Thursday, July 18, 2024

Islas Marias: Nayarit’s ‘Galapagos Islands of Mexico’

Everything deserves a second chance — even destinations. And what better opportunity for a makeover than turning a former federal penitentiary into a haven for eco-tourism, wildlife and regrowth? Mexico’s Islas Marías in the state of Nayarit, once a hardened penal colony for more than a century, has been transformed into what is being called the Galápagos Islands of Mexico.

Islas Marías is a small archipelago of islands in the Pacific Ocean, approximately 94 kilometers from the coast of Nayarit. From 1905 until 2019, the islands were used as a penal colony — Islas Marías Federal Prison. In 2019, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced that the prison would close and an ecological and cultural center would open in its wake, bringing an opportunity for education and eco-tourism to this remote part of Mexico. In 2022, Islas Marias opened as a tourist center and ecological preserve, aimed at protecting the native wildlife of the islands, among the most diverse in Mexico.

Once a prison, the Islas Marías has reinvented itself as a natural paradise. (Mario Jasso/Cuartoscuro)

Today, visitors can tour Islas Marías in Nayarit through government-regulated tour packages, making for one of the most unique eco-tourism experiences in the country. Read on to learn everything you need to know about Las Islas Marías in Nayarit, Mexico.

Where are Islas Marías, Nayarit?

Islas Marias is an archipelago of nine islands, though there are three that are known as the principal islands. They are located about 94 kilometers from San Blas, Nayarit, and 322 kilometers from the tip of the Baja peninsula.

History of Islas Marías

In 1905, Porfirio Díaz bought the Islas Marías archipelago and converted it into a penal colony. By 1908, nearly 200 people were already imprisoned on the islands. In 1910, President Álvaro Obregón began banishing petty criminals and opposition politicians to the archipelago. Life in the prison was exceptionally difficult, with prisoners permitted only 15 minutes of sunlight per day.  

But the islands, while stained with a cruel history, are also so isolated from the mainland that they are practically teeming with spectacular and rare wildlife. The islands are home to a diverse array of plants and animals, including the Tres Marías raccoon, the endemic Tres Marías cottontail rabbit, sharks, sea turtles, tuna, red snapper, large colonies of sea birds and much more. The wildlife on the islands is so rich that in 2010 they were designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve.

Incredibly, the prison only closed in 2019.

AMLO closed the prison in 2019 and work began to transform the islands into a tourist attraction.

How to visit Islas Marías, Nayarit

There is only one way to visit Islas Marías, and that is part of a regulated tour package. This is because the ecosystem is so delicate and unexposed to tourism, so the government has put packages in place to help protect the natural environment.

Two packages are available: one with a ferry departure from San Blas, Nayarit, and another with a departure from Mazatlán. Ferries depart once a week on Fridays at 8 a.m., alternating between San Blas and Mazatlán. Return ferries leave from Puerto Balleto on the island every Sunday at 11 a.m. The ferry trip is roughly four hours and vessels are outfitted with bathrooms and a snack bar.

Keep in mind that you cannot bring any food onto the island. What you can (and must) bring, however, is cash because you won’t find any ATMs in Islas Marías. Establishments are also unable to process credit cards. 

Visitors from Nayarit will arrive at Puerto Balleto, on Isla María Madre.

Both ferries dock in Puerto Balleto on Isla María Madre, the largest of the islands. The packages include round-trip ferry tickets, guided tours by Biosphere Protectors, hiker insurance and entrance to the natural protected area. 

A tourist-class seat costs 3,500 (US $210) pesos. Executive class seats are 3,800 pesos (US $230). A private cabin seat is 4,000 pesos (US $240) and private cabins can seat up to eight passengers. Guests can then choose what type of approved accommodation to book, which ranges from single rooms to entire houses for larger groups. Food costs are 1,900 pesos (US $114) per person, which includes buffet meals for the entire visit.

Tickets can be purchased at https://visitaislasmarias.com

Things to Do on Islas Marías

Once you reach the island, the visit is somewhat limited — again, to protect the natural environment. Tourism on the island is regulated by the Mexican Navy, and free exploration is restricted. Still, there is freedom and flexibility in choosing the guided tours that align with your interests.

Given the delicate nature of the biosphere, there is little chance to freely explore the islands – but there are a variety of activities available for visitors to enjoy.

One of the activities is a visit to the former prison — think of it like the Mexican version of an Alcatraz tour. Visitors can get a feel for what life was like being imprisoned on the island. The guides are deeply knowledgeable about the dark history of the prison and share some of the most interesting stories.

But for travelers who aren’t as excited about dark tourism, there are plenty of ecological and historical things to do that veer more towards the new identity of Islas Marías. A sunrise hike to the towering Christ the Redeemer statue or a hike to El Faro Lighthouse, nightly stargazing, crafts markets in Puerto Balleto, an afternoon at Playa Chapingo, cliff tours at Mirador Punta Halcones, and museum and historical sites tours are just some of the activities that visitors to Islas Marías can do with their weekend visit. 

What all visitors can expect is a glimpse into a side of Mexico rarely seen by the majority of tourists or locals. These isolated islands offer pristine, undeveloped beaches and are completely devoid of modern-day developments. Forget all-inclusive resorts, restaurants, bars or even grocery stores. The islands’ natural beauty tells the real story here, both in the relics of a painful past, and the growth and rebirth of a new and exciting future.

Meagan Drillinger is a New York native who has spent the past 15 years traveling around and writing about Mexico. While she’s on the road for assignments most of the time, Puerto Vallarta is her home base. Follow her travels on Instagram at @drillinjourneys or through her blog at drillinjourneys.com.

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