Kayaker enjoys Islas Marietas

How to Take an Islas Marietas Tour + See the Hidden Beach

Are you visiting Puerto Vallarta and want to visit the Marietas Islands? While planning an Islas Marietas tour for myself, I realized that the internet is full of vague information about how to get to the islands and just what you can or can’t do there. Here’s what you need to know if you want to see the islands.

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Where Are the Marieta Islands?

Located just a few miles off the coast of Mexico, Las Islas Marietas are in federal waters off the western Pacific coast of Mexico near the states of Nayarit and Jalisco. There are dozens of rocky outcroppings under the water but the two main uninhabited islands – Round Island and Long Island – are the biggest land masses of the islands and the islands you can see. Even if you aren’t familiar with the name of the islands themselves, you’ve probably seen photos of the secret, crater like Hidden Beach or Playa del Amor, floating around on the internet.

Approaching las Islas Marietas in the Bay of Banderas by boat
The islands in the morning sun

What Makes las Islas Marietas Special?

Las Islas Marietas are frequently referred to as Mexico’s Galapagos Islands since they are home to more than 44 species of plants and animals and over 100 species of birds.

Booking an Islas Marietas tour gives you a chance to see some of the wildlife on and around the islands and if you’re lucky, fish, sea turtles, manta rays, dolphins and even whales in the waters around the islands. Because of the temperate water temperature, every year, thousands of humpback and gray whales make their way into the Bay of Banderas to mate and give birth.

Birders will have the opportunity to spot some of the many bird species. The most famous one found in the islands is the blue footed booby.

A blue footed booby sits atop rocks on one of the islands of Islas Marietas
A blue footed booby sits atop the rocks among seagulls
A bird flies low over the water near las Islas Marietas
The islands are home to many species of birds
Birds flying at the Marieta Islands
So many birds around the islands

The History of las Islas Marietas

Even though the islands are full of wildlife, sadly, the Mexican army used the islands for target practice in the early 1900’s. In fact, it’s thought that the bombing is what caused – or at least revealed – the Hidden Beach feature.

In the 1960’s, famous conservationist Jacque Cousteau campaigned for protection of the islands. Years went by before anything was done but finally in 2005, the islands were declared a national park. And in 2008 they were added the list of world UNESCO sites.

Time to Clean Up the the Islands

As the Marieta Islands and Hidden Beach gained popularity, visitation got out of hand. It doesn’t help that the islands are made of a volcanic rock that’s very susceptible to erosion. With no real regulations or supervision, visitors caused a lot of damage and destruction to the islands themselves and the coral reefs that surround the islands.

So, in 2016, the islands were closed to the public. The government initiated a huge clean up and restoration of the entire area. The closure lasted several months while tons of garbage – diapers, tires and other household items and plastic – were pulled from around the islands.

Reopening the Marieta Islands

Ultimately, when the government reopened the islands to tourists, there were stricter guidelines. In the past, almost anyone could tour the islands. Now, as part of the new regulations, only certified licensed tour operators have permission to go to the islands.

Also, to cut down on visitation – all the islands are closed on Mondays and on Tuesdays, you can visit the islands but Hidden Beach remains closed. Additionally, the days that Hidden Beach is open, instead of thousands being granted access, only 116 people are allowed to visit.

How Do You Get To the Marieta Islands

An Islas Marietas tour can be arranged at a tour kiosk found throughout the Puerto Vallarara and the Malecón. Many resorts and hotels have trusted tour operators that they have partnerships with.

Booking an 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 Malecón in Puerto Vallarta and on the beach selling tours but just be careful, 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. The Viator.com tours below all have 5 star reviews.

My Islas Marietas Tour

For my Islas Marietas tour, I used Vallarta by Boat. As luck would have it, the only day that I had available for a 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. Here’s how a day on an Islas Marietas Tour goes.

Checking In For the Islas Marietas Tour

The tour I chose was an all day tour that leaves from the cruise ship terminal in Puerto Vallarta. The tour departs at 9am and returns around 5pm.

Even if you pre-pay for your tour, it’s a good idea to get to the marina early. Most all boat 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 are a couple of fees collected on behalf of the government, that aren’t included in the price of a tour ticket. One of those fees is a park fee of approximately $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 that shows you paid your fee.

There also is a port fee of about $2 USD since the port is a federal property. This is collected on behalf of the government.

Most tours include lunch and possibly breakfast. If it does includes breakfast, it’s probably a continental breakfast. In Mexico, that’s typically yogurt, fruit, toast and juice or coffee. If you need 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.

Boat heading to las Islas Marietas
Heading out

The Boat Ride to the Marieta Islands

Once everyone is loaded 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 our boat was a one deck with chairs. Some of the chairs were under an awning in case you didn’t want to be in the sun. And if you are wondering – 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 also stopped in Nuevo Vallarta to pick up a few passengers that boarded from there. Once everyone is on the boat, the official tour is begins. The crew presented useful information about the area and the islands throughout the tour in Spanish and English.

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.

Humpback Whale tail in the Bay of Banderas
A gorgeous whale’s tail
two male humpbacks are fighting in the water
Looking for love

Things To Do on the Marieta Islands

Once you arrive at the islands, the crew anchors the boat and brings out the kayaks, stand up paddle boards and the snorkeling gear. For everyone that’s participating in the water activities – 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 had a turn snorkeling or kayaking or both. Anyone that wants to stay onboard the boat can do so.

Personal flotation devices are mandatory and shoes, sunglasses, cameras and drones are not allowed.

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.

Hidden Beach

If your tour includes access to Hidden Beach – you’ll swim through a opening in the island to get to the beach. To do this swim you need to be a strong swimmer and over twelve years of age.

The tide and the weather have to be just right to enter through the rocks – so fair warning, even if you book a tour that has Hidden Beach access – there’s always a chance you might not be able to get to the beach. Even if you paid for it. Your boat captain and crew cannot control the weather, water or tide. They will do their best to make it happen but if they decide that it’s too dangerous, they will cancel the swim to Hidden Beach.

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 rocks so that we could get a better look of how you enter Hidden Beach.

The opening to the hidden beach
The cave like opening that leads to Hidden Beach
A small boat used for taking people to the beach
One of the small boats used for taking people to the beach

Lunch on the Marieta Islands Tour

Once the water activities are complete, the crew opens the bar and serves lunch. On my tour there was local beer, margaritas, and of course, water and juice were available the entire cruise. They just don’t serve alcohol until everyone is out of the water.

Lunch was ceviche with tortilla chips and two other kinds of salads. Ceviche is fresh fish that “cooks” in lime juice and is a specialty of many Mexican coastal areas. Their ceviche was very good but the other salads were just adequate. There were also other snacks available for purchase onboard but they were kind of pricey. My advice is to bring your own snacks.

Heading Back to Vallarta

The Vallarta by Boat tour is definitely not what I would consider a party tour at all but to keep it fun on the way back to Puerto Vallarta the crew played music and some games for guests that wanted to participate. The music didn’t bother me but I’ve read reviews of people who didn’t like the afternoon activities. If this is something that concerns you, then book a small tour with less people.

heading back the bay of banderas to Vallarta

Lastly, I want to acknowledge that Vallarta by Boat’s Google reviews aren’t great. But after reading some of the the complaints, many of the things that people don’t like are things the tour operator has no control over.

Things like weather, too many waves and sea sickness. So when you are ready to book an Islas Marietas tour, don’t just look at the rating. Read the reviews carefully to see why people are actually giving a not so good review. 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, for instance, Tripadvisor.

The Best Time Visit las Islas Marietas

With the exception of hurricane season, the Pacific coast of Mexico generally experiences good weather all year long. So, tours to las Islas Marietas are possible 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.

For my Islas Marietas tour was in February and there were so many whales, there was hardly a time when you looked around the bay, that you didn’t see at least one whale breaching or the movement of a tail. It was pretty incredible. I been whale watching in Cabo, La Paz and Costa Rica and this trip was where I’ve seen the most whales at one time.

Packing List for the Islas Marietas

Since access to the islands is limited, the tour is much more of a day out on the water tour than a lay on the beach tour. You won’t be pulling up to some pristine beach and everyone hopping out at one time. All activities are from the boat, as it anchors in the bay and understandably, it’s very controlled. Even with access to Hidden Beach, the time is limited.

If you plan on swimming, obviously, you’ll 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:

Final Thought About 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.

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