Alcatraz and Devil’s Island are the stuff of legend, and the Islas Marías may soon join their ranks – that is, if Mexican tourism authorities have any say in the matter. The four-island archipelago 60 miles off the Riviera Nayarit coast served as a Mexican federal prison for more than a century. Now, it’s in the spotlight as the latest ecotourism destination on the Mexican Pacific.
It’s an incredible transformation for the island chain, consisting of Cleofas, María Magdalena, San Juanito and María Madre. María Madre, the site of the prison, has been the only island inhabited over the years. The prison’s closure in 2019 by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador marked the end of island penal colonies in the Americas.
Lopez Obrador announced that the prison would become a cultural center, sparking extensive renovations. The “Muros de Agua-Jose Revueltas Environmental and Cultural Education Center” (named for a famous political prisoner and his book, “Walls of Water”) is now dedicated to biodiversity and conservation. Work is also ongoing to transform the islands into a sustainable tourism destination. The goal is to offer boat excursions that will preserve the ecosystem, as well as help the local economy.
The islands’ credentials are certainly stellar: The Marías Islands were declared a Natural Protected Area in 2000, a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2005 and a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 2010. Its most recent honor came on August 26, 2021, when the Mexican government declared the Marías Biosphere Reserve a fully protected marine area. The new status means the reserve is now a no-take area, in which fishing, mining, drilling or other extractive activities are banned.
Among the riches of the Islas Marías Biosphere Reserve are healthy reefs and corals. Birdwatchers will (pardon the pun) flock to the islands, in search of the endemic Amazonas Tres Marías parrot, blue-footed boobies, blue mockingbirds, broad-billed hummingbirds, and rare migratory colonies.
Since the prison closed, scientists have identified 21 species of sharks, 10 types of rays and three different species of sea turtles in the islands’ waters. Whale sharks frequent as well. If clients are adventure-seekers, they may be attracted to the ideal surfing conditions of the islands; they include consistent breaks and one of the longest waves in the Americas.
Excursionists to the Islas Marías are possible from San Blas on the Riviera Nayarit, Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan. Travel time will range from three to six hours, depending on the type of boat used. The office of the Secretary of the Navy, which is managing the site, said that ferries will anchor off María Madre. From there, tenders will deliver passengers to the pier. The Secretary of Tourism (Sectur) cautions that visitors must stay less than 24 hours, as there are no hotels on the islands.
Attractions planned for the island include a museum dedicated to the history of the prison, handicraft stores and traditional markets. Bike rides are being developed for in-depth exploration. Ensuring that visitor numbers to the Marías are properly limited is a priority, according to Marc Murphy, managing director of the Riviera Nayarit Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We are excited about this new development that will enhance Riviera Nayarit’s eclectic offering and continue to solidify our commitment to providing responsible and sustainable travel experiences,” Murphy said. “Marías Islands will offer visitors added opportunities to enjoy our unparalleled natural beauty, and an exceptional chance to be a part of history in the making, as we transform a penitentiary into an educational center.”