Tulum is one of the best places to travel in Mexico

Backpacking Mexico: Top experiences


  1. Climbing Aztec and Mayan pyramids at Teotihuacán and Cobá
  2. Lying on the world’s softest sand, with a view of a castle overlooking the sea, in Tulum
  3. Spotting sharks, octopi, and eagle rays on a night dive off the coast of Cozumel
  4. Learning Mexican history through art
  5. Dancing in the streets on a Sunday in Mérida


Jump to the list of posts from Mexico, or read on for my comprehensive Mexico travel guide.


Full disclosure: Mexico is easily my favorite country to travel in, and one of the best backpacker destinations in the world. So forgive me if this guide is a bit excessive. I’m just so excited to help you plan an amazing trip here and fall in love with it as much as I have.

Mexico itinerary ideas


If you only have 1 to 3 weeks in Mexico, pick one region rather than trying to see the whole country.
Head to Guadalajara if you want to see mariachis


Let’s get this out of the way right now — Mexico is huge. There is no way you could cover the whole country in one short trip. I’ve traveled in Mexico for a total of nearly six weeks and still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.


If only have 1-3 weeks in Mexico, you’re better off sticking to one region and fully exploring. The Yucatan is particularly well-suited to this. Fly into Cancun, spend a few days on the beaches of Playa del Carmen and Tulum, and dive off the coast of Cozumel. Spend a night in Valladolid to get an early start to visit Chichen Itza the next day. Then, head to Merida to experience one of Mexico’s most charming cities. If you have time before your flight home, tack on a couple days in Campeche.


Alternatively, explore the colonial cities and ancient ruins of central Mexico. Start in Mexico City and head north to your pick of Guadalajara, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, and/or Morelia. Add a couple days in Patzcuaro to see Purepecha culture up close. Or go the other direction and visit Puebla and Oaxaca. You could tack on a few days at the beach to either option, in Puerto Vallarta or Puerto Escondido, respectively.


A more off-the-beaten-path backpacking Mexico itinerary would take you through Chiapas. San Cristobal de las Casas is the ideal starting point. Make your way to the ruins of Palenque — said to be Mexico’s most beautiful Mayan site. Along the way, you can stop in small remote towns and stunning national parks.


With more time, link these itineraries together for a longer Mexico backpacking route. Even better, start in northern Mexico with a train trip through Copper Canyon before making your way all through the center of the country and to the Yucatan. Two months is the minimum for this trip if you’re traveling overland.


Mexico weather and when to visit Mexico


The best time to visit Mexico is December through April.
Steer clear of the Caribbean coast during hurricane season (Sept. – Nov.)


The weather in Mexico is warm year-round in most places. Rain is the biggest damper on travel.


High season is December through April. You’ll have day after day of sunny skies and pleasant temperatures. The only downsides? The Caribbean coast can actually be a bit chilly, with highs only reaching the upper 70’s in January. Plus, tourist crowds are high as Americans and Canadians flee their cold winters.


July and August are very hot, and often see flash thunderstorms. But overall, these months are decent for traveling, especially in the mountains of central Mexico, where the altitude keeps temperatures down.


If you’re traveling on the coasts, you’re better off avoiding backpacking Mexico in September through November. It’s hurricane season, which can be downright dangerous if storms pop up, but will be at least unpleasant, with daily deluges. Inland areas see an increase in rain as well, but it’s not enough to disrupt travel.


Language in Mexico


You'll often need to use Spanish to communicate when traveling through Mexico
Even in touristy Yucatan, some Spanish comes in handy when traveling to off-the-beaten-path towns.


The main language spoken in Mexico is Spanish. There are small variations in regional dialects, but Mexican Spanish is pretty easy to understand — locals don’t use much slang when interacting with tourists.


In addition to Spanish, many Mexicans speak an indigenous language as their first language. This is especially common in Chiapas. Unless you visit really remote areas — in which case you should take a local guide — you will be able to communicate in Spanish with everyone, even if it’s their second language.


If you only visit resort-y and touristy areas in Mexico, you may be able to get by with only English. In the Yucatan, if you are white-presenting, most people who work in the tourism industry will assume you speak English. But if you want to visit local restaurants, chat with people you meet outside the tourism industry, or even navigate the bus system, you should learn at least some basic travel Spanish before your trip. Locals immediately warm up when you make even the weakest attempt to speak with them in Spanish.


Mexican Spanish is fairly formal. You should always default to using the “usted” form until you’re specifically told it’s okay to use “tu.” Generally folks will forgive you if you’re an elementary Spanish speaker and you mess up, but incorrectly addressing someone as “tu” can be seen as a pretty serious sign of disrespect in some environments.


Budget for backpacking Mexico


Teotihuacan is one of the best places to travel in Mexico
Visiting ruins like Teotihuacan during your trip can easily fit into your Mexico budget.


Backpacking Mexico is doable on a tight budget. Activities like visiting ruins and hanging out on the beach won’t break the bank, and food is affordable. You could keep your day-to-day Mexico budget under $20 a day.


The biggest barrier to budget travel in Mexico is transportation. Buses are stupidly expensive — often you’ll pay less to fly between cities that are further apart. If you’re on a long trip, travel slowly. On short trips, pick one region to fully explore rather than trying to cover the entire country in one go.


Sample Costs


Private room in a hostel or simple guesthouse: $25-30 USD

Taco-stand dinner: 60 pesos

Meal at a mid-range restaurant: 120 pesos 

Cup of coffee: 40 pesos

Cocktail at a beach bar: 100 pesos

Museum or historical site admission: 70-100 pesos. Chichen Itza is $15 USD.

Bus from Cancun to Merida: 365 pesos

Taxi from Tulum Centro to the beach: 150 pesos

Two-tank dive on Cozumel: $80 (plus $15+ for equipment rental if you need it)


Mexico Visa Requirements


Add Guadalajara -- with its spectacular murals -- to your list of places to go in Mexico
Be sure to hold onto your tourist card when traveling through Mexico.


Most Europeans and North Americans can go backpacking Mexico without a visa. This extends to most people who have a valid visa to the U.S. as well (so if you’re Indian and traveling in the U.S., even if you need a visa to visit Mexico directly, you can enter visa-free with your U.S. visa). Indians, Russians, Chinese, and citizens of many other Asian and African countries need visas.


U.S. citizens need a passport to fly into Mexico, but can cross by land with just a passport card.


All visitors to Mexico receive a tourist card when they arrive. This technically should give you 180 days in Mexico, but many border agents will put less time on it unless you specifically request the full 180 days. Do not lose your tourist card — you will have to turn it over to border agents in order to board your flight home or cross a land border. It costs 500 pesos to replace a lost tourist permit.


You can’t extend your tourist permit beyond 180 days.


Accommodation in Mexico


Mexico hostels are clean, cheap and safe.
The common area at Mama’s Home — the best hostel in Tulum


Mexico has good hostels and even better small guesthouses. At a minimum, you’ll get a charming, clean, and safe place to stay. Extra perks include free activities like cooking classes and salsa dancing lessons. Family-run places are very welcoming, and often the owners will give you advice on the best off-the-beaten-path restaurants or how to participate in a local festival.


Prices are higher than in Central America, but very reasonable for what you get. A dorm bed will run you $8-$12 a night. Private rooms are in the $25 range.


The beaches along the Mayan Riviera are more expensive. You can still find under-$10 dorms, but private rooms go up to $30+ per person. Most places operate seasonal pricing schemes, so you’ll pay through the nose around Christmas and during the winter months.


Food in Mexico


Often the best places to eat in Mexico are regional specialty restaurants.
Chilaquiles are a typical breakfast food.


Mexico is one of the best foodie countries in the world. The diversity of cuisine on offer can’t be beat. And it’s affordable — rarely will a meal run you more than $7 ($5 is more typical), and tacos come in under $1 each.


Mexican food is very regional, so try to eat at specialty restaurants when you can as you’re traveling through Mexico. Some of the most famed regional food includes:


  • Sonora: Carne asada is king here. Expect flour-tortilla tacos.
  • Jalisco: Birria is a slow-roasted goat stew. Birriera Tres Esquinos in Guadalajara is a great place to try it.
  • Michoacan: The lowlands of this state are home of some of Mexico’s spiciest food.
  • Puebla: Mole poblano harks back to its namesake town.
  • Oaxaca: Another mole capital (different from Poblano), plus mezcal.
  • Yucatan: Tomato-and-pumpkin-seed-based sauces, sambuches, and more.
  • All along the coasts: Fish tacos (there are minor regional variations).


Most travelers backpacking Mexico see little reason to eat at international restaurants. But if you’re really craving a pizza, you can always find it. Playa del Carmen has an especially large number of Italian restaurants. These places tend to cater more to romantically-inclined couples than grungy backpackers, so prices on international food trend higher ($10+ for a meal).


Drinks in Mexico


Tequila is one of the most popular drinks in Mexico.
The tequila distilleries near Guadalajara are among the most popular places to go in Mexico.


Mexico is one of the world’s largest coffee producers. The center of coffee production is in Chiapas, but wherever you go while backpacking Mexico, you’ll never have to search long to find a good cup of joe. Independent coffee shops are everywhere. You can also find reliably good coffee, WiFi and air-conditioning at the Colombian chain Juan Valdez in most central Mexican cities.


Mexico is of course famous for its tequila and mescal. Tequila is mostly produced in Jalisco, while mescal hails from Oaxaca. Distillery tours are a popular activity in both places, or visit virtually any bar in the country to sample the good stuff.


For a more unique local booze experience, try pulque — the pre-Colombian cousin of tequila. It’s experiencing a revival of sorts, as hipsters in Mexico City set up “pulquerias” where you can taste different varieties, similar to craft breweries.


On the coasts and in major tourist areas, many bars cater to tourists. Most cities have hipster bars, dive bars, cocktail bars, wine bars, and any other form of drinking establishment you can imagine, all of which are friendly to travelers. However, keep an eye out and potentially steer clear of traditional cantinas. They’re overwhelmingly frequented by older men and can be pretty unfriendly to outsiders, especially solo women.


If you choose to imbibe while backpacking Mexico, you should also be aware that drink spiking is a problem. Last year the State Department even went so far as to issue travel advisories around it after a handful of tourist deaths at resorts. This is nothing to be paranoid about, but it is a good reminder to not drink excessively, even if you’re at an all-inclusive resort. Keep an eye on your beverages once they’re open.


Activities you can do while backpacking Mexico


Outdoor adventures range from diving to swimming in cenotes to hiking in Mexico
The cenotes (access points to underground rivers) around the Yucatan Peninsula make great day trips.


In terms of variety, affordability, and accessibility, Mexico offers the best range of activities of any of the world’s great backpacker destinations. Your only limit is how much time you have.


At the top of most travelers’ places to go in Mexico are the beaches — which is no surprise, considering how amazing they are. You can live out your Caribbean dreams in the Yucatan for less than a quarter of what it would cost you on an island. The Pacific coast is no less beautiful, but the water is colder. Surfing is popular on the Pacific coast, while the diving off the Caribbean coast is incredible.


The Mayan and Aztec ruins are another big draw when you’re traveling through Mexico. Don’t let the crowds of tourists keep you away from Chichen Itza — it’s completely unlike any other Mayan site in the world. Palenque is another popular site in the state of Chiapas. Teotihuacán and Tenochitlán are the most spectacular ruins in central Mexico. The former is an hour outside Mexico City; the latter is right in the city center!


Don’t overlook Mexico’s cities. Mexico City, Guadalajara, San Cristobal de las Casas, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, Merida and Morelia are among the best places to go in Mexico. Mexico City has museums covering every topic you could imagine — from the huge Anthropology Museum to a museum on toys. Even better, there are priceless works of art on display for free in many government buildings. Diego Rivera’s famous ‘The History of Mexico’ is inside the Palacio Nacional. You can learn the history of the Mayan struggle through artwork in the governor’s office in Mérida.


Mexico also offers incredible hiking (Copper Canyon is popular), colorful festivals like Day of the Dead, and wildlife watching, including whale watching and seeing the monarch butterfly migration.


In short, you’ll never be bored here.


Transportation in Mexico


Buses are the best way to travel through Mexico -- but you may occasionally be stuck with a horse and cart for local transport!
In tiny Izamal, locals still use horses and carriages to get around.


It’s very easy to get around when backpacking Mexico. The only problem is it’s crazy-expensive. Don’t be surprised if transportation ends up being the biggest chunk of your Mexico budget.


The bus system goes everywhere, runs efficiently, and is comfortable. It’s the best way to travel in Mexico. Buy your tickets at the stations (a couple days early for popular routes) or at Oxxo stores. Major routes will have many departures each day. Daytime travel is safer. If you must travel overnight, take extra precautions to avoid your passport being stolen.


Whenever they’re available, choose first-class buses for traveling through Mexico. Second-class buses are much slower and not much cheaper, which is reason enough to stick with first-class. But they’re also more prone to highway robbery. If no first-class bus is available, ask around about the safety of the route. In many parts of Mexico, like the Yucatan, you’re totally fine on second-class buses. But other routes may be problematic, especially in Michoacan and northern Mexico.


If you’re covering long distances, check flight prices. Mexico has several cheap airlines (Interjet being the most popular) that will take you across the country for cheaper than buses.


Some people backpacking Mexico rent cars, especially in the Yucatan. This is a convenient option if you want to visit remote ruins sites (like around Campeche). But it’s also expensive — the tolls on the cuota roads add up — and the police are known for harassing gringo drivers.


Within cities, taxis and local buses are the main ways to get around. Mexico City also has an elaborate, convenient, and cheap subway system. Local buses are not too hard to figure out, especially if you speak Spanish. Renting a bicycle can also be a great option, especially in the flat Yucatan.


Safety when backpacking Mexico


Traveling in Mexico is generally safe, as long as you avoid certain cartel hotspots.
Michoacan has a reputation for being dangerous. But several of its cities — including Patzcuaro, home of the Purepechas — are safe.


Most people won’t bat an eyelash if you tell them you’re going to Cancun. But mention anywhere in northern or central Mexico and you’ll get a litany of warnings and horror stories.


Fact: Backpacking Mexico is generally very safe. In four trips, the worst thing that’s happened to me was a little food poisoning.


The vast majority of violence in Mexico happens among people who know each other in areas far from tourist destinations. Cartels infighting, police fighting cartels, cartels fighting each other, and so on.


In areas with heavy cartel presence, it’s always possible you could be caught in the crossfire. I personally wouldn’t try to traverse Northern Mexico, because many roads are still sketchy. I also would be careful in remote parts of Michoacan — the cartel presence was obvious on the back roads between Guadalajara and Pátzcuaro. The U.S. State Dept.’s travel site has good state-by-state information.


Taxi robbery is no longer the concern it once was, but it’s still worth calling cabs from trustworthy sources instead of hailing them on the street. This goes double in Mexico City, which is otherwise very safe for visitors.


Mexico travel advice for women alone


Safety is generally not a problem when you're backpacking Mexico.
Years ago, bus robberies were common on the route to Chichen Itza. Now, it’s perfectly safe.


Backpacking Mexico presents solo women with no issues whatsoever. In fact, Mexico is on my list of best backpacker destinations for solo female travel.


Skeezy tourists are the biggest problem you’ll encounter, especially at beach bars. If you want a night out, try to find travel buddies to go with.


Mexican women don’t exactly dress conservatively, but they don’t wear shorts. In more conservative areas, cover your knees and shoulders.


It’s very easy to meet other travelers while backpacking through Mexico. Most hostels have group activities in the evenings to help you get to know the other guests.


Ready to get started? Check out the posts from Mexico.


Like this Mexico travel guide? Pin it!


Backpacking Mexico on a budget is the adventure of a lifetime. See Chichen Itza and Teotihuacan. Relax on amazing beaches. Eat delicious spicy food. Make it happen with this Mexico travel guide #mexico #travel