The Marieta Islands, a small archipelago located in the Banderas Bay, are about an hour offshore from the Riviera Nayarit in Mexico. These rocky islands are known for their diverse marine life, bird-watching, and hidden beaches.
Las Islas Marietas (or the Marieta Islands in English) are a popular stop for people visiting Puerto Vallarta and the Riviera Nayarit for a few reasons. First, they’re a breeding ground for the blue-footed booby, a funny-sounding bird with aqua blue feet. There are almost 100 different species of birds that call these little islands home, and many more varieties of marine life that live in the surrounding protected waters.
There’s also La Playa del Amor, commonly called Hidden Beach because it’s only visible from above. To reach this small sandy area, you must swim through a 50-foot tunnel at low tide until the earth opens up, revealing a large hole in the middle of the island that opens up directly to the sand and water below.
While you may have been able to hire a small fishing boat and skip on over for a day at the islands previously, visits to the National Park are now highly regulated in order to protect both the bird habitats and the underwater ecosystem. The best way to visit the Marieta Islands now is by booking a tour.
About the Marieta Islands
To understand a bit about the Marieta Islands and the (literal) battle it’s been to protect them, I’ll give you a quick history. In the early 1900s, the Mexican military was looking for a convenient spot for target practice and figured that since these rocky ocean outcroppings in the Banderas Bay and just a few miles offshore were uninhabited, that they’d make do. So, they got busy dropping bombs, which is probably why these islands have a few extra caves and hidden beaches.
This finally ended when the famous French marine biologist Jacques Cousteau was working his way around Mexico and decided to see if there was anything cool hanging out on these small volcanic islands.
And guess what, there was. The Marieta Islands weren’t home to people, but they were to almost 100 different species of birds. He even found the blue-footed booby, which is why the Marieta Islands are sometimes referred to as the Mexican Galapagos (over half of all blue-footed boobies breed on the Galapagos near Ecuador).
Jacques Cousteau started a campaign to save the islands. The Mexican government stopped shelling the place, designated it as a national park, and started making efforts to preserve and protect the area.
Fast forward a few decades, and people started posting GoPro photos from the so-called “hidden beach” or “secret beach,” which is actually La Playa del Amor (Lover’s Beach). This sandy area with an almost perfectly circular opening above it exploded on social media, and, according to our guide, thousands of people were hopping on boats to visit this crazy cool natural wonder every day.
The Marieta Islands Tour with Ally Cat Sailing Adventures
Ally Cat Sailing Adventures is a local tour company started by Pancho, a Puerto Vallarta native with a love of sailing and the sea. The company now has several sleek catamarans and a great crew, and they make trips to the Marieta Islands almost daily. This Marieta Islands tour is all-inclusive, so food, drinks, snorkel gear, SUP boards and everything else you’d want is included.
The itinerary for Las Islas Marietas Tour includes a visit to a beautiful beach to swim and explore sea caves, snorkeling and SUP boarding around the islands, and a stop just to dive off the boat and play in the ocean before heading back to the marina.
A Quick Note about the Famous Lover’s Beach
This tour DOES NOT stop at the famous Lover’s Beach (la Playa del Amor), which is probably what made you want to visit the Marieta Islands in the first place (at least that’s what sparked our initial interest). Even if you can’t visit this one spot, there’s so much to explore around the Marieta Islands and a tour with Ally Cat Sailing Adventures is definitely worth it!
Like we said before, up until a few years ago, that tiny circle of sand was getting hundreds of visitors a day, all swimming back and forth through a narrow tunnel at low tide, creating a dangerous traffic jam. So many tourists took a toll on the ecosystem and they were worried about drownings with the increasing number of people in the water at once, so the park started to regulate visits and require permits.
This specific beach was closed down for a period of restoration, and now that it’s reopened, only 120 people can visit a day with a proper permit. Each tour company can only go a few times a month. If you do have your heart set on going here, contact Ally Cat as soon as possible to find out what dates they offer this special tour. A lot of tour companies use a photo of Lover’s Beach to advertise their tours, but very few of them actually go there. Ally Cat does explicitly state which of its tours go there, but it’s always best to double check.
Also, note that there’s usually a minimum age requirement of 12 years old as you do have to swim through a 50-foot narrow passageway.
Setting sail from Marina in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle
The catamaran is docked in the Marina in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, so we met up with the crew and the rest of the people going on the tour at the boat since we were staying in nearby Bucerias. You can catch a ride to the marina with Ally Cat if you’re staying up near Sayulita.
They served fruit, breads, and juices until we were all aboard, and then we set sail on their new catamaran that’s less than a year old. We’ve gone on a lot of boat tours over the last year on small outrigger boats like the bangka boats in the Philippines, so this felt like the ultimate luxury to us. There was plenty of comfortable seating for everyone.
The Ally Cat Crew
The captain and crew at Ally Cat are really what made this trip to the Marieta Islands incredible. Booey, who leads the crew, was both informative and fun. He told us all about how the Banderas Bay used to be a volcano, and the massive mountains that ring the bay were probably what formed the edge of the crater thousands of years ago. Now the shallow areas in the bay are a popular breeding area for Humpback whales. They estimated over 700 whales migrated to the Banderas Bay last year to birth their calves last winter.
A few members of the crew head out to Islas Marietas National Park on Mondays when it’s closed to visitors to help with any cleanup and preservation. We talked to a few of the crew that was well-versed in marine biology, a told us all about the fish and marine life around the islands.
One of the best parts was our friendly captain, who was more than happy to share the steering wheel with the kids on board, including Hudson. He kept a careful eye, but was totally relaxed with the kids hopping on to the captain’s chair to take a turn navigating.
Beach stop at the Marieta Islands
It took about an hour and a half moving across the calm waters of the bay to reach the Marietas Islands. I’m pretty prone to seasickness, but this was really smooth sailing since the waves were small and the boat is pretty big. Plus, it’s a fairly relaxed pace, so it’s not like you’re getting tossed around.
After cruising around a part of the island to spot the blue-footed boobies, we dropped anchor and took a smaller boat closer to the island for a beach stop. We swam ashore, explored a few sea caves and floated in the warm water.
Snorkeling in crystal clear water
After that, we hopped back on the small boat to head over to the snorkel spot. One of the requirements of Islas Marietas National Park is that you have to wear a life jacket and you can’t free dive, so you have to stay on the water surface when snorkeling. I thought we might not be able to see much, but this was some of the best water visibility I’ve ever seen. Even in spots where the ocean floor was several meters down, you could still see a ton of fish. We spotted a huge moray eel and saw a lot of bright yellow Mexican goatfish and Blacknosed butterflyfish. The water is really calm here too, so it was easy to swim around with our young son while we snorkeled.
Lunch is Served
We made our way back to the boat for lunchtime. While I don’t typically book a boat tour for the food, the snacks and lunch freshly prepared by the onboard chef Chovo Chovo were delicious. When they said his guacamole was good, they weren’t kidding! He made rice, beans, chicken fajitas, cooked vegetables – it all tasted amazing and was pretty healthy. Since this is an all-inclusive tour, there’s also an open bar for drinks and smoothies.
After lunch, we jumped back in the water to cool off and take out the SUP boards around the island.
Ending with a splash
We made our way back to the marina, but took our time cruising back, and even stopped for a half hour or so to pull out the lily pads, SUP boards, and dive off the boat. You can tell the crew gets plenty of practice with their canon balls, they definitely made the biggest splashes!
Thank you to Ally Cat Sailing Adventures for hosting us on this tour! Regardless of our affiliation, we share our actual experiences and based on that, we would highly recommend this Marieta Islands tour. If you would like to book a tour, check out the Ally Cat website here.