Backpacking may not be something you’ve ever considered before. Certainly, I stayed in an all-inclusive hotel for my first visit to Cancun on the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. As a 40-something Mum of 3, backpacking Yucatan was far from my mind as I celebrated my friend’s wedding at the luxurious Ritz Carlton hotel!
However, a one-off day trip from this hotel to Tulum awakened something inside of me. Tulum inspired me to discover more about the real Yucatan peninsula beyond the big hotels. Whilst walking around the Mayan ruins of Tulum, I admired the breath-taking coastal location and wondered whether this was the most beautiful place in Mexico. I promised myself that one day I would find out.
A few years later, Oliver and I returned to explore the Yucatan, Mexico with a backpack of essentials. Our aim was to see more of the Yucatan peninsula for less money and to have an authentic travel experience. This is my experience of backpacking Yucatan and what is possible if you travel in a different way.
Where Is the Yucatan Peninsula?
The Yucatan Peninsula (Yucatán Peninsula or Peninsula de Yucatan) is a region found in Mexico in Central America. This Mexican peninsula is found in the southeastern part of the country. Its coastline stretches along the Gulf of Mexico to the west and north and the Caribbean Sea to the east.
Although many people refer to this whole area of Mexico as the Yucatan, the region is divided into 3 separate states: Campeche, Quintana Roo and Yucatán. Each state has its own capital city. San Francisco de Campeche is the capital city of Campeche, Chetumal is the capital city of Quintana Roo (with Cancun as its largest city) and Merida is the capital city of Yucatan state.
To the south of the state of Quintana Roo is the small country of Belize.
📍 Click Here for the map Yucatan Peninsula
Backpacking Yucatan – Safety Advice
Lots of people thought I was crazy to consider backpacking in Mexico. They were genuinely concerned for my safety. However, before we travelled to the region we used our common sense and did some research.
We found out that the Yucatan peninsula is a relatively safe area of Mexico. To help other travellers, we published this useful guide about Mexico safety. It is full of common sense advice and includes information about the Yucatan peninsula.
We travelled around the Yucatan peninsula just by public transport and encountered no problems. Along the coast, we noticed a strong police presence on bikes, 4x4s, helicopters and boats. Our best advice for backpacking Yucatan is to never travel during the night, even on a bus.
Budget for Backpacking Yucatan
The Yucatan peninsula can be fairly cheap or very expensive depending on your travel choices. We stayed in a variety of different priced hotels which we booked through Booking.com. This allowed us flexibility to change our plans.
If you travel with local buses or shared colectivos and avoid fancy restaurants, a budget of 70 US$ should be a good starting point.
If you are interested in travelling more and spending less, check out this post and learn how to travel cheaply. It’s perhaps easier than you think!
Quick Tour of the Yucatán Points of Interest
Backpacking Yucatan – Our Route
Cancun is a good place to start and end your route as it has an international airport. Below you will find detailed information about each of the places we visited on the Yucatan peninsula.
📍 Click Here is a useful map which shows our route
When planning our visit to the Yucatan peninsula, our first decision was whether or not to stay in Cancun overnight.
After a little research, we realised that we were either faced with a 30-minute bus ride north of the airport to downtown Cancun or an equal journey south to the smaller town of Puerto Morelos.
We opted for the latter and decided to stay at the beach area to make the most of our time here.
How to Get to Puerto Morelos
To get to Puerto Morelos, we took an ADO bus from Cancun International Airport. When you arrive at Puerto Morelos, the bus will drop you outside a petrol station in the main town. This location is a short taxi ride from the beach area.
You can easily download the ADO bus app in advance of your travels. It really helped us make smart choices about our route choices.
Undoubtedly, it is cheaper to stay where the bus drops you. Hotels and restaurants are less expensive here because they are away from the beach. If you decide to stay here, you will need to walk or take a taxi to the beach area. Some hotels offer bicycles.
📍 Click Here for the map from Cancun to Puerto Morelos
What to Do in Puerto Morelos
For two nights, we rented a small apartment near the beach in the small fishing village of Puerto Morelos. From our first chilled Margarita and a slow sunrise on the beach with coffee, we fell in love with this place.
It’s a laid-back port with a wonky lighthouse right on the beach which seemed to stretch out forever in both directions. This Yucatan beach had a great vibe to it. At the southern end of the beach, you can sit, eat and drink in many restaurants and bars which spill out onto the beach. At night, it’s really romantic with soft lighting, no light pollution and a great atmosphere.
If you’re interested in snorkelling or scuba diving, Puerto Morelos is part of the National Marine Park. Off its shoreline lies the world’s 2nd largest barrier reef.
For us, a chance short-cut to the beach led us to meet a French diving instructor and her crew. The next day, we headed out on a boat and completed our first two scuba dives on a PADI Discovery course. Destiny seemed to have led us to this place and we were completely captivated by Puerto Morelos’ crystal Caribbean waters.
If you know you want to snorkel first, why not book an organised activity in advance? You will spend a couple of hours exploring the reef in the waters of El Gran Arrecife Maya. Then, relax afterwards by spending the afternoon at a beach club with Mexican snacks and beers. Click here for details.
Where to Stay in Puerto Morelos
If you are looking for the cheapest places to stay, look for accommodation in the main part of Puerto Morelos where the ADO bus drops you. In this area, you will find a lot of backpacking hotels and hostels for a very low price.
Another benefit of staying in the town centre of Puerto Morelos is that you will find the restaurants where locals go. You will have a great food experience for half the price of the beach area.
However, there is nothing much to do in this area. You will need to make your own way on foot or by taxi to the beach area every day to snorkel, dive or sunbathe. When we were in Puerto Morelos, there was a festival on the beach with concerts and activities all day. A lot of locals had picnics on the beach and camped overnight.
For us, it was a good choice to stay in the beach area. We rented an apart-hotel where we could self-cater to keep costs down. It was very convenient to be able to wake up casually with a cup of coffee. Then, wander down to the beach to see the sunrise. Another advantage was that we could go back to the apart-hotel to have a shower and relax with a book on the balcony.
In the beach area of Puerto Morelos, you will find some great restaurants where you can eat. There is a small strip of restaurants towards the main square. A parallel street runs along the beach front. Restaurants here have great views of the sea with tables set out on the sand. Of course, it is more expensive to eat here than in the town centre.
Puerto Morelos is a developing resort. If you decide to stay in the beach area, you will find two small supermarkets where you can buy your daily provisions. We bought some delicious local cheese and all the ingredients to make our own Margaritas!
If you want to discover more about this charming coastal town, check out the best prices for places to stay in Puerto Morelos.
Playa del Carmen
How to Get to Playa del Carmen
After Cancun, Playa del Carmen is one of the most well-known Yucatan cities in Quintana Roo. It is a popular destination located about 20-minutes south of Puerto Morelos.
To get there, we opted to travel with the locals in a shared colectivo. Colectivos are air-conditioned mini-vans which only leave when they are full. They are a cheap means of reliable transport and a great way to meet the locals.
📍 Click Here for the map from Puerto Morelos to Playa del Carmen
What to Do in Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen is a great place to shop and enjoy nightlife. You can shop in the many international stores found along the palm tree lined 5th Avenue. Here there are also plenty of trendy restaurants, bars and nightclubs if you want to party!
If you want to shop for souvenirs and gifts, make sure you explore the streets beyond and parallel to 5th Avenue. Here we managed to find some interesting artisan shops. Whilst you are in Playa del Carmen, you could also explore the Frida Kahlo museum which displays many paintings from this famous Mexican artist.
If you want to find amazing beaches with clear water where you can enjoy snorkelling or diving, take a ferry from Playa del Carmen. You can choose to travel by boat to either of the nearby islands: Cozumel or Isla Mujeres.
If you are feeling more adventurous during your stay in Playa del Carmen, why not explore the underwater world of Rio Secreto? An experienced guide will take you through a stunning network of underwater rivers and caves. All equipment is provided to ensure your safety. Afterwards, enjoy an authentic light lunch. Click here for more details.
Where to Stay in Playa del Carmen
We stayed in a boutique hotel in the centre of Playa del Carmen called La Pasion Colonial Hotel Boutique. This hotel had a perfect location very close to the bus terminal and a short walk to the centre of Playa del Carmen.
It also had a fantastic rooftop swimming pool, jacuzzi and terrace which was a great way to relax after a day exploring Playa del Carmen. If you want the best prices for accommodation, check out the best prices for places to stay in Playa del Carmen
Xpu Ha Beach
How to Get to Xpu Ha Beach
The easiest way to get to Xpu Ha Beach (pronounced Shpoo Ha ) is to use a shared colectivo from Playa del Carmen.
Xpu Ha is a hidden bay area off Highway 307 which is often missed by tourists. Our advice is to write down the name of your hotel, show it to the driver and they will stop nearby. We were dropped literally opposite the gates of our hotel and the fare was a mere 35 Mexican Pesos each (approximately £1.50).
📍 Click Here for the map from Playa del Carmen to Xpu Ha
What to Do at Xpu Ha Beach
Close to our choice of hotel was the beautiful Xpu Ha beach. One of the perks of our hotel was a free shuttle transfer to a dedicated area of the Beach Club. The turquoise sea is crystal clear and calm here. Perfect for an afternoon snorkelling and enjoying the sun.
However, the Beach Club is open to the public. You pay 50 Mexican Pesos per person which is refunded when you spend over 200 Mexican Pesos on food and drink.
In the vicinity of Xpu Ha Beach, along Highway 307, there are also many cenotes which you can visit. Cenotes are deep, water-filled sinkholes in limestone which are scattered all over the Yucatan peninsula. It’s a fabulous experience swimming in a sinkhole!
If you are feeling adventurous, further down Highway 307, you will find the all-inclusive Xel-Ha theme park. Here, you can enjoy water activities and ecological attractions. For the best prices on Yucatan attractions, scroll down to the end of this post.
Where to Stay at Xpu Ha Beach
There are many hotels along the Mayan Riviera near Xpu Ha Beach. We got a great deal on an all-inclusive resort close to Xpu Ha Beach called the Bel Air Resort & Spa. It was obviously an older resort in need of some refurbishment, but we enjoyed our time here.
We spent two nights in a unique treetop room. It was like staying in a tree house! The room had an enormous balcony, hammock and private jacuzzi behind the bed!
After backpacking Yucatan, it was a relaxing walk to the restaurants and swimming pool through the tropical trees and plants. On the way, there were plenty of iguanas basking in the sun! We also enjoyed kayaking and swimming in the hotel’s private cenotes.
If you want the best prices for accommodation, check out the best prices for places to stay in Xpu Ha Beach
How to Get to Tulum
To get to Tulum, we flagged down another colectivo. We found collectives an easy, convenient and cheap method of transport. We loved that they literally drop you door-to-door.
If the colectivos have places inside, they flash their lights. Wave back if you want them to stop and pick you up!
📍 Click Here for the map from Xpu Ha to Tulum
What to Do in Tulum
The main attraction in Tulum is the amazing coastal ruins of this Mayan port. They are set high above the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. You will also see loads of enormous iguanas who reside amongst the ruins.
It’s easy to spend a couple of hours wandering around the Tulum ruins and admiring the views. Visit early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the crowds. It is also unforgivably hot and quite exposed here, so take a sun hat, fan and plenty of water.
Tulum itself also has some fantastic beaches where you can enjoy many water sports and activities. Las Palmas Beach is at the southern end of Tulum with Paradise Beach in the middle and Playa Ruinas near the Tulum ruins. In the town, there are many restaurants, bars and large grocery stores.
If you just have one precious day to spend in the Tulum area, why not combine a tour of the ruins with a trip to the fabulous Dos Ojos cenote? You will skip the line at the Tulum ruins and have an informative guided tour. Afterwards, you have free time to explore the town of Tulum and its beautiful beaches. Your visit will end with a swim at the nearby Dos Ojos cenote. Click here for details.
Where to Stay in Tulum
We stayed at a small guest house called Crucero Tulum which was 1,000 yards from the entrance to the Tulum ruins! This guest house also offered free bicycles to guests.
The bicycles were handy for visiting Tulum’s town centre and the supermarket. Perfect for aperitif and our evening meal! The guest house also offered a very reasonable laundry service by weight and served up a simple but nice breakfast in the morning.
How to Get to Coba
By mistake, we ended up in the local bus station in Tulum and took an ADO bus to Coba. Public buses serve the Yucatan peninsula really effectively. They are also comfortable and cheap.
The bus dropped us close to the entrance of the Mayan ruins and the lagoon. We then had a short walk back to our guest house for the night.
If you are spending the night along the Riviera Maya, you may want to consider booking a full-day tour to the archaeological site of Coba. Conveniently, this tour offers a pick up and drop off to your hotel. You will have an informative guided tour of Coba. Afterwards, you will visit a Mayan community, enjoy a light Mexican lunch and swim in a nearby cenote! Click here for more details.
📍 Click Here for the map from Tulum to Coba
What to Do in Coba
After a light lunch of prawn ceviche and tacos we set off to visit the Mayan ruins at Coba. These remote ruins are very different from Tulum. Take plenty of mosquito repellent as you are deep in the jungle.
We also highly recommend that you hire a bicycle to explore the archaeological site of Coba. It’s exhilarating to whizz along the ancient Mayan roads known as sacbes. It’s also a great way to cool off.
Unforgettably, exploring Coba makes you feel like you are in an ‘Indiana Jones’ movie. The ruins are spread out amongst the jungle and are still partly covered by dense undergrowth. Jungle noises are all around you.
One of the highlights of visiting Coba is climbing the 42 m high ancient pyramid of Nohoch Mul. From the top of the 130 worn steps, you will enjoy breath-taking views across the jungle canopy. Jus don’t look back as you climb! Descend on your bottom using the rope as this is worse than the ascent!
Seize this opportunity when you visit Coba. We can’t imagine the public will be able to climb this crumbling pyramid for much longer. It really is a once in a lifetime experience!
Where to Stay in Coba
If you are planning to stay in Coba overnight, be aware that there are not many guest houses in this small village. Book ahead if you want to stay with the locals here.
We chose to stay in the Hotel Sac Be which was a comfortable guest house. The rooms were above the local village shop which the owner also managed. The staff at the hotel were very friendly and welcoming and the food was freshly prepared in the small restaurant.
How to Get to Chichen Itza
It sounds obvious but the locals are the best way to help you find your way around a country. The owner of our guest house in Coba told us how to flag down the second-class Mayab bus from Coba to Valladolid.
Valladolid was the missing piece in our transport puzzle for the final stages of our journey. From Valladolid, we headed by ADO bus to Chichen Itza, one of the Seven Wonders of the New World.
When you arrive at Chichen Itza, be aware that there are two entrances. Buses stop at the main tourist entrance where the car park is. Most hotels are on the other side of Chichen Itza. If you arrive by bus, you will need to take a fixed price taxi to your hotel.
If you are based at a hotel in Quintana Roo, a day trip to Chichen Itza is entirely possible with pick up and drop off from your hotel. First, you visit this stunning archaeological site. There is also time for a swim in the beautiful Ik Kil cenote and a wander around the colonial city of Valladolid. Click here for details.
📍 Click Here for the map from Coba to Chichen Itza
What to Do in Chichen Itza
Despite the searing heat, the crowds and the abundance of artisan stalls jostling for your business, we weren’t disappointed by Chichen Itza. Of course, Chichen Itza is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been very well preserved.
The impressive El Castillo (The Castle) is 24 m high and represents the Mayan calendar. Unfortunately, you can no longer climb it owing to a fatality some years’ ago.
The Great Ball Court is equally impressive. Marvel at the skill needed by the Mayan players to win this ritual ball game. It certainly mattered if you lost. The Captain of the losing team was often sacrificed!
If you are staying near Chichen Itza, make sure you visit the nearby cenote called Ik-Kil. Although there were many tourists here, Ik-Kil is a beautiful cenote with hanging vines. Be warned that the water is freezing cold and extremely deep!
Where to Stay in Chichen Itza
We chose to stay at the Villas Arqueologicas which were located within walking distance of the back entrance of Chichen Itza. The hotel staff were very friendly and we had a welcome cocktail. The food in the pool-side restaurant was also very good.
Merida is the capital and largest city in the Yucatán state of Mexico. It’s situated in the north-west of the Yucatán peninsula and is easily reached by ADO bus from Valladolid in around 2h 20 minutes. We found Merida to be a very clean, safe and peaceful place.
Sometimes referred to as ‘The White City’, Merida’s architecture is certainly a big part of its appeal. However, we also found many beautiful pastel coloured buildings in addition to the white colonial facades.
This city was founded by the Spaniards back in 1542 on top of an ancient Maya city. As a result, it has many Catholic churches, colonial mansions and plazas which co-exist with strong Maya influences.
Merida is not only the financial capital of the Yucatán but it’s also the cultural capital and has many museums and regular cultural events.
To get an overview of some of the sights in Merida, we recommend that you take the free walking tour of the city offered by the local tourist office. Head to the ground floor of the Municipal Palace on the corner of Calle 61 and Calle 60. The tour starts at 09:30, lasts 90-minutes and is in Spanish and in English.
Whilst you are in Merida, make sure you also check out the mansions on the Pasejo Montejo. This is a wide tree-lined street inspired by the Champs-Élysées. Other places worth visiting are the Plaza Grande and the San Ildefonso Cathedral (one of the oldest churches in the Americas), the Lucas de Galvez Market and some of the many museums, including the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya.
If you haven’t explored any of the Maya ruins in the Yucatan peninsula, Chichen Itza is 118 km (1h 25 mins) east of Merida and Uxmal (another UNESCO World Heritage Site) is 83km (1h 7 mins) south.
You can still climb the Great Pyramid at Uxmar, so these ancient ruins are definitely worth a visit. From Merida, you can take a guided tour and discover the Mayan ruins of Uxmar and Kabah. Click here for more details.
📍 Click Here for the map from Chichen Itza to Merida
How to Get to Isla Holbox
We took an early morning colectivo from Piste (the nearest town to Chichen Itza). This returned us to Valladolid for our ADO bus journey to Chequila.
Chequila is the tiny fishing port in the north of the Yucatan where ferries depart half-hourly to Holbox Island. Click here for more detailed information on How to Get To Holbox Island.
📍 Click Here for the map from Merida to Chequila and then ferry to Holbox
What to Do in Isla Holbox
Holbox Island is just 26 miles (42 km) long and is a haven for many birds including flamingos. The appeal of Holbox is its tranquility. It is unspoiled by mass tourism and only golf-carts, taxi buggies and bicycles are permitted on the island. The streets of Holbox are formed of white sand and the beaches are uncrowded and retain their natural beauty.
We spent an idyllic 5 nights on this peaceful piece of paradise and watched the most amazing sunsets. Olivier and I stayed at two different beach front hotels nestled in palm trees. We took advantage of seductive swimming pools and the mesmerising sea where the Caribbean meets the Gulf of Mexico.
Hotel bicycles were perfect to explore the length and breadth of the island. At your own leisure, discover forgotten beaches filled with birds or laze around in hammocks idling in the sea. Drink at quiet bars with swing seats instead of stools or walk along deserted sand banks stretching to the horizon. Later, paddle in quiet estuaries teeming with fish.
On Holbox Island, you can also experience the rare phenomenon of Bioluminescence. If you are interested in learning more about this, read our useful guide about Bioluminescence in Holbox.
The main town has plenty of small restaurants and bars. It also boasts vivid panels of street art. At the weekend, the place comes alive when the locals visit from the mainland. Enjoy the freshly caught seafood on offer in Holbox. Dance on the sand under the stars with the local residents. We will never forget this place.
Where to Stay in Isla Holbox
We split our stay in two beach front hotels. Firstly, we stayed at the Villas HM Palapas del Mar which was a boutique hotel with 2 swimming pools. One was located on the roof and offered outstanding sunset views.
Our second choice was the sister hotel, Villas HM Paraiso del Mar. This hotel was more family-orientated but was still very peaceful.
Although we tried to book direct with the second hotel on arrival, the rates were a lot more expensive than those online at Booking.com. On top of that, with Booking.com we received complimentary bicycles for the length of our stay.
An early flight home to the UK, meant that we had to stay in Downtown Cancun. It was a stark contrast to the chilled Holbox Island.
If you have more time in Cancun, there are some amazing day trips to other parts of the Yucatan peninsula. Why not sail on a catamaran to Isla Mujeres and snorkel in the Caribbean Sea? You can also relax on a beautiful beach whilst you enjoy a light buffet lunch and drinks. Click here for more details.
For ease, we decided to stay near the main bus station. This location also meant that we could visit both Mercado 28 (an Aladdin’s cave of tourist souvenirs) and Mercado 23. To be honest, the overall area was not particularly nice.
Mercado 28 is very touristic and you get hassled a lot. We got better prices at Mercado 23 as this is a shopping area for locals. The best part of the day was fabulous tacos from a friendly food truck in a side street!
Of course, Mexico is known for its fantastic food. If you want to learn the different between a taco and a torta, read our helpful guide about Mexican street food. It’s a good way to learn about some of the different Mexican dishes you might experience.
We had an amazing trip with our backpacks down the Mayan Riviera and around the Yucatan peninsula. Without doubt, this part of Mexico offers amazing historical experiences and the beaches are first-class.
Just as we hoped, it is possible to travel far and spend relatively little by using local transport and staying in a range of reasonably priced hotels. You just need to do a little research in advance.
If you’ve never tried backpacking before, we hope you have been inspired to give it a go! Of course, the first thing you will need is a decent backpack. Check out our favourite backpacking gear before you make a decision. Also, share where you go by commenting below.
Click here to learn more about us and our travel philosophy.