was good but the other salads were just adequate. There did have other snacks for purchase but they are pricey.
On the return trip to the marina, there was music, dancing and some games for those that want 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
Online, it doesn’t appear that there are official tour operators that leave from Punta Mita. If you are in Rivera Nayarit or in Punta Mita, you should be able to hire a panga, or small boat to take you to the islands. Start by looking next to the Si Senor restaurant, where all the boats are tie 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.
Keeping in mind the new rules, always choose a reputable, ethical company that will abide by the regulations.
What to Pack for Your Islas Marietas Tour
Since they limit access to the islands, the tour is a boat tour instead of a lay in the sun beach day. You will not be pulling up to some beach and everyone getting off the boat all at once. All activities are from the boat as it anchors 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.
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