Backpacking in Mexico: Costs, Tips and Places to See
We spent a month in Mexico during our trip around the world and barely scratched the surface of what this country has to offer. From its giant pyramids to its stylish colonial towns, Mexico is full of throwbacks to a colourful (and often horrific) past. Add in plenty of delicious food, great beaches and unique natural wonders and you have one of the best countries in the world for independent travel. Keep reading for tips and information on backpacking in Mexico, as well as a quick look at the places we stopped off at.
Places to See in Mexico
I’ll write this list in the order that we visited, to give you an example of an overland route though Mexico. We flew into Mexico City and caught a local bus in the historic centre. I was expecting Mexico City to be far more chaotic than it was — the colonial centre is actually quite nice and has some cool things to see (most of which are old Spanish Buildings). We explored the city for a day and then did a day trip to Teotihuacan. This set of pyramids and ruins is easily accessed by bus from Mexico City and is a great introduction to the ancient wonders that await throughout the country.
FURTHER READING: Teotihuacan: Massive Pyramids Near Mexico City
There are lots of Pueblo Magicos (magical towns) near Mexico City and it’s hard to decide on which one to visit (or you could visit them all if you have the time). The magic refers to historic / atmospheric / scenic value, so don’t expect an appearance from David Copperfield. We visited Tepoztlán, which is around an hour by bus from Mexico City, and loved the relaxing small town vibe and awesome scenery. There are also some nice old churches in town and a cool market where we ate some our favourite meals in Mexico. The most popular thing to do in Tepoztlán is the hike up the hill behind town. At the top you’ll find an ancient pyramid and a gang of curious coati (a raccoon like animal).
FURTHER READING: The Coati Cartels of Tepoztlán
Puebla and Cholula
These cities, which are basically conjoined these days, offer up some great experiences for people travelling overland in Mexico (it’s roughly halfway between Mexico City and Oaxaca). The atmospheric streets of Puebla’s old town brim with locals enjoying family time, and there are heaps of churches, museums and markets to explore.
FURTHER READING: Puebla and Cholula: Mexico’s Siamese Twin Cities
Cholula is home to the world’s largest pyramid, which is now mostly hidden under a hill. The colourful colonial streets of Cholula are also fun to explore. All of this is just a short bus ride from downtown Puebla — I highly recommend stopping off in this region for at least a couple of days.
Oaxaca is a popular city for tourists in central Mexico, mainly due to its beautiful colonial architecture and the ancient Monte Alban ruins on a hill above town. The main square in Oaxaca is buzzing day and night and is a great place to eat and shop. Oaxaca is best explored on foot but you’ll need to catch a bus up to Monte Alban, the ancient Zapotec capital city. This large complex features pyramids, ball courts, plazas and burial grounds, as well as sweeping hilltop views.
FURTHER READING: Two Days in Oaxaca: Colonial History and Ancient Ruins
San Cristobal de las Casas
As we headed south we started to hit the more typical Mexico tourist trail. San Cristobal de las Casas, with its cobblestone streets and wide range of tourist-oriented shops and restaurants, is a cool city to chill out in for a few days. People tend to linger here for longer than they planned, with Spanish classes being a popular way to pass the time. The Chiapas region is pretty wild, so you’ll want to plan a trip or two into the heart of the province.
Agua Azul and Palenque
The easiest way to see some of the natural wonders that Chiapas boasts is on a tour to Agua Azul and Palenque. Agua Azul is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Mexico (it even had a brief appearance in the movie Predator), while the Maya ruins of Palenque are surrounded by jungle teeming with howler monkeys and birds. Throw in another waterfall (Misol Ha, which was also featured in Predator) and you have a pretty awesome day trip. You don’t have to go all the way back to San Cristobal de las Casas either — we got dropped off in Palenque (the town near the ruins) and then continued south to Merida by bus.
FURTHER READING: Waterfalls and Pyramids: A Day Trip to Agua Azul and Palenque
Another city in Mexico with well preserved colonial buildings, Merida is more a place to pass through rather than a destination of its own. It is a cool city though and there are some really cool things to see nearby, including cenotes and pyramids.
This group of Mayan pyramids and ruins is a short bus ride from Merida. It’s an incredible place and I’d recommend anyone with more than a passing interest in this kind of thing to visit. The main pyramid has a unique circular base and some of the details on the ruined palaces and plazas are about as artistic as you’ll see at any ruins in Mexico.
FURTHER READING: Uxmal: The Other Must-See Maya Ruins in Mexico
Cancun would be like totally the best thing ever if you’re a young American college student, but unfortunately I’m a 32 year old New Zealander. It was the most touristy and Americanized city we visited in Mexico but it did have a really great beach, so you can see why people visit. I didn’t hate Cancun but after a couple of days I was happy to be leaving.
FURTHER READING: Curious in Cancun: A First Look at the Mexican Caribbean
Coastal ruins, white sand beaches and mysterious cenotes; Tulum really is the ultimate place for a seaside getaway in Mexico. There was a fair bit of seaweed on the beaches when we visited but even that didn’t blunt the beauty of Tulum too much. Make sure to visit Cenote Calavera while cycling around the countryside — it’s one of the coolest swimming holes I’ve ever seen.
FURTHER READING: Attack of the Killer Seaweed in Tulum
Valladolid is the ideal place to stay if you’re planning an early morning visit to Chichen Itza (and that’s definitely the best time to go). It’s a small city with a nice central plaza and some colourful old buildings. There are also some cenotes in and around town which are worth checking out. We stayed in Valladolid for a couple of days and could have easily extended our time there.
FURTHER READING: Cenotes Near Valladolid: Unique Natural Wonders in Mexico
A visit to this iconic wonder of the world can go one of two ways. Arrive early and you’ll have it almost all to yourself. Quietly wandering around such incredible pieces or architecture and culture is a special experience, but throw a few thousand other tourists into the mix and it can quickly turn sour. I’ve heard people say they didn’t really enjoy Chichen Itza and honestly, it was their own fault. I can’t stress enough how important it is to get there early.
How much does it cost to travel in Mexico?
How long is a piece of string? How many movies has Kevin Bacon been in? Who knows, but I can give you some idea of how much we spent. Everything was more expensive in Tulum and Cancun (and on the Yucatan Peninsula in general I’m sure) so you’ll want to keep that in mind if you’re backpacking in Mexico on an extreme budget.
- Sleeping: I’d describe Gia and I as (mostly) budget travellers who occasionally splash out. Budget doesn’t mean sleeping in dorms or the cheapest, dirtiest hotels though. We booked all our hotels on Booking.com and generally paid 300 – 400 MXN (more in Tulum and Cancun). They were all excellent and in safe parts of town (it was our first time in Latin America and safety was a concern for us at the start).
- Eating: Food is generally cheap, but you can obviously spend heaps if you’re going to upscale restaurants in places like Tulum and Cancun. We ate at small local restaurants, street vendors and market stalls and paid the equivalent of a few dollars a meal.
- Transport: Buses are generally decent value in Mexico, and it seems like you can get some really cheap deals if you book online. I just searched the ADO website for a ticket from Oaxaca to San Cristobal de las Casas (10 hours, often overnight) and the normal price is around 670 MXN (which is around what we paid) while the sale price is 470 MXN. If you can book a few days in advance online you’ll definitely save money.
- Sightseeing: Entrance tickets also add up. We visited lots of pyramids and ruins and some of the tickets were over 200 MXN – it’s not too exorbitant but there’s so many to see that it could eat into your budget. In general I feel Mexico sits somewhere between Southeast Asia and Europe in terms of costs. It’s not ultra budget but you can do it cheaply.
Backpacking in Mexico: Is it Safe?
There’s no right or wrong answer to that. We felt safe the entire time we were there and didn’t have any issues at all, but I’m not going to come out and say Mexico is completely safe and nothing bad ever happens there. Bad things happen everywhere, including Mexico, so use common sense, listen to locals when they give you advice and try and avoid walking around on your own late at night.
We spent a month backpacking in Mexico and we still have so much to see. It reminds me a bit of places like Thailand, India and Spain – you could return every year and still see something new and amazing. Next time we’ll be checking out the Oaxaca Coast, more places in the north of the country and more beaches and islands on the Yucatan Peninsula.
Are you planning on backpacking in Mexico? Which places are you most excited to visit? Let me know in the comments below!