Mexico Backpacking Route
Our backpacking route for Mexico takes in the best the South of the country has to offer. If you follow it, you’ll travel from the tranquil seas of the Caribbean to the giant waves of the Pacific via a host of a ancient Maya cities, jungle ruins and pleasant mountain towns. The route then cuts through Mexico’s cultural heartland before ending up in the enormous capital city, one of the largest and liveliest on the planet.
TIME NEEDED – 5 weeks
If you’re not that fussed with beaches or not that interested in the Maya ruins, you could probably do this route in a month or less by spending less than the suggested amount of time at some of the destinations. Overall though about 5 weeks would be a suitable time-span.
POSSIBLE BUDGET – £1000 | €1100 | US$1250 | 23,000 Mexican Pesos
Mexico is really good value on the whole and if you’re heading here from the States, immediately you will appreciate how much more you can get for your money. However heading North from Central America, it may seem slightly more expensive.
This budget doesn’t include the cost of getting to/from Mexico or any other pre-trip expenses. It is based on July 2017 prices and exchange rates. Read our more detailed Backpacking Budget for Mexico, which includes typical travel costs.
VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR MEXICO
Mexico is pretty chilled when it comes to entry requirements. There’s no long questioning or waits at the border like you often get trying to enter the United States. Visitors from EU countries, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and most Latin American countries can get a generous 180 days visa-free. You can use our visa-check tool to confirm whether or not you need a visa.
Travel insurance is always advisable, not just because of Mexico’s perceived dangers. We recommend World Nomads, who specialise in covering backpacking trips.
Backpacking route for Mexico
Our Mexico travel itinerary is convenient in that it starts in Cancun and ends in Mexico City, which are home to the two busiest airports in the country and the ones with by far the greatest options in terms of international flights. One of the problems with travel in Mexico is that domestic flights can be quite pricey so if you just head off with no real plan, it’s quite possible you’ll end up somewhere quite isolated. That could leave you having to fork out a considerable amount just to fly somewhere with an international airport or alternatively having to backtrack on a long bus journey.
Mexico is deceptively big and to put that into some perspective, a direct flight from Cancun in the South-east to Tijuana in the North-West on the US border takes around 5 hours. Therefore unless you have months to spare, it’s best to base your trip around one or two parts of the country rather than attempting to go everywhere. The Mexico backpacker trail primarily focuses on the South of the country, which is home to most of the more popular travel destinations and is generally considered to be safer than the North.
This route summarises a typical path travellers in the country take and you could easily just do it in reverse and there may be something to be said for ending your trip with some relaxed days on Mexico’s Caribbean coastline.
If you’ve had a long flight in then you may wish to book a hotel for a night in Cancun to get some rest but there are nicer places further South, that are generally much more to the liking of backpackers and budget travellers.
Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen is a fun place to hang out for a few days. Yes it’s touristy but it’s nowhere near as trashy or expensive as Cancun and there are many hostels catering to backpackers. The beaches are great and the nightlife is pumping with many bars and clubs offering excellent drinks deals. The nearby island of Cozumel is also a nice option if you want some additional beach time.
There are two main reasons why travellers head to Tulum. The first is its gorgeous beach, which is among the best on the Riviera Maya and that is saying something. It is also home to the well preserved ruins of an ancient Mayan city so you can get a dose of culture and history too before cooling off in the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean Sea. At night, it’s nowhere near as lively as Playa del Carmen and is a much quieter destination overall, with yoga retreats recently cropping up on its cliffs.
(1/2 a day)
One of Mexico’s most famous sites. Chichen Itza is a complex of Mayan ruins, with the enormous pyramid known as El Castillo, its centrepiece. There are limited budget accommodation options nearby so it’s probably best to just stop here for an afternoon to break up the journey between Tulum and Merida.
The state capital of Yucatán, Merida is one of the biggest cities on this route, but by no means overwhelming with around 750,000 residents. It’s a fascinating cultural destination, founded by the Spanish in the 16th Century. Merida is a city of plazas, palaces, cathedrals and museums. While it may only take a couple of days to discover the city, there’s plenty to see and do around the town with nearby Maya ruins, a wildlife refuge and the famous cenotes.
In some respects, Campeche is not dissimilar to Merida. It’s a bit smaller but is another city with Spanish origins and its colonial old town has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site. The nearest maya ruins are at Edzna, a relatively small site around an hour away.
Palenque is a large site that was once home to an ancient Maya city. Its ruins are some of the best preserved in the whole region, largely thanks to the jungle which offers natural shelter. It could take the whole day to explore the site but there’s little to do in the nearby modern-day town itself. You can either stay there or find somewhere on the edge of the national park near the Maya site.
San Cristobal de las Casas
Arguably the prettiest town on the route, San Cristobal de las Casas is full of colourful buildings and cobblestone streets. Its highland location offers a pleasant break from the heat and it can get quite chilly at night. Just strolling around the town is enjoyable enough and if you fancy a longer stay there are volunteering opportunities as well as host of reasonably priced Spanish language schools.
Zipolite & Mazunte
Zipolite and Mazunte are two beach villages on Mexico’s rugged Oaxaca Coast. It takes only about 10 minutes and costs only a few pesos to travel from one to the other in a colectivo so you can choose to base yourself in one and visit the other or spend a couple of days in each.
Zipolite is the livelier of the two although that’s only a relative concept. Both places are very small and although there’s only a limited amount of things to do, it’s about the only place in Mexico where you can still find a cheap bungalow/hut on the beach and fall asleep accompanied by the sounds of Pacific Ocean waves crashing into the shore. Zipolite is also Mexico’s only beach where you can go nude, while Mazunte has a growing reputation for impromptu live music. Like many destinations on this route, the ease of getting marijuana is an appeal to some travellers.
A bit further up the coast, you reach the much larger Puerto Escondido, which is popular with both domestic and international travellers. It’s a big surfing destination with some seriously large waves, which make swimming virtually impossible. There’s also a turtle conservation programme and you can assist every day at 5pm when baby turtles are released into the sea.
The city of Oaxaca is the capital of the state of the same name but it’s slow ride up from Puerto Escondido, which can take as long as 8 hours by road. It’s the state’s main cultural centre with a couple of interesting museums and a walkable city-centre. Nearby Monte Alban is another UNESCO world heritage site and one of the most impressive ruins sites in Latin America. Every Thursday and Saturday, trips run to the nearby village of Teotitlán del Valle by the non-profit Fundacion en Via and it’s a good opportunity to meet locals and make a positive contribution to fighting poverty in the region, whilst also having an interesting experience.
Huautla de Jimenez
One of the most curious destinations on the route. Huautla de Jimenez is a remote mountain town that was popular with the hippies in the 1960’s and the extremely strong psilocybe mushrooms that grow here during the wet season still attract some foreigners. Shamanic rituals still take place during this period but visitors also come to explore the stunning mountain range that surrounds the town and it’s a funky little place to hang around for a while.
Many travellers visit Pubela as a day-trip from the capital but given it’s en-route, it’s well worth stopping off here for a few nights to catch your breath before heading to Mexico City. Puebla is a city of around 1.5million people so it’s a pretty big place with lots of beautiful buildings and interesting landmarks, not to mention lots of tasty and cheap street-food. It’s surrounded by snow-capped mountains and volcanoes so it’s also well worth heading out of town and exploring the natural surroundings for a final dose of fresh air before the smog of the capital.
Mexico City & Around
Mexico City is enormous! First-time visitors often find visiting an overwhelming experience and it’s not easy to know where to base yourself or where to begin. Like any large city it has its hassles but the tourist areas are not considered dangerous and there is a heavy police presence in the old city. The giant Zócalo, the city’s main plaza and one of the largest squares in the world is a good starting point and there are many interesting museums and cultural sites nearby that document various periods of Mexican history. For a more modern-day experience take in a football match at the giant Estadio Azteca or get to grips with the entertaining world of lucha libre, a Mexican form of professional wrestling (live shows take place every Friday at 20:30).
There are also a number of day-trips that can be done from Mexico City. A visit to the vast archaeological site at Teotihuacan, Northeast of the city is one of the most popular. Nature and adventure sports lovers would be wise to check out Valle de Bravo and/or the Desert of the Lions National Park. Meanwhile new-age Tepoztlan is reportedly a UFO hotspot with a large number of the town’s residents having reported seeing one!
Extending your trip
This Mexico backpacking route only covers the bottom third of the country, where a lot of the travel highlights are located. It could be considered loosely speaking the most typical backpacker trail in Mexico although it’s not rigidly followed by everyone by any means. Perhaps more common these days is for backpackers to head South to Guatemala rather than North. You can easily combine some of this with our backpacking route for Central America, which does just that and carries on all the way down to Panama.
If you want to see more of Mexico then there’s plenty more cool places to go but the best destinations are quite spread out so be prepared for some more long bus journeys or consider forking out for a flight or two. Highlights further North include Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende, which are reasonably easy to get to from Mexico City and could quite easily be added onto this route although you’ll most likely have to backtrack to the capital for an onward flight.
Baja California is another popular coastal region, great for surfing and you can even head all the way North to the US-Mexico border and continue your adventure in California. Alternatively you can take Mexico’s most famous train ride and head to the stunning and very remote Copper Canyon, which feels a world away from the tourist resorts of the city or the madness of Mexico City.
Cartagena in Colombia, where our South America backpacking route starts, isn’t a million miles away either so if you’ve got the time, you could certainly do plenty more travelling in the region.
Budget Accommodation in Mexico
Getting budget accommodation in Mexico is pretty straight-forward unless you’re travelling in peak tourist season (exact time varies from place to place) or during a national holiday. In most towns on this route, you can just show up and find a room or bed, with prices negotiable in a lot of cases, especially during low season. In the bigger towns it’s probably still advisable to book something in advance as the hostels and main backpacker options are often spread out across town.
Is Mexico Dangerous?
Mexico gets a lot of bad press and certainly is perceived as a dangerous country by many. However don’t believe everything you read on the internet or hear from a certain president. If you’re sensible and avoid a handful of places, mostly in the North, well away from the stops on this route, you should have no trouble. Rates of violent crime are high but this is massively skewed by drug-related violence and rarely effects visitors.
This article was published in July 2017.