Los Arcos

Landmark

in Puerto Vallarta

Pacific islands of Los Arcos National Marine Park, Banderas Bay, Mexico. About 10 miles South of Puerto Vallarta are several caved rocks that are breeding place for water birds like pelicans, herons and other species.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Revered for its iconic arched rock formations and deep waters teeming with wildlife, Los Arcos is the most visited diving destination in Puerto Vallarta.

Given its huge popularity as a scuba, snorkeling and bird-watching site, consider making a morning visit to soak up the natural wonders before the parade of tour boats begins. A must-see for diving enthusiasts is Devil’s Canyon, where you can hover above an abyss that drops an astonishing 550m (1800ft). Most folks head out to Los Arcos on snorkeling or diving excursions. Alternatively, you can charter a private motorboat or sailboat out to the protected marine park.

Dive boats along the coast of Los Arcos
Dive boats along the coast of Los Arcos © Boogich / Getty

What to see and do

Regarded as one of Puerto Vallarta’s premier spots for wildlife-watching, Los Arcos was designated as a national marine park in 1984 to protect the zone from overfishing and environmental degradation. Comprising a group of five granite islets, the biggest of which rises about 50m out of the glistening Banderas Bay, Los Arcos is home to a dazzling variety of marine species, including eagle rays, giant mantas, moray eels, trumpet fish, sea turtles and vibrantly colored nudibranchs (beautiful sea slugs found mostly in tropical waters). Divers will also encounter large caves, gaping tunnels and a brilliant coral reef, not to mention some of the deepest waters on the bay.

Advanced divers can explore a massive wall at La Quijada del Diablo (The Devil’s Jaw), while beginners can float among the multitude of tropical fish at El Acuario (The Aquarium), a site truly living up to its name. With average depths ranging between 9m to 40m (30 to 130 feet) and typical visibility around 18m (60 feet), Los Arcos is quite the haven for snorkelers as well. 

Los Arcos calm waters also draw a fair share of kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders. When approached from the nearby coast of Mismaloya, it’s a fairly easy paddle out to the islets and the experience presents excellent wildlife-watching along the way. Hook up a paddleboard or kayaking trip in Mismaloya with Paddle Zone

Birders can delight in spying magnificent frigatebirds, herons and blue-footed boobies (Los Arcos serves as a breeding ground for these fabulous marine birds with striking turquoise feet).

Scuba diving through the lush reefs of Los Arcos
Scuba diving through the lush reefs of Los Arcos © Inspired By Maps / Shutterstock

How to get there

The islets of Los Arcos lie offshore just north of Mismaloya, a beach cove about 10km (6 miles) south of downtown Vallarta. If you can’t find time to boat out to the marine park, you can always take in a sunset view of the rock formations from a lookout point about 1km north of Playa Mismaloya. Simply board a ‘Boca de Tomatlán’ bus (20 minutes; M$10) from the corner of Badillo and Constituyentes in the Zona Romántica and tell the driver you want to get off at the ‘mirador los arcos.’ 

For boat trips to Los Arcos, you’ll find no shortage of dive shops and tour companies offering up a range of services, some of which include onboard meals and open bar. Many run excursions departing out of Marina Vallarta, about 9km (5.5 miles) north of downtown. Ecotours de Mexico, a reputable eco-friendly tour outfit, does snorkeling trips led by English-speaking naturalists. Banderas Scuba Republic earns high praise for its professional diving expeditions, while Vallarta Adventures runs everything from scuba excursions to luxury yacht, catamaran and sailboat outings.

For a quick jaunt out to the site, hire a private boat from Playa de los Muertos pier for M$500 to M$1000 per hour (snorkeling gear is usually included). 

Mexico, Banderas Bay, people swimming at Los Arcos National Marine Park
You can stop and take a swim and then continue on to lovely beaches © Westend61 / Getty Images

When to go

You can snorkel and dive at Los Arcos pretty much year-round, however, if you want to spot humpback whales you should venture out from December to March when thousands of the 30-ton giants congregate in the bay during mating season. With a little luck, you may even have a whale shark sighting during the winter season, plus the water is generally quite calm that time of year. For optimal visibility and warmer water temperatures, head out during the summer months from June to October. When planning your visit, keep in mind that a morning expedition allows you to see a quieter side of Los Arcos before the booze cruises begin to roll in. 

Tips

If you’re pressed for time, consider arranging a tour that stops at Los Arcos and continues on to Vallarta’s sublime palm-fringed southern beaches. The clear emerald waters in the protected cove of Majahuitas provide awesome snorkeling and you couldn’t ask for a more serene beach setting, while in the villages of Yelapa and Quimixto jungle paths lead to refreshingly cool waterfalls. Or if you’re simply looking to chill on a tranquil beach under the shade of a rustling palm, a short walk east of Playa Las Ánimas takes you to the quiet Playa El Caballo, where you can rediscover the lost art of doing nothing.