Riviera Nayarit’s Hidden Beach is a highlight of the Marieta Islands. // © 2014 Riviera Nayarit Tourist Convention and Visitor Bureau
The Marieta Islands are a protected area located a few miles off shore from the small coastal town of Punta de Mita, in Riviera Nayarit, Mexico. The islands are a prime jumping-off point for ocean-bound excursions ranging from whale watching to scuba diving.
In the early 1960s, the Mexican government used the Marieta Islands as a bombing range, a practice that was effectively stopped through the protests of Jacques Cousteau and other outraged members of the international community. Cousteau successfully argued that the Marieta Islands were an ecological treasure that should be protected. The Mexican Government eventually agreed and designated the islands as a natural park — today, they are protected and uninhabited.
One of the iconic images of Riviera Nayarit is Hidden Beach (also known as Playa de Amor). Imagine a beach at the bottom of a huge crater, with white sand lapped by the sea. To reach the beach you actually have to swim through a small tunnel. It’s not as claustrophobic or challenging as it sounds, since the roof of the tunnel is about six feet above the surface of the water. There are various theories on how the hole was created. Some people claim it was formed by a meteor. Another more likely explanation is that the crater was caused by the military bombing back in the ’60s.
The shallow waters of the Banderas Bay are perfect for humpback whales to mate and nurture their young. The official whale-watching season begins on Dec. 8 and ends March 23. The whales fast during the winter months. They weigh 50 tons when they arrive in Riviera Nayarit, but on their return trip north they tip the scales at a svelte 20 tons. When a whale calf is born it can weigh 3,000 pounds. Only 10 percent of the young calves survive the journey north to the feeding grounds.
It’s possible to get within 30 feet of the whales during whale-watching excursions. On a recent trip, it was a real thrill for our group when a mother, father and baby whale breached in the waters off the bow of our boat.
“Our Ocean Adventures Marine Safari is the most popular excursion and is something the whole family can enjoy,” said Nicolas Melani, general manager of Punta Mita Expeditions.
The tour operator’s three-hour Ocean Adventures Marine Safari provides a boat excursion across the bay to the Marieta Islands and includes snorkeling, paddleboarding, bird-watching, dolphin sightings (if you’re lucky) and, during the winter season, whale watching.
Punta Mita Expeditions uses eco-friendly, four-stroke outboard motors. The ships are comfortable and spacious, with shaded areas onboard and stepladders for easy access on and off the boat. We had an exciting ride out to the island, as the chop increased in the open waters between the shoreline and the sheltered water of the islands. Once we dropped anchor we had the option of paddleboarding or snorkeling.
Another popular activity on the Marieta Islands is bird-watching. There are 17 species of local birds found here year-round. This number swells with the arrival of 70 migrating bird species from the U.S. and Canada. Bird-watchers will be kept busy sighting such species as the blue-footed booby, American oyster fisherman, roseate spoonbill, American wood stork and the American skimmer.
In addition to its wildlife tours, Punta Mita Expeditions offers scuba diving, surf lessons, sport-fishing and spear-fishing expeditions.
“We focus on nature instead of noisy toys,” said Melani. “Once you turn on a jet-ski, the wildlife disappears.”