a kayaker in the water at las Islas Marietas

How to Take an Islas Marietas Tour + See the Hidden Beach (2024)

Are you headed to 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.

Las Isla Marietas Tour

Visiting the Marietas Islands is a popular tour for travelers to Puerto Vallarta and la Riviera Nayarit. Located off the Pacific coast, the islands are made up of dozens of small underwater islands but the two biggest are the ones you can see – Round Island and Long Island.

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.

The Marieta Islands 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, including the famous blue footed booby.

Booking an Islas Marietas tour gives you a chance to see the islands and hopefully some of the wildlife if you’re lucky. Fish, sea turtles, manta rays, dolphins and even whales that make their way into the Bay of Banderas to mate and give birth can be found around the islands.

Booking an Islas Marietas Tour

Currently, the only way to legally see the islands is with a licensed tour operator. Even then, when planning and booking an Islas Marietas tour, confirm exactly what is included.

After looking at some tour operator’s websites, it’s unclear if their tours include Hidden Beach. It also appears they leave out the important information about Hidden Beach beach being closed on specific days.

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

To abide by all the rules, I recommend booking directly with a highly rated tour operator or a reputable third party tour organizer. You’ll see plenty of people on the malecón and around Puerto Vallarta selling tours. Just be careful, because it might not end in a good experience.

If you need help choosing a good tour operator for your Islas Marietas tour, Tripadvisor and Viator.com offer tours options with local companies. All the tours linked below are highly rated and have 5 star reviews. Read the reviews and check out what other people are saying before you book.

It’s also important to note that some tours may have age restrictions for children. Verify that if you have kids in your party. You should also verify the cancellation policy before you book.

My Experience on an Islas Marietas Tour

For my Islas Marietas tour, I used Vallarta by Boat. As luck would have it, the only day that I could take the tour was a Tuesday. So, that meant Hidden Beach was closed. However, I knew this in advance and I still had a great time. Your experience may differ from mine but here’s how my Islas Marietas tour went.

Checking-In for the Tour

My Marieta Island tour was considered an all-day tour. The scheduled time for leaving Puerto Vallarta from the cruise ship terminal (map) was 9 am and would return around 5 pm.

Even if you pre-pay for your tour, I recommend getting to the marina early since most tours leave from here and it can get pretty hectic during high season or if there’s a cruise in port. Getting there early ensures you’ll have no problem finding your boat.

While your actual ticket may be paid in advance, in addition to the tour fee, there are a couple of other fees collected on behalf of the government. One of those is a national park fee of approximately $6 USD for the government department of SEMARNAT, or the agency that maintains 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. There’s also a federal port fee of about $2 USD for collected on behalf of the government for the use of the port.

Another reason to arrive early is for breakfast. Since it is an early departure some tours include breakfast. However, it’s probably a light breakfast. In Mexico, that’s typically yogurt, fruit, toast and juice or coffee.

If you want something more substantial, there are a few food stands in the port, where you can order a hardier breakfast. Nothing like a grilled cheese and a Pacifico coffee in the morning.

The Boat Ride to the Marieta Islands

Depending on the tour company, you’ll notice a variety of different types of boats used. The boat on my tour was a one deck bout with chairs. Some of the chairs were under an awning in case you didn’t want to be in the sun all day. And if you are wondering – there is a bathroom on board the boat.

Once everyone is herded up and loaded onboard the boat for the Islas Marietas tour, the crew goes over all the safety rules and life jacket information in English and Spanish.

Early on, those that were using sunscreen were asked to do it ahead of time. Since coral reefs are extremely sensitive to many of the chemicals found in sunscreen, early application gives the sunscreen time to soak into the skin instead of sliding off into the water and damaging the reefs.

The tour I was on, 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 educational information about the area and the islands throughout the tour.

At a nice slow pace, which is good because then you don’t have to worry as much about getting seasick, the boat ride from Puerto Vallarta to the Marietas Islands takes approximately an hour and half. This gives you the chance to relax and look for whales and other wildlife.

Things To Do on las Islas Marietas

Of course, the main attraction on an Islas Marietas tour is the Hidden Beach but there are other things to enjoy. Just be aware you won’t be pulling up to some pristine beach and everyone hopping out at one time.

All activities are from the boat from its anchor in the bay and understandably, it’s very controlled. Even with access to Hidden Beach, the time is limited. Snorkeling is just one of the activities you can participate in at the Marietas Islands

Once you arrive at the islands, the crew will bring out the kayaks, stand up paddle boards and of course, the snorkeling gear. For everyone joining in the water activities, the crew will split you up into groups. 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 but it may have been because there was a photographer on board.

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 participate had a turn snorkeling or kayaking or both. Anyone that wants to stay onboard the boat is welcome to do that too.

Swimming to the Hidden Beach

If your tour does indeed includes access to Hidden Beach, again, you don’t just pull up to the beach. You are required to swim to, and then through a opening in the rock, to get to the beach. To order to do this swim you need to be a strong swimmer and over twelve years of age (on my tour).

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 enter to get to the beach.

Even if you paid for it. Your boat captain and crew cannot control the weather, the water or the tide. They will do their best to make it happen but if for some reason they deem it too dangerous, they’ll 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.

Lunch on a Marieta Islands Tour

After the water activities are complete and everyone is back on board, 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 wait to serve alcohol until everyone is finished with the water activities.

Our lunch consisted of ceviche with tortilla chips and two other kinds of salads. Ceviche is fresh fish that “cooks” in lime juice and is a specialty of Mexico. It was good but the other salads were just so so.

All in all, I felt like the lunch was a bit skimpy and not exactly what you want after exerting yourself swimming and kayaking. However, they did also have other snacks available for purchase but they were expensive. My advice is, if allowed, bring your own snacks.

Returning to Puerto 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 had 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.

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 issues beyond the tour company’s control.

Bad weather, too many waves and getting sea sick are not the tour operator’s responsibility. When you get ready to book an Islas Marietas tour, check the rating and read the reviews to see why people are actually leaving a poor rating.

Heading back to Puerto Vallarta in the Bay of Banderas after an Islas Marietas Tour
Heading back to Puerto Vallarta from las Islas Marietas

When is the Best Time Visit the Marieta Islands?

With the exception of hurricane season, (June through November) the Pacific coast of Mexico generally experiences good weather all year long. Although, if you want to have the added bonus of seeing whales then the best time for a Marieta Islands tour is during the months of December to May.

I went in February and whales were so plentiful, 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’ve been whale watching in Cabo, La Paz and Costa Rica and this trip was where I’ve seen the most whales at one time.

What’s 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.

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.

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.

What to Pack 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. 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 sleeve 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 of the Bay of Banderas 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.

See you on the road or in Mexico!

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