One and Only Guide to Backpacking Mexico – Land of Mariachi and Tequila

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Mexico is an easy to travel country and there is a lot of natural beauty and typical old colonial towns  you just have to visit.

Instead of offering you a pre-chewed Mexico Itinerary, we’ll give you a nice view of the most important places to include in your Mexico itinerary and we’ll explain how easy it is to go backpacking in Mexico.

Slow travelers tend to spend ages in Mexico before moving on to the next Central American country, usually Guatemala.

Backpacking Mexico is a lot of fun and for us it was the first country we ever hit when we went backpacking for the first time.

You probably get hooked on backpacking  and you probably never want to return to a different style of travel after backpacking in Mexico

Mexico is the largest country in Central America (Ok, yes, it’s officially a part of North America, but let’s break some rules here and call it Central America!)

Because of the size of Mexico, travelers tend to break up the country in different parts and they decide to explore one part of the country each time. If time is on your side and you can spare a few months for backpacking, feel free to combine everything in one big trip!

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The four parts we named below will each serve as a 2 or 3 weeks Mexico itinerary. We advise to go way slower and take a minimum of 3 weeks per part!

Riviera Maya and Yucatan Mexico

The Riviera Maya and Yucatan region of Mexico are very popular with backpackers as well as all-inclusive travelers.

Pristine beaches and hot weather are the perfect combination for every Mexico holiday traveler. When traveling through Mexico, don’t skip this part, because once you walk away from the tourist hubs, you’ll find plenty of beauty and backpacker vibe here.

These are the best places to visit in Riviera Maya and Yucatan

Cancun

This is probably where your plane will drop you back to the earth and it’s a good place to get over your jet lag and adapt to the temperatures and atmosphere.

Go to the Zona Hoteleria to sunbathe at the best beaches and visit places like Hooters, Hard Rock Cafe and other typical touristic places.

For the backpacker vibe and local cuisine, we recommend going to Parque de las Palapas to try the best street food in Cancun. We are huge fans of the Quesadillas Tierra del Sol at the corner of the square.

For souvenir shopping, go to the Mercado 23, but be prepared to be seen as a walking wallet and vendors will try to get you into their store.

Mezcal Hostel Cancun
Image Courtesy Hostelword

Mezcal Hostel Cancun

  • Swimming pool
  • Breakfast and dinner included

Tulum

Tulum is a small beach town you’ll see in every Mexico itinerary and it’s there for a reason.

The Zona Archeologica is a must-visit in the region and the reason we loved it so much is because you can swim in the Caribbean at the ruins. While floating in the hot water, you can gaze at these ancient ruins and feel like a god!

Tulum beaches are very popular and we can obviously see why: they’re gorgeous!

We also had a chance to visit the Sian Ka’an Natural reserve and spend a night in a fisherman’s house.

For lodging in Tulum, you can choose to stay in town or at the beach. The beach is obviously more expensive, but it might be worth the splurge to sleep in a beach cabana for a few nights.

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Amorcito Corazon Tulum
Image Courtesy by Hostelword

Amorcito Corazon Tulum

  • Swimming pool
  • Breakfast included

Playa Del Carmen

Playa Del Carmen is the party hub in the Riviera Maya and a lot of backpackers skip the town for this reason.

We ended up living in Playa Del Carmen for a few months and the town actually grew on us. We loved our days at the beach and even got a tattoo here.

Read about how we tried to find LGBT nightlife in Playa Del Carmen.

Even if you don’t spend the night, you have to pass through the town in order to go to Cozumel Island and that’s one you shouldn’t skip!

Yak Hostel Playa del Carmen
Image Courtesy by Hostelworld

Yak Hostel Playa Del Carmen

  • Swimming pool
  • Fun activities
  • Breakfast included

Cozumel

Cozumel Island is a must visit tropical island in Mexico. The island is magical, but in my humble opinion: you have to rent a car in order to see the entire island. You can drive all the way around and watch the most beautiful sights in a few days.

Amigos hostel Cozumel
Image Courtesy to Hostelword

Amigos Hostel Cozumel

  • Swimming Pool
  • Backpacker Vibe
Cozumel Backpacking in Mexico
Cozumel

Valladolid and Chichen Itza

Valladolid is the gateway to Chichen Itza Mayan ruins and even though you can visit the ruins in a day trip from Merida, we’d recommend to stay a few days in Valladolid in order to experience the slow way of living in the inland of Mexico.

Get away from the touristic hype of the coastal towns and experience the real Mexico under the blazing sun.

We stayed a few days and visited the Chichen Itza ruins in one day. There is also a cool cenote in Valladolid centre where people were swimming. We thought it looked a little creepy, but it’s definitely an option to swim in the Zaci Cenote.

Candelaria Hostel Valladolid
Image Courtesy by Hostelword

Candelaria Hostel Valladolid

  • Free Breakfast
  • Nice garden
  • Backpacker vibe
Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza

Merida

Merida is a large town in the Yucatan mainland. It’s usually pretty hot and we recommend staying there for a few days.

Even if you don’t feel like going out and do some sightseeing, just swimming in the hostel pool and having a few drinks in the evening did the trick for us.

Merida has a lot of culture and history, so there’s a little bit of everything for every traveler.

We recommend Nomadas Hostel. They organize cooking classes, salsa classes and they often have music performances at night.

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Take a day trip from Merida to Celestun to watch some wildlife or to Progreso to stay at the beach.

Nomadas hostel Merida
Image Courtesy by Hostelword

Nomadas Hostel Merida

  • Free Breakfast
  • Cool activities
  • Swimming Pool

Campeche

Campeche is a pretty town at the Gulf of Mexico and the town itself is a nice view. At the time we were visiting, there wasn’t much life and the town looked deserted, but I can imagine this place when there is an event or if you’re visiting this place with a group of travelers.

Viatger Inn Campeche
Image Courtesy by Hostelworld

Viatger Inn Hostel

  • Free Breakfast
  • Airco

Cenotes in Quintana Roo

The Quintana Roo area is known for its many cenotes which are worth a visit. It can be difficult to choose one and we had a hard time selecting which cenote to visit.

Then a local couple shared their favourite cenote with us and we had an awesome time there.

Recommended cenote in Quintana Roo: Jardin Del Eden Cenote.

Rio Lagartos

Rio Lagartos can be done in a day trip and it’s a great place to watch wildlife and nature.

In Rio Lagartos, you can book a boat trip to take you into the Rio Lagartos Bioreserve and you can go and visit the Las Coloradas Pink lakes.

Chiapas

The Chiapas area feels a little bit like Guatemala and this region is probably the cheapest to travel to, which makes it a perfect area to include into your Mexico itinerary.

Most people who are backpacking Mexico stay a little longer in Chiapas and Central Mexico because of the price tag and budget reasons.

But that shouldn’t be the only reason. Chiapas is an interesting and beautiful part of Mexico!

Palenque

Palenque is an obvious must visit in Chiapas.

It is home to some of the most important Mayan ruins in the world and most of the actual buildings have not been excavated yet.

The ruins you can visit at this time are probably the most important ones, but for the explorers among us, there’s also an option to do a jungle ruins tour and even a mushroom tour.

It’s all up to you! We actually wrote a full guide on how to travel to the town and visit the ruins.

Kin Balam Palenque
Image Courtesy by Hostelworld

Kin Balam Cabanas Palenque

  • Swimming Pool
  • Near El Panchan

San Cristobal Las Casas

San Cristobal Las Casas is one of our favourite places in the world. We’ve stayed there multiple times and Lobke is still telling me that we’ll be moving there one day!

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From San Cristobal, a lot of excursions can be done and since accommodation is so cheap in this beautiful colonial town, you could stay here for weeks without getting bored.

San Cristobal is a town you’re not allowed to miss and you’ll probably thank us for telling you that later!

In San Cristobal Las Casas, you can join a free walking tour, visit Sumidero Canyon, visit the waterfalls if Misol Ha and Aguas Azul and find some of the best food ever! Go and try the ‘Caldo Tlalpeno’ in El Caldero!

Posada del Abuelito San Cristobal
Image Courtesy by Hostelworld

Posada del Abuelito

  • Awesome free breakfast
  • Backpacker Vibe

Misol Ha Waterfall

Misol Ha Waterfall is located en route between Palenque and San Cristobal Las Casas, so you can either visit on your trip between the two cities or do a day trip from San Cristobal.

When choosing the first option, beware of possible travel scams like the unexpected road block we encountered during this trip.

The Misol Ha waterfall is stunning and it’s one you can walk behind… a little something I think is very cool, don’t ask me why.

Because of the walking behind the waterfall, I was very excited to visit Misol Ha and it didn’t disappoint.

You should remember that these falls are best visited after a few days of rain, because in dry season, there could be a lack of water which makes your visit less memorable.

Misol Ha Chiapas Mexico
Lobke behind the waterfall at Misol Ha
Misol Ha Waterfall
Misol Ha Waterfall

Agua Azul Waterfall

The Agua Azul waterfalls are an impressive series of waterfalls in Chiapas Mexico.

The waterfalls can’t be missed if you’re in the area and you should consider taking a full day in order to see and enjoy the falls.

We were in bad luck when visiting Aguas Azul since we encountered an unexpected roadblock during our tour so we had to cut our visit short… a great reason to return, right!

Sumidero Canyon

The Sumidero Canyon is a natural highlight of Mexico as it is one of the largest canyons in Mexico and there is some wildlife to be seen.

I must admit that we were a little disappointed to see so much trash floating in the canyon. The canyon is located much lower than the surrounding area and towns, so when there’s a heavy rainfall, the trash from the towns collects into the canyon.

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We did see a few boats picking up trash and rotten trees that had fallen into the water but the situation was still pretty bad.

How natural beauty in Mexico can still be a little disappointing because of some piles of trash…

The canyon itself was very impressive after all!

Sumidero Canyon
Sumidero Canyon

Central and North Mexico Backpacking

Some people say that Central Mexico is the real Mexico. I would confirm nor deny it, but Central Mexico has a lot to offer.

There are just too many natural wonders to sum up and a lot of them can be visited on your own or with a tour.

The cities and towns of Central Mexico are interesting and frequently visited by Mexico backpackers.

Mazatlan

Mazatlan is a beach town at the Pacific side of Mexico which is very popular with people who are backpacking there.

You can find many resorts in this town, but also a cool waterside walkway and a historic city center.

Hike up to the second highest lighthouse in the world, if you’re physically up for it, to get the best views over town. Or go watch the daredevil cliff divers who dive off rock formations.

In Mazatlan, you can also do boat trips to go fishing or to watch wildlife.

Funky Monkey Mazatlan
Image Courtesy Hostelworld

Funky Monkey Mazatlan

  • Swimming Pool
  • Rooftop Terrace

Oaxaca

Oaxaca can be called one of the prettiest cities in Mexico, with its colonial and colourful city center.

Most of the vibrant city life is centered around the Zocalo or square.

Oaxaca is well known for its famous celebration of Dia de los Muertos. G Adventures even has a dedicated tour where you get a behind-the-scenes insight in this festival.

From Oaxaca, you can do a day trip to Hierve El Agua, a limestone rock formation that looks like a waterfall. Or you can visit the archeological site of Monte Alban, not too far from Oaxaca.

Explore the best things to do in Oaxaca.

Casa Angel Oaxaca
Image Courtesy by Hostelworld

Casa Angel Oaxaca

  • Daily activities
  • Rooftop Terrace

Puerto Escondido

Puerto Escondido is a city of extreme water sports and if you’re not into doing these yourself, it’s a magnificent place to watch others do it.

This beach town is famous for the possibility to do a variety of adrenaline inducing activities like surfing, diving, skydiving, hiking, and probably a lot more! Puerto Escondido waves are massive and this is not the place for a beginner surfer to go and try out the waves!

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Pacific Buddha Puerto Escondido-Mexico
Image Courtesy by Hostelworld

Pacific Buddha Hostel

  • Close to the beach
  • Small hostel
  • Relaxed

Mexico City

The capital of Mexico is frequently visited by backpackers.

Some say it’s a very dangerous destination, but this is not entirely true. Mexico City is an interesting capital with a lot of cultural heritage.

It is pretty huge and there are probably some areas where you shouldn’t go, but the historic centre and the zocalo are quite touristy and fun to be in.

The city square or zocalo of Mexico City is the largest town square in Latin America and the subway system is very extended and extremely busy.

If you’re a museum lover, you’ll be able to fill your time in Mexico City, because the city is home to the largest amount of museums in the world.

As you can read, there’s a lot to see and do, so you can easily spend 3 days in Mexico City. This is the type of capital you either love or hate! One thing we can say for sure is that there are tons of Instagram worthy spots in Mexico City!

Hostel Home Mexico City
Image Courtesy by Hostelworld

Hostel Home

  • Best neighborhood: Roma
  • Free Breakfast

San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende is a cute colonial town with some awesome architecture and typical Mexican buildings.

It’s a backpackers favourite and many travelers stay around much longer than initially planned.

If you plan on taking Spanish language classes in Mexico, you might want to consider doing it here, since there are a lot of Spanish learning options in this town and taking classes here is a great opportunity to spend more time in this relaxed town.

We recommend starting out with a free walking tour in San Miguel de Allende to get to know the city!

Hostal Punto 79-S.Miguel Allende
Image Courtesy by Hostelworld

Hostal Punto 79

  • Great location
  • Backpacker vibe

Baja California Sur

Baja California Sur is actually an entire state instead of a town and it’s immensely popular with US tourists and backpackers.

The area is located on a peninsula in the north of Mexico and it has a lot to offer for travelers.

Check out the arched rock formations at Cabo San Lucas and the town of Loreto to see if you’d like to travel all the way north to visit these awesome destinations.

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Mayan Monkey Cabo San Lucas
Image Courtesy by Hostelworld

Mayan Monkey Hostel

  • Swimming Pool and bar
  • Free Breakfast

Natural beauty of central and north Mexico

Central Mexico has a lot to offer for the backpacker and there is a lot of natural beauty to be found. Check our post about the natural sights in Mexico.

Many of these natural wonders can be visited independent and are perfect day trips during your time in Mexico.

I would definitely recommend visiting Las Posas and the Tamul waterfall

Mexico backpacking budget

The cost of backpacking in Mexico varies on where you’re going. Some areas are very expensive while others are cheap as dirt.

If you’re traveling to Mexico on a budget, we recommend staying in hostels. Dorm beds are usually the cheapest way to go, but in places like Playa Del Carmen, even dorm beds are expensive and usually, the quality isn’t very high.

When you travel into Chiapas, a nice private room is often cheaper than a dorm bed in Yucatan.

As a budget traveler, it pays off to stay much longer in Chiapas and keep your Riviera Maya beach holiday short and fun.

If you continue traveling further into Central America, you’ll end up finding beaches that are as scenic as the Riviera Maya beaches, way more budget-friendly in terms of lodging and they will probably have a higher backpacker appeal than the touristy beaches in Quintana Roo.

Regions

Yucatan and Riviera Maya = Very Expensive

Chiapas = Very cheap

Central and North Mexico = Cheap inland, Expensive at the Pacific coast

Accommodation Budget

Dorm beds in hostels = the cheapest

Private room in a hostel = moderate

Hotels = moderate depending on your choice

Airbnb Reasonable = cheap depending on your choice

Transportation - Getting around in Mexico

Getting around Mexico is easy and comfortable. For long distances, you can choose the ADO buses, which are comfortable and more expensive.

Or choose other first class and second class buses that are a little cheaper. For short distances, shared collectivos or tuc-tuc are a great budget way of getting around when backpacking in Central America and Mexico.

Check our full guide about transportation in Mexico!

Holidays and festivals in Mexico

In Mexico, there’s always a reason to celebrate and in the time we were there, we’ve seen dozens of celebrations. It seems like some cities have some sort of celebration every week and each time there’s a different occasion for it.

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These are the most important festivities in Mexico!

Day of the dead - Dia de los muertos

In Mexico, the day of the dead is a tradition and it’s a real festival. The ‘Dia de los Muertos’ is celebrated all over Mexico and other Central American countries, but some cities are more notorious for their celebrations, like Oaxaca.

Carnival

Carnival is very serious in Mexico and some cities host the biggest parties that are taking up all week. The most famous carnival festival in Mexico is held each year in Veracruz.

Religious Festivals

Mexico is a religious country and chances are good that you’ll run into an unexpected festival in one place or another.

We ran into a huge parade in San Cristobal las Casas, which was held in order to chase away bad ghosts. People were dressing up and dancing in the streets of the town.

If you take your time to travel slowly and soak up the culture, you’re very likely to get a chance to see one of these exceptional parades.

Festivals in Mexico
Festival in San Cristobal de Las Casas

Safety in Mexico

Mexico is as safe as any other country and we only recommend you to use common sense.

When backpacking Mexico, as well as going on an all-inclusive holiday, people sometimes behave different than at home and they lose inhibition. They take more risks and that’s when travel can become dangerous.

Just use your brains and follow your intuition to stay safe in any country in the world.

Remember that in some regions of Mexico, people might struggle with poverty and tourist flashing their expensive possessions can be frustrating.

Don’t act like a rich kid, respect the people around you and be polite. Here are a few tips for safety:

  • Be more careful at night. Being with a few other travelers is safer than being alone.
  • If you get too drunk, you’re more vulnerable
  • Don’t flash expensive stuff
  • Carry credit card and large amounts of money in a money belt
  • Don’t do drugs 🙂
  • If an alley looks dodgy, walk around
  • Beware of these common travel scams

Drinks and Food in Mexico

Mexico is an awesome destination to indulge on local cuisine and beverages. We tried a few and loved them all!

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These are a few typical drinks and dishes you should try in Mexico!

Mezcal and tequila

Mezcal and tequila are both Mexican alcoholic beverage made of the agave plant. Everywhere in Mexico mezcal and tequila are produced and distilled and you can buy a lot of different types and brands of these alcoholic beverages.

Mezcal, as well as tequila, can be up to 55% of alcohol and it can get you drunk pretty quick. All I know about the production process is that every tequila is mezcal, but not every mezcal is tequila!

Read this guide on the difference between both drinks on Foodfuntravel.com.

Caldo

Caldos are basically soups, but Mexicans definitely know how to make them just perfect!

I’m a big fan of the ‘caldo Tlalpeno’, which usually is served with a lot of extra stuff to add to your soup.

In our favourite place in San Cristobal Las Casas: El Caldero, guest always get some nachos and a delicious mole with their caldo.

Cochinita Pibil

Cochinita Pibil is a must eat in Merida or Chiapas. This dish is a combination of rice with slow-roasted pork and a delicious salsa.

The meat has been marinated in citrus juice, which makes it look a little orange.

Cochinita Pibil
Cochinita Pibil

Mole Poblano

Mole Poblano isn’t really a dish. It’s actually a salsa and it is super good, depending on how well it has been prepared.

Mole Poblano has a lot of ingredients, it even has chocolate and it’s named the national dish of Mexico.

This brown sauce can be served with your rice, meat, or you can eat it with nachos.

Again, go to the El Caldero in San Cristobal to get the best salsa and caldo! Yes we really loved this place because the food is so good!

Street food

Gorditas, quesadillas, tacos, tostadas, sopes, … Too much to sum up! Mexico is known for a variety of street food, all of which looked similar to us.

Tacos are very common and you’re most likely to try these very often. They’re corn wrappings, filled with anything you like: chicken, beef, veggies, seafood, mashed potatoes, … and spices of course. After being prepared, you can add salsa’s, spicy onions and other stuff.

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Quesadillas look similar to tacos, but usually contain a filling with cheese.

Tostadas are made of a crispy round tortilla as a base, with the stuff they would usually put inside just dropped on top of the crispy base.

Check this extended guide to Mexican street food!

Tamales

Tamales are corn wrappings filled with a variety of different options like chicken, beef or vegetables. The tamales are usually cooked and then kept warm with steam.

Churros

Churros are more like candy treats. They’re pastries of fried dough, finished with a lot of sugar. Usually people dip them in sugar or dulce de leche. If you’re getting churros, better get them when they’re freshly fried. They don’t taste very well if they’ve been sitting around for a long time as they sometimes do.

Mexico for LGBT travelers

Most of Mexico is perfectly safe for LGBT travelers and we didn’t encounter any problems.

We do advise LGBT travelers in Mexico to keep public display of affection to a minimum or keep it to your private bedroom.

We’ve seen LGBT Mexicans holding hands in the streets of many different cities, so you should be fine. Just follow your intuition!

Most large cities in Mexico are LGBT-friendly and you shouldn’t worry about traveling through Mexico as an LGBT traveler.

Read are guide about LGBT rights and laws in Mexico and check our article about finding lesbian nightlife in Playa Del Carmen.

Crossing borders Mexico to Central America

Crossing the border from Mexico into Central America can be done either to Belize or Guatemala.

Both border crossings are easy and straightforward.

Read our post about the border crossing Mexico to Guatemala in La Mesilla.

Backpacking Mexico

We hope to have provided you with enough information in order for successful backpacking in Mexico!

If there is anything missing from this guide, please let us know so we can add it as soon as possible!

Happy travels and don’t hesitate to let us know how your backpacking trip to Mexico has been.

We want to know what your favourite food was, and which destinations you liked best!

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Backpacking Mexico
Backpacking Mexico
Backpacking Mexico

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This is the most comprehensive backpacking Mexico guide I have ever come across! Great info! I have never backpacked around Mexico, but we would love to do so as traveling family. And when we do, we’ll be using this article to guide us. Thanks for sharing!

Wow, such a detailed post! I have been to Mexico once and visited Tulum and Merida and places around it. It was an unforgettable experience and I wish I could’ve seen more of the country.

Mexio is such a fantastic country! And like you said, you need to take your time for each part. We thought of doing Mid, South and West Mexico in two months. We never reached the Southern and Western parts haha. But we definitely want to go back.

This is such a comprehensive post. I haven’t been to Mexico, but I was planning to spend Christmas and New Year somewhere new this year, I had been thinking somewhere in SE Asia, but your post has me thinking that Mexico is the way to go. I would only have about 3 weeks, what would you say is the best place to go for such a short time?

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