Cancun is the holiday resort that you have envisioned and it easily lives up to its reputation. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing for you if you are a backpacker on a budget.
Yes, the so-called ‘hotel zone’ has its endless stunning resorts, curated lawns and strategically planted palm trees which may be off-putting for those of us who travel with a budget of in and around $30 USD a day or less. So it is safe to say that Cancun can seem a bit out of reach.
However, if you steer clear of those a-typical tourist spots, Cancun has a bustling backpacker scene with great hostels and excursions for cheap. It also abides by the general rule of thumb of cheap food and drinks that Mexico is pleasingly associated with.
Here’s a guide to backpacking through Cancun on a budget that does not stretch to endless Pina Colada’s and an all-inclusive resort package (though we may have indulged in one or two cocktails along the way…)
How to get around
The ADO bus is the bus for getting around in Mexico and if you have been anywhere else in this great country, you will probably already know this. Buses run frequently from neighbouring towns to Cancun and are reasonably priced. For example, a bus to Playa del Carmen will set you back 75 pesos (just under $4 USD).
The ADO bus is also a great transport option coming from the airport into downtown and/ or the hotel zone in Cancun. So-called ‘bus transport services’ have monopolised the airport transport here and so many services can cost well over $50 USD. Taxis have followed suit and charge somewhere in the region of $40 USD. Colectivos are another option (smalls reliable mini-buses frequent throughout Mexico) and can cost around $25 USD per person but you will be sharing with other travellers and will have to sit through a number of stop off points. Uber is also not a recommended option here with risks of running into disgruntled traditional taxi drivers.
So, the bus truly is the best and cheapest way to get from the airport. The ADO buses are comfy, well air-conditioned and a trip into town or the hotel zone will cost around $5 USD. They run every 30 minutes and there is a stand in the arrivals hall where you can purchase your ticket and they will direct you to the bus stop. Alternatively, walk out of arrivals, take a sharp right, walk right down past departures to the end of car park. You will see guys in red t-shirts and a stand selling ADO tickets. The bus departs from here at the parking space 67-69.
Where to stay
There is a great selection of hostels in Cancun but one that seems to be top of the pack right now is the modern and ultra-stylish Mayan Monkey. This gorgeous hostel really sets the bar with its rooftop terrace and infinity pool as well as comfy, air-conditioned dorms with private pods.
The real plus of this hostel is that you get free breakfast AND dinner and it all comes for a price well under $10 USD per night in a dorm room. Sounds too good to be true? Yes I know but this is a hostel that lives up to its impressive Hostelworld bio. Breakfast is filling with a hearty omelette, toast, fruit, cereals and juice. Dinner is different every night but portions are small so you might find yourself heading across to the little taco bar up the road for a cheap taco at $1 USD a pop (though you won’t complain about getting two free meals a day).
The hostel has events from musical trivia and karaoke to bingo nights and a group always ends up out at a local club. This is organised from the hostel at around $30 USD which includes entrance and open bar. The hostel is sociable and the staff are great with getting everyone mingling with each other.
It is located on the edge of downtown close to the ADO terminal which is a great coup. You can get a bus for $1 into the hotel zone and these run frequently. All in all, this is clearly the best hostel to stay in Cancun.
Where to eat
Eating in Cancun gets more expensive the further into the hotel zone that you travel. Here there are a lot of big American chains selling sub-par food at tourist prices. If you plan heading in here to visit the beach, we recommend bringing your own snacks.
Why go to these big, expensive restaurants when downtown you can enjoy gorgeous little taco bars and locally run Mexican restaurants that charge Mexican food prices? We frequently visited the gorgeous Taqueria Coapenitos right near Mayan Monkey that offers cheap beer and tacos for less than a dollar.
If you want to go even cheaper, there are loads of food stalls in central downtown selling many different varieties of street food. In the evening and especially at weekends, Parque de las Palapas becomes a hive of these street food vendors with a great atmosphere. This is a great place to get a cheap meal in Cancun.
What to do
Unfortunately a lot of activities in and around Cancun are expensive and involve paying for pricey tours (these include trips out to islands, going on catamaráns and to the famous underwater museum).
We decided against paying for pricey day trips and stuck to the great free destinations in Cancun; the beaches!
It is totally free to visit all of the beaches that line the hotel one and buses run here all day for less than a dollar. Playa Forum is the super popular and crowded beach that is overrun with tourists, street vendors and big resorts so for us it was a no-go. However, if you stay on the bus down to the Southern end of the hotel zone strip you will find the quieter, less developed beaches where more locals tend to go.
We went for Playa Delfines after some recommendations and it was a great shout. No big hotel complexes shadowed this part of the beach and it is named as such for the potential to spot dolphins at certain times of the year. There is also the infamous ‘Cancun’ letters here if you want to get a great tourist picture.
The beach is generally quite quiet and we rented beds here for the day at 125 pesos per bed plus umbrella ($6.60 USD) but you could just lie on the sand if you are on a tight budget. The R1 bus will take you from the ADO terminal right to the end of the hotel zone for 24 pesos ($1 USD).
Other things to do is to visit the infamous market Mercado 28, a sprawling space of stalls selling every Mexican cliche you could imagine as well as leather sandals, silver jewellery and souvenirs. The market has a reputation for being over priced but you can still get a bargain. The sellers can be pushy but it is a cool place to visit if Cancun is your first stop in Mexico. If you don’t want to purchase anything, it is still a fun place to walk around (though maybe leave the purse at home as these vendors are sales people!).
Cancun only needs to be the tourist trap it is reputed as if you head to certain places. If you avoid the hotel zone except for beach days and enjoy the centre of Cancun, you can have a cheap, cultural and enjoyable stay in this buzzing part of the world.