Don’t go backpacking in Cancun! Discover where to visit in Mexico that isn’t too crowded

Backpacking in Cancun Mexico, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Central America. From road tripping in Baja to spending a couple weeks living like a local in Oaxaca there’s something for everyone in Mexico. Cancun is famous for its all inclusive resorts, but it’s not the best place if you’re on a budget backpacking trip to Mexico. Cancun can be expensive and is a hot spot for the cruise crowds of the Caribbean, so it can feel a little too busy. These are all good reasons not to go backpacking in Cancun. So where else can you visit on the Yucatan peninsula? Here’s a run down of some of the most popular as well as the top off the beaten track places to visit in Mexico.

Yucatan off the beaten track Street Art

Off the beaten track Yucatan

Visit Puerto Morelos

Visit Puerto Morelos

Puerto Morelos lies on a quiet piece of coastline between busy Cancun and touristy Playa del Carmen. The small town has managed to avoid over development since most of the surrounding land has been declared a conservation area. Making it a great place to stay if you want to get away from the crowds in the Cancun. Puerto Morelos has a relaxed vibe with great beach side restaurants, dive shops, snorkelling, markets and a huge brand new supermarket.

Croco Cun Zoo Puerto Morelos Yucatan

Croco cun zoo is just outside Puerto Morelos and offers animal encounters without the negative connotations of places like Xcaret park’s ‘Dolphinariums’ (not to mention a quarter of the price!). It was set up as a rescue centre for animals from the pet trade such as crocodiles, snakes, Mexican hairless dogs, turtles and monkeys. Unfortunately they can no longer survive in the wild. There are also deer that you can buy a food pack for and hand feed. All of the animals are in great condition and the one hour tour from the passionate keepers gives some great insight into the animals lives and conservation efforts. Plus you have the chance to handle some of the tame animals, the monkeys however are semi wild so you are not guaranteed any interaction. It’s one of the sustainable tourism destinations in the Yucatan that have been gaining popularity in recent years.

Cancun Vs Playa del Carmen

Cancun or Playa del Carmen

If you want to know the best places to visit on Mexico’s Caribbean coast that have all of the amenities you could need, there is a simple choice of Cancun vs Playa del Carmen. They are places that have everything you could need. Doctors, pharmacies, nightlife, shopping, day trips etc. Of course along with it comes the hoards of tourists, pushy sellers and fast food chains. 10 Avenida is my idea of hell, similar to Las Ramblas in Barcelona. Try to stay a few blocks back on 30 Avenida where you can find great food at good prices like El Fogon! It’s a totally different atmosphere to the main drag with casual brunch cafes, leafy suburbs and friendly locals.

Catch a ferry to Cozumel from Playa Del Carmen

Cozumel Beach bar

The diving in Cozumel is world renowned. It is also, however, a very popular stop for cruise ships and one of the most frequented stops in the Caribbean harbouring up to 9 massive ships a day! Of course all these cruise ships bring with them problems and pollution which in turn has a negative impact on the reef.

But it’s not all bad. Away from the port you will find a relaxing town where locals say hola without trying to sell you their Grandma. Rent a scooter (Pipian Rental is super reliable and helpful giving a set rate) and drive around the island visiting ancient Mayan ruins like San Gervasio and empty beaches along the east coast. Unfortunately the empty picturesque east coast is too rough and dangerous for snorkelling so instead you generally have to pay to access the beach on the west and south coast.

Palancar beach is the most famous, open daily from 9am-5pm, but can get very busy. A good alternative is to visit one of the bars and restaurants on the coast to gain access to the sea. Many have a minimum spend of $15pp, like the Money Bar and Hotel Cozumel, but are great for lunch and a snorkel. Jeanie’s has no minimum spend, so you can snorkel for the price of a drink and there is a surprising amount of sea life considering its proximity to the city but no real reef.

Where to snorkel with turtles in Akumal for free

How to get to Akumal beach for free

Akumal is a great local feeling town full of street art hinting towards a real love for nature. Restaurants are cheap and locals are friendly. The beach has however gotten a bit caught up with the tourist buzz. Famous for its sea turtles, the beach at Akumal is a little slice of paradise, but it comes at a price. It seems the locals have banded together to close off the beach unless you pay a 100 pesos entry fee. It’s not too bad as you get the use of showers, toilets and lockers for this cost. Again once you are inside there are strict rules about swimming with the turtles (hopefully primarily for the animals welfare) in which you cannot swim without a life jacket or guide in certain areas.

However our hostel owner told us if we just walked up the beach a little further you can snorkel without a life jacket or guide in the swimming area, so that’s what we did. On several occasions we also just wanted to go to the beach for a drink or to relax and so entered through the Hotel Akumal Caribe (with security guards) stating we wanted to go to the Lol Ha Restaurant. This is (we think the only) way to enter Akumal beach for free and the restaurant is great too!

Aktun Chen Akumal

A great day trip from Akumal is Aktun Chen, a wildlife reserve with ziplines, cave systems, ATVs and a cenote. A collectivo from the turtle statue in Akumal is just 20 pesos, then a free shuttle takes you from the entrance to the park. Named one of Nat Geo’s top 10 underground walks the cave tour costs just $20 and ends in a stunning underground cenote. The best part, in my animal obsessed opinion, is the zoo; free with any tour. Deer and monkeys roam freely and seem to be unfazed by human observers. It’s one of the best places to see monkeys in the Yucatan.

Aktun Chen Nature Park Yucatan Mexico

Where to find cenotes in Tulum

Casa cenote Yucatan Mexico

Our final and probably favourite stop along the Maya Riviera, Tulum is a mix of all of the best bits of the Mexican Caribbean coast. The town has a diverse and multicultural culinary scene, perfect beaches, easy access to cenotes and it’s very own Mayan ruins. Playa Paraiso is a public (free) beach that rivals any Caribbean paradise. The Tulum Ruins are very popular with backpackers visiting Mexico. Although they are smaller than others, these cenotes are right on the coast.

There are so many great things to do near Tulum. Take a mud bath at Laguna de Kaan Luum (just 50 pesos!) or venture into Sian Ka’an nature reserve with a tour to spot dolphins, turtles and a myriad of birds. Just a 10 minute taxi ride from Tulum (200 pesos), visit Casa Cenote where you can snorkel with freshwater fish and then relax on the small beach nearby. Another great day trip from Tulum is to Coba ruins, less busy than Chitchen Itza and more fun to climb around.  The town is popular for good reason, there are so many fun things to do in Tulum you might end up staying longer than you thought!

What to budget for backpacking in Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum, Mexico

How to get around Mexico on a budget

Collectivo’s are the best way to get around the Yucatan on a budget. There is a 20 peso minimum charge but after that the cost is negligible. They have set pick up areas (ask a local of any town you are in) but can be flagged down on any main road and will drop you off wherever you ask along the route.

There really doesn’t seem to be many tourists using them but they are an incredibly cheap and useful way to get around short distances, plus they save you a fortune in taxi fares. A bit of Spanish helps but it’s relatively straightforward if you keep an eye on your offline Google Maps and tell them when you want to get off.

Travelling on a budget in Mexico

For longer journeys ADO or Mayan buses are great for getting in between major cities with luggage. With AC and all the mod cons there’s nothing much to complain about apart from some of the “driving styles”. Buying tickets in advance at the bus station can be a good idea as they can get busy and have limited services in some areas.

Cheap Cenotes to visit in Mexico

Cenote Zaci Valladolid cheap cenotes to visit in Mexico

Cenotes are everywhere in Mexico, you can do everything from cave walks, swimming, snorkelling and diving in them. They usually cost around 100 to 200 pesos to enter. Many tours are offered but there’s no reason not to turn up by your own means and only pay the entry fee. Dos Ojos and Taj Ma Ha are two of the most popular for diving while smaller ones like Casa Cenote can be an easy place to swim and grab a drink. Save money by visiting lesser know cenotes like Cenote Zaci, Cenote Suyun or Cenote Azul.

Cheap places to stay on Mexico’s Caribbean coast

accommodation in the Yucatan peninsular

Accommodation prices can vary hugely in Mexico, with some resorts charging $700 per night! Back in the real world it’s reasonable to expect to pay $30 per night for a double room, for a good location and good quality budget accommodation (read hot water). A mixture of using Air BnB and in the Yucatan can bring up a good choice of places fairly last minute even in high season. There’s a huge choice of cheap places to stay in Mexico. Always check the tax and extra charges in the booking conditions, as it’s not always made obvious.

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Where to go diving in the Yucatan

Mexico is not the cheapest place to dive in the world with cenotes costing around $120 for two tanks, bull sharks dives at around $100 and regular single tank dives at around $60. Dive courses can vary hugely between shops and sometimes don’t have the full equipment or course materials included. Two great shops I have used and highly recommend are Good Vibes in Playa del Carmen and Barefoot in Cozumel. Good and easy to comprehend prices and new, well maintained equipment. Make sure to read my guide on taking great photos underwater here.

What to eat on Mexico’s east coast

Mexican Huevos Rancheros Breakfast Food in the Yucatan

Traditional Mexican food is fairly cheap if you look in the right places. Tacos del pastor, huevos rancheros and rice and beans are all firm favourites that can be found for less than $5 a meal. There is also plenty of western food around with pasta, pizza and burgers generally costing a little more let’s say $10 a meal. Higher end food can cost up to double which can definitely affect a foodies backpacker budget in the Yucatan Peninsular!

Where to get medical advice for backpackers in Mexico

A little tip I learned after perforating my ear drum on a dive was that many pharmacies have doctors attached. Consultations are just 50 pesos and great for minor ailments, no insurance needed but basic Spanish is an advantage as not many speak English. For anything more serious the best place to be is Playa del Carmen where there is a proper hospital.

Chichen Itza Must dos in the Yucatan

Of course no trip to the Yucatan is complete without a visit to Chichen Itza but, as one of the modern seven wonders of the world, it helps to know how to avoid the crowds. It sure can get busy! Read my guide here of how to beat the crowds (and the heat!) when visiting Chichen Itza.

Holbox Island off the beaten track Yucatan

If you really want to get away from it all how does a remote island in the middle of a huge nature reserve sound? Read all about Holbox island here.

Mexico Map Lost Wanders
Check out all of the best stops in Mexico here on Google Maps.

How to travel better for less

Skyscanner – For flights at the best prices this is my go to site. I have also started using them for car hire and they can’t be beat! – I always book with this site if looking for cheap accommodation as the filters are so easy to use. Become a genius member after five bookings and get great discounts too!

Air BnB – Sometimes you can find great local places to stay on Air BnB. In some countries, like Cuba, it’s the only way to book!

Transferwise – A debit card you can use all over the world and get great exchange rates with no hidden fees. This bank has saved me £100’s in bank fees!

Monzo – A similar travel card to the above with additional features like joint accounts and bill splitting.

World NomadsTravel insurance is one of the most important things you can have while travelling. Don’t leave home without it! World Nomads provide the very best cover.

Ethical Superstore – My go to site for cleaning products, eco clothing and even groceries. All ethically tagged and delivered free from plastic packaging. Plus eco friendly alternatives to your toiletries.

Omio – The place to go for all of your public transport needs in Europe. Save a bundle!

G Adventures – A sustainable, fun, responsible travel company. I’ve travelled with them many times and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of their amazing trips.

Contiki – The day job. Group travel for 18/35 year olds and memories to last a lifetime.

Hey, some links in this post are to affiliate sites. If you purchase something through them, I earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.

A note on Amazon Affiliates – LW no longer uses this program, instead focusing on eco friendly alternatives. Read the reasons why here. LW will not profit from any links that may remain on this site. Please advise us if you spot any. Thanks!

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Jo Williams

A Brit that got fed up of the 9 to 5 corporate life, I sold everything to become a full time wanderer. Having travelled to over 70 countries so far, I share my money-saving tips and secrets from inside the travel industry. Hoping to inspire you to work less and travel more.