The Best Way To Do Las Islas Marietas On A Budget
I’ve been travelling to Puerto Vallarta for over 10 years now and, even though a visit to Las Islas Marietas (the Marieta islands) was always on ‘the list’, it was something I never got around to doing. Year after year I would make up excuses: “It’s too far”, “It’s too expensive”, “Maybe next year” were among the top used. But this year we went! So here’s a recount of our memorable day and tips for those who want to experience Las Islas Marietas on a budget.
MAY 2017 EDIT: Huge thank you to Brad from Sydney for sharing his recent experience at Las Islas Marietas with us!
"Just writing in to say that in spite of my uncertainty about visiting the islands, I made a trip to the Islas Marietas on 14 April 2017 and can share my experience. I went from Puerto Vallarta to Punta de Mita on an old bus, as instructed. I pulled up at 8am in the morning and I walked down to the harbour to ask somebody if I could visit the island. They directed me to the coop office (Cooperativa de Turismo in Spanish and Cooperativa El Anclote on Google Maps) where they offered tickets with official wristbands. For 500 pesos total: a boat trip to the islands + 1 hour guided tour by boat around different islands + 30 minutes scuba diving + 30 minutes walking on the shore of one island (not the secret one)For 1500 pesos total: if you pay the extra 1000 pesos, you'll get all the above, plus the ability to visit to the secret hidden love beach for roughly 20 minutes and be on the shore. Guards were limiting beach access to 20 people at a time.I paid only the 500 pesos and it was still an amazing experience, regardless that I didn't visit the secret cave!Hope that helps any future travellers."
APRIL 2017 EDIT: The tips and advice in our guide were accurate based on our personal experiences in early 2016. It seems that there are new regulations to the number of visitors and we're not able to confirm whether all pangas at Punta de Mita are taking tours to the hidden beach as they were when we went. If you've been recently, please share your experiences below or send us an email through our Contact page so that we're able to provide updated information for those looking to visit these islands.
LAS ISLAS MARIETAS
Las Islas Marietas refers to a group of uninhabited islands located about 35 kms northwest of Puerto Vallarta and a visit to the islands is a very popular day trip among visitors in Vallarta. Even if you've never heard of them, chances are you've come across an infamous aerial photo of it’s jaw-dropping, hidden beach.
Many bird enthusiasts come to the islands to see the blue-footed booby. Others come to visit the elusive hidden beach in search of that perfect photo. Some even come to scuba dive, snorkel and explore the diverse marine life. We’re not scuba divers or bird watchers but we’re budget travelers and our goal was to see Las Islas Marietas on a budget!
HOW TO GET THERE
Although many day trips to Las Islas Marietas depart from Puerto Vallarta, the distance means you'll be on a boat for over an hour before you can spot the islands. A more enjoyable (and much shorter) boat ride is from Punta de Mita. The islands are only about 8kms off the coast of Punta de Mita and you'll save both time and money by starting your trip here.
Punta de Mita is a very small and quiet beach town and home to many luxurious resorts (for those that are not budget travellers!). If you have time to explore the Vallarta area, it's a great place to visit and so are the neighbouring beach towns of Sayulita and San Pancho. Punta de Mita has one main road (Avenida Las Redes) that leads you to the beach called Playa Anclote. You'll find a hotel and a few beach side restaurants and this is where you'll be able to hire a panga to take you to Las Islas Marietas.
We had been spending a few days in Sayulita and it took a bit of backtracking but it was relatively easy to get to Punta de Mita. From the main station in Sayulita, take a bus headed towards Puerto Vallarta/Bucerias and let the driver know you’re going to Punta de Mita. You'll have to get off at Bucerias and the driver can tell you where to cross the street and then wait at the bus stop on the other side of the road for a bus heading to Punta de Mita. In total, it took about 45 minutes from Sayulita to Punta de Mita. You can also hire a taxi and fares are listed at the main square in Sayulita.
From Puerto Vallarta:
Punta de Mita is about an hour northwest of Puerto Vallarta. A car rental will give you greater flexibility to explore the coast but, with a bit of planning, you can get to Punta de Mita by bus too. In front of the Walmart parking lot beside Galerias Vallarta Shopping Mall is where you’ll see a busy bus stop. There is often a man helping locals and tourists get on the right bus so don't be afraid to ask. An ATM (Autostransportes Medina) bus will take you to Punta de Mita but you can also take a white and green Compostela bus. Compostela buses run frequently and go all the way to Sayulita so you'd have to get off at Bucerias and then get on another bus to Punta de Mita. Ask the drivers, we found they were very helpful!
The buses that service these towns are more comfortable than the local Puerto Vallarta buses but are not luxurious by any means. Expect a bumpy ride. There's no wifi or entertainment but you may get lucky with A/C. Depending on the distances travelled, fares range from $20 to $35 pesos per person - way cheaper than a taxi or car rental!
WHEN TO GO
As early as possible. Do not snooze. Do not linger at breakfast. Just go as early as you can. My biggest piece of advice would be to arrive EARLY. Like most popular tourist attractions, the crowds at Las Islas Marietas are coming and it’s only a matter of time before the big tour boats from Vallarta make their way to the islands. Some arrive as early as 11am so it’s worth getting up early to beat the crowds. You can always nap on the beach later! And if you're hoping to see whales along the way, December to March is the season when humpbacks visit the bay to give birth.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
If you want to explore Las Islas Marietas on a budget then hiring a 'panga' (small fishing boat) from Punta de Mita is the way to go. Tour companies can charge over $100 CAD for a day trip to the islands and, if you’ve been following us, you know that’s out of our price range for an afternoon. I knew there had to be other alternatives but, after searching online, the cheapest I could find was about $60 CAD - not cheap enough for us!
Because of this, we arrived to Punta de Mita with a maximum budget in mind of $600 pesos each. Turns out, our first offer was for only $400 pesos! And with a bit of haggling, we got it down to $350 pesos each (January 2016). This included transport to and from the islands and the cost of a Semarnat wristband that would allow us to access the protected area of the islands. There were no fancy meals, music or funny shows on our boat but the whales that we saw along the way were enough entertainment for us!
If you plan on swimming to the hidden beach, know that the swim can be difficult depending on the tide and the weather. Wes and I can both swim and we managed well with our life jackets but I think the swim would be challenging for young children as the tunnel is over 12 metres long.
For those who want to take a small panga from Punta de Mita to visit the islands, the waters may be choppy. One of our worst experiences in Mexico was actually on a similar panga in La Paz and so we know that the winds can negatively impact your trip on any given day. We visited on a slightly windy day and the ride was fine for us but two young girls on the boat were both in tears because of the constant movement of the small boat.
Bring some water and snacks for the morning as the swimming will take a lot of energy from you! If you're planning on exploring Punta de Mita afterwards, there is plenty of fresh seafood being served at the restaurants right on the beach. We saved some more money by deciding to eat in town at a great little place right on Avenida Las Redes. Wherever you go, you're sure to find some great fish tacos!
There are times when I spend hours online reading reviews and guides on how to get to a place to ensure the best possible experience. Las Islas Marietas was definitely one of those times. I can’t believe I almost let the negative reviews discourage us from going. Yes, it’s far - so leave from Punta de Mita and save time. Yes, it’s crowded - so get there early to beat the crowded tour boats. Yes, it’s beautiful - so just go. And now you know you can visit Las Islas Marietas on a budget!