Backpacking the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico is an incredible experience. From white sand beaches and swimming with whale sharks to the ruins of Chichen Itsa and watching Mayan ball games, there is a lot for a backpacker to do in one trip.
While backpacking the Yucatan peninsula offers an out-of-this-world travel experience, it’s worth noting that it costs more to travel here than it would to backpack in Vietnam, Thailand or other Asian countries.
The Yucatan is also much more expensive than central Mexico. But backpacking the Yucatan can be done on a budget and it’s well worth it if you ask us.
Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula Backpacking Route Map
Where you choose to travel Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula will depend on how much time you have and what activities you’re most interested in. We’re slow travellers and we spent two months travelling in the Yucatan. However, we think you could backpack the Yucatan in 3-4 weeks.
Where to Travel when Backpacking the Yucatan Peninsula
For the majority of backpackers, Cancun will be the best place to start a backpacking trip around the Yucatan Peninsula. We landed in Cancun and spent two nights in Cancun downtown at an Airbnb with a local family and took a day-trip to the laid-back Playa Morellos deciding that Cancun beach didn’t really sound like our scene.
What you’ve probably already heard about Cancun is its reputation for having very touristy beaches and hotel complexes. Many backpackers choose to go straight through to Playa del Carmen or Tulum for this reason. We’ve heard mixed reviews from other travellers and Mexicans about Cancun. Some people say the beaches are out of this world; others say it’s a noisy tourist trap.
Where to stay: Airbnb
If you’re backpacking in the Yucatan, then don’t miss Isla Holbox. This little island to the north-east of Cancun is unique. It’s inhabited by Italian immigrants who have brought delicious Spanish tortillas, focaccias and good coffee to the dusty island.
The town itself is very arty thanks to the International Public Art Festival (IPAF) street art project. But don’t expect the same stunning beaches here as you will find elsewhere in the Yucatan. Holbox’s beaches are small sandy spits, though the sunsets are glorious.
The real draw of Isla Holbox though is to swim with whale sharks. There are only two islands from which you can swim with whale sharks in the Yucatan – the very touristy Isla Mujeres, and the lesser-known Isla Holbox. Definitely try to arrive in Isla Holbox during whale shark season from May to September.
Where to stay: Tribu Hostel
Often called one of the most authentically Mexican towns in the Yucatan, Valladolid certainly has small town charm. Valladolid is a great place for backpackers because it’s the perfect stopping off-point to see Chichen Itsa and swim in the Yucatan’s famous cenotes.
Great things about the town include the constant stream of events hosted in the main square including dancing, the San Bernardino Convent and cenote Zaci.
Where to stay: Hostel Candelaria
Every backpacker in the Yucatan will want to see Chichen Itsa. The ruins are an easy day-trip from Valladolid. We’d recommend taking the first bus to Chichen Itsa so that you arrive at the ruins as soon as they open.
When we arrived at 7am, the temperature was still mild and there was hardly anyone else there. We bought a ticket and walked straight through the entrance into the ruins. When we were leaving the ruins at 11am, the entrance was crowded with people and the ticket line was long. Not to mention the sun was overhead and it was uncomfortably hot to be walking around Chichen Itsa where there is very little shade.
Merida is a real cultural gem in the Yucatan. Like Valladolid, there is a very traditional Mexican feel to the place and a huge amount of cultural activities going on. While we were staying in the city, was saw a reenactment of a traditional Mayan ball game, went to local markets including the organic slow food market, ate at a good number of vegetarian restaurants in Merida and visited historical sites in the city. If you’re backpacking the Yucatan and love cultural places, then Merida is definitely worth the journey.
The town of Izamal is one of Mexico’s pueblo magicos (magic towns) and makes for a good day-trip from Merida. Izamal is a yellow-painted town with pretty houses and a convent. You can climb to the top of the nearby hill to see some small ruins and get a view of the town.
Playa del Carmen
The next town down the coast from Cancun is Playa del Carmen. It’s a very metropolitan place where you’ll find Starbucks, H&M and all the high street brands you’re used to seeing at home. The beach is beautiful, though busy the closer to town you are.
Our favourite part of Playa del Carmen was right at the end of the tourist strip. Keep walking away from the centre of town and soon shops disappear, the cafes get a little more hipster, there’s some cool street art, the beach gets quieter and you can find a few local eateries.
Where to stay: Airbnb
Tulum has two distinct areas: the town and the beach. They’re about a 15-minute cycle ride from one another down a well-maintained cycle path. Backpackers tend to stay in town where there’s a more hippie vibe and the accommodation is cheaper. There are also more options for places to eat and drink.
The beach area of Tulum is a strip of resort hotels, though when we were there they seemed mostly empty. The white sand beaches are some of the best beaches in Mexico. If you take a left when cycling from town towards the beach, you’ll eventually reach Tulum ruins which sit on a cliffside above the beach.
Where to stay: Mama’s Hostel
Backpackers in the Yucatan come to Bacalar to hang out at the lakeside and swim in the incredible aquamarnine waters. Aside from spending the day swimming around or taking a boat trip out on the lake, there’s little else to do in Bacalar. The town is small though there are a few nice cafes and a delicious taco stand.
Just half an hour drive from Bacalar is the city of Chetumal. We actually stayed in Chetumal and visited Bacalar for the day for fear that the wifi connection in Bacalar wouldn’t be good enough for our work.
We stayed with the most accommodating and welcoming Airbnb host we’ve ever met. It was the adventures and talks we had with her that were really the highlight of our time in Chetumal, as the city itself is quite unremarkable aside from an interesting museum.
Chetumal is a very convenient stopping point close to the border if you’re planning to finish backpacking the Yucatan and cross into Belize. We took a speedboat across from Chetumal to Caye Caulker island, but taking the bus would be a cheaper option.
Where to stay: Airbnb
How to Travel Around the Yucatan
Travelling around Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula is relatively easy. You can travel by bus between all of the towns listed in this Yucatan travel route. There are bus stations in every town and buses run frequently. The buses are reasonably priced for backpackers, but the longer the journey, the more expensive the bus (as you might expect). Private buses and shuttles are more expensive than in Central American countries like Guatemala, so public transport is recommended.
Booking Flights to the Yucatan
For backpackers coming from the UK, Cancun will be the best place to start. There are often cheap deals on direct flights from London to Cancun, and that’s where we started our own backpacking trip in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. We paid £100 for a one-way flight from London to Cancun.
For backpackers coming from America, it’s likely that flying to Cancun will also be the best option for budget travellers. However, many US travellers do also fly to Merida, the biggest city in the Yucatan.
Backpackers shouldn’t be afraid to look at package deals to Mexico. Package holidays to Cancun have become so cheap that I’ve heard many backpackers have found it was cheaper to book a package deal for the first leg of the journey than to book flights and accommodation separately. Many backpackers simply fly out to Cancun, stay in the resort as part of the package deal, then do not take the return flight and instead continue on their backpacking route of the Yucatan.
More on Backpacking Mexico
Are you thinking about backpacking the Yucatan peninsula? Tell me about your Yucatan travel route in the comments.