If you’ve ever visited Mexico before there’s a good chance you went home proclaiming something like “there just wasn’t enough time!”
With direct flights into the country from many of the major airports in the US and Canada, it couldn’t be easier to pop over the border for a visit. But, in a country so large and so varied as Mexico, short trips only leave you wanting more!
The solution? Backpacking Mexico!
There are so, so many reasons that Mexico is an appealing backpacking destination. For one thing, it offers a huge range of environments and experiences that are bound to please any type of traveler. Additionally, Mexico’s robust network of buses and airlines make transportation relatively easy (and affordable) for travelers to coordinate.
If you’re curious to dig into Mexican culture, learn about the history, experience some of the incredible events (Cervantino anyone?!), or explore the impressive geography, backpacking is a great way to do it. Mexico’s generous 180-day tourist visa (for travelers from the US and Canada) offers you sufficient time to immerse yourself in the country’s culture. It also gives you plenty of time to build your Spanish language skills, if you’re interested in doing so!
In this guide, I’ve done my best to cover everything you might possibly need to know to start planning your backpacking trip. I’ve also included plenty of money-saving tips for those traveling on a budget. If I’ve left out anything that you’re dying to know, let me know in the comments!
- 1 MEXICO TRAVEL BUDGET
- 2 WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO GO TO MEXICO?
- 3 HOW LONG DO YOU NEED TO TRAVEL MEXICO?
- 4 SUGGESTED MEXICO BACKPACKING ROUTES
- 5 FOOD TO TRY IN MEXICO
- 6 WHAT TO PACK FOR MEXICO
- 7 TRANSPORTATION IN MEXICO
- 8 MEXICO ACCOMMODATION
- 9 THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE TRAVELING TO MEXICO
- 10 IS IT SAFE TO TRAVEL IN MEXICO?
- 11 DO I NEED TRAVEL INSURANCE FOR MEXICO?
MEXICO TRAVEL BUDGET
The fact that Mexico has comparatively lower prices than the US and Canada makes it an attractive destination for budget travelers from north of the border. If your goal is to travel Mexico on a budget, plan to spend at least $30 USD per day, per person. If you can afford closer to $50 or $60 per day you can have a very comfortable trip.
A bed in a hostel dorm typically costs anywhere from $10 – $20 USD. Expect to pay closer to the high end if you’re in a more touristic city. Meanwhile, you’ll be able to find Airbnbs and basic (but still very comfortable) hotel rooms for $25 USD and up.
Meals will cost anywhere from $2 to $10 USD in the majority of restaurants, though, there are always opportunities to go higher if you’re looking to splurge. To save money on food (and experience some of Mexico’s best offerings), try to eat from street vendors or in the many markets. In these settings, you’ll be able to eat well for $2 or $3 USD per meal.
Money-Saving Tips for Mexico
If you’re a budget traveler looking to extend your travel dollar as far as possible, here are a few of my best tips for doing so:
Avoid touristic areas
Tulum and Playa del Carmen are enticing, but prices are much higher in these towns than almost anywhere else in Mexico. It’s still possible to manage on a $30 per day budget in this area, but it will be much harder than in other parts of Mexico.
Shop at the mercados
Most Mexican towns have a central market where you can buy fresh produce or prepared food for very reasonable prices. As a bonus, the markets are an attraction in themselves and they are often host to some of the most delicious food you’ll find in Mexico.
Eat comida corrida
This phrase basically translates to “fast food,” but in Mexico that doesn’t mean greasy burgers and fries. Instead, it refers to a home-cooked meal, usually from a small restaurant. Comida corrida is essentially a lunch special where you pay a for a set menu which includes a starter, an entree, a dessert, and a beverage for a super reasonable price (usually $3 – $5 USD). Many restaurants also offer packages (called paquetes) for breakfast, which usually include a glass of fresh-squeezed juice and a coffee along with your entree.
Opt for accommodation with breakfast included
It’s fairly common for accommodations in Mexico to offer continental breakfasts within the price of the room. This is especially true in hostels. Sometimes these breakfasts are better than others, so you’ll have to dig into TripAdvisor reviews to determine which ones you can count on.
Stay put for longer
Slow travel is a great way to save money. For one thing, you’ll save on transportation costs if you aren’t moving cities every 3 days. On top of that, if you opt to stay in Airbnbs you can often receive a discounted rate when you stay for a week or longer. Opt for an accommodation with a kitchen and you’ll be able to save even more by cooking for yourself.
Know which ATMs to avoid
This might sound a bit tedious, but if you’re going to be in Mexico for many months, the ATM fees can start to add up. Most ATMs charge between $1-$2 USD to take money out, but some that charge close to $5. This may not sound like much at first, but that money goes a long way in Mexico! In my experience, Santander, CI Banco, and Banamex and BanBajio to have the lowest fees. Meanwhile, Bancomer and HSBC charge outrageous prices.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO GO TO MEXICO?
Honestly, the best time to go to Mexico is whenever you can! But since that’s not really a helpful answer, hear me out.
Mexico is huge and has all kinds of different regions featuring varying climates. Chances are, whenever you are ready to go there will be a location that has great weather.
With that said, Mexico’s rainy season lasts from June through October. Each region experiences this season differently, but generally speaking, the weather is hot and humid during these months. There are usually intense rain showers every day, often just for a couple of hours in the afternoon. In some cities, this rain is easy to tolerate by planning indoor activities for the afternoon. In others the streets become flooded, making transportation slow or impossible.
Mexico is a popular winter destination. While Canada and the US are suffering snow and rain, Mexico’s coasts experience warm weather and little rain during these months. However, if you’re planning a trip to Mexico’s highlands, the winter months can be quite cold. Considering the lack of indoor heating in Mexico, these temperatures might be tough to tolerate.
For those backpacking Mexico on a budget, expect to find higher prices during the winter months, particularly in popular (warm) tourist destinations. That’s not to say that budget travelers should avoid Mexico all together at this time of year, but if you’re planning to visit places like Puerto Vallarta or Tulum, I’d recommend researching your accommodation carefully and booking ahead.
Ultimately, Mexico is magical at any time of year, but make sure you manage your own expectations. As you go about planning your trip, look up the weather and climate data for whichever region of Mexico you intend to visit.
HOW LONG DO YOU NEED TO TRAVEL MEXICO?
The natural answer to this question is “As long as possible.” Though, in reality, you can have an amazing trip to Mexico whether you spend three days, three weeks, or three months.
If you can swing it, I’d recommend taking full advantage of Mexico’s 180-day tourist visa and planning a lengthy backpacking trip through the country. Not only will this provide you with sufficient time to get a feel for Mexico’s culture, but you’ll also have enough time to build up your Spanish skills (even if you’re starting from nothing).
Six months is a long trip, but Mexico is a huge country and I’m pretty sure that you’ll find yourself wishing you had another six months to continue exploring!
SUGGESTED MEXICO BACKPACKING ROUTES
With such a huge network of buses and a collection of affordable airlines, backpacking through Mexico is quite easy, especially if you’re willing to tolerate long travel days. You’ll likely want to adjust the following routes to fit your time constraints and interests, but here are a few ideas to help kickstart your planning.
Instead of breaking these into itineraries (I’ll save that for separate posts) I’ve highlighted some of the main draws of each location. As you begin to research the spots that most appeal to you, you’ll be better able to determine how many days you’ll need in each place.
West Coast Mexico Backpacking Route
With its dreamy beaches, incredible scenery, delicious food, and comfortable climate, it’s no wonder that Mexico’s west coast is such a big draw for visitors. Sadly, some of the states in this region are listed under a “Do Not Travel” advisory from the US State Department, but there are many safe areas with plenty of incredible places to see, particularly within Jalisco and Nayarit.
The best entry points for this region are Guadalajara or Puerto Vallarta, as both offer international airports with direct flights from cities across the US.
- Puerto Vallarta – This well-known tourism hub is popular for good reason. The stunning scenery, delicious food, lively nightlife, and the plethora of outdoorsy outings make Puerto Vallarta an appealing destination for all types of travelers.
- Sayulita – Sayulita is a bohemian beach town just an hour north of Puerto Vallarta. It used to be a quiet weekend escape for Vallarta locals, but now it’s known and loved by travelers from around the world for its chill boho vibes. The secret may be out, but Sayulita is still a gem. Whether you want to surf, sunbathe, or browse the boutiques, there are plenty of things to do in Sayulita.
Central Mexico Backpacking Route
This region features Mexico’s central valley and highlands. This region is known for silver mining and many of the major cities were home to Mexico’s wealthiest businessmen and powerful political figures. Along this route, you’ll encounter impressive colonial architecture, incredible scenery, and have the opportunity to learn about Mexico’s history. The Mexican Independence movement began in the state of Guanajuato, which makes this route the perfect backdrop for expanding your knowledge of the monumental event.
If you appreciate hidden gems and off-the-beaten-path travel, you’ll find some of that in this region. While cities like Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende are highly popular destinations, many of the others on the list are often overlooked by tourists.
You can easily begin your visit to this part of the country from either Guadalajara or Mexico City.
- Guadalajara – It’s well worth spending a few days getting to know Mexico’s second largest city and the birthplace of tequila and mariachi. There is no shortage of things to do in Guadalajara. Visit the Mercado San Juan del Dios, the largest indoor market in Latin America. If you have time, venture out to nearby pueblos magicos, Tequila and Tlaquepaque, the latter of which is known for its pottery production. As for the former… well, you go ahead and hazard a guess.
- Guanajuato – The charming and artistic city of Guanajuato can’t be missed, in my opinion. Wander the meandering callejones (alleyways), or join a callejoneada, a tour providing musical history lesson of Guanajuato’s callejones! Shop for souvenirs in Mercado Hidalgo, learn about the Mexican independence movement in the Alhondiga de Granaditas or visit the offbeat Mummy Museum.
- Zacatecas – Venture off the beaten path to see this stunning colonial mining town (and UNESCO World Heritage Site), which is often overlooked by visitors. Visit a former silver mine to learn about Zacatecas’ role in Mexican history and take a cable car to the top of El Cerro de la Bufa to enjoy the view. Later, dine in the Quinta Real Hotel, which was built within the ruins of an 1800s era bull ring!
- San Luis Potosi – This affluent and picturesque city isn’t frequented by many tourists, but it ought to be. Be sure to explore the beautiful historic center which happens to have been an important part of the Silver Road (another UNESCO World Heritage Site). The Silver Road was the route silver traveled from the mines to Mexican ports where it was then shipped to Spain. Other highlights include strolling in Parque Tangamanga and visiting art and history museums.
- San Miguel de Allende – Commonly referred to as “the most beautiful city in Mexico,” San Miguel has become hugely popular among US expats. While you’re sure to spot many fellow countrymen and hear English widely spoken, this artsy pueblo mágico still has plenty of authentic Mexican charm. Visit the Parroquia de San Miguel Archangel, an incredible neo-gothic cathedral which happens to be the most photographed in Mexico. Shop for souvenirs in the countless artisan boutiques throughout the city, and take the time to photograph your stunning surroundings along the way.
- Santiago de Querétaro – Generally referred to as simply “Querétaro,” the historic center of this growing city is home to yet another UNESCO World Heritage site! To make the most of your time here, plan to wander the pretty streets, sample tasty food, browse local museums, and visit the neighboring wine region!
Budget Travel Tip: San Miguel de Allende is a much pricier city than the others on this list. That’s not to say that you can’t find affordable options for food and lodging there, but it won’t be the norm. If you’re traveling on a really tight budget I’d recommend limiting your time in San Miguel and concentrating more on other locations.
Southern Mexico Backpacking Route
This route really focuses on Oaxaca, but a stop in Puebla will help break up the journey and give you the chance to explore one of Mexico’s more underrated cities (in my opinion, anyway). If you happen to be a foodie, a wannabe beach-bum, or both, this is definitely the route for you! In Mexico City, Puebla and Oaxaca, you’ll have the opportunity to sample some of Mexico’s most incredible culinary offerings.
Once you reach Oaxaca’s coast, you can bounce around from one beach town to the next until you decide out which one suits you best. When you find the perfect spot you’re bound to find yourself returning year after year.
- Mexico City – There are too many wonderful things about Mexico City to count. The plethora of fascinating museums, the impressionable architecture (especially the Palacio de Bellas Artes) and the mouth-watering food will all work together to blow your mind. Whatever amount of time you spend here won’t be enough, but plan at least 4 days to enjoy the highlights.
- Puebla – This picturesque city is known as the home of both mole poblano and Talavera pottery, which you’ll be dying to stuff your suitcase with. Spend a couple of days browsing the markets, feasting on delicious food and enjoying the beautiful, pastel streets. The nearby pueblo mágico of Cholula is well worth a day trip to tour the world’s largest pyramid and visit one of Mexico’s most stunning churches which is conveniently situated atop it.
- Oaxaca – There are so many amazing things to do in Oaxaca that I’m pretty sure it’s impossible not fall in love with this city. Oaxaca is beautiful and filled with all kinds of treasures including art, architecture, and, most importantly, food. Take a food tour or just wander the streets, following your nose toward tasty treats. The markets are a great place to try some of Oaxaca’s best offerings, or buy the ingredients to attempt cooking them on your own. There’s also no shortage of fascinating day trips, including the calcified waterfall, Hierve el Agua, and the archaeological site of Monte Alban.
- Huatulco – The most built up of Oaxaca’s beach towns, Huatulco is home to a number of resorts. But with that said, it’s hardly Cancún. Huatulco is renowned for its many bays and coves, which can be explored on a boat charter. Huatulco is the perfect destination for those looking for nature-oriented adventures during the day and comfortable place to relax in the evening.
- Mazunte – If you’re looking for a small, laid-back beach town, you’ll love Mazunte. It may be small, but there’s plenty to do. Spend your days swimming at Playa Rinconcito and your evenings watching the sunset at Punta Cometa. If you’re feeling adventurous, book a snorkeling tour to spot sea turtles and colorful fish!
- Zipolite – Just up the coast from Mazunte sits another peaceful beach community: Zipolite. This beach is a favorite destination for surfers. While Zipolite can be a great swimming destination, often the surf is too powerful for even experienced swimmers to feel comfortable. In any case, the beach is gorgeous. It’s worth noting, Zipolite is officially a nudist beach, so you will see some visitors… in full.
- Puerto Escondido – Mexico’s top surfing destination is just as alluring for those who have no interest in paddling out. While the surf is sometimes too heavy to permit swimming, there’s plenty of fun to be had lounging in the beach bars, enjoying the scenery and feasting on seafood. If you do love surfing, you’ll be in heaven.
Travel Tip: Because the towns along Oaxaca’s coast are quite small, ATMs are available in short supply. While there are ATMs to be found, I’ve heard that they do occasionally run out of cash. Since most businesses are cash oriented in this region, I recommend carrying all the cash you’ll need between Huatulco and Puerto Escondido.
Yucatán Peninsula Route
This route will help you make the most of a visit to the Yucatán peninsula by concentrating on the states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo. Quintana Roo is famous for the Riviera Maya, a stretch of coast between Cancún and Tulum which is home to incredible beaches and some of the world’s best diving and snorkeling reefs.
Though touristy, the natural beauty of this area cannot be denied, and that is what makes it worth a visit, even if you recoil at the idea of all-inclusive resorts. Meanwhile, Yucatán State is a wonderful place to learn about Maya culture and visit one of Mexico’s most beautiful colonial cities, Merida.
- Cancun – If you’re willing to spend the money, Cancun’s hotel zone features some amazing properties and even better beaches. It’s a great spot to relax, get your bearings, and adjust to the climate before venturing out to explore other cities.
- Isla Mujeres – Just 15 minutes off the coast of Cancun, Isla Mujeres offers a more laid-back vibe. Lounge on the beach, snorkel with tropical fish, and visit MUSA, the underwater art museum!
- Isla Holbox – Part of the Yum Balam Natural Reserve, this laidback little island is the perfect place to get closer to nature. Main attractions include birdwatching, swimming with whale sharks and spotting flamingos and crocodiles. Of course, you’ll want to save plenty of time for sipping tropical drinks from a hammock!
- Merida – The capital city of the Yucatán state and home of some of the most delicious Mexican cuisine (don’t leave without trying cochinita pibíl). Mérida is beautifully preserved in time. The famous “Paseo Montejo” displays majestic French-inspired mansions built in the 19th Century, and the city center is home to the Cathedral of Mérida, one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas.
- Valladolid – The fact that it’s located just 10 minutes from Chichén Itzá gives you the perfect excuse to stop off in Valladolid for a night. This quaint town is still something of a hidden gem on the Yucatán peninsula and offers a nice break from the more touristy locations on this list. Spend some time wandering the scenic city center and try to visit a couple of the nearby cenotes as well!
- Tulum – This bohemian village attracts travelers from all over the world who come to participate in the party scene, relax in chic boutique hotels, and enjoy some of the Riviera Maya’s most impressive beaches. For those more drawn to nature, Tulum is the perfect launch point for exploring the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
- Bacalar – Known as the “Maldives of Mexico,” Bacalar is rapidly gaining popularity with visitors who wish to spend their days exploring the famous Lagoon of 7 Colors. This enormous freshwater lagoon is a great place for swimming, kayaking, and even sailing!
- Playa del Carmen – Playa del Carmen offers a nice middle ground between the touristy resorts of Cancun and the peace and tranquility of a beach town while still providing every commodity you could hope for. Located halfway between Tulum and Cancun, it also makes the perfect base for exploring the rest of the Riviera Maya.
- Cozumel – Home to the famous Palancar Reef, Cozumel is a must-visit destination for diving fanatics. Despite being a cruise ship port, the island has a really delightful, laid back vibe. If you have the budget, rent a car and spend a few days hopping around between the different beaches (El Cielo in Punta Sur Eco Park is my fave) and visit the San Gervasio archeological site!
- Puerto Morelos – For now, Puerto Morelos is still a small fisherman’s village with the perk of sitting between two of the most beautiful beach destinations in the world: Cancun and Tulum. As the starting point of the “Cenote Route”, Puerto Morelos is ideal for those who want to spend some quiet time exploring all of the different water features to be found in this region while surrounded by the most pristine beaches and coral reefs that the Mexican Caribbean has to offer.
FOOD TO TRY IN MEXICO
There’s no question that one of the best things about Mexico is the food. While you might be surprised to find that it’s tough to find Tex-Mex favorites like Burritos and Nachos, there is a whole world of more traditional Mexican fare that you are about to fall in love with.
Just to ensure you don’t miss anything, I wanted to highlight a few dishes you MUST try before you leave Mexico.
- Tacos al Pastor – If you visit Mexico without ordering “dos de pastor” you didn’t really visit Mexico. Pastor tacos are made from pork, roasted on what’s called a trompo (basically a vertical rotisserie). The meat is coated with a chili marinade (not spicy) and roasted with a pineapple wedge sitting on top of the trompo, which gives the meat a slightly sweet flavor. Pastor tacos are usually topped with sliced pineapple, cilantro, and onion. I like to add a little salsa verde to give them a kick.
- Mole Poblano – This tasty dish originated in te city of Puebla, but is commonly found throughout Mexico. It is a rich, chocolate sauce with chili accents that is often served over chicken alongside rice. It may sound like a strange concept, but a good mole will blow your mind. I suggest trying it multiple times in different locations before coming to a verdict on whether you like it or not (it took me years to develop a taste for it).
- Pozole – Pozole is a hearty, traditional soup consisting of pork and hominy within broth, which may be green, red, or white, depending on which type of tomatoes are used. Typically pozole is served with a plate of garnishes, including totopos (fried strips of tortilla), lime wedges, diced onion, radishes, lettuce, cilantro, oregano, and chili flakes. Some people (me!) like to drizzle a bit of crema (heavy cream) over top as well. Pozole is super filling and incredibly delicious. Don’t pass up the chance to try it at least once. Some restaurants even offer vegan or vegetarian renditions of the dish.
- Antojitos – These maize-based appetizers are some of Mexico’s yummiest treats. Though most antojitos consist of the same base ingredients (beans, salsa, and tortillas) they are all shockingly different. Favorite antojitos vary by region, and what is called by one name in a certain region may be called something different in a neighboring state, but I figure that’s part of the adventure. Classic antojitos include empanadas, which are deep-fried tortillas folded over and filled with cheese, and picadas, a thick tortilla fried in oil, smothered with beans or salsa and topped with queso fresco. Tostadas are another popular antojito, consisting of a fried tortilla topped with beans, veggies, and sometimes chicken or cheese.
- Tequila – Even if you think you don’t like Tequila, it’s probably because you haven’t tried the good stuff. A good Tequila doesn’t smell or taste offensive like the garbage they sell north of the border. If you’re curious to try it, Herradura Reposado, 7 Leguas Blanco, and Don Julio 70 are a few that I enjoy. Whatever you do, avoid El Jimador and Hornitos.
- Sopa Azteca – Also known as Tortilla Soup, Sopa Azteca is a tomato-based soup with a delightful medley of chiles mixed in making it both creamy and smokey. It is typically garnished with cheese, fried tortilla strips, avocado, and guajillo chiles.
Budget Travel Tip: Antojitos are some of Mexico’s tastiest and most affordable foods. If you’re in need of something quick and delicious, look for an antojito restaurant. Such places usually have names like “Antojitos” followed by someone’s name (say, “Antojitos Sandra”), which really takes the guesswork out of what they might serve. Depending on where you are, an antojito will cost between 12 and 20 pesos, so no more than $1.25 USD.
WHAT TO PACK FOR MEXICO
Naturally, this will be different for everyone but I still thought I’d share some of the things I use frequently and recommend you include on your Mexico packing list. I pretty much never leave home without the following items:
- Travel Towel – I like traveling with a microfiber towel because it’s super compact and quick to dry. It makes a great beach towel, and I’ve even used it as a pillow when it’s folded into its little pouch!
- Water Bottle – Tap water in Mexico isn’t safe to drink, but buying bottled water while you travel is terrible for the environment and an annoying extra expense. This Lifestraw bottle can filter tap water, rendering it safe to drink, thus saving you from buying water each day. Alternatively, take a regular bottle and top it up at your hostel or Airbnb each day.
- Shopping Bag – A lightweight, reusable grocery bag comes in handy ALL THE TIME. It’s a great way to save on plastic bags at the grocery store (and much sturdier), it’s handy for filling with fruit and veggies at the local mercados, and it makes an awesome beach bag. It folds up into a tiny pouch which you can stick in your purse or backpack so you have it on hand in case you need it. I’ve had mine for 5 years and it gets regular use– definitely money well spent!
What to Wear in Mexico
Climate is a really important consideration to make when packing for Mexico. It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that the country is warm and sunny at all times, but there are many areas where this is not the case. It is a huge country with diverse geography, so it’s important to research the climate for the destination you’re visiting to ensure you pack properly. Generally speaking, plan to pack layers.
Apart from staying warm, here are a few items I think will make your trip more pleasant:
- Comfortable walking shoes – Many of Mexico’s cities and towns consist of cobblestone streets which can be a bit of a chore to navigate in dainty shoes, so it’s wise to opt for footwear that offers sufficient grip and support. I find my Vans slip-ons sufficient in most cases, but you’ll have a better idea of what’s best for you.
- Anti-theft scarf – This scarf is both functional and cute. I always advocate carrying a scarf or pashmina on your Mexico travels as (in many regions) the temperature can fluctuate a lot between day and night. This particular scarf is a stylish way to add some extra warmth to your outfit and stash your valuables in an inconspicuous spot.
- Nothing too revealing – Unless you’re in a beach destination, avoid packing clothing that is overly revealing — even if it’s super hot out. Mexico is predominantly Catholic and most women dress relatively conservatively. To blend in, it’s best to skip clothes that show a lot of skin.
- Anti-theft Purse – This is mostly essential for big cities, but I figure it’s better to be safe than sorry. It’s such a hassle to replace cards and documents when traveling that I don’t see the point in tempting fate. This anti-theft purse features a slash-proof strap and RFID protection. It also has a locking zipper to fend off pickpockets. Alternatively, I’d recommend a small crossbody with a zipper because they’re tougher for someone to reach into without you noticing.
TRANSPORTATION IN MEXICO
When it comes to transportation in Mexico, there are all kinds of different options for getting from point A to B. The transportation method (or the combination thereof) that you end up choosing will depending largely on how much time and/or money you are willing to spend.
Let’s take a look at the main transportation options…
Long Distance Travel
There is a huge quantity of bus lines which run routes throughout all of Mexico. I know the thought of bus travel may conjure up memories of icky Greyhound buses and the seedy bus depots you’ll often find north of the border (at least, this has been my experience), but hear me out. Believe it or not, bus travel in Mexico can actually be pretty luxurious.
Most bus lines in Mexico offer coaches of different class levels ranging from basic to first class, then deluxe and super deluxe. Basic buses offer the lowest fares but often stop very frequently and may or may not offer bathrooms onboard. If you’re really looking to extend your travel budget, or you’re only traveling a short distance, these buses may appeal to you. However, my standard recommendation is to opt for one of the levels of first class buses available.
First class buses feature air conditioning, onboard bathrooms, television screens, and comfortable, cushioned seats which recline so you can sleep. Some of them even offer WiFi onboard, seatback tv screens, and include snacks and beverages with the price of your ticket. On top of the added comfort, first-class buses are usually direct which means they are safer (no chance for anyone sketchy to board during your journey) and they will get you to your destination faster.
Note: Many bus lines don’t accept foreign credit cards, which makes it difficult to book tickets online. Don’t worry though, most passengers purchase tickets shortly before departure, so as long as you arrive a little early to the bus station you don’t need to worry about the bus filling up.
Mexico has quite a few national airlines which range widely when it comes to luxury and price. On the bottom end, you’ll find budget airlines like VivaAerobus or Volaris while mid to upper-range airlines include Interjet and AeroMexico. SkyScanner is a helpful tool for preparing prices across different airlines.
If you’re traveling Mexico on a budget, it may be tempting to overlook air travel as an “expensive” option, but that would be a mistake. When you’re traveling longer distances, many times a flight on a provider like VivaAerobus comes in around the same price (or even lower) than you would pay on a bus line, especially if you can avoid paying any luggage fees.
A rental car is a really attractive option for exploring Mexico, as it enables you complete freedom and the ability to access some harder to reach places. That said, there are a few things to consider before you commit to renting a car.
Firstly, when it comes to road tripping in Mexico the best highways are the toll roads, or, cuotas, as they are called in Spanish. These roads are not only in better repair than other highways but are also typically safer. The only downside to road tripping Mexico along these cuotas is that the fees can add up pretty fast. If you’re traveling with someone else to split the cost with it may not be as substantial, but for solo travelers on a budget these fees may add too much to your daily expenses.
The second thing you’ll need to think about before renting a car is how much it will actually cost. A quick search for rental cars in Mexico will yield results that come in around $1 per day. If this rate seems too good to be true it’s because it is. Most car rental insurance companies will require that you purchase extra insurance for an additional $20 per day. While some travelers claim they were able to avoid this requirement by proving their credit card includes car rental liability insurance, I have never succeeded in doing so. I will continue trying to get to the bottom of this requirement to determine whether or not it is real.
You’ll also want to keep in mind is whether you’re comfortable driving in Mexico. While the traffic laws are pretty similar to the US and Canada, what actually occurs on the roads is not the same. That said, some regions are easier to drive in than others. For instance, I have no worries about renting a car to cruise the Riviera Maya but I would never rent a car to navigate Mexico City. If you’re a confident driver I’m sure you’ll get the hang of driving in Mexico in no time, but if you tend to be a nervous driver you’ll likely feel overwhelmed by the experience.
All in all, rental cars aren’t necessarily the most budget-friendly transportation option, but they can be a great way to visit harder to reach places. Discover Car Hire is my favorite tool for tracking down the most affordable rental car rates.
Local Transportation in Mexico
Your local transportation options will vary from city to city but I figured it’s still worth giving you a bit of an overview so you know what to expect.
Taxis are never in short supply in Mexico, which is a good thing because it makes it easy to get anywhere you need to go. Taxis are generally a pretty economical way to get around but they tend to have higher rates in more touristic cities. Taxis are usually metered or have set rates based on distance. If you wish to visit an area outside of city limits it’s usually possible to negotiate a fixed or hourly rate with a taxi driver to have them take you. This can be a great alternative to renting a car!
Uber isn’t available in all cities in Mexico, but it is popular in Mexico City. The rates tend to be equal to those of a taxi but Uber drivers usually have newer, more comfortable cars. The fact that you don’t need to have any cash to pay an Uber driver is another perk.
For those traveling Mexico on a budget, local buses are certainly one of the most economical ways to get around. Every city has local buses which serve the different neighborhoods and suburbs. The main stops along each route are written on the windshield, making it relatively easy to determine which bus to take.
Colectivos are another form of local bus (actually, usually they are small vans) but instead of servicing only one city they serve a few nearby towns. If you’re looking for a quick and economical way to get between one town and another, a colectivo may be a good option. These vehicles don’t tend to have much room to stow luggage, so pack light!
When it comes to choosing accommodation in Mexico, your most common options are the standard choices: hostels, hotels, and Airbnb.
I tend to lean toward Airbnb because it often gives you access to well-located, residential neighborhoods where hotels may be scarce. Plus, I love the benefit of a host who shares their local insight into the area I’m visiting. Airbnb is pretty popular throughout Mexico, though, some cities (namely, the more popular tourist destinations) have better selections than others. In most cities, attractive AirBnbs start around $30 USD per night, but in less popular destinations you may be able to find good options for less.
Hostels in Mexico range dramatically in price, from $12 to $25 USD per night, depending on their location. Make sure to dig into TripAdvisor reviews before committing to anything, as they can vary widely in terms of atmosphere. Also pay special attention to the size of the dorm rooms, as some of them contain a daunting number of beds!
If you feel that your hostel days are behind you, don’t worry. There are tons of perfectly nice hotels in Mexico that rent rooms for really reasonable prices, even as low as $30 per night. While these accommodations may fall more on the basic side, I’ve had really good luck with them in terms of cleanliness and friendly staff. Of course, if budget is no object, there are plenty of amazing and unique hotels to be found, whether boutique or from popular chains.
Budget Travel Tip: Most businesses advertise on Booking.com, which I like to use to check rates and reviews, but I try to book directly with the hotel whenever possible. Lots of accommodations in Mexico don’t have websites, instead choosing to rely on Facebook pages or their Booking.com profile, so don’t be alarmed if you can’t find one.
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE TRAVELING TO MEXICO
Ultimately, I believe Mexico is really welcoming, traveler-friendly country, even if you have no Spanish skills and are unfamiliar with the culture. That said, there are a few things that can make your adjustment to Mexico go a little smoother. Here are those things:
- Keep Your FMM Card – When you go through customs in Mexico (aduana in Spanish), a portion of your immigration card will be handed back to you with a stamp on it. You’ll need to surrender this document when you leave Mexico at the end of your trip, so keep it safe! If you happen to lose it, it can be replaced for a fee of $533 MXN (about $28 USD).
- Always Have Cash & Coins Handy – Mexico is largely cash-based, so it’s good to always have some on reserve. Coins come in handy for tipping people and paying for public restrooms, and paper bills are great for anything else. You may find it difficult to get change for larger bills, so try to carry small bills.
- Carry Tissues – Restrooms in Mexico aren’t always well-equipped so it’s best to make a habit of carrying a packet of kleenex and a small bottle of hand sanitizer, just in case. It’s usually easy to pick up these essentials in Oxxo or Fasti convenience stores.
- Practice Your Spanish – While backpacking Mexico without speaking any Spanish is totally do-able, you’ll have a much better, less confusing time if you know some basics. I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with some common Spanish phrases for travel to help make your day to day interactions with locals easier.
I share even more Mexico travel tips in this post, so make sure you check it out before your trip!
Visa Requirements for Mexico
Citizens and permanent residents of the US and Canada don’t require a Visa to visit Mexico. US and Canadian travelers to Mexican can enter the country for up to 180 days as a tourist. That said, a customs agent in Mexico is not required to give you a full 180 days on your tourist card (though, in my experience they usually do). If you enter Mexico and receive permission for less than 180 days you can visit a local immigration office and apply to have your tourist visa extended.
Click here for more detailed information on visas for visiting Mexico.
Vaccinations for Mexico
There are no vaccines required for entry into Mexico but it’s still worth speaking to your doctor prior to traveling to make sure you’re protected. The CDC offers a great overview of recommended vaccinations for traveling to Mexico.
Vaccinations you may wish to consider are Typhoid and Hepatitis A as they can both be transmitted through contaminated water. Unfortunately, the water in Mexico isn’t always treated and could carry dangerous bacteria which will make you sick.
There is a risk of Malaria in some areas of Mexico as well. If you’re planning to visit the jungle speak to your doctor about your best options for protecting yourself against Malaria.
IS IT SAFE TO TRAVEL IN MEXICO?
Generally speaking, Mexico is a safe destination for backpackers, though, there are problems here with narcotrafficking that shouldn’t be ignored. Fortunately, drug-related violence is usually limited to specific areas and doesn’t tend to be targeted at travelers.
It’s important to do your research prior to your trip so you know which areas of Mexico are currently most affected by these types of crimes. The US Department of State updates their website frequently with the latest travel warnings. If you’re interested in traveling to one of the Level 3 or Level 4 areas, first ask around to see if it’s currently safe.
If you’re wondering who/where to ask for up-to-date safety info in Mexico here are some suggestions:
- The Mexico Backpacker/Traveler Facebook group is full of helpful travelers and residents of Mexico (myself included!). There’s a good chance that you’ll be able to find someone in there who has recently visited wherever it is that you’re hoping to go.
- Instagram. If you’re curious about a specific destination, try searching the geotag on Instagram and reaching out to someone who has recently posted from there. This is a great way to connect with locals who can give you great insights into their hometown.
- Email me. I’ll always be upfront about my experiences in Mexico. If I haven’t been to the location you’re asking about, chances are I’ll be able to connect you with someone who has.
Overall, Mexico is a wonderful destination for travelers because the people here are SO nice, and more often than not, they’ll look out for you. Of course, it’s always important to use common sense, especially as a solo traveler, to ensure you don’t fall victim to petty crime.
DO I NEED TRAVEL INSURANCE FOR MEXICO?
I would highly recommend travel insurance for Mexico, especially for longer trips. It would be such a shame for something like missing luggage or an injury to derail your trip. World Nomads offers insurance policies that cover everything from lost luggage, travel accidents, stolen passports and beyond. You’re sure to be able to find a policy that fits your needs.
I really hope you found this post helpful. Obviously there are tons of other destinations within Mexico that I didn’t even touch on in this post. My main goal, after all, is to inspire you to plan a trip and offer insight into some of the logistics. If there’s anything I’ve left out, or that you’d like more information on, leave a comment below or send me an email and I’ll do my best to help!
So, are you keen to plan a backpacking trip through Mexico?? Which region would most like to visit?
If you’re planning a trip to Mexico, don’t forget to enroll in my FREE 7-day Mexico travel e-course. I’ll teach you everything you need to know to travel Mexico safely AND confidently. What are you waiting for?!