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See what I mean? It's like looking up from inside an inner tube. (Photograph by Christian Frausto Bernal)

Mexico’s Secret Beach

I don flippers and a life vest, leave my goggles, smartphone, and camera behind, and line up to dive into the waters off the coast of Mexico’s Marieta Islands.

Clusters of people jump off ahead of me — couples, friends, families, all bobbing in the water like Halloween apples. I survey the landscape ahead of me, a flat island with rock formations springing up from patches of light green grass, before I launch toward a horseshoe-shaped opening in the middle.

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Kayakers off the coast of the Marieta Islands (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

When I reach the arch, the water rushes past my ears, carrying with it “organic trash” — a medley of natural debris that has washed off the island. I paddle through the sludge, duck into a low cave, and hold on to the rocks above as I push through the water like a salmon swimming upstream.

Finally, I can see my target in front of me — a place they call Hidden Beach. I’m floored. Picture being in an inner tube of sorts with a ring of “island’ encircling you.

The Marietas were formed by volcanic activity and I was told this one-of-a-kind beach was formed by erosion. Formerly known as the Beach of Love (I can only imagine why), Hidden Beach is the closest we will get to being ashore on these islands (it’s been outlawed to conserve the fragile ecosystem there).

We’re just an hour’s boat ride from Puerto Vallarta, but these mysterious islands — a protected paradise that’s home to more than 90 species — make you feel like you’ve traveled a great distance. There are two islands — a larger one, aptly called Larga, and an almost perfectly round one known, with equal aptness, as Redondo.

This is primo snorkeling territory — with more than a dozen kinds of coral in every color you can imagine and an amazing array of fish, big and small. If you’re lucky, you might even spot the islands’ most famous resident: the blue-footed booby, darling of the Galapagos Islands.

The legendary Jacques Cousteau spent time here observing the humpback whale migration (he was also the first to identify the birds on the islands) and felt so strongly that the islands needed protection that he started a movement to make the Marietas a national park. His efforts paid off in 2005, eight years after his death.

If you’re touring in winter, you will likely see humpbacks in the Bay of Banderas, which used to be called the Bay of Humpbacks. “When the baby whales get tired of swimming, it is the coolest thing to see the mamas hold one of the babies, and let it rest for a few minutes in the water,” one of our guides shares. I will have to come back.

This time, though, I am touring with Vallarta Adventures, a company known for its casual party atmosphere (our guides dressed up and lip-synced on the return trip). As a solo traveler, it’s the perfect way to meet other people.

The possibilities for adventure in the Vallarta/Nayarit region seem endless — horseback riding, hiking, sailing, snorkeling, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, you name it. But if you have just one free day, hitch a ride over to the Marietas.

You don’t want to miss the Hidden Beach.

Annie Fitzsimmons is on the beat in Mexico. Follow her adventures on the Urban Insider blog, on Twitter @anniefitz, and on Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.