Planning a cruise that stops in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico? A shore excursion to the Marietas Islands is a wonderful way to spend the day.
I recently had the pleasure of touring the beautiful Marietas Islands with Mr. SBC on our Carnival Panorama cruise along the Mexican Riviera, on the Eco Discovery Tour with Vallarta Adventures.
In addition to snorkeling the islands’ protected reefs, our seven-hour tour also included other water sports, a birdwatching tour, a buffet lunch, and entertainment. Here’s everything you need to know about this fun day trip from Puerto Vallarta.
Where are the Marietas Islands located?
The Marietas Islands (Islas Marietas in Spanish) are a pair of uninhabited islands in the Bahía de Banderas, northwest of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
By catamaran, the islands are about an hour away from Puerto Mágico, the cruise port in Vallarta. They’re also just a 15-minute boat ride from Punta Mita (near Sayulita), another popular vacation spot in this part of Mexico.
Check the price and buy tickets for a similar Marietas Islands excursion from Sayulita
What are the Marietas Islands famous for?
The Marietas Islands are a Mexican national park that was once a military testing ground. During the early 20th century, the Mexican government tested bombs and explosives on the islands, creating caves and craters. But by the 1960s, a massive campaign started by Jacques Cousteau forced the government to stop bombing and declare the island a national park.
The Marietas, sometimes referred to as “Mexico’s Galápagos“, are home to 44 species of wildlife and plants. Many seabirds, including red-billed tropicbirds and rare blue-footed boobies, use the islands as a feeding and breeding ground.
This UNESCO biosphere reserve and Ramsar site hosts many varieties of coral, around which schools of tropical reef fish, eels, and sea turtles live. Dolphins and manta rays also live in the waters surrounding the islands, joined by humpback whales in the winter months.
In recent years, the islands have become even more famous as the home of the Hidden Beach, also called Playa del Amor. This gorgeous beach inside a crater can only be reached by swimming through a cave!
Park authorities only allow a small number of visitors to Hidden Beach each day, and it wasn’t a part of our tour. But I’ll include a stock photo so you can see just why this unusual beach has made the Marietas so famous!
Getting to the Marietas Islands Eco Discovery Tour in Puerto Vallarta
If you’re cruising to Puerto Vallarta, you’re in luck because the catamaran docks right at the cruise port! As you can see from my photo below, the tour boat was moored just steps from our ship.
If you’re not visiting Puerto Vallarta on a cruise, the port isn’t too far by taxi from the Zona Romantica or Centro (downtown Vallarta) where many popular hotels are located.
Just be sure to confirm your taxi fare before heading off to the port, and it’s more than OK to haggle over the price!
Amenities on the Vallarta Adventures catamaran
Our catamaran was clean and spacious, with plenty of room for our group of about 40 adventurers to spread out and relax on the hour-long ride to the islands and back.
Padded bench seating lines the perimeter of the boat, and there’s a large shaded area as well as uncovered seating at the bow for those who want to get some sun. Plastic deck chairs line the center of the boat to provide additional places to sit.
The catamaran features a large central bar with water and soft drink dispensers for self-service beverages, but the crew does walk around regularly with trays of drinks throughout the tour.
Open bar is included on this tour, but for obvious safety reasons the alcohol doesn’t flow until after everyone’s done with the water sports!
The boat also has two restrooms at the aft, behind the bar. They weren’t the cleanest toilets I’ve ever seen, but it was nice to have them available on such a long tour—especially to change into dry clothes after swimming.
Water sports on the Marietas Islands Eco Discovery tour
The opportunity to snorkel, SUP, and kayak in this beautiful location is the main reason most people book the Eco Discovery Tour shore excursion, and it’s a perfect spot for all of these water sports!
If you don’t have your own snorkel gear, the crew provides masks, snorkels, and flippers in various sizes. For those who don’t want to use a snorkel that’s been used before (they do clean them), you can purchase a fresh snorkel on board for a small fee.
As an avid snorkeler, I was so excited to explore the protected reefs around the Marietas. Mr. SBC also enjoys snorkeling but doesn’t feel as comfortable swimming right from a boat instead of from the beach. So he brought his inflatable snorkel vest for an added measure of safety and visibility.
However, we didn’t realize that because of state park regulations, all water sports participants need to wear an approved life jacket at all times. I get it—with larger groups of snorkelers it’s close to impossible for the crew to keep a close eye on everyone, and strict rules ensure that everyone’s safe.
But if having to wear a lifejacket while snorkeling is a dealbreaker for you, know that this is a strict rule with no exceptions. I normally would never knowingly book a tour where I had to wear one (snorkel vests at least don’t ride up and threaten to strangle you). But, access to the Marietas is very limited and it’s your only option if you want to snorkel there.
Access to the water for snorkeling is via a swim ladder—or you can just jump right in! I was one of the last in the water after dealing with some major adjustments to our life jacket straps, so the water was a little murky after so many swimmers were splashing around.
Everyone headed toward the island, where most of the coral reef is visible not too far beneath the ocean’s surface. But I swam for a bit in the area between the boat and the roped-off area for snorkelers. I was surprised to see so many colorful fish swimming in schools so close to the boat!
And these weren’t just tiny fishies—many were the size of my hand. Giant damselfish, surgeonfish, and plenty of fish I couldn’t even identify were happily going about their business just inches below me. I even spotted one of my favorite fish to see when snorkeling—the needlefish. Although they aren’t very colorful, long, slender needlefish look like they’re smiling and often jump right out of the water when hunting.
Once inside the roped-off snorkeling area, the fish were even more plentiful amongst the reefs. Don’t expect to see an abundance of colorful live corals—this is a heavy-traffic area, so it’s more like gray, craggy rock.
We didn’t kayak during the tour (I chose to spend more time snorkeling), but many guests used the two-person sea kayaks to explore the waters right near the boat.
There are a limited number of kayaks, so you can’t take them out for a long period of time, or try to go on an extended paddle around the islands.
The spot where our catamaran moored wasn’t close to a beach (and access to the island is restricted), so you also can’t take a kayak to shore and explore the terrain. Any adventurous rule-breakers would be quickly stopped by the eagle-eyed park authorities who patrol the area by boat.
Stand-up paddle boarding (SUP)
Something I had never tried before was stand-up paddle boarding, or SUP. The boat only has a few boards for all of the guests, so I had to wait a while for a board to become available.
If you’ve never tried SUP before, the crew is great with helping newbies. Most of the guests on our tour also fell into this category, so I didn’t feel uncomfortable being a first-timer.
SUP is way harder than it looks! Just balancing on the board while kneeling (and trying not to crash into anything) was quite a workout for my core. I’ll admit I didn’t feel confident enough to try to actually stand up (maybe next time!) but it was a nice intro to SUP in a beautiful location.
Lunch on the Marietas Islands Eco Discovery tour
I’ve been on hundreds of group tours and shore excursions around the world, and I’ve seriously considered no longer booking any tours that include lunch. Why? I’ve noticed that these tours are generally much more expensive, and the lunch (usually) isn’t that great.
But the Marietas Islands Eco Discovery tour was very reasonably priced. Having no other option to purchase the lunch of my choice while out at an uninhabited island miles from shore, I decided to ignore my misgivings about food options and just book the tour. If the lunch was terrible (or the serving sizes would barely satisfy a toddler) we could always find something to eat when we returned to Vallarta or back on the ship.
The tour literature only said that we’d have a “deli-style” lunch included with the cost of the shore excursion. I pictured slimy pre-made sandwiches on soggy bread and a bag of chips.
But as soon as I returned to the catamaran from the water and smelled delicious fresh roasted peppers, I knew we wouldn’t have a problem with lunch.
Was it the fanciest gourmet lunch I’ve ever had? No. But it far exceeded my expectations in the quality, selection, and variety of food we could choose from on this small tour boat.
Our serve-yourself deli buffet at the bar started with freshly-baked flat sandwich rolls, mixed greens, a selection of sliced cheeses, cold cuts, and sliced tomatoes to create a sandwich to your liking.
Then turn the corner to find those roasted peppers (and onions!) yummy potato salad, pasta salad, and a giant tub of sliced fresh fruit including watermelon, mango, and pineapple.
Bird spotting around Las Islas Marietas
The Marietas Islands are famous for their abundance of native seabird species, and I was excited for the opportunity to spot the rare blue-footed booby bird. Although most of the world’s population of this funny-named creature resides in the Galápagos Islands, our tour guide told us that the second-biggest population is in the Islas Marietas.
Be sure to bring binoculars, because you won’t get close enough for a good look at their Smurf-blue feet with the naked eye!
But you can check out what these cool birds look like and observe their fantastic mating dance in this short NatGeo video:
Another interesting species we spotted was the magnificent frigatebird, a large, mainly black-feathered bird. The males have a bright red pouch just below their beaks that they blow up like a balloon to attract females.
You can see the red pouch on a male magnificent frigatebird in the center of the photo below—and that’s not blown up!
Heading back towards Puerto Vallarta, we passed a sheer cliff face extending straight into the water. Our guide told us that this was the filming location for an exciting scene in the 2011 film Limitless. If you’ve seen the movie, you might remember Eddie (played by Bradley Cooper) spontaneously high-diving from this cliff.
Entertainment on the Vallarta Adventures Eco Discovery Tour
Once the open bar was flowing and we were on our way back to the port, the crew had a surprise up their sleeves for us! After serving up drinks (unlimited rum punch, margaritas, and bottled beer), our guide turned the music up and the crew members appeared dressed in hilarious 80s rocker costumes. We were then treated to a fifteen minute long lip-synch show featuring air guitars and dancing.
I didn’t expect any entertainment on the boat, but it made our trip back to the port so much more enjoyable.
What to take with you on the Marietas Islands Eco Discovery Tour
You don’t have to take much with you on this shore excursion, but I’ve put together a small list of items that will make the Eco Discovery Tour more enjoyable.
- Sun shirt
- Full-face snorkel mask
- Light sweater or sweatshirt
- GoPro or waterproof camera
- Lightweight binoculars for bird watching
- Travel safe
- Non-drowsy seasickness medication
- Cash (to purchase personal snorkel and/or photos)
If you’d rather leave the expensive camera gear behind, the crew does have a photographer on board who spent the entire time getting action shots of everyone, including underwater!
He also took lots of landscape and bird pics. Near the end of the tour, the photographer put together a personalized photo package for each group of guests, which was available on a USB for $80 USD.
What NOT to take with you on the Marietas Islands Eco Discovery Tour
There are a few items that you absolutely shouldn’t take with you on the Marietas Islands Eco Discovery Tour. The first is drones—these are not allowed in Las Islas Marietas State Park.
The second is vape pens or e-cigarettes. I don’t vape (but I meet a lot of people in my travels who do) so this restriction intrigued me. In February 2020, the Mexican government banned the importation of all vaping products as part of its crackdown on drugs. Even if you just vape nicotine or one of those non-nicotine flavored liquids, it’s not allowed on the boat or at the marine park.
Although smoking cigarettes was allowed in a specific area at the back of the boat (when there are no full SCUBA tanks there), it’s safer to leave any vaping devices behind on this tour.
The third banned item is sunscreen! Although there was nothing mentioned in the tour listing provided by Carnival, our tour guide told us that the state park has banned the use of all sunscreens—even biodegradable ones which he claimed are “a hoax”!
As a very pale person with a deadly family history of melanoma, I of course had already applied my reef-safe MyCHELLE Dermaceuticals waterproof sunscreen before leaving on the tour. This sunscreen adheres to the reef-safe guidelines from savethereef.org, so I wasn’t worried.
Would I recommend the Marietas Islands Eco Discovery Tour by Vallarta Adventures?
As a reminder, this is not a sponsored post. We paid for this shore excursion out-of-pocket and booked it through Carnival Cruise Line for our Mexican Riviera cruise. I didn’t even know what company was running the tour until we showed up at the port! Of course, like with any of my reviews, my opinions are all my own.
Who shouldn’t take this tour
I’ll start with the negatives. If you have any issues with motion sickness or seasickness, don’t book this shore excursion unless you’re sure that you have meds that work well for you (and don’t knock you out).
If you tend to get seasick, be sure to read my How to Avoid Getting Seasick on a Cruise
We took this tour on a clear day without any choppy waves to speak of or stormy weather at all. Despite the perfect conditions, there were two members of our smallish group who were seriously seasick for most, if not all, of the journey.
I also wouldn’t recommend this tour for people who don’t feel confident swimming in deep water, unless you’re fine either just kayaking or sitting on the boat. There’s no beach access, and you’ll be swimming in water that’s over your head without any shallower water to stop and rest.
Who will love this tour
If you don’t have seasickness issues and you’re a confident swimmer, the Eco Discovery tour is such a fun way to spend a day near Puerto Vallarta.
Our tour group consisted of cruisers of all ages, from tweens to mid-70s. There were no under-twelves on our shore excursion (this was the first tour out of Puerto Vallarta after the cruise shutdown, and was only for vaccinated passengers). But it would be a fun family day for school-aged kids who enjoy water sports.
Bird watchers will also enjoy this shore excursion, as it gives you the opportunity to spot various rare species in their native habitat.
You may also like: A Day Trip to the Charming Villages of the Sierra Madre from Mazatlán
How to book tickets for the Marietas Islands Eco Discovery Tour
We booked our Marietas Islands Eco Discovery Tour tickets directly through the cruise line. Carnival offered this tour on our Mexican Riviera cruise as a featured shore excursion. Of course, you can also book tickets independently.
Check the price and book tickets for the Marietas Islands Eco Discovery Tour
Have you visited the Marietas Islands on a trip to Puerto Vallarta? Or are you considering taking the Islas Marietas Eco Discovery tour? Let me know in the comments below!
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