Islas Marías is a cluster of islands in the Pacific Ocean 100 km off the coast of Nayarit, Mexico. The largest of the islands was used as a penal colony and federal prison for most of the 20th century. The prison closed in 2019 and the islands have been opened to tourism for those looking for a unique and definitely "off the beaten path" weekend destination. The islands are home to a range of plant and animal life, including several endemic species found nowhere else on earth. The islands are a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The island's main town, Puerto Balleto, has been designated as one of Mexico's Pueblos Mágicos.

Understand edit

Nine islands make the Islas Marías, but only 4 are much larger than a rock. The only island with any structures or humans is Isla María Madre. The main town (really the only town) is Puerto Balleto. It's where the ferry boats dock and where life on the island is centered.

The islands are unlike most tourist destinations. There are a lot of rules about what you can do, where you can go, etc. Some of the rules are because it's a protected natural reserve, intended to protect wildlife. Some of the rules are because the islands are a government installation that's historically been run as a prison and is now managed under military authority (in fact, the ferries are operated by the Mexican Navy). The rules start before you even get to the island: no food is allowed to be brought with you and you're limited to one 10 kg carry-on bag.

History edit

The three largest islands are referred to as las Tres Marías, taking their names from three Marys in the Holy Bible: Maria Madre for Mary, mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Mary, wife of Cleopus.

The federal prison was built in 1905 and housed quite a few murderers, kidnappers and other violent criminals, as well as a few political dissidents who fell afoul of the political powers that be. One of the prison's more famous prisoners was writer Jose Revueltas, whose participation in political demonstrations landed him in prison, where he wrote the novel, Los Muros de Agua.

Landscape edit

Four main islands make up the Islas Marías. The largest, Isla Maria Madre covers an area of 70 km². The island is covered in dry tropical forest with a geology of volcanic rock and a hilly landscape with a peak elevation of 616 m.

Flora and fauna edit

Tres Marias amazon

The islands are home to 38 species of native land birds, 24 of which are considered endemic subspecies (including the Tres Marias amazon parrot and the Tres Marias hummingbird). There is one species of reptile and five species of mammal (four endemic subspecies, of which the Tres Marias raccoon is endangered).

Climate edit

Islas Marías has a warm, dry climate with a mean temperature of 30 °C. April through June are the warmest months with temperatures sometimes exceeding 35 °C, while December through February are the coldest months with temperatures below 25 °C. Although most months are dry with negligible rainfalls, July through September are the wettest months with occasional short rain showers.

Get in edit

Map of Islas Marias

By boat edit

The only way to get to Islas Marías is by boat, and there's only one ferry per week. The ferry goes to the island on Friday and returns on Sunday. Two Fridays per month, it departs from San Blas. Two Fridays, it departs from Mazatlan. Ferry reservations are required and usually include round-trip transportation to the island, two nights accommodation, all meals, and tours on the island. Reservations start at M$8662 per person (2024) and can go up depending on the type of room you choose and the type of seat on the ferry. Details and reservations are available on the Islas Marías web site.

Fees and permits edit

Fees are included in your reservation package.

Get around edit

Transportation around the island is typically by boat and is included in the tour price. Some tours will be by bus. Walking is the best way to get around in Puerto Balleto, though bikes are more fun and give you greater range. Bike rentals are available for M$100 (2024).

See edit

  • 1 Muelle (Pier), Puerto Balleto. Long pier. As passengers disembark and walk into town, they pass through colorful arches welcoming them to Puerto Balleto.
  • 2 Museo iSma, Puerto Balleto. Small historical museum with exhibits charting the history of the island and its famous prison. Imagine what it was like to be sentenced to years on the island, without visitors, working under the hot sun.
  • 3 Lighthouse, Puerto Balleto. Perched atop a ridge at one end of Puerto Balleto is a red and white lighthouse above a large, single-story contemporary lighthouse keeper's house. The lighthouse is not open to visitors, as of 2024. The lighthouse is a 10-minute hike from downtown and offers spectacular sunrise views.
  • 4 Monument to Christ King (Cristo Rey), Puerto Balleto. High atop a bluff overlooking the town and harbor below is a statue of Jesus with his arms outstretched, similar to the famous statue of Christ overlooking Rio de Janeiro. Stairways let visitors climb up the pedestal to the base of the statue. Access is provided only by guided tours departing from Puerto Balleto. Independent hikes to the monument are not permitted.
  • 5 Casa de Gobierno (Government House), Puerto Balleto airstrip. Historical structure, operated as a cultural center. Visitors can see it as part of a guided tour.

Do edit

  • 1 Laguna del Toro (Federal Penitentiary). Visit the former maximum security prison areas and see how convicts did hard time on the island. The cells are dark and gloomy and inmates were allowed just 15 minutes a day outdoors. The prison housed several notorious drug cartel figures in the early 2000s.
  • 2 Calera. Old salt works where prisoners once worked the lagoons and salt flats to harvest salt. Scenic views.
  • 3 Punta Halcones.

Beaches edit

  • 4 Playa Delfines.
  • 5 Playa Caleras.
  • 6 Playa Chapingo. Close to town and the only beach where swimming is allowed. Lifeguards are on duty and palapas provide shade while beer and other cold drinks are available (cash only, and that means pesos; no dollars or euros).

Buy edit

There is a small Mexican artesanias shop, specializing in crafts from Nayarit. Cash only, no credit cards. There is no ATM on the island, so get cash before boarding the ferry in San Blas or Mazatlan.

Eat edit

The only place to eat on the island is the cafeteria (you paid for 3 meals a day with your reservations, so eat up!) Food is plentiful and good, and special dietary requests are honored when possible.

Drink edit

The cafeteria has a bar area serving beer and mixed drinks in the evening.

Sleep edit

Rooms are provided as part of pre-booked reservations. Housing is in renovated dorms (called "hostel" rooms) and homes that once housed government officials. Most rooms are comfortable, though minimally equipped. All are air-conditioned.

Stay safe edit

Islas Marías is very safe with no significant crime. Security is provided by the Mexican Navy.

Normal outdoor hazards apply, so bring a hat, sunblock and suitable clothing for the season. Sunglasses are advised.

Connect edit

There is no cell service on the islands. There is limited internet service with something like WiFi in the accommodations, but its slow and won't do much more than send and receive a few text messages. Good thing real life is so much more interesting than anything online.

Go next edit

This park travel guide to Islas Marias is a usable article. It has information about the park, for getting in, about a few attractions, and about accommodations in the park. An adventurous person could use this article, but please feel free to improve it by editing the page.