Visitors to the Marieta Islands off the Jalisco/Nayarit coast will be prohibited from visiting the fabled Playa de Amor (Beach of Love, or Hidden Beach as it it is more commonly known)
at least for the next four months while work is carried out to halt the decay of the adjoining coral reef.
The Hidden Beach is considered one of the wonders of western Mexico. It is invisible from the outside, and only accessible through a long water tunnel that links the beach to the Pacific Ocean.
According to the National Commission for Protected Areas (Conanp), the massive increase in the number of tour boats anchoring and depositing fuel at the beach over the past four years has contributed to the decline of the coral reef, along with the warming of the Pacific Ocean.
Investigators at the Universidad de Guadalajara’s Centro Universitario de la Costa (CUC) in Puerto Vallarta say on some days as many as 2,200 tourists visit the beach when the maximum limit should be 95.
The number of tourists who visit the islands each year has increased from 27,500 to 323,000 since 2012, says Conanp Director Alejandro Del Mazo.
“The beach shows serious signs of degradation in its marine ecosystems. This threatens its biodiversity, its attractive scenic beauty and its sustainable development,” reads a CUC statement.
Not only do tour boats damage the coral with their anchors, but snorkelers and tourists are also abusing the reef, investigators maintain. During regular inspections made over the past six years, CUC personnel have found sections of coral torn off to be taken away as souvenirs and even chewing gum fixed to the coral.
The Marieta Islands have never been inhabited and were used last century by the Mexican government as military testing sites. Many caves and rock formations on the islands, including the Hidden Beach, are attributed to test bombings carried out the military.
After a massive international outcry, started by scientist Jacques Cousteau in the late 1960s, the government eventually decided to label the islands a national park and therefore protected against any fishing, hunting or human activity.
As well as nursing the corals back to health, during the four-month closure of the beach authorities will also contemplate reducing the number of permits granted to tour operators, which currently stands at 178.
Tour boat operators have expressed concern that their livelihoods will be affected by the beach closure. To compensate for this, Del Mazo said special “tourist areas” will be set up to offer alternative snorkeling and kayaking options. Conanp is also looking at the possibility of opening up a group of caves on the islands to visitors.
Some boat operators say they are willing to operate a “Hoy No Circula” program, similar to the one that keeps vehicles off the streets of Mexico City for one day a week in a bid to reduce the number of visitors to the islands.
While the Hidden Beach is undoubtably the main attraction of the Marietas, Del Mazo says there is much to interest tourists who are just prepared to circumnavigate the islands.
Although the whale watching season ended in March, the Marietas are home to hundreds of bird species and sea turtles, manta rays, octopus, wild dolphins and thousands of species of tropical fish can be seen offshore.
Various operators run tours to the Marietas from Puerto Vallarta and Punta de Mita. The boat ride takes about one hour.