The backpackers guide to the Yucatan Peninsula -budget traveling to Mayan ruins, beaches and colonial cities

what Mayan ruins can you climb the pyramids?

Backpacking the Yucatan Peninsula

For many people the Yucatan Peninsula is the starting point to an adventure. Many start in Cancun and take the “gringo trail” through Central America. Many people are taking a gap year or a several month tour. Others will just be planning to backpack in the Yucatan because the entire peninsula offers so much to see. In this guide to Yucatan backpacking you will find out where to go and many travel tips to keep you on a budget.

Lets begin with where to go and what is not to be missed.

Yucatan highlights

Most likely if you are flying into the Yucatan, Cancun International Airport will be your entry point. To some, you want to do a straight line down to Belize and on to Central America. Others have time to travel a bit and discover the hotspots and highlights of the Yucatan Peninsula. Here are two list of places to check out for Yucatan backpacking.

What not to miss if you are headed to Central America

On this route you will arrive in Cancun and stay in the state of Quintana Roo and travel down the Riviera Maya before heading into Belize.

  • Arrival at Cancun.

    You can either stay in Cancun and adjust to the time zone or take the ADO bus to Playa Del Carmen directly from the Cancun Airport. Cancun is not a backpackers mecca. Cancun is more about all inclusive hotels and most backpackers are relegated to the downtown, which has cheaper hotels but not charming scenery.

  • Playa Del Carmen is a more European feeling destination.

    It is walkable and the beach is easily reached from the center. There are many hostels in Playa Del Carmen as well as Airbnb rentals that fit budget travelers. There are a lot of cheap eats, bars and nightclubs.

  • Going down the coast the next usual stop is Tulum.

    This is a backpackers mecca, although nowadays most budget travelers stay in the downtown and not in the beach hotel zone due to cost. If you do decide to go directly from the Cancun Airport to Tulum, see our guide here. Around Tulum you can find Mayan ruins, cenotes and great beaches. Our things to do in Tulum guide gives you a good map of the things close by. Many of them are accessible by renting a bike.

  • From Tulum the next stop is Bacalar.

    This is the amazing place that is called the lake of seven colors (because of the many blues). Laguna Bacalar is getting more popular and there are more restaurants and hotels popping up. If you take a bus here, plan on staying in the center since the town is spread out along the lakefront.

  • From Bacalar you have three options for going onward to Central America.

    You can take a short flight from the Chetumal, Mexico Airport, take the ferry to the Belize islands, or take a bus to Belize City. The last option we don’t recommend because Belize City is not that great and not a backpackers hangout.

Backpacking yucatan
Laguna Bacalar’s crystal clear waters. This is a highlight for those backpacking on the southern end of Quintana Roo.

Highlights if you are just backpacking the Yucatan Peninsula

There are three states that make up the Yucatan Peninsula. They are Campeche, Quintana Roo and Yucatan state. Most people stay in Quintana Roo and Yucatan state with only about 15% making it to Campeche state. The reason for this is because the main airport in Cancun is in Quintana Roo state and Yucatan state is close by. There is also more advertising for tourism and more tourist infrastructure in Quintana Roo and Yucatan state.

Since the two afore mentioned two states are more popular, we are going to focus on them. If you have more time, it is good to visit Campeche City (the capital of Campeche state) and some of the tourist attractions in that part of the Yucatan Peninsula as well.

What not to miss in Quintana Roo while backpacking

  • Isla Holbox.

    This off the beaten path island has sand streets and beautiful beaches. This is definitely a place to chill for a few days. If you go here there are some hostels, camping and Airbnb options, but it is good to book in advance since it is popular.

  • Playa Del Carmen.

    Young, hip, beaches and places to go out. This small city has a lot to offer. See our full guide here for Playa Del Carmen.

  • Tulum.

    This is a backpackers mecca, although nowadays most budget travelers stay in the downtown and not in the beach hotel zone due to cost. If you do decide to go directly from the Cancun Airport to Tulum, see our guide here. Around Tulum you can find Mayan ruins, cenotes and great beaches. Our things to do in Tulum guide gives you a good map of the things close by. Many of them are accessible by renting a bike.

  • Coba Mayan ruins.

    These are the second most visited ruins in Quintana Roo after Tulum ruins. These are a little out of the way but fun to visit and climb.

  • Bacalar.

    This is a large lagoon that has beautiful turquoise waters. There are activities like kayaking, swimming and enjoying the remote town on this beautiful lagoon.

  • You might want to consider taking in some cenotes, Xel-Ha snorkel park or Xplor park.

    The two parks are worth the expense. At both of them you get food included and a full day of fun. See our article to see which one fits you the best. If you decide to visit one of the parks, you can stay in Playa Del Carmen or Tulum and go for the day from there.

backpacking yucatan
Isla Holbox is a backpackers stop because it is so beautiful and laid back.

What backpackers like to see when in Yucatan state

  • Merida.

    It is the largest city and also the capital of the state. You will have a lot of colonial architecture to look at, museums, culture and history comes alive here. See our Merida guide and video for visiting here.

  • Valladolid.

    This small town is in the center of the peninsula and often a stopover while crossing from Quintana Roo to Yucatan state. Many people backpacking the Yucatan find themselves staying in this small town because it is restful. It is also a good base to visit Ek Balam Mayan ruins and Chichen Itza.

  • Maya ruins.

    There are many good ruins to see in Yucatan state. Uxmal is our favorite. Ek Balam and Chichen Itza are two other notable ones people visit.

backpacking Yucatan
Merida on the top of most backpackers while visiting the Yucatan Peninsula.

Secondary places to see in Yucatan state if you have time

  • Izamal.

    This is another colonial city that has a lot of charm and nice to spend a day or one night. It is a little off the beaten path but good for people looking to explore a little more. The city is notable for the yellow buildings and Mayan pyramids in the town.

  • Rio Lagartos.

    This is a good place to visit for the bird and nature lover. This remote little town on the tip of the Yucatan offers a good place to take a tour. You might even see flamingos here. If you go plan on spending one night because it does take some time to get there and the best time for tours is early morning.

  • Ruta Puuc.

    This is a tourist route going south from Merida. Here there are haciendas, Mayan ruins, caverns, cenotes and more. It is best to have a rental car for this area. If you don’t, you might be limited to visiting Uxmal by bus tour.

backpacking yucatan
The Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal Mayan ruins.

Tips for backpacking the Yucatan of Mexico

The Yucatan Peninsula is a great place to backpack travel for several reasons. There is warm weather year-round, it is considered very safe for travel, it is a culturally rich area, and it is affordable to travel in.

Bus Travel or renting a car

For most of the locations on this Backpacking Yucatan Guide you can reach them by bus. ADO bus company is the main busses you will use. There are second class busses but for the few pesos you will save, they are not worth taking them. ADO busses are clean, comfortable and air conditioned. We recommend buying your tickets a few hours or the day before so you can get the hour of bus you want. Buying tickets at the station is usually best.

Renting cars can give you great freedom. There are some road rules that you should be aware of, so you have a safe time. Since you will be driving you will need to fill up on gas. It is important on long distance drives to plan out where you are going to get gas or have a full tank. There are some stretches of highway that have no gas stations for over an hour. When you do go to fill up, you should know there are some common scams at gas stations you need to be aware of.

There are only a few toll roads in the peninsula. Some of these cost hundreds of pesos. You will need cash in pesos. No credit cards and no USD is accepted. The toll roads save a lot of time, but the secondary roads will give you a more local view of small towns.

Cost and expenses

For food you can find economical meals in most places for around 100 pesos. At some destinations you can save money by staying in an Airbnb or a hostel with a kitchen and cooking yourself. Grocery stores do not have a lot of prepped food but everything else is affordable and available.

Beer is the most affordable alcohol. Most bars have beer for 25-50 pesos. Cocktails are anywhere between 80-150 pesos. Liquor is sold in specialty shops and grocery stores. Beer can be found in convenience stores, grocery stores and special beer stores called cervezarias.

Hotel cost can range from a dorm bed of 200 pesos and up. With the advent of Airbnb, it has changed the strict use of hostels. However, in some places hostels still offer a good value and vibe. Candelaria Hostel in Valladolid and Tribu Hostel on Holbox Island are two of the best hostels and if visiting these areas definitely check them out.

How to score some deals hotels on a backpacker budget

Sometimes you just want your own room instead of a dorm. Hotels in some smaller towns or less prime tourist destinations can be inexpensive. Sometimes as cheap as $15 USD a night. One place to look is the search box below. This combines searches on multiple sites to find the best deals. We use it and like it, so we wanted to share this tip here.

Do you have any questions or comments about backpacking in the Yucatan Peninsula? Let us know below in the comment section.

Backpacking Yucatan
Here you can see the clear waters of Cenote Cristal.

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  1. This guide is so helpful! I am getting ready to take off for a 5 month trip which includes backpacking around the Yucatan. I cannot wait to discover some of these places.

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