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Marietas Islands, An Epic Tour From Puerto Vallarta

A tour boat entering a cave at Long Island

It’s hard to fathom that the military once used the pristine landscape of Islas Marietas as a testing ground. Today, if you take a tour of the Marietas Islands, you’ll have an opportunity to see a myriad of sea birds, including the brown and blue-footed boobies.

The twin islands south of Nayarit became a national park in 2005. Uninhabited, the Mexican Government protects the park, and visitors cannot step foot on its lands, except for one spot called Playa del Amor or Secret Beach.

Traveling to the Mexican Riviera on a cruise, we booked a 6-1/2-hour catamaran excursion to the islands through Princess Cruises. 

While the Islas Marietas National Park is renowned for its stunning landscapes and abundant wildlife, the cruise line sold the excursion as a snorkeling tour.

Having been to Mexico numerous times, we wanted a relaxing Puerto Vallarta activity, and this one, which sailed out into Banderas Bay, fit the bill.

Marietas Islands National Park History

Humpback whales a blue-footed booby, and the Playa del Amor at Marietas Islands
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The Marietas Islands have a history stretching back to the Cretaceous era when volcanic activity formed its rugged terrain. Two volcanic islands, one round and the other long, boast outstanding rock formations, including vast caves.

During the early 1900s, the military conducted tests on these uninhabited islands until it drew fierce criticism worldwide.

After Jacques Cousteau spearheaded a campaign against it in the late 1960s, the Mexican Government declared the Marietas Islands a national park helping to protect its wildlife and ban hunting and fishing activities.

All visitors to the park are required to pay a national park fee, and only selected tour operators can take people there.

What To Bring

Since this was sold as a snorkeling tour, it was recommended we bring the following:

  • Swimsuit
  • Towel
  • Biodegradable Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses
  • Camera or smartphone
  • Extra cash for dock fees and photos 

The national park charges a fee to visit, and there’s an additional fee to go to the secret beach. Since we booked through the cruise line, our excursion included the fees. 

If you want to visit the hidden beach, make sure you go with a tour operator who includes it on their itinerary.

It can be a bit choppy heading out to the Pacific Ocean. So, if you’re prone to seasickness, use a motion sickness patch or take some Bonine tablets.

Wearing a Rashguard shirt on the Marietas Islands tour
Wearing a Rashguard shirt

Depending on the time of year, it can be scorching in Mexico, so wearing a Rashguard shirt, in and out of the water, will protect you from the sun.

The Boat Ride To Marietas Islands

We took our tour through Vallarta Adventures, and the staff was amazing. There were under 30 guests on the tour, and the vessel had plenty of seats and room to move around.

Although our tour departed from Puerto Vallarta, shorter boat rides are available from Punta de Mita further south. It’s almost 5 miles from Punta de Mita to Isla Marietas. Our trip from Puerto Vallarta was 24 miles. Other options for tours are from Nuevo Vallarta.

Catamaran's bathroom below deck
Catamaran’s bathroom below the deck

The catamaran had marine bathrooms below deck, which you’ll need on a 6-½ hour tour, especially with free-flowing drinks.

Shortly after pulling away from the harbor, staff handed out orange juice, fruit, and buns to snack on for the ride.

The boat ride to the islands was said to take one hour, but it honestly took more than two. Since we were there during whale watching season, numerous sightings of humpback whales interrupted our journey.

We were ecstatic to watch the antics of marine life from the comfort of the catamaran. Those in the front were asked to sit down so guests in the back could also see.

Humpback whales and dolphins in the Bay of Banderas
Humpback whales and dolphins in the Bay of Banderas

It was interesting to see pods of dolphins follow the whales because they believed the large species knew the location of food.

During our ride, the MC talked about humpback whales and their migration.

The Humpback Whale Migration

A humpback whale has the longest migration in the world. The whales swim 3,000 miles (4,800 km) in the spring to feed in the rich waters of Alaska. The journey can take four to eight weeks.

In September, they make the long journey back to the warm waters of Mexico to mate and give birth. The gestation period is 11-½ months, and females give birth to only one calf.

Humpback whale near Marietas Islands
Humpback whale near Marietas Islands

Tours to see whales are popular in Mexico, and the Cabo whale-watching excursion we took on a previous visit, was nothing short of spectacular. While humpbacks are the most common species, grey, minke, and orcas are less common. 

The Bay of Banderas currently sees a population of about 920 humpbacks for the season. If you visit Puerto Vallarta in December, you’ll arrive at the ideal time to see whales (usually seen between December and March.)

Approaching Marietas Islands

As we got closer to the islands, the guides instructed us to use our reef-safe sunscreen because we could not use sunscreen spray inside the park boundaries.

The staff gave us wristbands, one indicating we had paid the fee to access the national park, and the other went to protecting and patrolling the area.

Those who wanted to snorkel were given fins and snorkel masks. During our excursion in mid-January, the staff said the water was cold.

I chose to snorkel, and my husband, Brian, fearing the cold water, stayed on the catamaran. Coming from Canada, I found the water warm at 77 F or 25 C.

Getting ready to snorkel
Getting ready to snorkel

Marietas Islands consists of two land masses. To the west, Isla Larga (Long Island) measures 400 m wide and 900 m long. Its neighbor, Isla Redonda or Round Island, is home to the underground crater beach, also known as “lovers beach.”

To snorkel, guests must wear life jackets, and free diving is forbidden. While snorkeling at Round Island, we could not swim up to the beach and access the land.

The Water Activities

Depending on the tour booked, guests can snorkel, scuba dive, kayak, or participate in stand-up paddle boarding. I took part in the snorkeling that the staff raved as excellent.

The area was said to contain manta rays, sea turtles, eels, puffer fish, damselfish, and some other varieties that weren’t familiar to me.

Bay of Banderas fish guide
Bay of Banderas fish guide

Once in the water, we followed the staff to the snorkeling spot, inside a roped area. The seas were slightly rough, which stirred up the sandy bottom affecting the overall visibility.

I, like many others, asked where the fish were. We were told they were closer to the beach, so I swam into the shallow area.

With rough water and jagged rocks beneath me, I didn’t see much fish and didn’t linger long for fear of being injured by the jagged rocks.

As I swam away from the rocks, a woman near me got stung by a jellyfish twice! After the incident, staff requested we move away from the area.

Snorkeling at Marietas Islands
Snorkeling at Marietas Islands

A couple of the staff members photographed the snorkelers. They seemed to photograph the “couples” and not the single swimmers.

These images were available for purchase for USD 20 each or USD 140 for all files. Once purchased, you’d receive your photos by email.

We spent about 30 minutes in the water before we had to leave to make way for the next tour. As we swam into deeper water, I could see a few more fish, and visibility was slightly better.

Snorkelers had to wait by the roped area for a smaller to pick them up. Once the boat was full, it took us back to the catamaran in deeper waters.

While the tour was sold as a snorkeling tour, I’d rate the snorkel as a 2/10. However, whale watching and wildlife viewing above the water was outstanding and well worth the adventure.

Lunch Buffet

Buffet lunch on the tour boat
Buffet lunch

After the swim, a buffet lunch welcomed us onboard. The lunch consisted of buns to make a sandwich, sliced meat, cheese, salad, potato salad, pasta salad, roasted peppers and onions, fresh fruit, and cheesecake.

While it was nothing fancy, the food was fresh. After the snorkel, the staff offered alcoholic drinks, and I tried a margarita which was good.

As I was eating, my husband, Brian, opted to try a bit of kayaking. With choppy waters, the conditions weren’t ideal for kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding.

Brian kayaking at Marietas Islands
Brian kayaking at Marietas Islands

Touring Marietas Islands From The Boat

Leaving the snorkeling area, the Islas Marietas tour continued along the island. This is when you can appreciate the rugged beauty of the area. Isla Redonda is reminiscent of Swiss cheese, with lots of holes.

Some of the caverns and holes were probably created by explosives years ago. However, our tour guide explains the holes in the islands continue to erode by wind and waves.

The tops of the rocky terrain are relatively flat, with Bromelias and other plant species.

The islands are Mexico’s version of the Galapagos Islands, with good reason. Everywhere I looked, there were birds who favored the islands as a breeding ground.

Booby birds on the rugged cliffs
Booby birds on the rugged cliffs

Various birds sat on the craggy cliffs, and I could tell they favored those spots due to the abundance of white bird droppings that stained the rocks.

On an Islas Marietas tour, you might spot the following birds:

Brandt’s CormorantsBridled Terns
Brown PelicanRed-billed Tropicbirds
Brown NoddyMagnificent Frigatebirds
Brown BoobiesSnowy Egrets
Blue and yellow-footed BoobiesHerons
A Blue-footed Booby bird
A Blue-footed Booby bird

Many bird watchers come to Marietas Islands to see the Blue-footed Boobies, which stand out in the crowd of brown-feathered friends. Visitors can spot the Boobies throughout the year without going to the Galapagos Islands.

Further along the coastline, we saw sea caves and the secret beach or Playa del Amor entrance. The Stone Arch, or El Arco de Piedra, looked the most interesting, and we watched a small boat go inside.

Playa del Amor

While our tour didn’t include the hidden beach access, we would not have gone if given the option. Watching the waves sweeping towards the tunnel that accesses the beach is a recipe for disaster.

Our tour guide explained that the trip should only be made by experienced swimmers who can swim against a strong current. Swimmers can only reach the beach during low tide and only have limited time to get out before access becomes filled by the ocean.

Playa del Amor at Marietas Islands
Playa del Amor at Marietas Islands

Our guide said the trip was dangerous. Those attempting it must wear a helmet to prevent head injuries and concussion as the waves force them into the cave’s ceiling.

Only 116 slots a day are available to make this treacherous trip, and swimmers must be in and out within a 30-minute time slot (including the swimming time to get there and back). Visitors can book a tour of the secret beach from Wednesdays to Sundays.

The Long Island (Isla Larga)

Before heading back to Puerto Vallarta, we swung by Long Island. Isla Larga is home to Cueva del Muerto (Deadman’s Cave), Arco de la Cueva del Muerto (Deadman’s Cave Arch), and more sea birds.

This island has many stunning sandy beaches, such as Playa La Nopalera and Playa Escalones de Piedra. La Bufadora, or blowhole, explodes with every powerful wave at the southern tip of the island.

Humpbacks at Marietas Islands
Humpbacks at Marietas Islands

Heading back to Puerto Vallarta, the drinks continued, and so did the whale-watching. While we had seen humpback whalebacks and tails in the early morning, we enjoyed the spectacular breaching that afternoon.

We returned to our cruise ship one hour late, making our tour 7-½ hours, and each of us agreed that it was a fantastic excursion. If you’re interested in taking a tour, the recommended companies are Vallarta Adventures (who we used) or Ecotours de Mexico.

Visiting Marietas Islands, a humpback whale and a Blue Footed Booby bird