group of small uninhabited islands in Mexico

Islas Marietas National Park is a group of islands in the Bahia Banderas along Mexico's Pacific Coast. There are two major islands, Isla Redonda and Isla Larga, as well as several smaller islands. The islands as well as nearby reefs constitute the national park, which is also designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and is designated Ramsar wetland site. The islands are a popular day trip destination from Puerto Vallarta and Punta Mita and are also popular scuba diving sites.

Playa del Amor, Islas Marietas, Mexico

Understand edit

This park should call itself, The park that social media tried to kill.

Marieta Islands was added to the Mexico national parks system in 1969 after famous French marine biologist, Jacques Cousteau, brought attention to the military's use of the islands as a bombing range. Just in case Mexico ever declared war against seals and dolphins, the army needed to be ready, so they dropped all kinds of bombs on the Marieta Islands over a period of several decades. One of the bombs created a gigantic crater totally encircled by rock with a hidden beach inside (some refer to this place as the "hidden island" because you don't see it from a boat and can't get to it by land. The island is called Lovers Island or Isla de Amor because its remote, hidden nature made it a very private, not to mention exclusive scenic spot. It's the park's most iconic location.

In 2012, pictures of Isla de Amor appeared on Instagram, and then snapshots of other photogenic formations starting popping up, and suddenly everyone wanted a selfie on the beach, or at least in the park. Suddenly a park that could sustain, at most, 600 visitors per day was getting up to 10,000 visitors per day. Tourists were hiring every panga in Puerto Vallarta or Nayarit to take them to the park.

Boatmen were dropping anchors on top of fragile reefs while tourists caked themselves in reef-destroying sunblocks before diving in to the pristine waters to see the colorful fish who thrived in the island ecosystem. Picnickers were leaving trash everywhere and chasing off the aquatic birds who nested on the islands.

In 2016, the Mexican government stepped in and closed the park completely to all tourists. No boat operators could take visitors to the islands.

The park is now re-opened to tourism, but with tight regulations and strict limits on which boat operators are permitted to go to the islands and how many visitors they are allowed to take. Licensed tour operators can bring up to 116 tourists per day to Isla de Amor (that's for all tour operators, not per operator).

Landscape edit

Caves on the Islas Marietas

The islands are barren volcanic rock and were created about 60,000 years ago. Many of the islands are riddled with caves, some only apparent at low tide.

Most of the islands are very small. The two largest (Isla Larga and Isla Redonda) are situated about 900 meters apart. Isla Larga is about 1 km in length and half a kilometer in width. Isla Redonda is just slightly smaller.

Flora and fauna edit

Brown boobies nesting in Islas Marietas National Park

The barren, rocky islands 8km offshore might seem an inhospitable place, but it's an ideal location for birds and a host of aquatic species. Many species of seabirds feed in the warm waters and nest on the islands, including several species of boobies (genus Sulidae).

Scuba divers can see a variety of tropical fish living in the reefs, as well as eels and sea turtles and manta rays. Dolphins are a common site in the Marietas and humpbacks and other whales are often seen around the islands. Grey and humpback whales give birth in this area between December and March.

15 species of coral form the reefs around the island. Divers will also spot a wide range of mollusks, such as the giant Mexican limpet, cup-and-saucer snail, burra clam, ink snail, and the pearl oyster.

Among the rocky niches and crevices are a few hardy species of reptiles including the spiny tail iguana and a few kinds of snakes including the night snake and the neotropical whipsnake.

Get in edit

The islands are located 8 km off the coast of Punta Mita. A very small number of tour boats run by companies with a license from SEMARNAT can take tourists to the islands. Scuba dive shops can also take divers to the reefs (but can not land on the islands). There are also tours that will take you out to the waters for kayaking around the islands (but that won't land or won't take you to the Playa del Amor---ask about the itinerary before paying for a trip you don't really want). Boats can leave from Puerto Vallarta (a 60-minute+ crossing), Nuevo Vallarta, Bucerias or from Punta Mita (a 15-minute crossing).

Note that if you plan to visit the hidden "Love Beach" you will need to make reservations in advance because spaces are very limited. Even if you have reservations, your trip could get cancelled due to tides, weather or other factors.

Fees and permits edit

In addition to the cost of hiring a tour operator to take you to the islands, you will have to pay a M$100 fee that includes the government-imposed park admission fee as well as a conservation donation. Each visitor to the park must display a wrist band (licensed tour operators are provided with a set limit of wrist bands per day). Visitors to the Love Beach must wear an issued life jacket and helmet (easily identifiable by park police).

The park is closed to tours on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Get around edit

Licensed boats can be arranged in Punta Mita and Puerto Vallarta.

Do not try to rent a boat and sail out to the islands on your own. This was allowed prior to 2016 but is now prohibited.

See edit

  • Deadman's Cave (Cueva de Muerto)
  • La Bufadora (The Blowhole), a natural cave through the rock sends up a geyser of sea water every time a big wave hits the island.

Do edit

  • Hike the interpretive trail on the northwest end of Isla Larga, starting at Playa la Nopalera. The trail is only about a half kilometer, but it gives you a chance to see the island landscape up close as well as maybe catching a glimpse of some of the reptilian critters that live there.
  • Isla/Playa de Amor, the famous "hidden beach" is available to a lucky few when conditions are right. Tour operators will show you where the access tunnel is located. You'll have to be in fairly good physical shape and a strong swimmer because the boat will stay about 100 feet offshore while you swim to the tunnel, then experience a bit of claustrophobia as your head bangs against the stone ceiling for about 50 feet (relax, helmets are furnished). You won't be allowed to do it if you're not independently mobile You must be over age 12 and under age 65, and not pregnant. You will also be given a strict time limit (generally 30 minutes), so the stronger swimmer you are, the more time you'll have to take your selfies. There are other conditions, but the tour operator will explain it.
  • Dive the reefs around the islands.

Eat edit

Food and drink are available in Puerto Vallarta or Punta Mita, but if you bring anything into the park, bring it back out.

Drink edit

Be aware that throw-away bottles and cans are prohibited (including bottled water, unless provided by the tour operator). Re-usable water bottles are generally encouraged (but confirm the rules with your tour operator).

Sleep edit

See Puerto Vallarta and nearby destinations for hotel recommendations. There is no overnight accommodation within the park.

Stay safe edit

Be aware that most sunblocks are prohibited in the park. Ask your tour operator about current rules regarding lotions and which brands of reef-safe sunblock might be allowed. Wear a hat and shirt when not in the water.

Go next edit

This park travel guide to Islas Marietas 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.