It’s a glorious feeling as you swim into the beautiful secluded beach of the Marieta Islands (Islas Marietas). As you pass under a rocky arch in the island there is a moment when the tide turns in your favor and washes you gently towards the sandy shoreline. It is as if the island has deemed you worthy of a visit and invites you in to explore its secluded treasures.
The Marieta Islands is a small archipelago 20 miles north-west of Puerto Vallarta in the Banderas Bay (Bahia de Banderas) section of the Pacific coast. Each day, a restricted number of boat tours take visitors to see the islands, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 2008. I recently joined a tour, which combined wildlife-spotting with a trip to the hidden beach (Playa Escondida) and water sports.
“Hoy todo es acuatico!” (Today everything is aquatic) yelled one of the crew members as I waited with my friend Ana for our 9 a.m. departure. We sailed from Vallarta’s Terminal Maritima with a company called Beach Boy, one of the few organizations approved by the local environmental agencies to visit the islands. Just before boarding, we each had our photo taken, which I hoped would be offered to us as a souvenir, not handed to local lifeguards.
Banderas Bay is teeming with sea-life. An estimated 115 species of fish, sharks and rays are to be found in the waters around the Marieta Islands, along with wales and other aquatic mammals. Not long into our journey, we were joined by a pod of dolphins, at least half a dozen of them, who were taking great pleasure in zipping alongside our boat in pairs.
We Brits can be understated at times but this was a sight where the word awesome really did apply. Our finned friends were taking turns to leap out of the water at perfect viewing distance and I became convinced they were doing this show at the request of the captain under the promise of tasty fish.
Meanwhile on board, life was not going quite so swimmingly for the girl sitting next to us. She was busy filling a shopping bag with vomit due tothe choppy sea. I learned that in Mexico, throwing up is known colloquially as “going to Oaxaca” on account of the sound one makes in the process. I’ll leave that side-story there, but just be warned that if you do suffer badly from motion sickness you would be wise to buy some of the medication offered at the port.
An hour or so into our voyage, we were fast approaching the first of the two main islands when suddenly the engine cut, about 200 feet from the land. Motorized boats are not permitted any closer because of the damage they might cause. Those who couldn’t swim were offered a tour of the island’s perimeter in a smaller vessel. The rest of us were instructed to put on life-jackets as we would be swimming towards an opening in the rocks.
Washing up in the hidden beach is unique experience. You find yourself in a sandy bowl, enclosed on all sides by the curved cliffs, creating the impression that you are underground. This drum-like geometry creates a lovely acoustic, as the sound of the sea washing into the beach echoes all around. It is easy to see how this place acquired its other nickname, Lovers’ Beach.
There are differing accounts of how this pocket in the island came into existence. Some say it is the result of a bomb dropped by the Mexican Air Force in the first half of the 20th century when they used the Marieta Islands as a target for training exercises. Others say the hole in the island opened naturally through erosion. For me, this lack of clarity only adds to the mystique of the beach.
During the 30 minutes or so on the beach, I explored the craggy walls. Initially I caught glimpses of small crabs in the rocks, but looking closer I realized the place was teeming with these creatures whose colors blend into the surroundings. Everywhere I looked, people seemed fascinated by the beach. Even our sea-sick friend had made it to shore and was now looking the picture of health.
For the second part of the trip we were invited to do some water-sports just off the coast. Turning down the snorkeling and paddle-boarding, Ana and I opted for kayaking. Others took the opportunity to tuck into the buffet lunch and seemingly endless supply of alcohol. We ended our sailing session with an ice-chilled tequila sunrise. The salt around the rim of the glass added to the sea-salt on my lips as my day’s sodium levels soared through the roof.
Before we set sail for the mainland, our captain steered us towards a second island in the chain. These rocky shores provide a habitat for around 100 species of birds, including several endangered species including the blue-footed boobie, with its brilliant blue feet. Steering east, it was time for us landlubbers to return to the mainland.
As the beers flowed, the crew had some fun with us, singling out people – including Ana and me – to take part in a competition involving dancing, and shuttle sprints along the deck. The latter would almost definitely be ruled out in many countries on health and safety grounds. But hey, Mexicans know how to have more fun than us.
We didn’t win the competition. But we certainly had a winning day out.