11 Reasons To Travel To Islas Marietas

Islas Marietas or Marietas Islands, are a group of uninhabited islands off the Pacific coast of Mexico, about an hour from Puerto Vallarta. It is internationally known for its beauty and abundance of wildlife. But would I recommend it? Duh! Here’s some history, some context, and:

11 Reasons To Travel To Islas Marietas

Islas Marietas-Hole
Our boat could fit right through and under there. Islas Marietas, Mexico.

1. Islas Marietas Is An Environmentally Protected Region

In the 1900s, the Mexican government used Islas Marietas for military testing since they were uninhabited. After scientist, Jacque Cousteau, visited and generated public outcry, the Mexican government declared the islands a national park and protected the region.

This has allowed an abundance of wild life and flora and fauna to form, including the infamous and hard to find blue-footed booby. The biodiversity is said to be parallel to the Galapagos Islands and one of the best in the world.

Islas Marietas-Hidden Beach
Hidden Beach or Playa Amor, Islas Marietas

2. Islas Marietas Are A Whale Watchers Dream

Whale season occurs December to March and tourists can observe the humpback whales migrating to the area to breed. I went in November and personally didn’t see any, but my friends who went the day before saw both humpback whales and dolphins.

Islas Marietas-Waves
This is San Pancho Beach, don’t let me fake you out

3. Islas Marietas Has A “Hidden Beach” That Can Only Be Accessed At Low Tide

The military testing caused caves and holes to form on the island. One of them included opening up a “secret” or “hidden” beach that they call Playa de Amor or Love Beach.

The island is only accessible during low tide because you must swim through a cave to get to the beach. Once the tide rises, it cuts off access to the cave and you can’t get to the beach.

islas marietas
This is an aerial view of the beach. You can only access it by swimming through the save under the island. Photo from Puerto Vallarta.net

Only about 60 people are allowed to access the beach a day as that is how many government bands are released by the Mexican government and are available at the Cooperativos (at least as was explained to me November 2018). Once you get to the island by boat, you will drive past Coast Guard boats at the check-in who will make sure you have a band and then issue you helmets and life jackets to swim through the cave.

Yes, it is a hard swim because you’re swimming against the tide. Yes, it is completely doable even if you can’t swim that well.

Islas Marietas-Cave
Made it through that cave!

4. Islas Marietas Benefits Mexican People

The Mexican government only allows a few (something like three) companies to sell boat tickets to Islas Marietas. These companies are part of a cooperative so that they are not competing for prices, but are paying their guides and organizers a fair wage.

At 1700 pesos or $85-95 it is on the expensive non-budget end, but considering the tour lasts 3-4 hours and you’re on a boat basking in the sunlight amongst coral reefs and gorgeous landscapes, I’d say totally worth it. And you can feel good about your tourism dollars participating in ethical practices that benefit the locals in the region.

Islas Marietas-Mexican Fruit Vendor

I should also mention that this is the price ONLY if you want to access the Hidden Beach. You can go for much, much less than that if you simply want to boat past the islands and go to other beaches on the island. You do not need to go to the Coopertivos for simple boat rides.

If you do want to get to the island, go to the Coopertivo in the city of Punta Mita. Just ask around and someone will point you there. There will be lots of people along the way trying to sell you tickets to the island, but keep in mind those may be companies that are not registered and thereby can’t actually take you ON the island. They’ll just drive past it in the boat and point it out to you.

The boats leave from Punta Mita. There are other boats that leave from Puerto Vallarta, but I’m not sure about any of that.

Islas Marietas-Truck of pineapples

5. Islas Marietas Participates In Ethical Tourism Practices

When I tell you the Mexican government is serious about protecting this area, they are serious. Putting not only a cap on the number of people who can access the island a day, but also a time limit. You have 20-30 minutes to enjoy the island and then you are summoned off. This gives the coral time to breath and continues to maintain the habitat.

Sound insane? Maybe. But this was due to a response in 2012 when the number of tourists exceeded to 127,372 people a year, which participated in the degradation of not only the island but the biosphere. Compare that to now with the 15,660 that are allowed a year.

In addition, Islas Marietas even gets their own vacation by having Mondays and Tuesdays off. No tourists are allowed to access the islands at this time. Don’t be basic like me and show up on a Monday and have to return back on a Thursday.

With that said 30 minutes is more than enough time to take some pics and hang out for a bit before swimming back through the cave and onto more exciting things like island hopping and snorkeling (which is A1, btw).

Islas Marietas-Sayulita Flags
Sayulita, Mexico

6. You Can Get A Couple’s Massage While You Wait For Your Islas Marietas Tour

The tours to Islas Marietas leave around 11AM (time is dependent on tide so subject to change). While you’re waiting for your boat to leave, you can stop by the many massage parlors along the way and treatcho’ self.

I am a digital strategist so I sit at a computer for more hours a day than I’d like to admit. So my neck is often stuck in one position or another. Well, my boyfriend and I got an hour-long couple’s massage for $80 USD for BOTH of us. And when I tell you she beat that kink out of my neck, ya girl was moving her head around like a straight bobble head. Highly recommended.

Islas Marietas-San Pancho
This photo has nothing to do with massages. Swimsuit by Chamorrita Swimwear based in Guam.

7. Islas Marietas Is Easy To Access Using Public Transport

Public transport in Mexico is extremely affordable because it is what locals use. Because of this, I highly recommend it. It was extremely efficient and easy to manage.

(Note: If you are going to use public transport as a tourist, please be aware that you are not really supposed to be there. So if it is crowded, be sure to stand up and give up your seat and make space for locals who have to use the bus everyday and are carrying around large packages. Or be a basic bitch. Your choice.)

Islas Marietas-Trucks

How I got to Islas Marietas from Sayulita

(this may not be the most efficient way, but I was basing out of Sayulita so here goes…)

From Puerto Vallarta airport, exit the terminal and turn to the left. Walk over the pedestrian bridge. On that side, there’s a bus stop. Buses will roll past every 20 minutes. Look for the one that has SAYULITA or BUCERIAS written on the window. The cost is 42 pesos or $2.

You will enter the town of Bucerias first. There will be signs everywhere that say Bucerias but NO ONE will actually tell you you’re in Bucerias; so either ask or look around you and be alert. It takes about 35 minutes to get there from the airport.

Once in Bucerias, get off and the cross the highway. On the other side, it’s the same situation. Buses will be going in the opposite direction toward PUNTA MITA, there’s no real bus stop, but you’ll see the buses go past. The buses will have written on their window their destinations or will stop when they see you standing on the side of the road and you can yell out your destination. They will either shake their head or nod their head. The cost from Bucerias to Punta Mita is 15 pesos or less than $1. The drivers do give change.

Punta Mita is the end of the line. You’ll have to get off. Stop and get some street tacos, then continue on your way down the hill to the beach. Once you get to the beach, make a left and walk all the way down to the Cooperativo. That’s where you can buy your tickets.

On the way back, do the same thing in reverse! Getting to Islas Marietas by public transport takes only $3 and 45 minutes to an hour.

Islas Marietas-Cave View
Here we are all washing ashore in our life jackets.

8. Islas Marietas Is Super Close To Bucerias Shopping

Wait, but while you’re in Bucerias, why don’t you do some shopping? There’s a huge market here for pretty much anything Mexican craft related. From handmade hammocks to handmade Huichol beadwork to Oaxacan textiles. This market also had the best prices in the Nayarit strip.

There are also lots of public dental offices in the area if you want to stop by for a $25 teeth clean. (Note: if you’re a tourist using public dental offices, you really shouldn’t be there. If there is a line for the dentist, let locals go first.)

I do all of my bi-annual teeth cleans in Mexico and really love it. Would recommend. No insurance required.

Islas Marietas-Street tacos
But first, let us eat a taco. Or 7. P.S. if you don’t get that maracuya agua fresca, who even are you?

9. You Can Go To Islas Marietas From Sayulita

Sayulita means “place of mosquitoes” in Nuahtl. This region was originally inhabited by 40 different indigenous communities of which the Huichol and Cora are the main indigenous groups that survived colonization. Later, it was known for coconut oil production. Then some White people discovered it and it became a “sleepy surf town”.

Well let me tell you, sleepy it is no more. It might as well be Playa del Carmen. There’s night clubs, fancy restaurants, and the only Mexicans you’ll see are in places of servitude. Sayulita is NOT a sleepy surf town nor is it something I would really call “authentic”. I mean, when I say tourists are problematic here, these are some things I observed:

Islas Marietas-Sayulita streets
Beautiful streets of Sayulita, Mexico
  • Two basic bitch tourists parked their car in front of a Mexican business owner’s store, blocking his loading zone and ability to receive goods. He asked them to move their car. They said there wasn’t a sign, so they got out of the car, left it parked there, and walked away. That’s a Master Level Basictry And Revoke Of Privilege situation right there!
  • Two different basic bitch tourists drunkenly drove a golf cart up and down Sayulita’s streets screaming, being obnoxious and disruptive to the local peoples living in the area. Just because this isn’t your home, doesn’t mean you need to come here and act like that.
  • Upon checking into my Airbnb, I apologized to the house sitter saying, “Sorry, I might smell, I just walked a long way,” and his response was, “It’s OK, it’s Mexico, everyone smells.” Sorry sir, I won’t be complicit in your stereotypical and insulting portrayals of the very people allowing you and helping you live here with your basic ass self. In addition to that basictry, not only did we find a massive scorpion, but also a water scorpion/crab/spider metamorphosis creature thing drop out of the ceiling. So issa no for me dawg. Keeping that link to myself.
Islas Marietas-Surfing
Sayulita for surfing? Nah, miss me with that skin infection.

A warning that the water is extremely dirty and known to give people skin infections. Would not recommend it at all.

The only thing I recommend in this city are: taking this basic ass picture where these beautiful papel picado line the skies.

Islas Marietas-Sayulita-Papel Picado
If your boyfriend doesn’t get on the floor to get this pic, find a new boyfriend.

And observing the Huichol’s art pieces as they have left their mark all over Sayulita with “eye of God” yarn work hanging all around the city. They also sell their beadwork at “Hippy Market” near the bridge in town. Also would recommend a stop there.

Islas Marietas-Sayulita-Huichol
Huichol yarn work. Eye of God.

10. Visit Islas Marietas, Sayulita, and Go To The Dentist All In One Trip

The one good thing Sayulita had to offer was amazing medical tourism. If you’re against Medical Tourism, then you’re privileged, and have never lived without medical insurance in the United States and need to get the fuck off my page.

Anyway, I booked an appointment with Dr. Carla and was a little skeptical because her prices were pretty “high” for what I’m used to paying. But for a $20 doctor’s visit and diagnosis, she was THE MOST thorough dentist I’ve ever had. Explaining from A to Z what was wrong with my teeth, pointing out I had a fractured tooth, and offering to make a mouth guard overnight for $100. Would totally come back just for her expertise. In addition, she filled my boyfriend’s cavity for $40-50 that also came with a complete diagnosis and suggestions for prevention of other things. You can contact her at dentalofficesayulita@gmail.com

Islas Marietas-Sayulita pinapples

11. San Pancho For The Beaches

But finally! All is not lost with the city of San Pancho! San Pancho is easily accessible from Islas Marietas, only a 10 minute drive from Sayulita, and reachable by public transportation for $1. Just go to the bus stop in Sayulita and buy a ticket for San Pancho and they will notify you when you need to get off. Just be sure to tell your bus driver your destination ahead of time.

Once the bus drops you off on the side of the road, cross the highway and go down the one and only street in San Pancho. It will lead you to the beach. On the way there, you’ll see most people get around by skateboard. How cute is that!

Islas Marietas- San Pancho Beach
Oh, so clean!

The beach is great. Perfect for advanced surfers. I thought I was going to surf, then I saw the waves and how strong the current was and tapped out, respectfully. However, swimming in the beach was magical. The beach was clean, pristine, and the water blue. My boyfriend and I just sat and watched the waves until sunset pretty much all day. It was that mesmerizing.

We also stayed in this ADORABLE Airstream trailer for around $35/night. The entire complex was hidden behind an unsuspecting gate, but behind it was a tree house complete with kitchen and bathroom, RV, and Airstream trailer that had its own private patio and bathtub. It even had hot water and AC! We loved it. Wished we had spent more time here than in Sayulita.

The owner is a French man who ended up falling in love with a Mexican woman and now they live together nearby. He constructed this entire complex by hand and is so helpful and incredibly courteous.

Islas Marietas-Airstream Trailer San Pancho

We also loved San Pancho because the foreign tourists here were far less problematic than Sayulita.

  • The foreign occupants here preferred to speak in Spanish, even when they were being answered in English. I appreciated their efforts to adapt to the local language instead of complaining that no one spoke English in a Spanish-speaking country. Sayulita was the opposite.
  • They actively engaged in community by participating in activities and social norms with locals. Just on observation, you can see how local Mexicans were comfortable interacting with them as equals as they both ran out and got their surfboards to catch waves TOGETHER. It helps to treat locals as equals with basic respect rather than servitude.
  • We also overhead a man advocating for Mexicans as his mom was wheeled into the doctor’s office and he saw a line. He asked if the local people could go first, his mom could just deal with her broken hip until everyone else was seen. The doctor respectfully told him that none of the people in the waiting room were dealing with an emergency like a broken hip. In addition, the people waiting later went to check on him and his mom to see if they were okay. That’s what I call community!

So yea, overall, I would totally recommend San Pancho. It’s just more my vibe, ya know? Granted it’s a little basic and is definitely built for tourism, but I enjoyed it. I could see it getting boring with only one street and not much to do, but if you’re looking just to zone out, this is totally the place to be.

Islas Marietas-Swimsuit Beach

For plane ticket, accommodations, food and activities included, we spent $450/person for 5 days. Our tickets were $260. So that’s about $40 a day everything included.

If you have any comments, updates, or other suggestions for other travelers to read, please don’t be shy to drop them below!

About The Author

Kiona isn’ t an expert on Mexico. She isn’t even Mexican. She’s just out here trying to live her best life and do it in the least basic way possible. You are welcome to ignore everything she says. Travel and find out yourself. You can follow her on social media below:

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