Budget Mexico Guide: Yucatan Peninsula
The Yucatan Peninsula: Cancun, Isla Holbox and Playa Del Carmen
The Yucatan is like a huge playground for water-related activities. Everyone here can find something they will love. In this area of Mexico you can see baby turtles hatch (August to November), swim with whale sharks (May to August) and check out amazing underground rivers called cenotes (year round) found in the Yucatan. But with such beauty and fun, comes the tourists… so many tourists. There are places you can almost get away from them (such as Isla Holbox), but it will be hard. You’ll just have to bite the bullet and put up with the crowds.
Cancun (1-3 days)
Some people love Cancun; some hate it (I lean towards the latter). It’s the epitome of drunken Spring Break all-you-can-eat resorts, famous in the Yucatan. If that doesn’t sound like you at all, just use Cancun as a place of transit like I did. I would recommend before you go, however, Cancun’s most epic nightclub Coco Bongo because it is seriously awesome.
Things to do in Cancun
Coco Bongo: Do the Can-can in Cancun on the bar while barmaids tip tequila straight down your gullet. Have an aerial act fly so close to you that your drunken eyes go cross-eyed. Dance around on different levels of an arena overlooking the bar in the middle while drinking free alcohol. If that sounds like the most epic night out EVER, that’s because it is! When in Cancun, make sure you spend the $75 USD to go to Coco Bongo nightclub. Holey shamoley!
Chichen Itza: From Cancun, you can easily do a day trip to UNESCO heritage site Chichen Itza ruins (below).
Water Activities: chill on the beach or try to find some turtles and there’s whale shark tours and cenotes. Or GO DIVING in some of the best dive sites in the world!
Where to stay in Cancun
Mermaid Hostel: Right on Playa Blanca is a new, bright hostel. At the rooftop “pirate deck” you can see full panoramic views of the ocean and the jungle.
Mezcal Hostel: Just a short walk from the bus station but a little bit back from the beach, you’ll find colourful and cute Mezcal. This hostel includes all the finer things like free breakfast and charging stations next to your bed.
Hostel Ka’beh: For the slow traveller looking for a family atmosphere. Ka’beh was rated one of Lonely Planets tops hostels since 2009. Hammocks strung up around a shady courtyard means you can enjoy your lack of checkout time and all-day breakfast to the max.
How to get around Cancun
Airport to Cancun Downtown: Chances are you’re flying into Cancun, as there’s a major airport there. To get downtown, catch the ADO Airport Bus for 62 pesos ($4), they leave frequently.
Buses to Isla Mujeres / Playa del Carmen: Once in the main area you can catch a colectivo to pretty much anywhere you want (Playa Del Carmen or Puerto Juarez for Isla Mujeres, etc), there are local buses as well for a lot cheaper, but are a bit harder to travel on if you don’t speak Spanish. If you’re confused, just say the name of where you want to go to someone and they will be happy to help.
Chichen Itza (1 day)
Chichen Itza is possibly Mexico’s most famous ruin, and truckloads of people flow through there every day. The main attraction, ‘El Castillo’ (The Castle), is 90ft tall with 365 stairs. Look, Imma be straight up and let you know I didn’t go to Chichen Itza, it just didn’t interest me. But lots of people go there from Cancún since it’s only a two-hour drive, más o menos, and easily a day trip from Cancún. You could consider heading straight to Isla Holbox afterwards.
How to get to Chichen Itza
By bus: Lots of people will hire a car for this attraction, but if you don’t have the funds or legalities, there is an easy ADO tourist bus heading to and from the ruins once per day (don’t miss it!) at 8:45am returning at 4:30pm. Or there are some local buses and colectivo’s heading to Valladolid throughout the day. After arriving at Valladolid, it is a short colectivo to Chichen Itza.
Isla Holbox (2-3 days)
Wanting to get away from the crowds and don’t care if you don’t have power 24/7? Then head to lovely Holbox Island for sandy streets, no vehicles, relaxation and beautiful, deserted beaches. You won’t find many all-inclusives here (for a little while longer anyway…) as the locals have heavily resisted commercialisation.
Things to do in Isla Holbox
Water Activities: Go diving, swim with whale sharks (May to August) or go on a whale watching tour. Also, if you’re into kite surfing this place has got it going on!
Yalahau Lagoon: Be surrounded by birds and other native animal, maybe even an alligator!
Explore: Visit the flamingoes on Isla Passion, kayak around the mangroves or just walk the sandy streets.
Where to stay in Isla Holbox
Tribu Hostel: Right near the town centre and a stones throw from the white beaches, Tribu has the best vibe of all the hotels on the Island.
Eco Hostel Casa del Agua: This ramshackle little timbered hostel is pet and family friendly. It’s like a little community and you’ll feel at one with nature here!
Where to eat and drink in Isla Holbox
Las Panchas: At first glance doesn’t look like much, but when you taste their seafood, omg! It’s traditional and fresh and has the BEST tastes alongside great prices on the Island.
Pescaderia Restaurante: Another hidden gem that you won’t see on any of the websites is called Pescaderia Restaurante on Calle Porfirio Díaz. No English is spoken here, and the prices match. How about a plate of fresh fish for 90 pesos? Yes please.
Tribu Hostel Bar: To have a few cold beverages, socialise, play some trivia or a bit of music, head to here.
How to get to and from Isla Holbox
Bus: Bus from / to Cancun costs 118 pesos one-way, leaving every hour or so and takes about 3 hours. Buses time perfectly with the ferries and drop off / pick up from the ferry terminal.
Ferry: The ferry to Holbox costs 80 pesos one-way.
READ: Check out the beautiful Pink Lakes of Las Coloradas
Isla Mujeres (3-4 days)
Oh Isla, my heart lies with you! On paper this island may not appear as much. But after spending a few days here, you’ll understand the pull. Isla Mujeres means ‘Island of Women’ in Spanish and is in the shape of a pregnant fish. The Southernmost point, La Punta Sur, is a very important place for the Mayan people of the Yucatan, and you can see the sun rise and set over the water from the same place.
Things to do in Isla Mujeres
Volleyball on the beach, dive at Museo and a wreck, swim with whale sharks, zip-lining, turtle sanctuary, hire a golf cart and zip around the island, check out an island floated entirely on plastic bottles…. These are just a few things you can do on Isla. Check out my Complete Guide for more…
READ: The complete Budget Guide to Isla Mujeres
Where to stay in Isla Mujeres
Poc na Hostel: My island home; a huge, colourful hostel on the beach with a volleyball court and sandy beach bar. It’s like staying with a big, eclectic family and I couldn’t recommend anywhere else! Except I will, just to give you options.
Hotel Carmelina: I thoroughly enjoyed my stay here as it has everything you need at a cheap price. It’s got air-con, a mini bar and private toilets/showers. The only thing it was missing was the family atmosphere I like so much!
Where to eat and drink on Isla Mujeres
Reuben’s Restaurant: Has an awesome Menu of the Day, usually with really beautifully cooked fish!
El Varadero: Check it out for authentic Cuban food.
How to get to and from Isla Mujeres
Bus: From the bus terminal in Cancun, the ferry terminal at Puerto Juarez is either a 10 minute taxi drive (40 pesos) or a 15 minute colectivo (although I ALWAYS had trouble getting the colectivo to the terminal, but never any problem back as it always waited for the ferry).
Ferry: The ferry from Puerto Juarez takes about 20 minutes. The Ultra Mar return costs 145p and Magaña return costs135p. Both leave around every half hour.
Playa del Carmen (2 days)
Playa del Carmen is an interesting place. It’s not as trashy as Cancun but is still adorned with the beachfront bars and Spring breakers. But mixed in amongst all this are non-Mexican retirees and backpackers. The sandy streets, cheap beers, thumping clubs and the cenotes definitely make it worth visiting.
Rio Secreto: By User: (WT-shared) Lorenaak at wts wikivoyage (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Things to do in Playa del Carmen
Swim with turtles: A well-known area nearby called Akumal Bay is famous for snorkelling with sea turtles, and just down the road from it, is one of the best cenote snorkelling places I’ve visited in the Yucatan called Yal-Ku.
READ: How to see Turtle Laying and Hatching in Mexico
Diving: You could do a day trip to Cozumel Island. You can also do any of the diving you can do from Cancun or Isla Mujeres as they are really close.
Coco Bongo: Also, there’s a Coco Bongo (another one) in Playa del carmen (never been but I believe it’s pretty much the same as Cancun).
Where to stay in Playa del Carmen
Hostel Rio Playa: This would be my first choice of cheap places to stay in Playa, if only for the vibe. But actually there’s much more; a roof top bar, one block from 5th Avenue (the main strip) and free drinks for ladies between 10 and 11pm. Hell yeah!
Hostal MX: I just love this little hostel girt by tropical gardens, with sandy floors and just off 5th Avenue. It has a cute little bar, hot tubs and is the best value in the area.
Reina Roja Hotel: This hotel is insane, and that’s why I HAD to add it (it’s a bit more expensive than what I usually recommend). It’s designed kind of like a brothel, with steel pipes and red lighting throughout. But it all works well, and is worth the pice just to be able to take a photo of the lobby!
Where to eat and drink in Playa del Carmen
Street food stall: I had THE BEST pork rolls of my time in Mexico at a street food stall on the corner of Av Benito Juarez and 15 Avenida Sur. I have attached the google maps URL above so it will probably only open on a desktop. It’s worth trying to find, trust me.
Yo Amo Tacos: Has the best tacos in town and being in the main strip means it’s very popular too.
Blue Parrot: Other than the free drinks for chicks at the roof top bar from 10-11pm at Hostel Rio Playa, Blue Parrot would have to be my favourite bar. Right on the beach, good music and free to get in (although I’m not sure if it has reopened yet due to the shooting Jan 2017).
How to get to and from Playa del Carmen
Cancun to Playa: Playa del Carmen is really easy to get to from Cancún, just get the ADO bus or one of the colectivos near the bus terminal (a bit cheaper than the bus and more frequent). It takes about an hour and a half.
Playa to Cancun/Tulum: To return, get the bus from Playa del Carmen terminal (central), or head over to Calle 2 Norte, across the road from Parque Leona Vicario for the colectivos to Cancun or Tulum.
READ MORE: Here’s a fantastic 10-Day Playa Del Carmen Itinerary
Tulum (3 days)
Just a 50 minute colectivo from Playa del Carmen is Tulum. Sleepy, quaint and absolutely beautiful is how I’d describe my second favourite place in the Yucatan. Surrounded by hundreds of cenotes just waiting to be explored, a turtle sanctuary, cave diving, small sandy streets and only one bar to go out in. This is the epitome of chilled backpacker heaven.
Things to do in Tulum
Cesiak Centro Ecologico Reserve: A thin patch of road girt by tropical forest and water. Inside the UNESCO heritage reserve is a lagoon, Sian Ka’an Cenote, a turtle sanctuary and a cabaña. Go around sunset to swing in the hammock on the lagoon, or go to the roof top bar for 360 degree views.
Cenotes: Tulum is also home to my FAVOURITE cenote of all time, Casa Cenote. A lush, crystal clear cenote filled with mangrove roots and cichlid fish. Cichlids are a popular fish tank addition as they are brightly coloured, and it was awesome to see them living wild in this brackish water. Other great cenotes (especially for cave diving) are The Pit Cenote, Dos Ojos and Pet Cemetery. Tulum Ruins are just out of town and highly recommended on a cooler day.
READ: The Best Cenotes near Tulum
Xel-Ha: For an all-you-can-eat-and-drink day in a cenote waterpark wonderland, be sure to spend a day at Xel-Ha, the funnest place in the Yacatan, maybe even on Earth!
Tulum Jungle Gym: I love this idea so much! It is a one of a kind outdoor eco-gym on the beach using natural materials that Fred Flintstone would have worked out on. Training with nature in nature.
Where to stay in Tulum
CouchSurf: I CouchSurfed in Tulum with an American expat, and I have to say, it was probably the BEST CS experience I’ve had (shoutout to Tom xox) so be sure to try it! I did stay in a couple of hostels as well…
Mama’s Home: Shabby but cute, Mamas had the best vibes! The rooms are packed with beds, but the breakfast is flipping amazing (just choose what you want and they make it fresh)!
Mango Tulum Hotel: Clean, crisp and engulfed in a lush garden. Air-con and pool, what more could you want?
Where to eat and drink in Tulum
La Chiapaneca: I’m just going to take a few seconds to remember my time I had in Tulum with Chiapaneca. Succulent, juicy slow roasted pork tacos, an endless stream of guacamole and roast pineapple to top. This was my most memorable food experience in the Yucatan hands down.
El Camello Jr: Has the best ceviche and freshest fish in Tulum, great prices too!
Taquería Honorio: To try a traditional Yucatan breakfast, head to Taquería Honorio for the Cochinita Pibil. Fat, floury taco shell filled with delicious meats might sound like lunch, but definitely give it a go. It’s epic!
How to get to and from Tulum
Playa to Tulum: Tulum is an easy peasy colectivo from Playa del Carmen and only takes 50 minutes or so and costs 40 pesos (see above, Playa del Carmen, for details).
Tulum to Playa: To return, just get the colectivos from middle of Tulum on the 307 Road. You’ll see other backpackers waiting. To get to Cancún you’ll have to switch colectivos in Playa del Carmen. Catching a bus is a little easier (but more expensive) as there are direct buses to Cancún.
GOING TO BACALAR? Read why you should visit this Paradise Lagoon
WHERE TO NEXT? Heading to San Cristobal? Here’s my Budget Guide to Chiapas
MEXICO IN A NUTSHELL
Tourist Bus Company: ADO. You may need a translator installed in your browser to use this site.
Supermarkets: Oxxo (like 711), Chedraui and Walmart. P.S. Oxxo sell $1 hot dogs with DIY toppings and the melty cheese is flipping amazing!!!
Cheap Accommodation: Mexico has a strong CouchSurfing scene that I highly recommend, especially in the Yucatan. I’ve met some great people and only had positive experiences!
All-Inclusives: I’ve been to one once and it’s for sure something you’ve got to try at least once in your life in the Yucatan but honestly, Mexico has so much more to offer than mediocre food and drunk people in a pool next to the beach.
Speaking Spanish: You won’t NEED Spanish in touristy areas, but if you want to make the most out of your travels and also get the local prices on buses, etc, I suggest you spend some time learning Spanish. You can take private lessons all around Mexico for as little as $5 USD an hour. Just ask your reception for a tutor
Place: The Yucatan Peninsula; Cancun, Chichen Itza, Isla Holbox, Isla Mujeres, Playa del Carmen and Tulum
Currency: Mexican Peso
$1 USD = 18.92 Mex$
I was here: November 2014
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