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Mexico

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Cancun is one of the three most expensive parts of Mexico, along with Mexico City and Los Cabos. As such, knowing how to travel to Cancun on a budget is essential if you’re a backpacker or don’t have a huge fund for your travels.

Backpacking Accommodations in Cancun

Cancun is a major destination for international travelers. During the pandemic of 2020-2021, it was one of the first places in the world to open up again to tourists. In the first three months of 2021, International visitors only dropped by 50% from the previous year (compared to places like Scotland, which saw the numbers drop by at least 78%). To accommodate the massive numbers of tourists, Cancun has hundreds of resorts, hotels, Airbnbs, hostels, and one campground.

The price range for accommodations in Cancun is massive. Some of the all-inclusive resorts in the Hotel Zone charge thousands of dollars a night. On the other hand, there are hostels that have rooms for rent under $10 a night. The one campground might seem like a nice place to stay on a budget, but sadly, they aren’t cheap.

There isn’t a huge range of hostels in Cancun. The cheapest are $5 per night, and the most expensive (a pod-bed hostel) is only $25 per night. All have surprisingly high ratings (over 8 on Hostelworld). Vanesa and I were going to stay at the Nomads Hotel/Hostel and Rooftop Pool, but we ended up finding a private room on Booking.com for even cheaper.

Mayan Monkey Hostel Cancun

One thing to know about accommodations in Cancun is the occupancy tax. In Mexico, tax is 16%, except for the state of Quintana Roo, which is where Cancun is. In Quintana Roo, the tax is only 10% plus 2% lodging tax, but this didn’t seem the reflect the quotes on Hostelworld. Often, the occupancy tax given was closer to 30%. When you use Airbnb, they’ll also add on the service and cleaning fees, which can really start to add up.

Our room on Booking.com cost us $83 for four nights, which was just a couple dollars less than two bunks at the hostel would have cost us. It wasn’t fancy – just a private room in a house shared with two other rooms. There was a basic kitchen, air conditioning in our room, a comfortable bed and good security…all the essentials for a temporary lodging before we got down to our monthly rental in Puerto Morelos.

To summarize, your cheapest accommodations in Cancun will be around $10 per night per person. You can also stay in opulent luxury, but that has no place in this article for backpackers.

Cost of Cancun Transportation

Local transportation around Cancun is where you’ll be saving the most money…if you do it right. I’ll start off by saying you’ll need to avoid the taxi system if you want to stick to a budget.

There are two main forms of public transportation in Cancun (other than taxis). These are buses and colectivos. Buses are self-explanatory, but there are only four main routes that you need to know about, which you can read about in this great article.  The two main routes to the Hotel Zone are R1 and R2. R1 runs between the Hotel Zone and the Ado bus station (and beyond). R2 goes from the Hotel Zone down Avenida Andrés Quintana Roo. Note that the fares have now increased to 10 pesos ($0.50), and will probably increase again in the future.

Cancun Bus

Colectivos are minivans with benches along the sides and back. There are two styles of colectivos. One is very simple, has no air conditioning or fan, and follows various routes around the city. The other colectivo runs from Cancun down the highway to Playa del Carmen, where you can then another colectivo all the way to Tulum.

The price for the coletivos around the city is usually 10 pesos. You can either pay when you get on or get off, but it’s better to pay when you get on. If the driver has his hand up when the colectivo approaches,  it means the van is full. When you’re ready to disembark, say bajar (drop me off here) or la esquina (at the corner). At this time, you must wear a mask at all times in the colectivo.

Sadly, there’s no map or app that gives the routes of any public transportation in Cancun, at least that I was able to find. If you’re staying in a distant neighborhood, hopefully you can find out from someone what colectivo you can take to where you need to get to. Otherwise, you’ll have to settle for a taxi. Just make sure you settle on a fair price with the driver before you depart.

Where to Eat in Cancun on a Budget

Just like the accommodations, you have a huge range of prices when it comes to food in Cancun. By far the most expensive places are in the Hotel Zone. In fact, we didn’t find anything cheap along the beach.

Instead, head into the city center to find places to eat on a budget. Our personal favorites were at Mercado 23, about half a mile north of the Ado bus station. Along the southern end of the market is a strip of kiosks serving breakfast dishes, empanadas, tacos, tortas (sandwiches), and many other Mexican meals. This is also where you’ll find some of the local Mayan cuisine, such as huevos motulenos and papadzules.

Huevos Motulenos in Mercado 23

Another option for cheap meals is Parque de las Palapas, a few streets southwest of the Ado bus station. Along one side of the park are several food stands serving traditional Mexican cuisine, empanadas, pizzas, hamburgers, smoothies, etc. We had empanadas that were the deep-fried Mexican style, not the Argentinian style which I prefer.

The best places to eat are the street food trucks that come out at night along the main streets. One night, we found a truck called 4:13 Taqueria. Five tacos were only 45 pesos, which converts to $2.25! Sure, you can get meals for cheaper than that in Albania, Thailand and probably Puerto Escondito (I haven’t been there yet), but that’s about the cheapest you’ll find in Cancun.

Taqueria 4:13 in Cancun

Cheap Activities in Cancun

To be honest, there aren’t that many activities and attractions properly IN Cancun. It’s the rest of the State of Quintana Roo that has the real attractions. Some of the excursions outside the city are as follows:

  • Isla Mujeres
  • Holbox Island
  • Chichen Itza – a UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • Diving at the Great Mayan Reef
  • Los Coloradas Pink Lakes
  • Countless Cenotes
  • Mayan Ruins
  • XCaret
  • And many, many more.

Not only are these attractions outside Cancun, they’re also crazy expensive. If you were to do everything on this list, you would probably have to spend several thousand dollars. As such, they don’t really belong in this article. They are incredible in their own right, and I’ll be writing separate articles for them as I visit each one.

However, there are good attractions within Cancun. Some are better than others. I review a few of these in my article about my impression of Cancun. Of the attractions I mention, the Mercados (23 and 28) are really the only attractions you can do on a budget. I could also add exploring downtown Cancun and finding as much street art as you can.

Cancun Street Art

Cancun Hotel Zone

Of course, the main attraction of Cancun is the beach. To get there, you’ll need to go to the Hotel Zone. This is the wide sandbar along the coast with nearly a hundred hotels and resorts side by side. Thankfully, there’s a wide sandy beach to enjoy between the hotels and the water (unlike Playa del Carmen, where the hotels are right up to the waterline).

The water of Cancun Beach is simply divine. It’s warm (about 86°F year-round) and the most vivid blue you can imagine. The waves are decent – not big like California, but not small either. And it’s free to go to the beach. Just don’t be put off by the heavily-armed military men guarding the entrances of the beach from time to time.

Cancun Beach

If you want to do anything else in the Hotel Zone, you’re going to be spending a lot more money. The restaurants were the most expensive we found in Cancun, and the shows were comparable to Las Vegas. As such, if you’re traveling on a budget (which I assume you are if you’re reading this post), you’ll probably want to avoid the Hotel Zone as much as possible. But that’s hard since you’re probably in Cancun for the beach. So instead, bring a picnic lunch for the beach, and skip the shows.

How Expensive is Cancun?

Putting an exact price on a budget for any location is hard, as it can vary so much depending on your tastes, whether you’re going to be buying alcohol, if you want to stay at hostels or Couchsurf, etc.

For those on the tightest budget and not planning to Couchsurf, plan to spend about $10 per day for accommodations, $10 for food, and $2 for transportation in Cancun Obviously, that’s without any activities or excursions, but you can always haggle with those.

If you want a bit more comfort and plan to do an excursion every couple days, you’re probably looking at $50-60 per day. But don’t forget, you could also be spending thousands a day at an all-inclusive resort. Personally, I like to make my money last longer, which means more traveling. But a bit of comfort now and then is also nice.

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Cancun on a Budget Pin

Further Reading

My adventures in Mexico are just starting, but here are some other articles I’ve written so far while being here.

Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.

Mexico was the first country I flew to internationally (not counting my road trips to Canada). It’s been 10 years since I was last here, and I wasn’t sure what my impression of Cancun would be after traveling to 50 other countries around the world. I knew I loved Mexico the first time, and I’ve been dreaming about coming back and eating real Mexican food ever since.

For the most part, our flight from Edinburgh to Cancun was uneventful. Although we flew with various restrictions in place as we left Scotland, successfully made it “across the pond” (transatlantic) – my first time returning to the Americas in over 5 years.

Cancun Airport

Cancun has an international airport with 4 terminals and 62 gates, and it’s anything but fancy. We landed at Terminal 4. Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait for a shuttle as we did at CDG. It only took about 2 minutes to walk to immigration, which had a distinct lack of signage. Despite Cancun being one of the only places in the world completely open to tourists when we arrived, the line wasn’t too long to get to the counter.

The immigration officer asked us what our purpose for entering the country was. I said business while Vanesa said pleasure. She then asked to see our Airbnb reservation, and that was it! No further questions asked. She stamped our passports with a 6-month visa-less entry and we were through.

The baggage claim is where we ran into a snag. It took nearly half an hour for our bags to appear, which left us only about 10 minutes to get to our prepaid bus to Cancun. It didn’t help when one of the rowdy guys decided it would be fun to ride the belt, causing it to be shut down for several minutes. But we finally got our bags, walked right past customs as we had nothing to declare, and made our way outside.

There were very few shops in the airport as we left. It was mostly just car rentals and shuttle kiosks. Outside, a couple taxi drivers approached us, but quickly backed off when we said we had a bus. On the other hand, my brother was harassed by a taxi to get a ride with them a week later.

Airport to Cancun Bus

To get to the Ado buses (the main buses from the airport to Cancun or Playa del Carmen), walk straight out of the airport down the walkway a couple minutes until you get to the big parking lot, and then make a right where you’ll see the bus stations. The Ado buses come about every fifteen minutes. If you didn’t prebook your ticket online, you can get one from the kiosk in the terminal. Note, these directions apply just to Terminal 4, which is where we landed, but the Ado buses stop at every terminal.

Airport to Cancun Bus

The bus ride into town was quite comfortable. Ado buses play movies (ours was Batman vs. Superman), and I especially like the way they tag every bag in the hold for added security, although they don’t request to see the tag counterparts when you arrive in Cancun.

Our Cancun Airbnb

The Airbnb we stayed at in Cancun was called Casa Kosan. It was located just a couple streets behind the central Ado bus terminal, and thank god it was! We were essentially moving to Mexico and between the three bags I was carrying, I had upwards of 100 pounds of clothing, electronics, and other necessities for long-term travel. I was still wearing my cold-weather clothing from Scotland, and I don’t think I could have made it any further in the 85°F heat.

Casa Kosan is a 3-bedroom shared apartment managed by an old Croatian man. It’s secure, has a fully-equipped kitchen and a shared bathroom with a shower that has luke-warm water and minimal pressure. Our room had a big, comfortable bed and AC. That’s all that mattered to me, although Vanesa would have much preferred a pool to lounge at. We had initially planned to stay at a hostel nearby, but our private room ended up being the same price.

Where to Stay in Cancun

When looking for accommodations in Mexico, know that you’ll be paying up to 50% more for the various taxes and fees. Some of the booking platforms incorporate the fees, but others don’t. While Hostelworld says a bed is only $9 a night, your final cost will be closer to $15 due to the occupancy tax, and Airbnb also adds on service and cleaning fees as well. Either way, accommodations in Mexico are still relatively cheap, but Cancun is one of the three most expensive parts of Mexico.

Cancun and the surrounding cities are capable of accommodating hundreds of thousands of tourists at a time, and the range of options is staggering. Down in Tulum, you can find incredible, boutique cabins, beachside bungalows and treehouses, but prices there can go up to a staggering $3,000 per night! In Cancun, most of the hotels are located in the aptly-named “Hotel Zone,” but some of them are all-inclusive and ridiculously expensive. If you’re on a budget, you’ll probably want to look in the city center and then get a bus to the beach.

How to Withdraw Cash in Cancun

We woke up early on our first morning in Mexico. Well, early in Mexican. Although our phones said 6 a.m., it was noon in Edinburgh. Our first order of business was to find an ATM. I’ve long since learned in my travels never to exchange or withdraw money at the airport unless you want to pay the highest fees. Instead, I look for local banks in town to withdraw cash with my Charles Schwab debit card. Schwab is by far the best, as they have no international fees and will even reimburse you for any fees that ATMs charge you.

I found a bank ATM not far from our Airbnb, but it took me several minutes to withdraw cash as I’d forgotten my PIN! That’s what I get for not using that card in nearly two years. Anyway, over the next couple days, I learned that the best place to withdraw cash is at supermarket ATMs, such as Super Chedraui, although each ATM has a slightly different mark-up fee. Banamex seems to be the best rate.

Mercado 23

After getting some cash, we went in search of breakfast. Quite by accident, we stumbled upon Mercado 23. It’s called 23 because Cancun is divided into about 250 neighborhoods, each with its own number, and Mercado 23 is simply in neighborhood 23. It’s also the oldest market in Cancun, and the one which the locals frequent (compared to Mercado 28, which I’ll cover below).

Our first breakfast was huevos motuleños, named after the town of Motul near Merida, Mexico. Huevos motuleños is a regional dish on the Yucatan peninsula. It consists of fried eggs served on tortillas with refried black beans and tomato sauce, topped with ham, peas, plantains, and cheese. It might sound like an odd combination, but it was absolutely delicious.

Huevos Motulenos in Mercado 23

There are about a dozen food stalls in Mercado 23, and we made our way through most of them over the four days we spent in Cancun. They were some of the cheapest places in town, and every dish we tried was fantastic.

Mercado 23 is also where I got my first haircut in months since all the barbers in Scotland had been closed due to the lockdown. My haircut cost a mere $2.50. It wasn’t the best quality, but you get what you pay for.

There are plenty of other stalls in Mercado 23 where you can get fresh produce, meats, clothing and souvenirs. The market opens around 9 a.m., although some of the food stalls open earlier, which was perfect for us as we continued to get up early for the next several days.

Mercado 23

Cancun’s Hotel Zone and Beaches

After breakfast, we headed for the main attraction – Cancun’s beaches. It was really easy to get there. From just outside the bus station, we jumped on the R1 bus for 12 pesos ($0.60). It takes about 30 minutes to get to the Hotel Zone, depending on traffic. The Hotel Zone is the sandy strip of beach on the other side of the lagoon next to Cancun. In other words, it’s the city, a large lagoon, and then a strip of beach with nearly a hundred large hotels and resorts.

Cancun Hotel Zone

My first sight of the water took my breath away. I’ve been to some pretty fantastic beaches around the world, but none of them have had such a vivid blue as the water in Cancun. It’s such a bright blue, it honestly looks photoshopped. The waves aren’t that big – smaller than in Southern California, but far larger than in Edinburgh. I was able to bodysurf a few of them, but I had more fun using my Samsung S20 Ultra phone to take some amazing photos and videos in the water. I eventually ran out of battery and then had to wait overnight for the ports to dry out enough to charge up my phone again.

Cancun Beach Wave

At the top of the Hotel Zone is a group of hotels, clubs and attractions that are like a mini Las Vegas. Things are quite wild in this area, between crazy shows, exorbitant prices, and a lot of drug use. Suffice to say, it wasn’t my favorite part of Cancun. But if you head to the south just a couple of minutes where the hotels are older, you come to emptier beaches. Well, Cancun in general wasn’t that busy, even though Mexico is about the only place in the world really accepting travelers with open arms (no quarantine, tests, or restrictions) at the time of this writing.

Cancun Beach

Mercado 28

Before we left Cancun, we made sure to check out Mercado 28, the other big market. This one is probably about ten times the size of Mercado 23, and definitely more for tourists. Unfortunately, every stall had a man outside shouting at us with a constant stream of verbiage. Even if we tried to say something to them, they just kept talking as if we weren’t even there. This very quickly became too obnoxious, and after a quick circuit around the market, we left.

If you’re looking for a specific souvenir or a really good selection, Mercado 28 is probably where you’ll find it. I’d recommend taking a pair of headphones with you, as you’ll just be overwhelmed by all the demands to buy their silver, tequila, cigars and everything else that they offer there.

Mercado 28 in Cancun

Some Other Observations

Cancun is the second-largest city on the Yucatan Peninsula and the largest in the State of Quintana Roo with a population of nearly 900,000 (not including the millions of tourists). In other words, it’s huge and sprawling. Maybe not by Los Angeles standards, but it is big. Most people think of Cancun as just the strip of beach, a.k.a. Hotel Zone. In the city proper, there are all kinds of other attractions and stores, such as malls, cinemas, Walmarts and even a Costco.

Transportation in Cancun

Getting around Cancun was rather difficult as I wasn’t able to find any website, app, or map that showed the bus and colectivo (minivan) routes. At least the rides I did find were cheap. The bus from the airport was about $5, the bus to the beach is currently $0.60 (and regularly increasing bit by bit), and the bus down to Puerto Morelos – the next city south – was $1.50. I’ll go over more about the cost of Cancun in a separate post on how to travel there on a budget.

Cancun Bus

Is Cancun Safe?

I felt surprisingly safe throughout my entire stay in Cancun. Despite nearly every home window having bars, there didn’t seem to be a lot of crime. Neither my girlfriend nor I ever had that sixth sense that someone was going to rob or harm us. I heard from a fellow traveler that Tulum tends to see quite a bit of violence, and another friend of mine was recently robbed in Playa del Carmen. Sure, every part of the world has those few individuals whose whole purpose is to harm others, but don’t focus on them.

Summary

There’s a lot more I could say about Cancun, but I’ll leave those for separate articles. I’ll have to write an article about the cuisine of the region, how to travel to Cancun on a budget, and maybe one on all the street art. But I also want to focus on Puerto Morelos, which is where I moved to after my four days in Cancun. I completely fell in love with Puerto Morelos, and I think it’s a far better destination to visit, also it doesn’t have the same fantastic blue beaches that Cancun has. At least it only takes an hour to travel between the two.

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My First Impression of Cancun and it's Turquoise Beach 2

Further Reading

Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.