Islas Marietas National Park: The Complete Guide

view of the rocky shore of Las Marietas Islands National Park at Pacific Ocean coast
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Marietas Islands

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Marietas Islands, Mexico

Islas Marietas National Park is made up of a pair of small uninhabited islands—Isla Larga and Isla Redonda—along with a couple of islets. The islands are located 2,953 feet (900 meters) apart from one another in Banderas Bay, a few miles off the coast of the state of Nayarit. These islands shelter amazing biodiversity and are sometimes referred to as “the Galapagos of Mexico” since they’re home to the blue-footed boobie as well as many other seabird species. This park became a hugely popular day trip site starting around 2012 due to photos on social media showing the beautiful “Hidden Beach” located within a crater, and many travelers flock there to have their own Instagram moment. 

The park hosts tremendous biodiversity: it’s an important feeding and nesting site for several species of seabirds and the islands are surrounded by a marine sanctuary, so underwater exploration will reveal a multitude of tropical fish, sea turtles, and giant manta rays in the crystal clear water. In the first half of the 1900s, the Mexican government conducted military testing on the islands, and the resulting explosions, along with erosion, created some interesting rock formations, including the famous beach. In the 1960s, Jacques Cousteau and other conservationists decried the military testing, and the islands were eventually protected as a National Park in 2005 and recognized by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve in 2008. Since that time, many steps have been taken to protect the delicate ecosystem on the islands and in the surrounding water.

Things to Do

Visiting Hidden Beach is a major attraction of this national park, although there are a number of challenges to accessing the beach, so many visitors are not able to get there, but there are plenty of other activities on offer. Wildlife observation can always be enjoyed, and even those who aren’t much into birdwatching will appreciate seeing a striking species like the blue-footed booby or a red-billed tropicbird. This is a great spot for snorkeling and scuba diving, but even from the boat, you may be able to see schools of dolphins or breeching whales (in season). Some people enjoy exploring around the islands on kayaks or stand-up-paddleboard. Because the park's natural life is protected, hunting and fishing are not permitted here.

Hikes and Trails

It used to be prohibited to explore the islands on foot, but as a sustainable tourism option, Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP), has opened an interpretive trail at the northwestern end of Isla Larga, starting at Playa La Nopalera, Walking this short but interesting 1,000-foot trail offers the opportunity to enjoy the interesting landscape from a different perspective, see nesting seabirds, various species of reptiles such as green iguanas and Mexican spiny-tailed iguanas, as well as a few different kinds of snakes, and some interesting endemic plant life. 

La Playa Escondida Islas Marietas Puerto Vallarta
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How to Visit Hidden Beach

This picturesque beach is located within a crater on the northern end of Isla Redonda, Photos of the sun shining through an open crater illuminating a sandy beach with clear blue water started making the rounds on social media beginning in 2012, and still inspire many folks to add the Islas Marietas to their bucket list. Sometimes referred to as Playa del Amor or Lovers Beach because of its secluded location, the beach’s origin is most unromantic, as it is the result of bombings that took place during military testing on the islands, combined with erosion over time.

Although many people wish to visit, access to the beach is strictly limited to 116 visitors per day and is also dependent on the tide, wind, and waves. To get to the beach, you have to jump off the boat and swim through a 50-foot tunnel through the rock. Sometimes the current is strong and this can be a tough swim. You’ll wear a life jacket and a helmet (to avoid hitting your head on the roof of the tunnel) but no fins, to avoid damaging the coral. The beach is only accessible when the tide is low, otherwise, the tunnel is underwater and it’s not possible to get through. Once you access the beach, your time there is restricted, as each tour company gets their turn.

Most of the tour companies offering boat tours to the Islas Marietas have a tour that includes a visit to Hidden Beach, and one that does not. If you’re hoping to visit the beach, reserve your tour with a reputable company such as Ecotours de Mexico or Vallarta Adventures well in advance. Even if you take a tour that specifically includes Hidden Beach, there’s no guarantee that you'll actually be able to visit it, as that will depend on the sea conditions on the day of your visit. If you’re unable to access Hidden Beach, you can still visit Playa La Nopalera, another picturesque beach located on the other island. Although it’s not within a crater, it’s surrounded by interesting rock formations and lots of the nopal cacti after which it is named.

Whale Watching

Between November and March, humpback whales come to Banderas Bay during their yearly migration, so if you visit during this time of year, spotting whales may be an added bonus of your tour, so keep your eyes peeled and your camera ready if you’re hoping to capture the moment. Throughout the year you might also be able to observe orcas, stingrays, various species of sharks, as well as giant manta rays, sea turtles, and maybe even a dolphin pod.

Bird Watching

The cliffs, recesses, and caves of the islands provide nesting areas to a great many species of birds that reside on the island. The island is in fact home to over 80 different bird species and you’re almost guaranteed a sighting of a blue-footed booby. If birding is your main interest, you may prefer a tour that is geared specifically to this activity, such as the one offered by Birding Mexico or Birding San Pancho, which also offers the opportunity for snorkeling.

Diving

This is possibly the best spot in western Mexico for scuba diving. Part of an underwater mountain range that peaks above the ocean's surface, the Islas Marietas mark the entrance to Banderas Bay from the Pacific. Below the surface, you can see volcanic formations with arches, spires, tunnels, and caves, as well as several different species of coral, and abundant sea life. Visibility is best between May and December where you may see up to 100 feet, and water temperatures around 80 degrees F (27 degrees C).  Diving excursions are offered by Dressel Divers and Vallarta Adventures.

Where to Stay Nearby

If you’re planning to visit the Islas Marietas, you can stay in Puerto Vallarta, or Riviera Nayarit, which are both popular beach resort destinations, so there are many options of places to stay. You’ll find some great options in these round-ups of resorts:

How to Get There

Islas Marietas National Park is an easy day trip from Puerto Vallarta or the Riviera Nayarit. It’s closest to Punta de Mita, from where the boat trip is only about 15 minutes. From Puerto Vallarta’s main pier, it can take an hour to an hour and a half depending on wind and sea conditions. Although you can rent a water taxi to take you there, you’ll only be able to see the islands from the water. If you would like to enjoy the park fully and possibly access Hidden Beach, your best bet is to go with an organized tour such as those offered by Vallarta Adventures, Islas Marietas Tours, or Eco Tours Vallarta.

Accessibility

The only way to reach the park is by boat. Tours to the Islas Marietas offered by local companies usually include the option of snorkeling, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding. In order to participate in these activities, you usually need to hop off the boat into the water and climb back in on a ladder. Most of these tours are not recommended for people with limited mobility and are not accessible to people in wheelchairs. In addition, some of the tour companies have minimum and maximum age limits and state that it is not advisable for pregnant women or people with heart conditions, or any neck, back, or knee issues to participate.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Plan in advance to get a spot on a tour (access is not permitted to the islands on Mondays and Tuesdays).
  • If you’re prone to seasickness, you may wish to take medication before heading out as the boat will go through the open ocean to reach the islands and the waves can be strong..
  • If you go, take a towel, swimsuit, reef-friendly sunblock, and a camera (preferably a waterproof one). It’s also a good idea to bring a light sweater or jacket, as it can get breezy out on the open sea, especially if you’re wet on the way back. 
  • Many tour companies charge an extra 100 peso conservation fee (50 pesos goes to CONAMP and 50 pesos to Bahia Unida) which may not be included in the tour cost. Be prepared to pay in cash on arrival at the dock.
  • Follow the guidelines to minimize damage to the environment such as not touching the coral reef, or the wildlife, and don’t leave anything behind on the island.
Article Sources
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  1. Anales del Instituto de Biología de la Universidad Autonoma de México, "Distribución, abundancia y conservación de la avifauna de las islas Marietas, Nayarit, México." 2000

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The Complete Guide to Islas Marietas National Park and Hidden Beach