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Budget Travel Guides
Is it possible to travel Mexico on a budget? Learn how much it costs to backpack through Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula — along with my favorite travel tips, things to do, and more.
Travel Guide: Mexico (2016)
First off, Mexico is huge. It’s difficult to write a budget travel guide generalizing the entire country. It’s simply too diverse. This guide focuses on the Yucatan for now, as it’s the region I’m most familiar with.
Mexico has suffered from a reputation of being unsafe due to the drug war in certain parts of the country, but I can say with confidence that the Yucatan is plenty safe for tourists.
Media outlets tend to only report on sensational news coming from Mexico, so many people assume the whole country is a dangerous place.
But Mexico is VERY big, and just because there’s violence in some areas does not mean the whole country is a danger zone. Some major American cities have very high crime rates too, but that doesn’t mean they’re unsafe for travelers.
Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula has something for everyone. White sand beaches, ancient Mayan ruins, deep jungle wilderness, excellent food, and fabulous scuba diving make it a great vacation destination.
There are many wonderful reasons to visit Mexico for your next vacation.
Traveling To Mexico
While knowledge of Spanish will obviously be a huge benefit, it’s not absolutely needed to travel in Mexico. I was initially a bit worried about my lack of Spanish when I visited for the first time, and surely it was frustrating to communicate, but it wasn’t impossible.
I carried a small Spanish phrasebook that covered the basics which worked fine. These days my basic grasp of Spanish is all I need to get around and make myself understood for simple situations.
For the most part, the people I’ve met here in Mexico were all incredibly friendly, hard working, patient and generous individuals. Complete strangers frequently offered to help me with directions, interpret bus announcements, or take me out for drinks and show me around.
Budget Travel In Mexico
Mexico is generally very affordable, but due to it’s popularity and location, the Yucatan is slightly more expensive than other parts of Mexico that receive less tourism.
Budget travelers can survive on around $30 – $40 USD per day.
Mexico’s currency is Mexican Peso ($ – same symbol as the dollar sign) and it translates to 16 – 18 MXN for $1 USD. While US dollars are widely accepted and even available for withdrawal at some ATMs, it’s recommended you convert your money to pesos as the conversion rate is lower.
My Mexico Travel Budget
TOTAL DAYS = 36
TOTAL SPENT = $995 USD
DAILY AVERAGE = $27 USD
Please use these numbers as general guidelines only. Remember, everyone travels differently. Your personal travel budget in Mexico may vary.
When I spent 36 days traveling through Mexico in 2011, I spent a total of $995 for an average of $27 USD per day.
This was possible by staying in hostels, camping, using public transportation, eating cheaply, and avoiding organized tours as much as possible.
READ MORE: Travel Banking Tips
Where To Stay In Mexico
Mexico’s Yucatan offers every type of accommodation you could think of. From tree-houses and hostels to luxury resorts. Accommodation prices in the Yucatan are similar whether you’re heading to Cancun, Tulum or Playa del Carmen, but they can be 5 times higher during high season and major holidays, such as Spring break and Christmas.
Here are some examples to help you plan according to your budget.
- Backpacker Hostels: $4 – $17 per night
- Guest Houses: $40 – $95 per night
- Mid-Range Hotels: $100 – $200 per night
- Resorts & Fancy Hotels: $200 – $500 per night
READ MORE: How To Find Cheap Hotels
Eating Mexican Food!
Mexico has one of the most delicious cuisines in the world. In fact, Mexican food has been added added to the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List by UNESCO.
Many people think that Mexican food is basically just tacos, nachos and burritos, but it’s actually hard to find burritos in the Yucatan as they’re more American and popular only in the northern parts of the country.
While tacos are the most popular, Mexican cuisine is very diverse.
You can get tacos on every street corner for as little as $1 for a meat taco and $1.20 for a seafood one. You can easily be full after eating three tacos, so dinner with a side of guacamole would cost you about $5.
However, if you’re looking for a sit-down dinner you can pay $1 or $2 more to have a waiter deliver your tacos and drinks to the table.
If you’re bored of tacos, try quesadillas and sopes. Quesadilla is a wheat tortilla filled with cheese and other stuffing, folded in half and then cooked on a griddle. Sope is round shaped and slightly thicker, topped with refried black beans and crumbled cheese, lettuce and cream.
Another tasty food option in the Yucatan is ceviche, a mix of fresh seafood cured in citrus juice and spiced with garlic and chili peppers, usually eaten with totopos (Mexican nachos). Ceviche usually costs between $4 – $10.
Transportation In Mexico
Mexico offers many forms of transportation, from low cost airlines to buses, public minibuses, taxis, and rental cars. Traveling around the Yucatan is generally very easy and cheap.
Flying around Mexico is affordable and local airlines are often more comfortable than many American carriers. You can get a flight starting around $25 USD by booking budget airlines in advance.
If you’re on a tight budget, you might want to use a colectivo to get around. These shared minibuses/vans connect different towns, and you simply hop in with other riders, tell the driver where you want to get out, and pay once you reach your destination. The price varies based on distance, but an hour long ride costs about $4.
When traveling longer distances between cities, a comfortable option is to use Mexico’s fantastic ADO Bus System. Buses have AC, a toilet, reclinable seats, and Spanish language movies. They are faster & more comfortable than colectivos for long distances. An hour long trip costs about $12.
Taxi drivers in Mexico generally don’t have meters, so ask the price before you get in. Local rides within a city or town should cost between $1 – $2. It will be a bit more expensive to hail cabs from bus stations or tourist areas.
Pre-booking a car rental in Mexico online through a site like Orbitz with insurance will cost you about $30 per day. Many of the best roads in Mexico might be toll roads and you’ll be expected to pay a fee to travel with a private vehicle.
READ MORE: How To Find Cheap Flights
US citizens and most EU passport holders can pick up a tourist visa on arrival that allows you to remain in Mexico for up to 180 days. Simply fill out the tourist card given to you on your flight, and remember to save the 2nd half in your passport, as you’ll need it to leave the country.
Things To Do In Mexico
Sunbathing on a gorgeous Mexican beach is one activity you can’t miss while visiting the Yucatan Peninsula. There are tons of beaches to choose from, most offering additional water sports like parasailing, reef snorkeling, windsurfing, or jet-skiing. Some of the best beaches are located in Tulum, Cozumel, and Isla Holbox.
One of the most popular activities in Mexico is to visit ancient Mayan ruins. While Chichen Itza is the most popular, there are many other interesting archeological sites you can explore in Mexico. The Mayan Ruins of Coba are one of my favorites, along with the jungle ruins of Calakmul and the ocean city of Tulum.
Swim In Cenotes
The Yucatan has one of the world’s largest underground river systems, riddled with over 6000 limestone sinkholes and caves called cenotes. Swimming in a cenote is a wonderful way to cool off on a hot day. Each cenote is different, some inhabited by colorful fish, others with platforms to jump from, or even ziplines! Most are privately owned by local families, and they usually charge a small entrance fee around $5.
The island of Cozumel, just 30 minutes by ferry from Playa del Carmen, has some of the best scuba diving in the Caribbean. A single tank dive costs around $50 – $60. In the winter, diving with bull sharks is possible. For a truly unique diving experience, cavern diving through dark underground cenote cave systems can’t be beat.
Want to relax a bit? Consider an ‘ancient Mayan’ healing session at a pre-Hispanic sweat lodge. Temazcal steam baths have been used for both healing and ritual purposes for thousands of years. The ceremony is meant to clean, purify, detox and heal your entire body.
There are many natural reserves in the Yucatan where you can go birdwatching around Rio Lagartos. Another option would be kayaking among crocodiles in Sian Ka’an Biosphere or hanging out with flamingos at the crazy pink lake in Las Coloradas.
Budget Travel Tips
Staying in dorms at backpacking hostels and traveling by 2nd class bus or public collectivos instead of taxis can save you a lot of money.
If you want to spend less money on food, consider eating at taco stands instead of dining at restaurants. It might not be a Michelin star dinner, but I guarantee they’ll be tasty and safe. Keep an eye out for stands with the most people, they’re usually the best.
If you’re flying from the US, book a domestic flight to San Diego, then cross the border to Tijuana and fly low-cost Mexican carrier to Cancun or Merida in order to avoid international fees. Mexican airlines are safe, comfortable and much better than US budget carries like Spirit or Frontier.
READ MORE: Best Travel Tips After 7 Years Traveling
Off The Beaten Path
While the majority of tourists go to Isla Mujeres, locals prefer to visit the more quiet Isla Holbox for a day or two. The island is surrounded by blue waters and the shallow lagoon separating it from the mainland attracts migrating flamingos, pelicans and whale sharks (from June to September).
There are no cars allowed on Holbox, only golf carts which are also used as taxis. The island is a great place to relax in a hammock, eat fresh lobster pizza, or ride horses on the beach.
Best Time To Visit Mexico
When is the best time to visit Mexico? Well, Mexico has one of the world’s most diverse weather systems and simply cannot be defined into spring, summer, autumn and winter due to the different elevations and landscapes.
The cheapest time to visit Yucatan Peninsula is during the off-season between June and November, as it’s very hot and accommodation prices are significantly lower.
During the high season of December to March, prices increase up to 5 times, and your accommodation should be booked at least a few weeks in advance, to make sure you get something good.
Challenges In Mexico
In tourist destinations such as Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum you might get scammed by some taxi drivers, even if you speak perfect Spanish. Walking further away from busy bus stations or main roads should help you land a cheaper cab. Always ask the price before getting in.
The weather in Yucatan changes a lot and there are thunderstorms regardless of the season. If you’re planning some sightseeing make sure you check the weather forecast beforehand.
Certain parts of Mexico have problems with drug cartels, however the Yucatan is very safe in this regard. You can always ask your hotel or hostel which areas to avoid.
READ MORE: 15 Common Travel Scams
Internet & Cell Phone Service
There are four main cell phone providers: Iusacell, AT&T, Movistar and Telcel. Telcel is the most expensive, but it has the best coverage.
Getting a Mexican SIM card is easy – they are sold at cellphone stores, Sanborns shops, or even at Oxxo (Mexican convenience store similar to 7-11). SIM cards cost 150 pesos (about $12) and include 75 pesos of credit for calls and texting.
READ MORE: International Cell Phone Service
Travel Tips For Mexico
There are certain places where product prices are fixed and non-negotiable (like chain stores), but you can haggle for the price of souvenirs almost everywhere else. Don’t be afraid to walk away either… often that’s when a shopkeeper will give you his lowest price.
Mexico Travel Photography
Adventures From Mexico
Planning to travel to Mexico soon? Browse all my blog posts from Mexico to get ideas & recommendations for your own travel adventures there.
Suggested Books & Movies
The Maya: Ancient Peoples & Places – A detailed review of Mayan civilization through the ages based on today’s knowledge. (Book)
Six Bad Things – Hank is living off the map in Mexico with a bagful of cash that the Russian mafia wants back and many, many secrets. (Book)
Frida – Story of the handicapped Mexican painter, portraying her recovery from injury, love affairs and artistic vocation. (Movie)
Amores Perros – Interwoven tales about a young man in love, a perfume spokeswoman and her lover, and a scruffy vagrant. (Movie)
Lonely Planet Mexico – A travel guide to Mexico that includes history, advice, things to do, and places to stay. (Guidebook)
Enjoy Your Trip!
If you can survive the occasional cold shower or a broken down bus, Mexico will reward you with beautiful tropical beaches, historic Mayan ruins, and some of the best food on the planet.
Mexico is one of the best values for your money in adventure travel! ★
Traveling To Mexico Soon?
Don’t forget travel insurance! I’m a big fan of World Nomads for short-term trips. Protect yourself from possible injury & theft abroad. Read more about why you should always carry travel insurance here.
READ MORE FROM MEXICO
Have any travel questions or tips about Mexico? Other suggestions? Drop me a message in the comments below!