Mexico is a huge country and I haven’t travelled all of it so won’t even try to blog about all of it. I did visit Mexico City and San Luis Potosí on a school trip when I was 17 but other than that, my Mexican travels have been focused around the Mayan Riviera/Caribbean side.
I love Mexico. Who doesn’t love the Spanish language, beaches, tacos and tequila?
There are a couple different ways to visit this area, one of the most common is to book an all inclusive package. This is the easiest, safest, and most convenient way. From the second you get on the plane, your major decisions are limited to what to drink, beach or pool, and buffet or a la carte dining. They have someone meet you at the airport and load you onto a coach bus with all the other tourists and take you directly to your gated resort until 7 days of unlimited food and booze and maybe the occasional Zumba class later, you are loaded back on the bus and returned to the airport sunburnt and approx. 5 lbs heavier than when you left. Sounds amazing right?
More amazing can be the opportunity to explore this area. And no I don’t mean those over priced tourist bus excursions from the resort. I mean a full do it yourself backpacking style vacation. This can be as cheap or are expensive as you make it.
Below is a 6 day itinerary for the Mayan Riviera area of Mexico. I’ve added in costs to give you a sense of how it can be done on a budget without expensive tours or resorts.
Puerto Morelos – Playa Del Carmen – Tulum (day trip) – Akumal (day trip) – cenote Azul (day trip) – Holbox – Isla Mujeres
(At the time of writing $1 Canadian = $14.80 pesos, all expenses listed in this blog are in pesos unless otherwise indicated)
Day 1: Arriving in Mexico
Our flight arrived at 8:15 pm so we needed an accommodation that allowed late check in, and wasn’t too far. We took the ADO bus ($120) from the airport to Puerto Morelos where we checked into the Hostel Humanity ($310 each for a dorm bed with private bathroom), a short walk from where the ADO bus drops you on the main highway in Puerto Morelos. The 30+ minutes of circling the airport to pick up passengers at all the terminals before jumping on the highway to drive the 20 minutes to Puerto Morelos suggests the ADO bus may have not been the best option for this short distance, and there were probably more efficient options for similar prices.
After checking in, we stepped out to find a late dinner. We found the most fantastic taco stand and each got two chicken tacos ($15/taco) – authentic, fantastic, but be careful of the habanero salsa and don’t pour a large amount on your tacos as you would at home or you’ll be running for the nearest popsicle stand ($15/popsicle) after dinner.
Day 1 costs/person
Tip: Hostel Humanity was nice, new, clean and had a great location for a late arrival but $310 for a hostel bed was a bit pricey. If you book in advance you can probably find something for a bit better value. Make sure to check reception hours as many places close check in at 7 pm. We booked this hostel at the Toronto airport on a stopover about 20 minutes before boarding our flight to Cancun after our original booking fell through.
Day 2: Cycling and getting kicked out of resorts in Puerto Morelos
We went to the grocery store to load up on fruit and water for breakfast ($35 total for both of us)
and then rented bikes ($150 each for the day). There were no bike rental shops that we could see walking around town but hostel humanity phoned someone who delivered the bikes for us within 30 minutes.
We biked down to the Puerto Morelos tourist part of town and beach (3 km) and walked around on the beach before jumping back on our bikes to attempt to visit some friends at a nearby resort 6 km north up the resort strip. It was a beautiful bike ride through some bumpy roads in a forest like setting. We found the resort and entered from the beach but we were quickly escorted off property by security. We tried to visit a couple other resorts with the same result. These resorts didn’t have the brightly coloured plastic all inclusive bracelets so we still aren’t sure they detected us as outsiders considered we entered from the beach.
After a bike ride back we went to the back streets to find lunch, avoiding the larger (expensive) tourist restaurants by the beach. I got 3 empanadas for $50, assuming for that price they’d be quite small. I was wrong and ended up with a massive place of empanada goodness.
We spent a bit more time at the beach before cycling the 3 km back to Hostel Humanity to return our bikes and grab our bags to head to our next destination.
We walked one block from Hostel Humanity to the main street and within seconds grabbed a colectivo to Playa Del Carmen ($50). We hadn’t prebooked any accommodation as accommodations are plentiful in Playa Del Carmen. Near the main highway, approx 20 min walk from the 5th avenue tourist area and beach we visited Casa Seloa which we had seen online previously although had not booked. For $425 ($212.50 each!) we got our own mini apartment with private bathroom and kitchenette. A major bargain and probably the best place we stayed in Mexico. If you don’t mind a 20 minute walk to the beach and main strip, this is the place to stay! We grabbed dinner a couple blocks north of the 5th avenue craziness for $50 each for a complete meal of 4 tacos, rice or beans, small salad and a drink and then set out to explore 5th avenue. This area is incredibly touristy and reminds me a lot of a busier Robson street back home in Vancouver. Between the American/Mexican restaurants you’ll see familiar shops like H&M, Bath & Body Works, Victoria’s Secret and
Michael Kors. We grabbed a drink on a “happy hour” special (I think it is always happy hour since this was about 9 pm) for 2 x $90 to do some people watching before continuing down the street, enjoying some free tequila tasting (that vanilla tequila!!! Wow!) and my friend got her hair braided Kardashian style ($200).
We returned to our Casa to plot our journey for the next day. The joy of backpacking around is the flexibility to change directions on a whim based on weather, opportunities that arise, or tips from other travellers. The downside being that you do need to take time each day to figure out transportation and accommodation for your next stop.
We opted to do Tulum as a day trip rather than overnight as it gave us flexibility to do all the stops along the highway without our bags and avoiding the higher cost of staying in Tulum.
Day 2 total costs/person
Activities: $150 (bike rental)
Day 3: Tulum Ruins, Akumal Turtles and Cenotes near Playa Del Carmen
We got up early to make the most of our day trip. We checked out and stored our bags at the Casa with hopes a room would open up for that night as they informed us it was sold out. Another planning fail had us eating digestives from the OXXO store for breakfast as there were no fruit stands between our Casa and the highway to Tulum where we caught a colectivo for $45 each. You can take the ADO bus but it is more expensive, only from the station, and only on a set schedule. Obviously colectivos are a better way for the budget minded flexible traveller. You can essentially just flag one down anywhere on their route rather than having to walk all the way into the main colectivo station in Playa Del Carmen on Calle 2 between 15 & 20 avenues. The benefit of catching one at the main station however as opposed to the highway 307 is that you may end up getting a seat instead of standing or kneeling in the aisle way as we did for a portion of the trip.
We were dropped off at the Tulum Ruins by our colectivo and declined a tour from the guides wanting to charge us $25 US each (that’s a lot of pesos!) I was surprised at how touristy the entrance was with Starbucks, Subway, and a bunch of other food spots as well as several stores selling souvenirs. There was a $5 bathroom, or a free bathroom which was super clean despite not having toilet seats. We declined the $20 tractor ride to the entrance of the ruins from this tourist area and walked the 10 minutes to get there. We paid our $70 admission price each and spent about an hour touring the incredibly crowded ruins attempting to get a view between tour groups. We couldn’t swim on the small beach as it was too windy but there is an option to do that on a nicer day for those wanting to escape the blazing sun of the ruins. We exited the ruins at the exit sign, not realizing this was a completely different side than we
entered. We kept walking down the road for awhile before realizing we were walking in the entirely wrong direction! I looked at Google maps (I had downloaded an offline map of the area) and saw that we were following the beach route which was in the opposite direction from the highway we came in on. We opted to jump in a taxi to Tulum centro to avoid backtracking (we had been walking for quite awhile) which set us back $100. Our plan was to take the much cheaper colectivo from the highway but that would have required us knowing we had gone the wrong way.
We stopped in the centre of Tulum for lunch ($40 for two tacos) and were glad we opted to only come for a day trip. The town is not on the water and didn’t have much appeal; and was more expensive than Playa Del Carmen. We walked back out to the main road to catch a colectivo back north. There are little colectivo stands every block or two making it super easy to catch one within a few minutes.
We took the colectivo to Akumal beach. A short 5 minute walk took us to a crowded beach where we had multiple people try to sell us snorkel tours. We had brought a snorkel from home so had no desire to join these tours. One man told us it was mandatory to wear a life jacket and would rent us one for $75 each however we observed several people snorkelling without a life jacket so declined. Spotting a turtle was quite easy however I did not see any of the other marine life (fish, rays). We hung out on the crowded beach for quite awhile before jumping into a colectivo ($35) to our next stop, cenote Azul. There are so many cenotes to visit in the area, it was hard to choose but we opted for Azul for the snorkelling options as well as the convenience of being located right on the highway between Akumal and Playa Del Carmen.
Cenote Azul ($100 each) did not disappoint. I have nothing to compare it to but swimming through the fresh water exploring all the little areas was refreshing. It was incredibly crowded as one would expect from such a beautiful spot on the tourist trail. There was an upper part to cliff jump off of, or to see iguanas keeping
watch of cliff jumpers, as well as little natural fish spa pools mimicking the fish spas of 5th avenue where fish clean the dry skin off your feet. After some time at the cenote we crossed the highway to head back to Playa Del Carmen in yet another colectivo ($35 each).
As you can see, we paid significantly more for our colectivo rides heading north with multiple stops than our one way ride from Playa Del Carmen to Tulum. Although I am never shy to barter, these rates seemed to be fixed as they were what others were paying, including locals so likely the multiple stops just cost more.
Once returning to Playa Del Carmen we were informed that Casa Seloa did not have any rooms open up. We quickly looked online and found another cheap private room option (with good reviews and a good location!) at Apartments Melissa. We grabbed our bags and made the 20 min walk to our new place. Ideally we would have stayed in the same place for both nights in Playa Del Carmen and planning ahead would have allowed for this. We checked in and found a clean, basic room close to the main 5th ave. strip for only $450/night. We quickly showered in order to make it to Carboncitos for happy hour. Carboncitos isn’t a budget restaurant but is worth the splurge and the happy hour drinks (2 x $99) were perfect after a busy day! This has been one of my favourite restaurants on several previous trips to Playa Del Carmen over the last 10 years and I make a point to go every time I’m in town.
We stopped by the ADO terminal to buy our bus tickets to Chiquila for the following morning. A few past instances of showing up day of to a sold out bus has taught me to buy tickets in advance. We wandered 5th ave contemplating nightlife after meeting a man who recognized us after kicking us out of a resort the day before and invited us to have a drink at his friends bar, but opted to head back early as we were exhausted after our day of activities. We stopped at the massive grocery store near our apartment for some cheap breakfast options and to replenish our water supply (half price compared to the OXXO stores) – grocery stores are always a cheaper option for fruit, snacks, drinks.
Day 3 total costs/person:
Activities: $170 (ruins & cenote entry fees)
Day 4: Playa Del Carmen to Holbox
We walked down to the ADO terminal on 5th ave. to catch the 9:25 am bus to Chiquila ($270). We sat in the waiting area in front of the bus reading “Chiquila” on the front of it and then about 4 minutes to departure inquired why it wasn’t boarding yet. We were informed a different bus was already loaded and getting ready to go to Chiquila. There was no signage on this bus and no boarding call. Don’t make any assumptions or wait for a boarding call, and ensure you are on the bus a few minutes before departure!
The bus arrived at the ferry terminal at 11:40 am, plenty of time to catch the 12 pm ferry. The two ferry companies alternate timetables on the half hour so make sure you buy a ticket for the next departing ferry, not just the first one you see. We took the 30 min ferry ride ($140 each) across to Holbox. See my blog on Holbox for specific info. One piece that isn’t mentioned is why we changed from our overpriced hostel with no hot water, to Tribu hostel (hot water and free yoga!) on the 2nd night.
Day 4 total costs/person:
Tip: advance planning would have saved us some money on accommodation however we opted for flexibility as we didn’t plan on going to Holbox until someone on the plane recommended it. The island is pricey compared to other spots on land and planning ahead can help stay on budget.
Day 5: See my Holbox specific blog here.
Activities: $100 for the drink at the Alma rooftop bar to gain entry to the pool party and yoga and salsa lessons were free courtesy of Tribu hostel where we stayed our second night in Holbox.
Day 6: Holbox to Isla Mujeres
We woke up early to catch the sunrise and the 7 am ferry ($140) back to Chiquilá where the 7:45 Oriente bus ($130) was waiting to bring us for the 3 hour drive to Cancun bus terminal. We jumped in a taxi to the Puerto Juárez ferry terminal ($80 – we met a couple who only paid $30 so we overpaid by not bargaining here) where we caught the 20 minute ferry to Isla Mujeres ($300 round trip). We still hadn’t booked accommodation but hunger was priority so we walked down the main street in town and grabbed a taco and beer
special for $85. We had emailed a hostel in town who replied stating they did in fact have availability despite online showing they were full. We checked into the PocNa hostel where we upgraded to a smaller 6 bed room (with only one other person) with too cold air conditioning for $220/night each. After an afternoon of cervezas and laying around in hammocks and on the beach we decided to check out one of the local all inclusive resorts. A man was waving at us so we assumed we had been busted and were getting kicked out but quite the opposite… he invited us into the members only VIP section where we were offered top shelf liquor and sushi while watching an incredible sunset. We spent the evening exploring the town and marina, and settled on what we both agree was the best restaurant of our trip: Taqueria La Cueva de la Cherna.
There are tons of fantastic restaurants on the main street but this place… this place was everything you think of when you dream of Mexico. A quesadilla loaded with chicken with minimal cheese on a homemade tortilla topped with any toppings you choose from the salad bar (including cactus!) for $45. Sadly, after all the day drinking and food, we tucked into bed at a ridiculously early time and didn’t even get to enjoy our free welcome drink at PocNa which was only valid after 11 pm.
Transportation: $610 (including our return ferry)
Activities: Day drinking with $18 beers from the OXXO store and free drinks from our friend all the all inclusive kept our activities cheap.
Day 7: Isla Mujeres to home
Thankfully due to our ridiculously early bed time, we were up in time to enjoy the free breakfast at PocNa before our free 9 am yoga class at PocNa. Following this, we puttered around Isla Mujeres deciding
how to spend our last day. I had visited Isla Mujeres twice before and knew the turtle breeding facility ($40) would be a great visit but we had that lazy last day of vacation attitude and didn’t feeling like biking the 5 km. to get there and the golf cart rental ($210-250/hour) became a hassle. Had we rented a golf cart we also would have stopped by Punta Sur, a beautiful lookout on the far south end of the island. Instead, we opted for beach massages ($500 bargained down from $600 but still far more expensive than in Playa Del Carmen where they go as low as $325) and discussed regret at not jumping on a snorkel catamaran tour ($35 US) as we observed these party boats from shore.
More lazy beach time and then we had to shower and get ready to head to the airport. Although we had checked out, PocNa let us use their shower and facilities until we left at 4 pm that day. We couldn’t leave Isla Mujeres without one last stop at La Cueva de la Cherna for guacamole ($60) and chicken quesadillas ($45) before jumping on our return ferry back to Puerto Juárez. We met a couple heading back to the ADO bus station in Cancun and shared a taxi for $80. We bought our bus tickets to the airport ($76) and ran across the street to get some snacks at the grocery store across from the bus terminal to avoid paying the $175 for a greasy small slice of pizza at the airport (Cancun airport food prices are like nothing I’ve ever seen before!) The 35 minute bus ride got us to our terminal (know your terminal before heading to Cancun Airport as there are 4 separate ones) where we breezed through security to the boarding area full of overpriced American food and souvenirs. I’ve been to this airport on a bad day where the security line was over 2 hours but since it took us less than 5 minutes, we had some time to kill in the airport with no free wifi.
Transportation: $96 (return ferry ticket bought the day before)
Accommodation: none. Slept in our own beds.
Activities: $500/1 hour beach massage.
*note: I’ve been to Isla Mujeres twice before and would highly recommend first time visitors spend a bit more time on the island to check out the turtle breeding facility, Punta Sur, snorkelling with whale sharks (May – September only) or if you’re a diver, the underwater museum.
I do not recommend you visit Garrafon Natural Reef Park because as fun as those pamphlets make it seem, it isn’t fun for the dolphins they keep captive there. Be ethical and avoid this type of exploitative tourism.
You’ll notice I didn’t include the popular Cozumel in here. I went here a few years ago and simply wasn’t impressed. I found it to be lacking in any culture and very much for the higher end resort people or cruise ship passengers. I have however heard it is a fantastic for diving and would only consider going back for this reason.
On trip we mostly stayed in hostels with some private rooms. I am getting too old for the days of a cheap bunk bed in a crowded room of drunk foreigners so am pretty discerning about when I stay in hostels these days. For more on how I decide when to stay in a hostel click here.
If you are looking for a bit of luxury while travelling around, you can book all inclusive resorts by the night. I recommend either Hotwire or using Expedia’s flight + hotel option to allow for the flexibility of travelling around the Mayan Riviera while maintaining the comfort and luxury of resorts. For more tips on scoring the best deals on everything from hostels to 5 star resorts, click here.
This is just a guide and I do recommend spending more time in each place if your schedule allows for it. Although we kept things fairly cheap, it is possible to do it even cheaper if you learn from our occasional overpriced meal before finding the authentic spots, and mistake taxi ride.
Total costs for 6 days:
Activities: $820, not including drinks