Cancun has a reputation of sorts, and one that doesn’t exactly sit well with backpackers. The main tourist area of Cancun is an obscenely manufactured-for-Westerns abomination that one could hardly consider actually traveling. Hotels are expensive. Eating out is expensive. And if you’re looking to party, you might have to shell up to $100 for cover, and that’s not even during the high season. I mean, those last few sentences alone would be enough to deter any budget traveler from even considering going to Cancun.
But I did, and I’m happy to admit that I was wrong. I went to Cancun because it was the cheapest place I could fly to Havana from. I spent a few days there and quickly realized that there is much, much more to Cancun than the obnoxious Zona Hotelera. That’s the resort area, where you often have to pay an exorbitant amount of money just to exist on a hotel’s beachfront. I stayed close to the local center of Cancun and grew to love the city. Outside of the resort area, Cancun was still as authentically Mexican as you could ask for.
Don’t be too quick to write off Cancun as a destination on your Latin American backpacking trip. It is arguably the best party destination in Mexico, but it goes far beyond just that.
Where To Stay in Cancun
I stayed at Hostel Mezcal (now called Nomads Boutique Hotel and Hostel), and it is still one of my favorite hostels that I’ve ever stayed at. The social vibe is incredible, and it’s almost impossible not to make friends. During the day, they’ll organize group trips to the beach. It costs a negligible amount of money to get to the finest beaches from the city center, less than 50 cents for a 30-minute local bus ride if I remember correctly. Karaoke nights and other nightly events grease up the guests for a wild night out at one of Cancun’s many nightclubs. I’m not sure if the change in name suggests that they’re moving away from the party atmosphere, but as long as the two Nicos still work there, you’re covered.
There are plenty more hostels in Cancun to choose from, if that one turns out to be fully booked or not your style.
Of course, hostels may not be your accommodation of choice during a global pandemic. While I try to support hostels at this time, it is understandable that one may opt for private accommodation. In Cancun, finding an Airbnb is your best bet at finding something private, affordable, and unique.
The Best Things To Do In Cancun
Well, you already know what Cancun is most famous for. Those beaches are something else, and you’ve got a wide selection to choose from. The waters are stunning shades of turquoise and the soft white sand contrasts perfectly against it. Cancun is made for beach days.
If you’re looking for something more exciting, Cancun’s got a wide selection of water sports. While I don’t think Cancun is particularly known for surf, you could go out and rent kayaks, jetskis, or even an entire yacht to go out deep-sea fishing. If you can manage to wrangle a big enough group together, it is a great idea to rent a boat in Cancun. There’s no better way to spend a day in Cancun than out in the ocean and away from the crowds.
As far as other things to do in and around Cancun’s sparkling waters, I’ve also seen snorkeling and scuba diving offered, although I’m not sure about the quality in Cancun itself. The best diving and snorkeling will require a longer trip to one of the less busy areas near Cancun.
If you’re up for day trips, then Cancun’s got a decent selection, as well. The archaeological site of Chichen Itza is the most famous. These Mayan ruins were named one of the World’s Seven Wonders, although the over-tourism does ruin the experience slightly. The Chichen Itza is about three hours away from Cancun, making for a lengthy day trip. If the only place you are visiting is Cancun and you have no choice, then it’s absolutely worth the visit. However, if you have the chance to visit from a closer town, I’d recommend that instead. That way, you can beat the crowds, especially the hordes coming from Cancun.
Other day trips include to other beaches, such as Playa del Carmen or Isla Mujeres. A full-day trip would be a visit to Cozumel Island, although that might be worthy of an overnight trip or longer. Tulum is also about three hours away from Cancun, but like Cozumel, is worthy of spending several days there.
Oh yeah, one of the best things to do in Cancun outside of the beaches is to just eat as much as you can. It’ll be expensive in the Zona Hotelera, but there are some amazing local places in the city center that are as cheap as anywhere you’ll find in Mexico. About two blocks away from Hostel Mezcal was this little plaza with some of the best cheap food I’ve ever had. Getting fat here daily was not a good look for taking off my shirt at the beach later. Neither are the dozens and dozens of cervezas you’ll be downing each day.
Hey, treat yourself, am I right?
Taking on Cancun’s Nightlife On A Backpacker’s Budget
Let’s get to the fun stuff. Those cervezas during the day are just precursors to the cervezas at night. The ideal way of life in Cancun is to get drunk during the day along the beaches, followed by a late afternoon siesta, and then liven back up for the fiestas to come. I’ll be blunt. Nightlife in Cancun can be expensive, especially if you want to hit up its most famous nightclubs. At Coco Bongos, I paid something like $60 just to get in, although that did include free drinks for most of the night.
Take advantage of those free drinks because you do not want to buy drinks anywhere in Cancun. They will be expensive. I won two free dinners at a restaurant called Señor Frogs which was great until we decided to get a drink with it. The drink was something like $20 for a frozen margarita. Big yikes.
The strategy is the same in every country I go to basically. Buy a bottle of tequila or something cheap from the supermarket and pre-game at your hostel. Some hostels will allow you to bring your own alcohol. Others are more strict. Smuggle it back in a backpack and pour it into a water bottle with your mixer. It’s almost foolproof, and if they do take it away, well, it’s still cheaper than buying a drink from the bar.
Lastly, you might just have to accept that you are going to spend a lot of money in Cancun. Worrying about the money you spend while you’re spending it just makes partying less fun, and you’re going to want to get your fun’s worth in Cancun.
How To Save Money In Cancun
I’ve covered most of it, but to recap:
Stay Away From the Zona Hotelera
Seriously. A night at a hotel will cost you a lot of money. I’m talking several hundred dollars just for the cheapest rooms. By staying closer to the city center, you’ll get the more local Mexican prices. A hostel cost me about $16 a night near the city center. While more expensive than other places in Latin America, it is pretty damn good for Cancun. Seek out accommodation away from the Zona Hotelera, especially because it is so easy and cheap to go back and forth from there and the city center anyway.
Taking the local buses is the cheapest way to get from the Zona Hotelera back to the center of town. I want to say it cost something like two pesos or about 10 cents. You usually won’t have to wait longer than 20 minutes for a bus to come by, and you’ll reach the beaches in around 30 minutes.
My one meal at Señor Frogs could have bought me 20 burritos at the food plaza near my hostel. The local Mexican food in Cancun is absolutely fantastic. My meal at Señor Frogs was basically what you’d expect from Chili’s or Applebees. Seriously, don’t bother with the gringo-centric restaurants. Eat at street stalls, taco stands, and food plazas and you’ll get fed well for cheap.
Cancun has a lot of beachfront. A lot of that is owned by hotels and resorts, and you’ll get in trouble for even breathing on their property. You can either pay to be allowed on or order food and drinks. However, beach is beach and I’d suggest just bringing your own food and drinks for a day on the beach and find a spot to lay down along the free beaches in Cancun. Like I said, beach is beach, so I don’t actually remember any of the beach names aside from Playa Delfines. Here’s a list someone else compiled of 11 public beaches in Cancun’s Zona Hotelera.
Buy Your Own Alcohol
When preparing for a night out, the key is to be already drunk by the time you get to the clubs. Sometimes cover includes some free drinks, but for the most part, you don’t want to rely on the watered down rum and cokes they’ll give you. Hit up a supermarket or an Oxxo and cop a bottle of mezcal or tequila. You can get some decently-sized bottles for about $15. Split it between a group of you and you’ll have all the alcohol you need for the price of 1/3rd of a drink at the clubs.
Where To Go From Cancun
While I did love my time in Cancun, a big part of that was because I was only there for a few days before and after my trip to Cuba. I needed that time to relax and unwind. Once I was all relaxed out, I was itching for much more adventurous destinations. Cancun is ideally located close to many other popular tourist destinations, including the following.