Backpacker’s Guide to ‘Passing Through’ Cancun on a Budget

Backpackers guide to Cancun / Things to do in Cancun on a budget

Are you a budget backpacker or traveller stopping by Cancun wondering if Cancun is backpacker-worthy? Wondering what else is there apart from all-inclusive resorts and beaches? Then this guide to ‘Passing Through’ Cancun on a Budget is for you!

All-inclusive resorts, grand hotels, one-week vacationers and somewhat high prices for Mexico standard – yes Cancun isn’t exactly a backpackers destination.

I agree.

But there is an airport in Cancun with some fairly affordable flights to Europe. Therefore, it is very likely that at some point during your Mexico trip you will end up in Cancun. And as you ‘end up’ there you will probably want to check out what all the fuss is about.

I didn’t want to like Cancun.

It is the type of town/resort that represents the exact opposite of what travel is for me. So I thought. Cancun was the last stop on my San Cristobal de las Casas to Cancun trail. Since I had a cheap flight from Cancun to Madrid to catch, I stayed for a few days and just chilled as my 10-month journey around Europe and Latin America was coming to an end.

Backpackers guide to Cancun / Things to do in Cancun on a budget

Because of that, I was also on an extremely tight budget.

But I have to admit, Cancun was this perfect cherry on top. Not because it’s the best place I’ve ever travelled to. You can’t compare it to my exhilarating travel through Colombia or Guatemala or the adventurous Madeira trip.

But it was exactly how my trip should have ended.

I arrived in Cancun downtown on a hot, sticky morning. Checked into my hostel and decided to see one of those famous beaches. I decided to walk from downtown Cancun to Zona Hotelera (more on this later) and when I finally arrived at the beach I could not believe my eyes.

Backpackers guide to Cancun / Things to do in Cancun on a budget

The sand was whiter and softer than any sand I ever walked on, and the sea… the perfect turquoise colour. Like from a dream. The sun has just started setting and this perfect golden hour just added to the magic of this moment.

I didn’t mind all the tourists, parties that just started going on around the beach, I didn’t mind any of this. I had tears in my eyes. It was the most beautiful sea. Then I understood.

As I looked around I was puzzled. How is it possible that everyone is just not walking around with this facial expression, wondering how this kind of beauty is even possible?

It was the perfect ending, the cherry on top.

Backpackers guide to Cancun / Things to do in Cancun on a budget

But would I go to Cancun on a vacation or a longer trip? No, I wouldn’t.

Did I enjoy my few days there? Yes, I did.

I walked to different beaches every day, I ate cheap tacos and massive fajitas in the Parque de las Palapas, I ventured on local buses and took walks that were longer than I anticipated and I met a frivolously flirtatious Colombian guy just a couple of days before my departure. Of course!

I lined up at the clinic for my final Covid test (one of many) while discussing politics and global affairs with cool Canadians, I had a good red wine in a bar that some other dude warned me about with no trouble, I visited markets and hanged out where locals are, and most importantly, I didn’t spend a fortune while really enjoying Cancun.

But how exactly do you spend a few days in Cancun as a backpacker without blowing up your budget and having an awesome time at the same time?

 

Here is how:

If you are visiting Cancun on a budget try to stay away from the Hotel Zone.

The downtown area of Cancun is the best place to look for affordable and backpacker-friendly accommodation. This is where you will find some cool hostels, private rooms as well as affordable places to eat.

With local markets nearby, many restaurants and Taquerías offering great value for money and fairly good transport links to all beaches – downtown is the best place to stay in Cancun on a budget.

I found downtown Cancun also to be much more authentic. This is where most locals and ex-pats live. And with the ADO bus station within walking distance, you won’t have to worry about getting to the airport either.

I stayed in Selina Downtown mostly due to its location – literally, 5 minutes walk to the bus station. Also, I wanted to give Selina one more chance. The price was good and the dorms looked good in the photos. And there was a swimming pool!

I am not a big fan of Selinas as they often lack the backpacker’s vibe and ridiculously overcharge at the bar and restaurant. But there was a pool and the location was perfect – so it wasn’t too bad at all. They even moved me to the bottom bunk when I asked nicely so it was a good overall stay, but as I mentioned for me Selinas are always overpriced and lack a true backpackers vibe.

If you are looking for that backpacker’s vibe and good value for money in Cancun consider Mayan Monkey Hostel or Nomads Hotel, Hostel & Rooftop.

Nomads Hostel offers a rooftop pool with a huge bar, great dorm beds and a well-equipped communal kitchen. The location is also great. It’s a great place to meet other travellers too!

Yet probably the most popular hostel in Cancun is The Mayan Monkey Hostel. The Mayan Monkey Hostel is a brand new hostel and featurs a rooftop pool and bar and includes free breakfast and dinner. For this, only although not the cheapest, it offers great value for money. There is an outdoor terrace where you can chill out, socialize, or even get some work done. On Saturdays, there is a BBQ and pool party!

Hostal Venado 8 offers some of the cheapest dorms in town without skimping on quality and safety. If you are looking for an affordable party hostel and don’t mind putting up with everything that goes with the word ‘party’ then book your stay at Fiesta Party Hostel.

If you are looking for a private room and hostels are not your thing you can also find affordable private accommodation in downtown Cancun. Worth checking out is Los Caracoles Bed & Breakfast and Bed and Breakfast Pecarí. Or if it’s more than one of you you can consider renting an apartment like Copan by Andiani Travel.

Free and affordable things to do in Cancun

Free beaches in Cancun

If you’re only in Cancun for a few days maybe even a night, for sure you want to check out Cancun’s famous beaches, right?

I mean, I did.

Naïvely I thought that by taking a walk from Centro all the way to the Zona Hotelera I would walk by the sea at some point. The joke was on me.

After almost 1.5 of a walk (I so should have taken a bus!), I realized that the whole peninsula is tightly bricked with hotels and resorts and that the majority of the shore is private and not accessible. Eventually, I reached the centre of the Cancun hotel zone and found myself surrounded by shops, bars, restaurants, tourists and street vendors trying to sell me things. What did I expect?

As the sunset was slowly approaching I was determined to find a piece of free beach to watch the sunset from. And I did. As you walk past Coco Bongo you will find yourself on a massive strip of public beach, filled with tourists and locals having fun, enjoying the sun and loud music coming from all sides.

But I also found myself standing in front of the most wonderful seas. This was the moment that stole my heart.

Backpackers guide to Cancun / Things to do in Cancun on a budget

The sand was of perfect white colour and the sea was changing from baby blue to turquoise green as the sun started setting in. I cried. The enormous gratitude spread throughout my heart. Not only have I travelled for the last 10 months embarking on this incredible adventure but to top it all off, I was in Cancun, on the most beautiful beach.

There are other free, public beaches around Cancun, much more peaceful and even more beautiful.

The next day I decided to see most of them; my favourite is Playa Delfines. There are free straw umbrellas and wonderful viewpoints. It’s a great place to spend a day relaxing. I walked all the way back to the centre and passed numerous resorts but also a couple of other public beaches.

There are actually quite a few public beaches in Cancun and each is a bit different yet equally beautiful. Starting from the far north you will find:

  • Playa Delfines – best overall public beach in Cancun. The famous colourful Cancun sign is located here.
  • Playa Marlin – best for sunbathing and views
  • Playa Forum– the busy Zona Hotelera beach, party beach.
  • Playa Chacmool – Also close to the centre of the action but very beautiful and great for swimming.
  • Playa Langosta best for swimming.
  • Playa Caracol/Las Palmas – closest to the Centro and good swimming conditions.
  • Playa Tortugas – the best for water sports and shopping nearby. Swimming is pretty awesome too!
Backpackers guide to Cancun / Things to do in Cancun on a budget

The best way to get to any of those beaches is by public bus. Numbers R-1 or R-2 numbers run frequently from downtown passing all lengths of the peninsula.

Explore Cancun Centro (so called downtown)

Exploring Cancun Centro is free (or very affordable if you decide to eat or drink) and is one of the best things to do in Cancun on a budget.

You can spend the whole day looking for spectacular Cancun murals. Just walk around and inevitably you will come across a few incredible pieces of street art.

You will find superb murals around the residential area on Avenida Bonampak as well as along Avenida Yaxchilán, Avenida Uxmal and Avenida Nader. The murals express some powerful messages and portray different issues like sea pollution and cultural issues.

You can grab the camera and explore on your own but you can also take this guided Private Street Art Tour.

As you find yourself in Cancun Downtown you can walk along the main avenue – Avenida Tulum, where you will find an array of restaurants, bars, shops as well as supermarkets. You can walk all the way to Plaza Las Americas shopping centre for some affordable and very local-like shopping.

I really enjoyed the vibe of downtown Cancun if I ever visit Cancun again this is where I’m going to stay again.

Backpackers guide to Cancun / Things to do in Cancun on a budget

Don’t miss Parque Las Palapas

As we talk about Cancun Centro I have to tell you about its true gem – Parque de las Palapas.

Pretty quiet during the daytime, come evening, Parque de las Palapas completely transforms into a bustling local hangout spot, colourful market and the best place in the city to get hold of real Mexican street food.

This vast city park in downtown Cancun also features a giant central stage that hosts concerts, events, and cultural fairs. At the weekend you can also join a salsa party!

I visited every evening of my entire stay in Cancun. This is also the best place to grab a very affordable and equally delicious dinner. You have to try tacos at Dona Chonita!

Visit local markets

For me, the best way to get a real taste of a town is a visit to the local market. It is not only a great way to get your hands on some very affordable local produce but also truly immerse yourself in the atmosphere of a town.

There are a couple of markets in Cancun that are really worth visiting. And you don’t even need to buy anything, just a visit is an experience of its own.

  • Mercado 28 is the most popular and touristy of them all. It gained popularity among visitors in recent years, so a lot of stalls and restaurants are tourist-oriented, yet this doesn’t take away from its charm.

You can buy some handicrafts, jewellery, shoes and clothes and taste local food. It’s a vast and busy market and you could easily spend a couple of hours there.

  • Mercado 23 is more of your local farmers’ market, mostly visited by the locals. Here you can get all sorts of products like fruit and vegetables as well as other products and if you are planning to cook up your own meal, this is where you want to stock up (and Chedraui supermarket on Avenida Tulum).
Backpackers guide to Cancun / Things to do in Cancun on a budget

Visit Puerto Morelos

This dreamy fishing village is an off-the-beaten-track destination which can be visited for a day and on a budget. If you need to stay in Cancun but don’t feel the vibe, get away for a day to Puerto Morelos. 

It’s a stunning, dreamy village with heavenly beaches, a relaxed and authentic vibe, and some excellent restaurants. 

Explore this laid-back town, stroll by the beach and walk past the Leaning Lighthouse, snorkel in crystal clear waters, and eat a fantastic and affordable meal at the famous El Nicho or El Pesquero.

You can also explore the Botanical Garden or visit cenotes as Puerto Morelos lies on the La Ruta de Los Cenotes with over 100 cenotes scattered throughout the area.

You can get to Puerto Morelos from Cancun by colectivo or Ado bus, and it takes less than an hour.

Explore local Mayan Ruins (but be ready for the crowds)

I didn’t have time to visit any of the Maya ruins in Cancun, but if you do, there are a few that are not only easily reachable but also very affordable. Those are not as grand as Chichen Itza or as vast as my favourite Palenque but they hide many surprises!

For as little as $3, you can visit El Rey Archaeological Zone located just behind Playa Delfines.

El Meco Ruins often have fewer crowds and are a true hidden gem. Be sure to look out for free-roaming gigantic iguanas.

Backpackers guide to Cancun / Things to do in Cancun on a budget

Visit Mayan Museum of Cancun

Mayan Museum of Cancun is one of the best places to visit if you want to learn about Mayan culture and history

It’s a very interesting Mayan Museum made up of multiple buildings and outdoor spaces. You will also have access to the Archaeological Zone of San Miguelito. 

It’s a fascinaing and extremely popular museum displaying pieces from various Mayan sites like Quintana Roo, Palenque or Chichen Itza. In one of the exhibition halls, visitors can view the Nichupté Lagoon and the San Miguelito jungle through clear glass windows with spectacular views. It’s open daily (except Mondays) from 9 am to 7 pm and costs only 80 MXN.

And the most querky museum of them all - The MUSA

If you are looking for a very unusual thing to do in Cancun, a visit to the underwater museum is a must! 

In order to help promote the growth of coral after the reefs in the area have been damaged due to climate change, The MUSA (Museo Subaquatico de Arte) has placed nearly 500 statues and sculptures underwater. It is one of the most successful marine conservation projects in the world and offers an incredible experience. I mean, how often do you visit museums by snorkelling or diving?

If you are visiting Cancun on a budget but have put aside some dinero for just one experience – this should be it! It’s definitely not only one of the strangest and most unique things to do in Cancun, but one of the most unique things to do, period. 


You can opt for snorkelling, scuba diving or glass-bottom boat tours, which are ranging from $40 all the way to $150.

Discover Kabah Ecological Park.

A place that not many visitors know about, Kabah Ecological Park, is totally free and visiting it on a hot sticky day is one of the best things to do in Cancun on a budget.

This oasis in the middle of Cancun boasts playgrounds and paths for running, walking and simply enjoying nature amid jungle vegetation. The park also offers a great opportunity to escape the heat while spotting wildlife like turtles, badgers, exotic birds, coatis and iguanas.

Within the park, you will also find the small Casa Maya Museum displaying photographs telling stories of the history and development of the city of Cancun and the Hotel Zone. be sure o take a look at aerial photographs showing the progression of the development of the city and the unfortunate destruction of nature.

Both the park and the museum are free to enter and are open daily from 6 am to 4 pm.

Take a day trip to Isla Mujeres from Cancun on a budget

Although many visitors opt for a few days stay on Isla Mujeres or an organized tour, you can definitely visit for a day independently and on a budget. 

The ferry from Cancun to Isla Mujeres costs only around 190 MXN each way ($9.50), and taking one from Puerto Juárez will be the cheapest option.

If all you’re looking for are dreamy beaches, sun and snorkelling, pack some picnic and drinks and this will be a very affordable and memorable day trip! Of course, if you want to also do things like zip lining, swimming with whale sharks or kayaking, add some budget, but it’s well worth it!

And of course, you can always opt for an organised cruise to the island too!

Party in Cancun on a budget

If you came to Cancun to party, there are plenty of clubs and bars to choose from, yet it is not exactly a backpacker budget-friendly party scene. The majority of the bars and clubs in the hotel zone are pretty expensive, so braise yourself.

My clubbing days are over (unless I’m drunk in good company and we just kind of end up there) so I will not be reviewing any clubs here, but there are a few that are kind of legendary now. Like Señor Frog’s and Coco Bongo, two of the most popular nightclubs in Cancun.

Coco Bongo is pretty iconic now, and it features live music, acrobats, and various entertainment, as well as up to 15 drinks included in the price. And this is where the Cancun crowd goes to a party. The tickets range from $70 all the way to $195. 

If you are looking for more low-key and budget-friendly entertainment, head over to Cancun Downtown. Over there you will find a Mambocafé which offers life salsa music and dancing or Amarula con Acento Tropical for some good 2 for cocktails and ladies’ night on Fridays. 

And for a totally relaxed and local night out, head to Parque de palapas on Saturday for free salsa party!

Backpackers guide to Cancun / Things to do in Cancun on a budget

Where to eat in Cancun if you are a budget backpacker

This is a no-brainer. The best local and affordable food can be found, yet again, around Cancun Centro. 

There is plenty of small local taquerias like La Habichuela, Gory Tacos and Taqueria El Ñero as well as plenty of street food stalls to choose from.

For a good value breakfast or early lunch head over to Mercado 23 or and for the best cheap tacos or esquites yet again, Parque de Palapas. Try El Rinconcito de Puebla as well!

If you fancy a sit-down restaurant meal without breaking the bank you should try El Tigre Y El Toro for pizza,Taqueria Coapenitos for the best tacos in town or just take a walk down the Calle Tulipanes.


And f you want to eat around the hotel zone you have to try The Surfin Burrito!

How to get around Cancun on a budget

As for the buses, there are two main routes running between Hotel Zone and Cancun Centro – R1 and R2. The fare is 12 MXN one way. 

Popular are also colectivos (shared van rides) that will take you around the town as well as further out like Playa del Carmen.

For a longer journey, you can take one of the ADO buses if you are heading to Tulum or Valladolid, for example. 

Be aware of local taxis – there are no meters, and you will have to negotiate the prices. Uber is illegal in Cancun but makes its unofficial appearance now and then.

Backpackers guide to Cancun / Things to do in Cancun on a budget

How to get to the Cancun airport on a budget

The best and cheapest way to get to Cancun Airport from Cancun Centro is by great, air-conditioned Ado buses. The journey is only around half an hour and the bus stops at all terminals. The ticket as of now (2022) costs between 70 MXN and 84 MXN. 

If you are travelling from Hotel Zone Cancun, you can hop on the R1 or R2 bus to Cancun Downtown and get off at the Ado bus station. 

If you are not on a tight budget but still don’t want to splurge on a taxi, you can book a shared shuttle which could be more hassle-free, especially if you are travelling from the hotel zone in Cancun. The van will drop you off/pick you up at your hotel, so it’s a very convenient option. If you decide to go for a shared van, be sure to book one online to avoid the trouble.

If you are travelling from Cancun downtown, taking a bus from Ado station is really easy.

Is Cancun safe?

I felt as safe in Cancun as I did anywhere in Mexico.

I walked a lot on my own, I went to the markets, hung around the plaza, took local busses and so on and never felt in any kind of danger.

But you have to be aware that Quintana Roo isn’t the safest part of Mexico.

A couple of months after I left I heard of some incidents of shootings on the beach near Cancun or Tulum. This area has become a little more dangerous in the last year or so due to cartel fights but those are not aimed at tourists. There was an incident in Tulum in 2020, on the Cancun beach in December 2021 and one in May 2022.

I am not saying this to scare you.

In fact, it wouldn’t stop me from going unless it would start happening more often. But you need to be aware that these things could happen. It’s unlikely, but it could.

 

Most of the time, however, your greatest concern will be a sunburn or hangover.

Of course, as everywhere else, you need to be careful. Don’t walk alone in dark places (or drunk), try to blend in, speak a little Spanish and try not to look too wealthy with expensive jewellery or talk on the latest iPhone (this wasn’t a problem in my case hahaha) and you will be fine. Things happen, but they happen everywhere. Just try to apply common sense and you will be just fine.

Backpackers guide to Cancun / Things to do in Cancun on a budget

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Is Cancun budget friendly?

It can be if you make research, stay in downtown Cancun rather than a hotel zone and take advantage of all the awesome cheap or free things to do in and around Cancun. 

I actually believe that visiting Cancun on a budget will give a totally different experience of the city. Instead of sitting by the pool in your hotel and taking expensive day trips, you will actually get to know the town, and hang out where the locals are and have a more relaxed and authentic experience. 

Backpackers guide to Cancun / Things to do in Cancun on a budget

Final thoughts on Visiting Cancun on a budget

So here it is, folks –  as you can see, Cancun is much more than just lush waterfront resorts and all-inclusive.

Although Cancun is not the first destination that comes to mind when most backpackers plan their trip around Mexico, it can be surprisingly backpacker-budget-friendly – if you know where to go and what to do.

Stay in Downtown Cancun, opt for local eateries and take advantage of free or affordable activities, and you won’t break the bank. And it’s worth it, Cancun has after all some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. I can confirm!


I hope you enjoyed this backpacker’s guide to ‘passing through’ Cancun on a budget and found it helpful, and maybe after ‘passing through’ you might think of coming back. Who knows!

Until then…

Happy travelling and stay free!

This post may contain affiliate links which means that if you purchase the product or make a booking via one of my links, I will receive a small commission. Please know that I will never recommend or promote a product I don’t believe in or haven’t used. This way, you are supporting this blog at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

Is Cancun your starting point? Then you should visit Valladolid and Merida. For more than one day! But you can take a day trip to the yellow town of Izamal!

And you can’t miss my favourite of them all – San Cristobal de las Casas! here is why!

And if you are planning your first solo trip, visit this post where I provide all the tips and hacks for solo travellers and backpackers. 

My favourite Travel Resources 

 

  • For most of my accommodation management, I use Bookings.com and Hostel World. With both booking platforms, you will often get free cancellation and access to tones of reviews. Read them! You will also get the most extensive selection of all types of accommodation. I hardly ever look elsewhere. If you are travelling in Asia – Agoda is definitely worth checking out!
  • Make sure you download Google Maps and, on the first day, download an offline map of your location. This way, even without the internet or Wi-Fi, you will be able to get to your destination.
  • Moovit is also an excellent and very underrated travel and journey planning app. It works great in many countries and will show you all possible routes by public transport, including the timetables.

  • For busses, I mainly use Busbud or Omio and Flixbus to travel in Europe. 

  • 123Go — Great for tickets for trains, buses, ferries and charters in Southeast Asia! The best way to buy your ticket for the overnight Bangkok train! Rome2rio – Another great journey planning app. If your way of travel is mainly public transport  – you will use this app for sure!

  • For staying safe online and accessing streaming services like Netflix no matter the country I use a Surfshark VPN. Another great and high-quality VPN provider is Express VPN.
  • I carry two debit cards with me. Given I don’t have a permanent country of residence, Revolut and TransferWise work fantastic. In case one gets frozen, stolen or simply lost, I have a backup. The great thing about both cards is that you can freeze them straight from your phone and transfer money between them in case you need to. You will also get a great exchange rate and create separate foreign currency accounts. 
  • I booked most my tours via either Get Your Guide or Viator. I also use TripAdvisor when I spot a good deal. You can also book locally, but I advise you to ask around and follow the local recommendations. For cooking classes and workshops, consider checking out Eatwith

For more travel tips and recourses, visit Pati’s Travel Tips page!

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Pati's Journey Within

Hi, I’m Pati. A traveller, photographer (aspiring), dreamer and hopeless believer in magic. I have caught the travel bug in my forties – and not planning to look back any time soon. I travel solo and on a budget and try to spend as much time and effort to truly immerse myself in the country I am visiting.

Whether you are like me and decided to change your life around a new dream or just wandering (because not all who wander are lost) – I am here to tell you that everything is possible. 

 

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