Kayaking at Puerto Vallarta’s Los Arcos National Marine Park

kayaking los arcos puerto vallarta
Beautiful Banderas Bay and Los Arcos, off the coast of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico


I’ve lived in Minnesota most of my life, and have spent plenty of time canoeing and kayaking many of our 11,842 lakes—including in the Boundary Waters. But, if I’m honest, the ocean has always intimidated me.

I’ve experienced the power of breaking waves and heard stories of—and felt first-hand—the powerful undertows. (And Jaws…that doesn’t help either!)

But the water in Banderas Bay, where Puerto Vallarta is situated, is so beautiful. The 85-degree air temps and warm water are so inviting (warm by Minnesota standards, that is!).

My sister has lived in the Vallarta area for over 20 years. When I went down to visit her this past December with our son, Jason, we decided to go for a guided kayak tour during our time there.

Kayak Tours at Mismaloya Beach

I had looked up a few options before we left Minnesota. The place we decided on was a family-owned business called Paddle Zone on Mismaloya Beach, on the south side of Banderas Bay.

paddle zone kayak rentals and tours
Paddle Zone’s ocean-side location on Mismaloya Beach


This is my favorite part of the Bay. While the Sierra Madre mountains surround the entire area, down on the south side they spill right into the ocean. The mountains are covered with palm trees and other jungle vegetation that characterize the area. The waves are big and the water is deep with an intense aqua color.

Paddle Zone’s location is typical of a beach “storefront” there—thatched roof and open air. They have a beautiful location directly above the water. We didn’t have a reservation since I wanted to see what the surf was like before committing (still intimidated).

That wasn’t a problem on the day we went. Jason and I signed up for the 3-hour Kayak and Snorkel Tour to Los Arcos National Marine Park. They also have very popular sunset, sunrise and moonlit tours.

Our guide was a 28-year old young man called Felipe. Even though he’d only been speaking English regularly for 11 months, we had no problem keeping up a conversation with him for the three hours. He was friendly and chatty. We even delved into some personal topics as he told us about his wife and children, his background and his faith. It was delightful!

kayaking banderas bay, puerto vallarta
Heading out to sea (that's Puerto Vallarta across the water)


He did a great job impressing on us respect for the waves and currents, yet giving us confidence that the paddling would be no problem for us.

Kayaking on the Ocean for the First Time

The difference I immediately noticed being on the ocean versus a lake—even a big lake—was that once we got out of the little bay, the water wasn’t just coming from one direction. It was moving all around us—it seemed alive! It took me a little while to get used to that feeling and relax.

(I’m glad I didn’t know then that the Bay is at its deepest around these islands—up to 1,600 feet deep!)

It also took Jason and I a few strokes to get used to the tandem kayak, aligning our paddles to pull together. Before long, though, we were on our way to Los Arcos, with Felipe on his stand-up paddle board next to us.

Los Arcos National Marine Park

Los Arcos National Marine Park is a series of small islands and islets just off the coast. It’s a familiar landmark in the southern part of the Bay, and can be seen even from downtown Puerto Vallarta. It received its protected status in 1984.

kayaking los arcos
What a beautiful spot to kayak!


Los Arcos—“the arches”—is a popular boating destination for the marine wildlife, the snorkeling and diving, and the sea caves and tunnels.

No one is allowed on the islands themselves because of nesting birds…and since there’s no good landing spot anyway, it’s not hard to keep people off of them.

One of the highlights was when Felipe had us paddle to the far side of the biggest island to look for the blue-footed booby, which nests there. We did get to see one, which was very cool. We also saw a sea turtle surfacing, and off to the distance, a giant manta ray leaping out of the water—things we don’t see in Minnesota!

Part of our tour was snorkeling in a roped-off area on the sheltered side of one of the islands. Neither Jason or I had done that before, so we were a bit nervous. But, wow, what a wonderful experience! After instruction by Felipe, we got in the water and saw a whole new world underneath the surface.

snorkeling los arcos
Our first experience snorkeling


The fish were obviously used to people, and would swim all around us as we held motionless, just floating and breathing. Magical!

What Else to Do at Mismaloya

This was my first time to Mismaloya, but my sister and nephew who live in Vallarta know it well. Lisa was happy to drive us down there and spend a few hours on the beach while we were out on the water.

This area was made famous 50 years ago by John Houston’s 1964 film The Night of the Iquana, which was shot there at Mismaloya Beach.

(In fact, Houston fell in love with the area so much, he bought a hacienda a couple hours into the mountains, near the now-popular tourist town of San Sebastian. The hacienda has had a couple other owners since those days, but there are pictures on the walls in remembrance of him and his time there.)

While Jason and I were out on the water, my nephew Sebastian rented a stand-up board from the Paddle Zone folks and paddled around the little bay amid the fishing boats and pelicans. Lisa relaxed at one of the shaded tables at the restaurant (there’s always at least one near most of the beaches).

mismaloya beach
Mismaloya Beach is a busy place full of local Mexican culture


After our tour, we enjoyed another couple hours relaxing, swimming, eating the delicious local cuisine, and taking in the thoroughly Mexican culture there.

A few guys were fishing off the shore (most with no rods—just a line and hook with bait…successfully!). A dozen or more fishing boats were anchored in the little bay, waiting to take people out for some off-shore fishing. Pelicans were dive-bombing the water just 40 feet away from us, going after the same fish the fisherman were after.

What a great way to spend a day!

(The photos were taken by Felipe, our guide, and Lisa, my sister, from the beach)

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