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I stepped gingerly into the emerald-black water, my foot suctioning into the wet sand that cushions the bottom of this marine cave. I shuffled in deeper until the cool, dark water reached my chest and my shoulders nearly touched the smooth rock walls hemming me in.
Soon after, the narrow passage widened and I swam out into the cave’s main chamber, a long, arched tunnel with a two-metre clearance. The incoming tide washed me ashore on Hidden Beach, so named because entry is only possible by swimming or snorkelling through this 15-metre-long tunnel. Once through, I discovered a sequestered wedge of paradise only about 40 metres wide, but large enough to lie and soak up the sun.
Other day-trippers kept swimming in behind me. This beach may be hidden, but it’s not exactly secret. Hidden Beach is the top tourist draw of Marietas Islands National Park, a group of two islands and two islets located at the mouth of Banderas Bay, 22 nautical miles from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Standing on the small crescent of sand, I noticed it was completely encircled by what could be called a “Cheerio” of land that’s studded with agave plants and splattered with bird guano. The rugged, rocky terrain is an ideal nesting ground for marine birds such as the blue-footed booby – the No. 2 draw for travellers who, like me, assumed the funny-looking blue-shod birds were only found in the Galapagos Islands.
The Marietas Islands – sometimes referred to as “Mexico’s Galapagos” – are fast becoming one the country’s must-see attractions. This is my third trip to the Puerto Vallarta area but it’s the first I’d heard of these islands. To see what makes them so special, my husband and I booked a day-long catamaran trip to Marietas Islands National Park.
On our tour, we learned the park protects 92 species of migratory and native birds, such as bridled terns and the lesser-known brown booby, as well as more than 100 species of reef fish. The ocean waters around the Marietas Islands shelter humpback whales that arrive in late fall to give birth and mate before heading back north to their feeding grounds at the end of March. We were thrilled to see adult and baby whales swimming and diving during the hour-long boat ride out to the islands but some lucky visitors might see manta rays, dolphins or even olive ridley sea turtles.
For these reasons, the Marietas Islands caught the attention of conservationist Jacques Cousteau in the 1960s. The uninhabited islands were once used as targets by the Mexican military; while the bombing had stopped by the time Cousteau discovered them, he lobbied to have the islands protected. The Marietas Islands attained national park status in 2005. Some guides say the bombing explains the formation of Hidden Beach, but its creation was more likely a combination of artillery shelling and erosion.
Noah Rath, our guide and captain for the day, explains that the islands were still relatively unknown outside of conservation circles until 2011, when a picture of Hidden Beach posted on a tourist fan page went viral.
“Ever since then, tourism exploded on the islands,” Rath said.
To protect the reefs, tour boats need a permit and are only allowed one hour to moor offshore. That’s just enough time to swim in, poke around the two caves that bookend Hidden Beach and snorkel back to the catamaran.
One cave leads to a large chamber where the incoming surge blasts through rock holes and chasms and drenched us with spray; the other takes us to the calm passage of emerald-black water that connects us back to the entry tunnel.
After exploring, we donned our masks and flippers and enjoyed a leisurely snorkel to the boat. I could see stingrays skimming just above the sandy sea floor seven metres down. I also noticed ominous puffer fish, a gang of skinny needlefish and iridescent blue reef fish darting below. Treading water just outside the archway that leads to Hidden Beach, I spied three blue-footed boobies perched atop rocks turned white from guano. I would have liked to get closer to the boobies, but visitors are not allowed to climb on the rocks or hike around the rest of the island and risk disturbing the nesting birds.
Back on board the catamaran, we drank margaritas and chatted with the other guests. Occasionally, I glanced back at the islands, growing smaller in a haze of shimmering late-afternoon heat. Those rocky outposts symbolized what I love most about travelling: Occasionally, you discover a place you know you’ll never forget.
IF YOU GO
Ally Cat Sailing Adventures leaves from Marina Riviera Nayarit, which is based in Sayulita, 45 kilometres northwest of Puerto Vallarta. Day cruises start at $85 (U.S.). allycatsailing.com