If you’re looking for an off-the-beaten path adventure in Mexico, you can’t beat Islas Marias, an archipelago of tropical islands located 60 miles off the Pacific coastline, near Puerto Vallarta. This former penal colony is now a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, home to several species of animals found nowhere else on the planet, and is officially open for visitors to explore! Sounds intriguing? It definitely is! So here’s everything you need to know about Islas Marias, home to beaches, epic wildlife, and an incredibly unique history.
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Our visit to Islas Marias was generously hosted by the Riviera Nayarit Tourism Board, but all opinions in this article are our own.
Table of Contents
- History of Islas Marias
- How to Get to Islas Marias
- What to do in Islas Marias
- Where to stay on Islas Marias
- Where to eat on Islas Marias
- What to pack for Islas Marias
- Frequently asked questions about Islas Marias
Given its location 60 miles off the Pacific coastline, Islas Marias is remote—so remote that several completely unique species of animals have evolved on these islands (similar to Hawaii). And the islands are so remote, in fact, that the Mexican government decided that, for well over a century, the islands would serve as an excellent penal colony.
If it sounds like Islas Marias has a lot going on, you’re right—it’s truly one of the most unique places I’ve ever been.
So before we dive into the nitty gritty of visiting Islas Marias, let’s take a step back and dive into a brief history of these unusual islands.
History of Islas Marias
Islas Marias Federal Prison was built on the archipelago’s largest island, Islas Marias Madras, in 1905.
Over the next several decades, the kinds of prisoners that lived here varied widely, from non-criminal (like political prisoners or even alcoholics) to violent criminals, like serial killers and rapists. But they did have one thing in common—they were forced to do hard physical labor on the island, ranging from working in salt flats and a shrimp farm to a lime kiln and making rope, oftentimes with insufficient food and water and in brutally hot and uncomfortable working conditions.
Originally, most of this work focused on using the island’s natural resources. However, over time, the government grew increasingly protective of its unique plant and wildlife, creating a marine reserve around the island in 2000 (where limited fishing activities were allowed). In 2010, UNESCO named the islands a Biosphere Reserve, with even more heightened protections of the island’s biodiversity.
Beyond the island’s beautiful flora and fauna, living here wasn’t totally horrible for the prisoners—after the 1940s, most prisoners were actually allowed to bring their families on the island and, unless they misbehaved as prisoners or were previously charged with an egregious or violent crime, they were not bound in prison cells and, instead, were free to roam around.
Nevertheless, the prison succumbed to mismanagement and fraud around 2010 and the overcrowded and inhumane prison was eventually shut down by the Mexican government in 2019.
How to Get to Islas Marias
Unsurprisingly, given the whole “it’s located literally in the middle of the ocean” thing, there’s really only one way that you can currently get to Islas Marias—a luxurious ferry operated by the Mexican Navy, that departs from the cute beach town of San Blas or the more lively, beach resort town of Mazatlán.
Ferries leave once a week, every Friday at 8 AM and alternate between departing from San Blas and Mazatlán, and take somewhere between three and four hours. Similarly, there is only one return ferry each week, departing from Puerto Balleto on the island every Sunday at 11 AM and returning to whichever port it left from that Friday. Accordingly, if you visit Islas Marias, you currently must visit as part of a three-day, two-night package.
There’s a range of ticket options on the ferry, including (prices at the time I’m writing this article):
- Regular tourist seat for 3500 MXN
- Executive seat (which reclines and has a lot more room than the regular tourist seat) for 3800 MXN
- Seat in a private cabin for either 5 people or 8 people for 4000 MXN per person
When my husband and I visited Islas Marias, we departed from the port in San Blas and, before we boarded the ferry, were immediately greeted by uniformed military personnel and dogs sniffing our bags.
Given the rather intense welcome to the port, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect on the boat itself—but was pleasantly surprised by the ride!
We were in regular tourist seats and found them to be rather comfortable, with a tray table that’s perfect for napping on. The interior was very well air-conditioned (be sure to bring a warm layer on the ferry—it gets FROSTY in here!) and you’re provided a small sack lunch, with items like a sandwich, apples, trail mix, or granola bars. There’s also a small snack bar aboard the ferry (remember to bring pesos!).
Additionally, they played two movies onboard—unfortunately, for my singular language-speaking self, only in Spanish. The first movie, called Los Islas Marias, was a black-and-white movie, made in 1951 about the prison and starring actual prisoners(!!!).
Finally, I had read some horrible things about how intense the waves around Islas Marias were—and was a bit nervous, given signs in the bathroom to not throw up in the sink. Luckily, though, the ride felt rather smooth and I spent it staring out across the ocean and spotting occasional pods of dolphins jumping out of the water.
You can book your tickets for the ferry here. Unfortunately, due to unpredictable weather, you can only book your tickets up to two weeks in advance at this time.
Additionally, you’ll have to choose the port you want to depart from and a Friday when the ferry is leaving from that port (so if you select any random date, other than a Friday, the system will tell you there’s no reservations available). It’s definitely not the most intuitive system, so play around with it for a while!
What to Do on Islas Marias
Visiting Islas Maris is not like any other tourist destination I’ve been to—while you’ll have some free time to wander around Puerto Balleto, the main town on the island, you cannot, for the most part, explore the island freely.
Instead, your group will be assigned to a larger tour group (around 20 or so people) and will travel around the island, either on foot or by bus, to see different parts of it, while being accompanied by a tour guide.
Fun fact—all of the tour guides on the island are some kind of military officer! Our tour guides, Fernando and Milton, spoke excellent English and were extremely knowledgeable, friendly, and patient with our group, which was rather rambunctious and slow-moving.
The different tour groups on the island all hit similar sites, but are coordinated so that, for the most part, there’s only one group at a site at any given time.
Here are some of my favorite things we did on the island:
1. Cristo Rey Hike
This challenging two-mile round trip hike climbs steeply, right outside Puerto Balleto, to a massive Christ the Redeemer statue, perched on one of the tallest hills on the island.
The idea of the statue, which towers almost 60 feet tall, was originally conceived by a Jesuit priest that was serving on the island in the 1990s and the prisoners helped build it, over the course of five years. Many of the prisoners adopted strong religious beliefs on the island and believed that helping construct the statue would absolve them of their past sins.
Now, you can climb up to the base of the statue and have jaw-dropping views of the rolling green hills of Islas Marias Madras and the surrounding ocean. Our group went at sunrise—while the 4:45 AM wake-up call was brutal, I’m so glad we went before it got too warm and that we were able to see the island’s natural beauty in the soft, glowy light of sunrise.
2. Chapingo Beach
Relaxing at this gorgeous beach, located just north of Puerto Balleto, was absolutely one of the highlights of our visit to Islas Marias. Chapingo Beach is stunningly beautiful, with a long stretch of white sand and crystal clear, brilliant turquoise water that was the perfect temperature.
There’s complimentary snorkels for you to try to see some of the island’s renowned sea life, tons of umbrellas and shade for you to hang out under, and even some cervezas that you can buy here (just remember to bring your pesos!)!
Our group had such a fun time, just relaxing in the water, drinking cold beer, and soaking up the sun. In fact, I definitely wish Islas Marias tours included even more beach time!
3. Lighthouse hike
Yet another sunrise hike, this is a much shorter hike (only about ten minutes) up a steep incline to a lighthouse on the southern side of the island.
The lighthouse itself looks like something out of a Wes Anderson movie, with a jaunty tower painted white and red. Of course, the lighthouse is perched on a cliff, overlooking the ocean, so the surrounding views are stellar.
Much like many aspects of Islas Marias, though, this beautiful setting has some rather grim history. Our tour guide showed us a small, metal box outside of the lighthouse, where prisoners that misbehaved (or refused to work) were locked in and essentially left to roast alive under the sun. And, in addition to sharing stories about the lighthouse’s construction and the men who once operated it, they also shared a rather gruesome local legend of a prisoner murdering one of the lighthouse keeper’s entire family, resulting in him taking his own life.
While these aspects of Islas Marias are horrific, they offer an intriguing history to the island—like I said, it’s definitely a unique destination!
4. Tour the maximum security prison
Speaking of dark tourism, you will tour many former prison facilities on the island, such as the island’s cemetery, church, home of the governor, and former cells, to name a few.
In full transparency, our group found some of these sites FAR more interesting than others, but one of the most unique sites that we stopped at was Laguna del Toro, the maximum security prison in Islas Marias, where some of Mexico’s most dangerous criminals were kept, starting around the early 2000s.
Here, you’ll get to explore a cell block of a now derelict building, including the tiny cells where the prisoners were held and the miniscule fenced-in areas where they were allowed to stretch their legs and get some sunlight once a day. It’s not often that you get to visit a maximum security prison—and visiting an abandoned one, on a remote island in Mexico, is definitely one of the most unique experiences I’ve had.
Your tour guides will tell you about the lives of the prisoners that lived here, as well as a massive riot and prison break that took place here around 2013. While some of the facilities you’ll visit around the island paint a somewhat hopeful and positive view of the prison, Laguna del Toro provides a much more somber glimpse into life on the island.
5. Punta Halcones Overlook
The island is incredibly stunning and, throughout your visit, you’ll get to catch glimpses of its beauty, from the electric blue waters in front of Puerto Balleto to the towering lush hills from the top of the Cristo Rey statue.
But we probably saw the most unadulterated display of natural beauty at the Punta Halcones Lookout on the south side of the island, with dramatic cliffs and sweeping views of the Pacific, a few impossibly green islets off the coastline, and in the distance, the neighboring island of Isla Marias Magdalena.
This would be an excellent spot to keep a lookout for whales, which swim through these waters primarily from December through March, or to simply take in the breathtaking vistas.
You’ll get to see a handful of places where the prisoners were forced into labor around the island, including its shrimping farms, rope manufacturing facility, and lime kiln. But exploring the salera, where salt was once produced, was the most interesting to me.
For one, the salt was produced in a beautiful old brick building, constructed in the early 1900s—however, due to severe hurricanes in the area, the roof of the building has been ripped off, leaving behind a brick skeleton with hulking wooden rafters hanging overhead. It has a haunting, derelict beauty to it—to be honest, it resembles the kind of rustic ruins that would charge a lot of money to be a wedding or event venue in the United States. So if you’re at all a bit of an architecture nerd, like me, you’ll be in heaven.
For another, the salera was built right along the coastline and has massive open doors with glimpses out into the ocean. We happened to visit at sunset and it was absolutely stunning, seeing the ghost of this old building, lit up by the soft golden slow of sunset and views of the pink ocean out the old building’s doorways.
Beyond the building itself, this was weirdly enough one of the best places to see wildlife on the island. For example, we saw a large iguana that found a little crevice in the brick to sun himself on and a woodpecker, hiding in the hollow of a giant cactus, right outside the structure’s doors.
Beyond the sites listed above, there’s several other activities that your group will enjoy, including stargazing on the island’s runway (with an explanation of various constellations provided in Spanish), touring a museum with the history of the island (the signs are exclusively provided in Spanish, but our tour guide walked around and gave a detailed explanation of each of the exhibits in English), and lots of historical prison buildings, like the cemetery or the governor’s house.
To be honest, as someone who primarily prefers adventure travel, I wish the schedule was tweaked a bit to focus less on the prison history and included a few more activities that highlighted the unique beauty and biodiversity of the island, such as a wildlife safari, more hiking or beach time, snorkeling, kayaking, or other outdoor activities.
That being said, I’m definitely not a huge history buff or anything and still found learning all about the island’s history as a penal colony quite fascinating. So, while I think visiting Islas Marias would be an absolutely perfect destination for a history fanatic, I think any open-minded traveler will enjoy visiting this incredibly unique place.
Where to Stay on Islas Marias
If you haven’t picked up on this yet, Islas Marias is quite unique and, for the most part, is run by the Mexican navy. So instead of having a choice of hostels, boutique hotels, or luxury resorts to choose from on the island, there’s a few types of modest apartments that you can choose from—most of which were actually used by prisoners to live in!
Your options on the island are:
- A lodging house, which has a double bed and a bunk bed, a small kitchenette, dining area, and bathroom, for 2000 MXN per stay
- A simple house, which has the same amenities as the lodging house but additionally offers a couch and a separate sleeping area, for 2300 MXN per stay
- Two bedroom apartments (one bedroom with a double bed and the other with a bunk bed) for 2600 MXN per stay
- Two bedroom apartments (one bedroom with a double bed and the other with two bunk beds) for 3000 MXN per stay
- Two bedroom apartments (one bedroom with a double bed and a bunk bed and the other with two bunk beds) for 3300 MXN per stay
You will pick the kind of accommodations you want to book on the island as part of a package with your ferry tickets, so there’s no need to (or even any other place that you can) make a separate reservation.
We stayed in a lodging house, the most basic kind of accommodations on the island and found them plenty comfortable. The air conditioning worked great, the apartment was spacious and impeccably clean, and the shower had good pressure and hot water. To be honest, I was kind of shocked when our tour guide told us that prisoners used to live in them (although, I assume there’s been quite a few upgrades to the apartments since then!)!
Where to Eat on Islas Marias
Much like the lodging, you don’t exactly have a ton of options regarding where to eat on the island—there’s one cafeteria, with an all-you-can-eat buffet of Mexican food, where you’ll get your three meals a day. The total cost of all your meals on the island is 1400 MXN and will be automatically added to the purchase of your hotel and ferry ticket.
Justin and I follow a vegan diet and I was a bit worried about what we’d eat on a remote island. But the staff did an excellent job accommodating us, with killer food offerings, from breakfast enchiladas to chilaquiles and soy meat tacos, for every meal. The rest of our meat-loving group loved the food as well!
There’s water and some sort of non-alcoholic drink provided at every meal, such as hibiscus agua fresca or horchata. Alternatively, you can buy soda or an array of alcoholic beverages, from beer and margaritas to pina coladas and carajillo (a type of coffee drink), from the servers or the onsite bar.
The prices for the add-on beverages are pretty reasonable, especially considering they could charge literally whatever they want here, given there’s nowhere else you can buy alcohol on the island. For example, it costs about $3 USD for a beer or $7 USD for a margarita. They even take credit cards!
You’re not allowed to bring any food or drink on the island, besides drinking water, so if you want snacks or additional drinks, there’s a small military store here, which sells everything from maxi pads and razors to Coca Cola and chips, at reasonable prices.
When to Visit Islas Marias
Most travelers are likely going to be visiting Islas Marias as part of a larger trip around Puerto Vallarta and other beautiful locations around Nayarit, like the hippie surf town of Sayulita or the colorful streets of Jala.
Luckily, there’s really no “bad” time to visit Nayarit.
The most popular time to visit is December through March, when thousands of humpback whales flock to the warm Banderas Bay to breed and raise their young. I’d imagine this might make the ferry trip to Islas Marias just a bit more magical! The temperatures are pleasant (in the upper 70s), with minimal rain, although it might be a touch too cool if you’re hoping to primarily lay by the pool.
If you don’t mind missing the whales, arguably, the best time to visit is April and May, when the weather is pleasant and warm and the crowds and prices are low.
The rainy season typically runs from June through October, with the highest risk of hurricanes in August and September. We went in July and while it was hot (perfect for cooling off in the ocean!), it didn’t rain a single time during the day while we were there.
So if you’re a sun baby, like me, and enjoy the heat (and lower prices of the low season!), you might want to consider coming in the summer. If the hurricane damage we saw in Islas Marias taught me anything, though, you might want to steer clear in August and September.
What kind of traveler is Islas Marias right for?
Between being the former home to a Mexican prison and being a tourist attraction run by the military, Islas Marias is, by far, the most unique destination I’ve ever visited.
In full transparency, though, it isn’t right for every type of traveler—for example, if you’re looking for a luxury all-inclusive resort or to lay on the beach for several days, this probably isn’t the right getaway for you.
But who is the right kind of traveler that will love Islas Marias?
- Travelers who love off-the-beaten path or under-the-radar destinations
- History lovers
- Bird-watchers or wildlife fanatics (there were several bird watchers in my tour group and they were VERY excited to try to scope out the yellow-headed parrot and the Tres Marias hummingbird)
- Travelers who are interested in dark tourism
What to Pack for Visiting Islas Marias
We wrote an entire Mexico packing list, but there are a few items that are especially important to remember to bring to Islas Marias.
- Hiking shoes: It was stressed to us before our visit and by our tour guides that we would not be allowed to go on any hikes without closed-toed shoes. Justin and I each brought and wore our waterproof Topo Trailventure hiking boots (here’s the pair of women’s boots I use and here’s the men’s that Justin uses) and thought they were perfect for the trails on Islas Marias—lightweight, but with plenty of traction on the rocky trail.
That being said, multiple people in our group hiked these trails in tennis shoes without any issues, however when we visited, it was not muddy. Just expect to go a lot slower on the steep trails.
- Hiking sandals: Besides the group hikes, there’s a fair amount of walking around the island, from exploring Puerto Balleto to hiking down the sandy hill to Chapingo Beach. I’d recommend bringing along sandals that are comfy to walk in. Justin and I both have a cult-like love for our Teva sandals, which can be used both as hiking sandals and water shoes. Here’s the pair I have and here is the pair that Justin has.
- Sunscreen: The island is pretty far south and can definitely get quite toasty, with the UV index listed as “Extreme” for the entire time of our stay. Be sure to protect that skin of yours AND the pristine coral reefs around Islas Marias by only using reef-safe sunscreen. I am OBSESSED with this brand—it seriously smells like a Hawaiian vacation in a bottle.
- Bugspray: We encountered mosquitoes during our hikes and night walking tour, so it would be wise to bring along some bug spray.
- Refillable water bottle: One of my least favorite things about visiting developing countries is how wasteful I feel when purchasing plastic water bottles for drinking. Islas Marias, though, is awesome and provides free, clean drinking water in coolers in buildings throughout the island, which I absolutely loved. So bring along a refillable water bottle to make use of them—Justin and I each have these comically giant Nalgene bottles that we take everywhere.
- Snorkeling gear: If you’re big into snorkeling, I’d suggest bringing your own gear on the island for your time at Chapingo Beach. Islas Marias provides complimentary snorkeling gear, but they’re the full-mask kinds (at least when we visited), which have been linked to several deaths around the world. Justin and I each bought this snorkeling set for a trip to Oahu a few years ago and have used them on multiple trips each year since then!
Frequently Asked Questions about Visiting Islas Marias
Are there ATMs on Islas Marias?
Currently, no, there is not, so be sure to bring plenty of pesos to buy beach cervezas, souvenirs, or snacks. Both the bar and general store accept credit cards.
Are there any other costs besides food, lodging, and transportation?
Yes, you’ll be charged 347.20 MXN for admission to access Islas Marias’ Nature Reserve and 900 MXN for foreign travel insurance (both included when you book your tickets to the island). We always purchase our own travel insurance for any trips abroad through World Nomads, but even if you have a separate travel insurance policy, you’ll still be required to purchase the insurance through the island.
What if I get hurt or get sick on the island?
There is a medical center on the island, with military medical professionals, that can help you.
Is there cell or internet service on the island?
There is no cell service on the island. There is wifi that you can access in your rooms and in public areas on the island, like the cafeteria, but it is sloooooow—so I wouldn’t plan on Zoom calls during your time here and don’t expect to stream any videos!
Hopefully, you have a better idea of what to expect while visiting Islas Marias. Do you have any questions about exploring this unusual destination? Let me know in the comments below!