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Backpacking Mexico: 2021 UPDATED What You Need to Know

Backpacking Mexico: 2021 UPDATED What You Need to Know

So you’re thinking about backpacking Mexico? It’s a country that often gets skipped when travelers head south through Latin America, which is a shame because it has so much culture, history, and amazing food to offer.

I think thanks to its reputation as an all-inclusive destination, many backpackers think that Mexico doesn’t have much for them, but I’m here to tell you that it definitely does (and it can be really cheap, too!).

Backpacking Mexico can be affordable. It can be fun and easy and safe, too. 

I have been living in Mexico for five years and have traveled the country extensively. I’ve traveled on a shoestring and as a midrange traveler. Mexico can be as cheap or as expensive as you can afford. It all depends on where you choose to visit, how you get around, and where you want to stay.

After all this time living here, I feel like I’ve learned a lot of tips and tricks. I know where to find cheap long-term accommodation (it’s not on Airbnb). I know the cheapest and safest modes of transportation. And most importantly of all, I know the best places to visit!

This post was updated in August 2021 to reflect the changes happening in Mexico. If you want to learn more about the covid situation there, sign up for my bi-monthly newsletter here.

In it, I share what changes are happening every two weeks. That is how often the federal government are making changes to their “traffic light” system.

Backpacking Mexico


Is it Safe to Backpack Mexico?

It’s a question I receive from readers almost every day. Is it safe to travel Mexico?

Just like I’m sure you do before every backpacking trip, it’s important to read up on what’s happening in the country politically and to make sure you avoid certain areas with questionable reputations.

That being said, a lot of what’s reported about Mexico is grossly over-exaggerated.

I’ve been living in and traveling around the country for years. I have never felt unsafe or worried. Most people are incredibly kind and go out of their way to help you.

Most cities are clean and have amazing amenities like top restaurants and great street food. There are so many hostels that help make backpacking Mexico all the more enjoyable.

The country is also full of natural beauty that is easily accessible and protected by the local tourism boards. This ensures that they remain safe places for visitors.

If you have other questions about safety in Mexico as you begin planning your trip, don’t hesitate to contact me via email, Facebook, or Instagram.

chichen itza tour

Visiting Chichen Itza should definitely be on your backpacking Mexico bucket list!

How Much Does it Cost to Backpack Mexico?

Backpacking Mexico can be as expensive or cheap as you want it to be.

You should expect to pay about $30 a day on the cheap side and up to $50-$60 on the midrange side. If you want to have your own room or you don’t want to cook for yourself at all it will be at the higher end.

I usually travel the country with my boyfriend and we’ve managed to get it down to under $50 a day for the two of us for most places around the country because we share the costs of accommodation and food.

How Much Does Accommodation Cost in Mexico?

Accommodation is pretty reasonable around the country.

You can camp on the beaches of the west coast for free. Or maybe you want to sleep in hammocks on islands off of the Yucatan peninsula for $5-8 USD a night. Staying in hostels in all of the major towns and cities around the country for about $10 a night in a 6-10 person dorm room.

If you are looking for rent for a month or more at a time to save money and really get to know a place, get yourself onto Facebook Marketplace. Most Mexicans use Facebook Marketplace to list their furnished homes or apartments. If you don’t speak Spanish, you can use Google Translate.

Facebook is without a doubt the best place to find cheap rentals. If you don’t have any luck with Facebook Marketplace, check to see if the location you are looking at has a Facebook page. Some places like San Jose del Cabo or Mexico City have Facebook groups dedicated to people looking for subleases or roommates.

Check out some of my posts about hotels to enjoy around Mexico here:

How Much Does Food Cost in Mexico?

Food is also incredibly cheap in Mexico. Especially if you head to Mercados (covered markets), Tianguis (weekly farmer’s markets), and street food stalls.

These are the places where you can get a filling meal for under $2 per person. Food will likely be one of the cheapest things about your travels around Mexico.

Another thing to look for if you want to sit down at a restaurant is what’s called a comida corrida or comida economica – these words are usually painted on buildings or written on signs outside of restaurants.

Here’s where you’ll get a two or three-course meal with a drink for about $3 USD per person. It’s a popular lunch option, especially in larger towns and cities and it’s proper Mexican home cooking. Filling and flavorful.

Check out these articles to familiarize yourself with Mexican street food, produce to buy, and tips for keeping the budget down while backpacking Mexico:

what to do in Oaxaca

In awe at Mitla in Oaxaca

Cost of Transportation When Backpacking Mexico

Your biggest cost when backpacking Mexico is going to be transport costs.

While it’s still pretty cheap when you compare it to getting around in the US, Canada, or the UK, it’s more expensive than what you’ll probably find as you travel further south.

The best option for budget-conscious travelers is the bus network.

The main bus company in Mexico is ADO. There are other regional companies like Aguila in Baja California Sur or Primera Plus in Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende.

Read my full article all about taking the bus in Mexico here.

Most of the roads around Mexico that the buses take are toll roads, so that’s why prices can be a little bit expensive at times. To get from Mexico City to Guanajuato, you can pay about $15-20 USD. To take the overnight bus from Mexico City to Oaxaca, you’ll spend $30-40 USD.

There are also budget Mexican airlines as well. This can actually end up being cheaper than taking the bus is you are traveling far distances.

I’ve written comprehensive posts with total cost breakdowns about the cost of living in Mexico City as well as the cost of traveling Mexico City if you are interested in this city specifically (and want to extrapolate considering this is one of the most expensive cities in the country):

Where to Visit When Backpacking Mexico

The list is seemingly endless. I’ve put together this map of my absolute favorite places to visit in Mexico that I think would make for a great backpacking trip.

There are so many different routes you can take. Depending on where you are flying in from, you’ll want to either start your trip in Mexico City or Cancun since those are the largest international airports in the country.

Click on the icon in the top right corner to open the map onto its own page. You can then click on each individual pin to see the different locations I recommend.

As you can see on this map, most of the places I recommend are in the central and southern parts of the country.

This is the part of the country I know the best and which from experience and speaking to other travelers, is also the cheapest part of the country to travel. That makes it an ideal route for backpacking Mexico.

Obviously, how much of the country you see will depend on how much time you have allocated to traveling Mexico.

These are the top towns, cities, and sites I recommend visiting during your backpacking trip in Mexico and links to ultra-specific posts for each place. Again, feel free to get in touch with me on social media if you want to know even more!

Cancun

While most people think of spring break and all-inclusive resorts when they think of Cancun, there’s actually another side to this beach town that I sort of liked.

I wouldn’t plan an entire vacation here, but if you are flying into or out of the airport here, you can still enjoy a night or two of relaxation, good food, and decent beach time without spending a fortune.

Guide to Tulum

The seaside ruins in Tulum

Tulum

Until recently, this was my absolute favorite beach town in Mexico.

Backpackers will want to avoid staying anywhere near the beach and look at the hostels and Airbnb places in the town.

It’s way more laid back in the town where you’ll find bars with swings, cheap yoga classes, fresh juice bars, and plenty of street carts selling cheap and delicious tacos.

Chichen Itza

If you are going to be in the Yucatan, you can’t miss out on Chichen Itza.

It’s one of the Ancient Wonders of the World and it’s simply breathtaking. You can take a tour from Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum or Merida, but if you find a group of people at your hostel who want to go, it’ll be a lot cheaper and more fun to rent a car and make your way there on your own.

Merida

I absolutely loved Merida.

I could quite happily move to this little town if it wasn’t so hot (it’s seriously over 100 Fahrenheit/40 Celcius on the regular here, you’ve been warned).

There’s a lot to see and its really walkable. Don’t miss out on the cantina culture, the amazing Yucatan food, and swimming in all of the cenotes while you’re here.

rio lagartos mexico

Catching a boat in Rio Lagartos

Rio Lagartos

This is a great day trip to make from Merida or a place to stop between Cancun and Merida.

You’ll need a car or you can take the one bus a day that goes here from Merida, but either way, it’s an incredibly beautiful part of the region.

It’s a protected estuary that has crocodiles, birds, and pink salt lakes which are as Instagram-worthy as you imagine them to be (at least for about four months a year, then they turn a nasty orange).

Isla Holbox

This is a popular spot among backpackers and European holidaymakers thanks to its reputation as an island escape.

You can get some cheap hammocks to sleep on and you can camp if you have your own tent, but you have to book both of these really far in advance because they book out really quickly (we’re talking 6 months in advance).

I found everything else on the island to be pretty expensive, but it’s worth a day or two to cycle around on the roads made of sand, to see the flamingos, maybe take a windsurfing lesson, and to relax on the beach.

backpacking mexico

Enjoying the cliffs in Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres

If you decide to skip Isla Holbox or want a more budget-friendly island to spend some time while you’re in the Yucatan, I can’t recommend Isla Mujeres enough.

Sure, it’s touristy, sure it’s tacky, and some of the beaches are busy (but would you believe that one of the beaches was recently voted the 7th best beach in the world?).

But if you grab a taxi to the other side of the island or get an Airbnb place on that end of the island like I did, you’ll see it’s charm.

Palenque

If you enjoyed Chichen Itza, you’ll love Palenque.

This is the perfect backpacker town – quiet, cheap, and easy to get into and out of.

It’s certainly not going to win everyone over. It’s a little bit dingy, but I loved all of the taco restaurants and I mostly loved how quiet the town was. There are a lot of hostel options and the ruins are really worth going out of your way to get here.

palenque ruins mexico

The ruins tucked away in the jungles in Palenque

San Cristobal de Las Casas

This town is firmly on the backpacker route in Mexico.

It’s the sort of place where people come for a few days and end up staying for their entire six-month visa.

You’ll find hostels on every corner, tons of cheap tours to the surrounding areas like Sumidero Canyon and Lagunas de Montebello, and there are tons of cheap food and drink offers.

I enjoyed my time, but if patchouli and dreadlocks aren’t your scene, you’ll probably want to move on after a few days.

Oaxaca

This is another city that I think cannot be missed on any backpacking trip around Mexico.

It’s easily accessed with a huge ADO bus terminal and a nearby airport.

The city has recently become world-known for its culinary scene and you don’t have to be on a luxury budget to enjoy the incredible moles, the crispy tlayudas, and the refreshing tejates (not to be confused with the equally refreshing Tecate).

It’s not just about the food in Oaxaca, though. There’s also tons of history and culture here that you won’t want to miss. You can easily spend a week visiting the different ruins, the natural beauty, and the museums around the city.

best beaches in puerto escondido

Swimming at Carrizalillo in Puerto Escondido

Puerto Escondido

I mentioned above that until recently Tulum was my favorite beach town.

Well, Puerto Escondido stole that title a few months ago and if you visit you’ll see why.

This is just an incredible place for those that love the sun and the sand and cheap eats.

There are several hostels around Puerto Escondido, especially in the Playa Zicatela area, but you can also get cheap Airbnb places for about $10 a night if you don’t mind sharing a kitchen and bathroom.

Mexico City

I could talk for days and days about this amazing city and why it should be on your Mexico backpacking itinerary.

I’ve been living here for almost two years and I still find new places to explore and eat.

It’s incredibly easy to travel, it’s safe, it’s got a great nightlife, there are so many cheap and delicious places to eat, and there is a bustling digital nomad scene here if that’s your thing.

There are also cheap hostels where you can socialize or budget Airbnb places where you can live with locals and learn even more about the Mexican culture.

I have nearly 100 articles about Mexico City on this website. I’ll list a few of my favorites and then a link to the Mexico City section so that you can browse.

is it safe to travel to mexico city?

Mexico City Cathedral

Puebla & Cholula

While many people choose to see Puebla and Cholula as a day tour from Mexico City, I really think that it deserves more time if you have it.

Puebla is another culinary capital in Mexico and there are so many amazing places to eat that don’t break the bank.

It also has the site of the Cinco de Mayo battle that made the date famous (everywhere except Mexico that is).

San Miguel de Allende

This is a popular spot for tourists and expats thanks to its high safety rating, ease of travel, and for it’s incredible beauty.

While I don’t necessarily think it’s a must-see, it is certainly a great place to visit if you want to get out of Mexico City and are headed north and need a place to stop. It’s consistently voted one of the most beautiful cities in Mexico and I can’t disagree.

san miguel de allende

San Miguel de Allende Cathedral

Guadalajara

Mexico’s second-largest city is also completely different to Mexico City. It’s cheaper and slightly more conservative.

Guadalajara home to tequila and Mariachi bands. It’s has a bustling craft beer scene and tons of great restaurants and street vendors to choose from.

San Luis Potosi

This is a state that I have yet to explore, but it is high on my list. It’s often skipped by foreign tourists, but is one of the biggest adventure areas in Mexico for Mexican tourists.

Check out waterfalls, go whitewater rafting, ziplining, or head out on a hike of the region. The area is called Huasteca Potosina. It is home to some of the most stunning natural beauty that you will see while backpacking Mexico.

Tijuana

Another part of the country that gets a bad reputation, Tijuana has really cleaned up its act in recent years.

It still gets something of a bad reputation from people who have never been there, but frequent visitors know better.

Tijuana is home to seriously great craft beer bars, food halls, good coffee; basically everything that hipster Millenials love, except at a quarter of the price you’ll find it in LA, NYC or anywhere else north of the border.

hiking in copper canyon when backpacking mexico

Hiking in Copper Canyon was one of my absolute favorite things I have done in Mexico so far!

Copper Canyon

Copper Canyon is one of my favorite places in all of Mexico.

If you love hiking. Or you want to be close to a totally different kind of nature than you’ll find elsewhere in Mexico. This is one of the best adventures you can have while backpacking Mexico.

The most popular thing to do is take the El Chepe train. However, the hiking was my absolute favorite thing to do there.

Follow the series of videos I made during my time there to see all there is to do in Copper Canyon. Best of all, it’s an incredibly affordable place to travel. Perfect for backpacking Mexico!

taking in the views of Creel near Copper Canyon

The Pueblo Magico of Creel is a great place to get started exploring Copper Canyon. It’s a small and dusty little town, but it’s cheap and there are a lot of tour companies here.

Puerto Vallarta & Sayulita

I’ve put these two places together because they are close to each other. Puerto Vallarta is where the airport is. You will fly here and you should stay a few days.

The beach is beautiful. There is great nightlife here. But don’t stay too long. It’s not as budget-friendly as it used to be. It’s home to a lot of snowbirds and retirees, so prices have risen and closing times have gotten earlier.

But it’s still worth visiting for the great restaurants. The food in Puerto Vallarta is still very affordable and very delicious.

From Puerto Vallarta, you can grab a bus or BlaBlaCar to Sayulita. It’s about an hour from downtown Puerto Vallarta.

It’s much smaller and much more laid back. There are 20 and 30-somethings here from all over the world. Your bartender might be from Argentina. Then you’ll have a Polish surf instructor. There is a natural food shop run by a woman from Ukraine. It’s truly a melting pot.

Check out my videos from Sayulita here.

Read up on the best things to see and do in Sayulita here:

on a sailboat in sayulita mexico

Riding on a sunset sailboat in Sayulita with some beers that we bought from a local shop before getting on.

Baja California Sur

I’ve lumped this whole state together. It can all be done in a road trip in a bit over a week. I would recommend 10 days at least if you also want to go to Loreto and Mulege up north.

I spent some time living in San Jose del Cabo. It was one of the best places for surfing, snorkeling, and hiking that I’ve found. In fact, I haven’t been anywhere in Mexico that I can do all of those things on the same weekend.

Check out this playlist on YouTube to watch all of my BCS videos.

Read these articles to learn more about what to do when backpacking Baja California Sur:

what to do in oaxaca mexico

Exploring the Ethno-Botanical Gardens in Oaxaca (I HIGHLY recommend a trip here).

How to Get Around Mexico on a Backpacker’s Budget

Like I mentioned above, transportation is likely to be one of your largest expenses while backpacking Mexico.

Mexico is full of toll roads, so renting a car is often no cheaper than taking the bus. It is if you are traveling with more than two or three people. In that case, splitting the cost of the rental and the tolls could be a lot cheaper.

Buses are mostly safe options for traveling Mexico, if not a bit long and slow.

If you plan to rent a car and are coming from the US, it is much easier to rent a car on the Mexico side of the border. While it’s totally fine to drive across the border, there is a TON of paperwork you have to fill out on the US side.

Plus, driving across the border can take ages.

To get around while in a city like Mexico City or Guadalajara, I recommend using Uber. This is the much safer and cheaper option to taking local taxis.

Another option that I love for budget travel between cities in Mexico is BlaBlaCar. This is a ride-share app. Basically, there are people who are already driving somewhere like Mexico City to Puebla. Or Maybe from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido. 

But they have room in their car and are willing to charge a small fee to take other passengers with them. It’s basically a carpool option. It’s sometimes cheaper than a bus. Sometimes it works out to be about the same. However, it allows you to meet locals and also get there a lot quicker than taking the bus.

things to do in mexico city

Backpacking Mexico as a Solo Female Traveler

Backpacking Mexico as a woman isn’t impossible, but there are some precautions you should take if you are traveling solo. This is whether you are a man or a woman, to be honest.

All of the places I have listed above are perfectly safe places to travel during the day. Most are absolutely fine at night, too.

I simply recommend taking the same precautions that you would take if you were visiting any other major city or unknown town in the world.

Avoid streets that aren’t well lit at night or that are not busy with other people.

Call taxis or Ubers if you want to go somewhere at night that is further than a 10-minute walk.

The only other bother is something that I’ve unfortunately experienced in many cities around the world – catcalling/unwanted attention/staring from random men.

In my experience, the best thing to do is to totally ignore them.

Be aware that outside of the beach towns, Mexico is a very conservative place.

Most women do not wear shorts or very short skirts or dresses.

If you want to avoid unwanted attention and be more respectful in the cities and small towns, cover up a little bit. It doesn’t mean you have to wear jeans and a long-sleep shirt. But short-shorts in Guadalajara and Oaxaca will garner a little bit of unwanted attention.

I’ve written an extensive post about what to wear in Mexico. It includes tips for both men and women which you can find here:

What to Wear in Mexico

woman standing in front of street art of an old woman in mexico city

Mexico is full of free activities like touring around looking at street art. On Sundays, lots of museums around the country are completely free, too!

Other Resources for Backpacking Mexico

When I first got to Mexico a few years ago, there weren’t very many tips for traveling Mexico in English – on the internet or in print.

Thankfully Lonely Planet has been leading the way giving plenty of information in their guidebooks for years and years.

I constantly reference my Lonely Planet Mexico guidebook. Usually to find budget places to stay. But also to find some great bars and restaurants. You also can’t go wrong with their local maps.

Get the Latest Mexico Lonely Planet Travel Guide Here

If you don’t speak any Spanish, I recommend getting a head start before your trip and doing some studying. I also highly recommend downloading the Google Translate App onto your phone.

You can download the Spanish dictionary so that you can use the app without needing data or an internet connection. It’s seriously invaluable in different travel situations.

Feel free to simply have a browse of the Mexico Section of this blog. I’ve written well over 100 posts about this stunning country.

I have several Mexico Guidebooks which you can read more about here. These guidebooks cover the big cities and tons of information about road tripping around Mexico.

If you explore all of these articles and still have questions about what to see or do in Mexico, head over to Facebook or Instagram and send me a message.

This post contains affiliate links.

Backpackers Guide to Tulum - Mexico

Monday 2nd of August 2021

[…] If you want more tips for backpacking Mexico, check this article out.  […]

Kaylene Isherwood

Saturday 12th of May 2018

I'd love to explore more of Mexico! I've only been once for a little less than a week. Your photos make me want to get back there asap! I would especially love to visit Tulum and Chichen Itza.

Carmelatte

Saturday 12th of May 2018

I would love to visit Mexico in the nearest future <3 lovely pics dear!