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Las Islas Marietas

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It’s a beautiful sunny day on the Riviera Nayarit, the stretch of Mexico that winds 300 kilometres along the Pacific coast from Nuevo Vallarta to the neighbouring state of Sinaloa.

I’m lying on the sand at Las Islas Marietas (the Marietas Islands) watching seabirds fly overhead. At first glance, these birds don’t look like anything to get too excited about. But then I notice their feet. Sure enough, these are the islands’ famed blue-footed boobies, birds most associated with the Galapagos Islands, where half their breeding pairs are found. Even as they fly, I can spot the bright blue feet tucked up against their tail feathers. It seems this is no ordinary place.

In fact, the Marietas Islands are a UNESCO protected biosphere reserve. As I lie on the sand ogling those blue-footed birds, a team of biologists is lifting supplies by rope up onto the cliffs, where tourists are not allowed to go. They’re setting up camp to study the wildlife, and since the uninhabited islands are accessible only by boat, they’ve got quite a lot of lifting to do for their two-week stay.

My stay on this part of the island is much shorter—just a couple of hours. I’ve been snorkelling, swimming, and sunning, waiting for the tide to go out enough to allow me to reach the real treasure of the Marietas Islands—Playa del Amor, better known as the hidden beach. And it really is hidden, since it’s accessible only by swimming through a tunnel, and only when the water is not too high. The itinerary of my daytrip with Vallarta Adventures showed the hidden beach as stop number one, but it is possible to visit only when Mother Nature allows. This morning, the tide was too high, but this afternoon there’s finally enough clearance. This means, of course, that all those who wanted to visit the hidden beach today are swimming in at once, and it’s a little bit crowded. In fact, the hidden beach is one of the area’s top tourist draws these days, after a photo posted on a social media site went viral in 2011.

But the busy swim in is worth it. Emerging from the tunnel onto the sand, it’s clear the hidden beach is like nothing I’ve seen before. Ringed by cliffs, the beach is an almost perfectly circular cut-out in the small island, like some giant creature punched its fist right through the island’s thin crust, exposing the sand beneath to the sky above. In fact, some say the beach was formed by an explosion when the area was used as a bomb testing site during the first half of the twentieth century. Others say it was simply a natural collapse of the volcanic rock, or a combination of collapse and erosion. Either way, efforts led by none other than Jacques Cousteau led to the protection of the islands and the end of bombing activity in the 1960s. Since the islands became a national park in 2005, only approved tour companies can take visitors in.

After exploring the beach and taking a peek at a cave where waves come crashing into a covered cavern, it’s time to swim back to the boat. It’s been a long, sun-drenched day, and I am thoroughly exhausted, but I perk up a bit at the thought of fresh-grilled fish tacos on shore in the small town of Punta de Mita. The feast leaves me just rejuvenated enough to wander through the hippie-chic surfing town of Sayulita and admire the local vendors’ beautiful hand-beaded bracelets—which I foolishly didn’t buy—before settling in to watch the sun set over the Bay of Banderas from my temporary home base at the nearby Iberostar Playa Mita resort. I’ll have to go back for a bracelet, and for more fish tacos. And those blue-footed boobies? Well, they haven’t seen the last of me.

By Christina Newberry

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