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


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 almost two years and 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, have amazing amenities like top restaurants and great street food, and 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 companies to make sure 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

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.

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.

Accommodation is pretty reasonable around the country.

You can camp on the beaches of the west coast for free, sleep in hammocks on islands off of the Yucatan peninsula for $5-8 USD a night, or stay 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.

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.

what to do in Oaxaca
In awe at Mitla in Oaxaca

Your biggest cost when backpacking Mexico is going to be transportation.

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.

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.

There are also budget airlines as well, but I’ll talk all about getting around the country in the section below.

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):

Cost of Living in Mexico City

How Much Does it Cost To Travel Mexico City 

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 and 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, making 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 quite literally dozens of posts about Mexico City so 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.

It’s 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. Check out the blog Always a Gringa. She lives in San Luis Potosi and constantly posts amazing places that she’s seen in the state.

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.

Copper Canyon

Another place high on my bucket list for Mexico is Copper Canyon. Take the train through this amazing region and get off along the way in the different towns where you can go horseback riding, ziplining, or hiking. The best backpacker guide that I’ve found is this Copper Canyon Travel Guide by Indiana Jo. It’s been written pretty recently and I’ll definitely be following her advice when I plan my trip through Copper Canyon.

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, unless you are traveling with more than two or three people, in which case splitting the cost of the rental and the tolls could be a lot cheaper.

There’s one major bus company that sort of lords over the rest of the bus companies around the country, and that’s ADO.

I recommend downloading the ADO App (Android here or Apple here) so that you can check bus times and even pre-book tickets at a discounted rate. They have bus times and purchasing options for every major bus company in the country.

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

Be sure to always choose buses that are “premium” or non-stop rather than local buses which will make tons of stops along the way.

These buses are known for having problems with robberies when they stop in random small towns, so best to be avoided altogether.

Flying is another option which is more expensive than buses, but still not totally over the top.

Check out this article about budget airlines in Mexico to learn more about your options:

The Best Budget Airlines in Mexico

You can expect to pay about $50 each way to go between Cancun and Mexico City or Mexico City and Oaxaca.

You can find them for a little bit cheaper in you book more than three or four months in advance.

I recommend booking directly through the airline’s websites, it’s almost always cheaper than booking through a third party website.

If you plan to rent a car and are coming from the US, it is much easier to rent a car in Mexico rather than in the US (and then drive cross-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.

I recommend booking a car for the portion of your trip that you want it for using Expedia or another trusted booking site that you like.

You may be charged an additional fee for insurance if you are not booking with an American credit card. Call ahead and check to see exactly what the cost will be.

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 (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 and 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.

I also sometimes put one of my rings on my left ring finger if I’m going to be taking a bus or other public transport by myself.

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 for both men and women which you can find here:

What to Wear in Mexico

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 to read up on a place’s history, to find budget places to stay, and 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.

There are free apps like Duolingo (Apple here or Android here). You can study tons of different languages on here.

Sometimes the vocabulary can be a little bit silly or useless, but if you’ve never studied Spanish before or you need a little refresher, this is a good free option.

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 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.

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.

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2 thoughts on “Backpacking Mexico: 2021 UPDATED What You Need to Know”

  1. 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.

    Reply

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