Backpacking Mexico – a Backpacker’s Guide to Mexico on a Budget

Mexico is a vast and varied country, sadly marred by a reputation for drug wars and dangerous immigrants.  Don’t believe the hype.  Of course, Mexico has its problems, but not usually in places frequented by visitors, so the risk for tourists to Mexico is minimal.  While backpacking in Mexico I found the people to be friendly and kind, the food to be DELICIOUS, and the scenery, culture and history utterly mind-blowing.  I’ll share all my tips for how to backpack Mexico safely and show you that all Mexico backpackers will be amazed by the variety and beauty of this incredible country.  Backpacking Mexico on a budget is an adventure, so hold on to your hats!

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Skip ahead to read articles about specific destinations in Mexico

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Vital Information for Backpacking in Mexico

Currency: Mexican Peso (check the exchange rate here)

Capital City: Mexico City

Population: over 120 million with around 21 million of those in Mexico City

Language: Spanish and 68 Amerindian languages

In an emergency call 911

Where is Mexico?

Map Showing Location of Mexico in North America
Map Showing Location of Mexico in North America

Mexico is in the southern part of North America, bordering the United States of America to the north, and Guatemala and Belize to the south.  Mexico is huge, covering nearly 2,000,000 square kilometres, and it is the 13th largest independent state in the world. 

Benefiting from a long Pacific coastline and a Caribbean coastline, you’ll find everything you need on Mexico’s shores from surfing to sunbathing, whale watching and diving.

Mexico is a good start to a Central American backpacking adventure, and many backpackers head south to Guatemala and Belize after visiting Mexico.

Entry Requirements for Mexico

Americans, Australians, Canadians, European and British nationals as well as nationals from various other countries do not require a visa to enter Mexico as tourists, visitors in transit or business visitors.

Tourists and business visitors can stay in Mexico for up to 180 days. Visitors in transit can stay for up to 30 days.  Be sure to check with the Mexican consulate in your area for the exact requirements and processes to apply for a visa if your country requires one.

The maximum length of stay permitted on entering Mexico is up to 180 days, but it is up to the border control agent how long they grant you – you are not guaranteed the maximum stay – and they will stamp your passport with the number of days they allow you. 

You may be asked for proof of onward travel, which is more likely if you fly in, although is becoming more common at land border crossings too.  Your passport also needs to be valid for the duration of time you expect to stay in Mexico. 

When you leave Mexico you’ll need to show your passport with the stamp showing how long you were allowed to stay.  If your passport is lost or stolen while in Mexico and you cannot show the stamp, you’ll need to pay a fee to replace it.  The cost of a replacement is approximately $600 pesos, paid in cash only.

Tourists are not allowed to undertake voluntary (including human rights) work or any form of paid employment. If you wish to carry out this type of work, you must get the correct visa from the Mexican Embassy before you travel.

You may need to pay a departure tax when leaving Mexico by air or land. The cost can vary, and some airports or border crossings only accept payment in cash. Most airlines include the cost within the ticket price. If in doubt, check with your airline or tour operator.

British travellers should use this website for up to date travel advice and entry restrictions when planning to go backpacking in Mexico.

Americans can use the Department of State website, Canadians click here, and Australians can use has Smart Traveller to help.

Apologies if your country isn’t listed here – a quick google search for “(country name) government travel advice” should bring up the relevant information for your country.

If you need to arrange any visas, Embassy Pages has a list of all the embassies and consulates for countries around the world or you can use a company like iVisa to arrange it for you.

Palacio de Bellas Artes Mexico City - Backpacking in Mexico Backpackers Guide
The Magnificent Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City – Backpacking Mexico

Vaccinations for Travel to Mexico

There are no mandatory requirements for any vaccinations when travelling to Mexico, however, please see this website for further information, and consult with your doctor or health professional to check current recommendations.  

At the time of writing there are no COVID 19 restrictions for travel to Mexico, but the situation can change quickly so be prepared and check the rules and regulations before you travel.  Be a responsible traveller and take care around other people, especially anyone who may not have access to adequate healthcare.

All travellers should ensure their routine vaccinations and boosters are up to date, including measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and the diphtheria-tetanus-polio vaccine.  Hepatitis A and tetanus are also recommended for most travellers, and other vaccinations such as rabies, cholera and typhoid are also recommended in some cases. 

There is also a risk of Zika in some parts of Mexico, so speak to your doctor before travelling if you are pregnant or trying for a baby.

There is a very low risk of Malaria in Mexico, and a risk of Dengue fever so avoid mosquito bites by using insect repellent and covering up, especially around dawn and dusk.

Drink only bottled water, or better yet take a re-fillable water bottle with an in-built filter so you can drink the tap water safely and save plastic.

Altitude in Mexico

Some parts of Mexico are at a high enough altitude to cause some altitude sickness, even Mexico City can cause problems if you aren’t used to it. 

If you arrive at a high altitude from a notably lower elevation, give yourself a couple of days to acclimatise to the higher altitude before attempting any strenuous activities, or head to lower ground and work your way back slowly. 

Altitude sickness can be extremely serious; a headache and tiredness are common symptoms, drink plenty of water and take paracetamol to help with the headache.  If you feel sick, nauseous or disorientated, seek medical attention immediately.

READ MORE: How to Cope with High Altitude & Altitude Sickness

Traditional Mexican Painted Skulls - Backpacking Mexico Backpackers Guide
Traditional Mexican Painted Skulls – Mexico Backpackers Guide

Is Mexico Safe?

Despite its reputation, I found Mexico to be very safe.  There are areas where drug-related gang violence is common, but this is rarely in areas where tourists and backpackers travel.

In the northern and western states on the drug route through Mexico to the US there are frequent clashes between security groups and rival drug gangs, so before travelling to states like Sonora, Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Durango make sure you do more research into which areas are safe and which are to be avoided.

The major tourist destinations like Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta have a high police presence to deter criminals and keep any problems to a minimum.  Unfortunately, there has been an increase in violence in recent years between rival gangs in Playa del Carmen, Cancun and even Tulum, including shootings where tourists got caught in the crossfire.

While these incidents are isolated, take local advice and stay vigilant when you are travelling here.

When backpacking around Mexico, avoid overnight buses if you can, and only use official taxi companies or Uber to get around the cities.  Pickpocketing is common, especially in busy tourist areas and on the metro in Mexico City.  Avoid flashy jewellery and carrying expensive equipment with you as this might draw unwanted attention. 

Solo female travellers in Mexico City should use the female-only “solo mujeres” carriages on the metro which are at the front or back of the train as groping and harassment on the metro are not uncommon.

Natural Disasters in Mexico

The Caribbean coast of Mexico can be affected by hurricanes and tropical storms during hurricane season, which is roughly between June and December, with the highest risk of storms between August and the end of October.  There have been several recent earthquakes in and around Mexico City, so before backpacking in Mexico City, check the emergency procedures in case of earthquakes.

Remember that most visits to Mexico are trouble-free.  Dangerous situations could happen anywhere, so don’t let that put you off travelling to such a fabulous country.  However, no matter where you travel, you should always get travel insurance to cover you in case something does happen.

Why go Backpacking in Mexico:

Mexico has captivated curious travellers for centuries, and the Mexican Riviera is a perennially popular destination for Americans, Europeans and visitors from all over the world. 

However, Cancun is not the real Mexico.  If you want to explore Mexico, backpackers don’t have to go far beyond the all-inclusive resorts and hotel complexes to get a taste of Mexican culture.

The Yucatan region of Mexico is home to one of the new Seven Wonders World Chichen Itza, as well as countless other Mayan ruins that are all less touristy yet equally spectacular.  Natural water holes called cenotes offer the chance to cool off on a hot day or dive into the cave systems to explore Mayan sacred sites.

Mexico City has the highest number of museums for any city in the world except for Paris.  The Anthropology Museum in Mexico City is a highlight.  There are a large number of pre-Columbian indigenous groups who lived and thrived in Mexico, leaving behind mind-blowing pyramids and ruins to explore, all over the country.  

Mexican food is one of the most famous and popular cuisines on the planet, and as traditional Mexican cuisine has been awarded UNESCO status, the food is a damn good reason on its own to go backpacking in Mexico!

What to do in Mexico: The Best Things to do in Mexico

You certainly won’t be short of amazing things to do in Mexico.  With a country so varied I’ve tried to come up with my best ideas for what to do in Mexico:

Visit Mayan Ruins

The Mayan Ruins around the Yucatan Peninsula definitely have to be on your backpacking Mexico list.  From one of the new wonders of the world at Chichen Itza to the stunning Tulum ruins and lesser-visited ruins hidden in the jungle like Coba and Palenque, each Mayan ruin has something special. 

Don’t worry if you don’t plan to visit the Yucatan, there are other pre-Columbian civilisations that left their mark in Mexico, for example, Teotihuacan close to Mexico City is one of the most impressive archaeological sites I’ve seen.

READ MORE: Which is Best – Tulum or Chichen Itza?

El Castillo Pyramid at Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins in Mexico
El Castillo Pyramid at Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins in Mexico

Eat Typical Food in Mexico

Mexican food is one of the most popular cuisines in the world.  In fact, it is one of only a handful of cuisines to be certified by UNESCO as vital cultural importance. 

Street food is plentiful, cheap, and delicious, from tacos to fruit juices this is the best way for backpackers to taste Mexico on a budget.  Seafood is famous in Baja California, especially fish tacos which are seriously one of the best things I’ve ever tasted.

Mexican cuisine isn’t just tacos and quesadillas, there are seasonal and local specialities too, and you can even find vegetarian food in Mexico, although strict veggies and vegans may struggle away from the bigger cities and tourist hubs. 

Cooking classes and food tours are a great way to learn about local cuisine, and although they will stretch your Mexico backpacker’s budget, for me they are worth a splurge.

READ MORE: How to Find the Local Food and Drink on your Travels

Drink Mezcal

Everyone has heard about Tequila, but Mezcal is fast becoming THE drink of choice in Mexico.  Made in small artisanal distilleries, smoky mezcal should be sipped and enjoyed slowly, never shot back like a tequila slammer (tequila should really be sipped too, but years of cheap shots are hard to forget!). 

Try it with a slice of orange to refresh your palate.  If mezcal and tequila are too strong for you, order a Michelada beer, mixed with lime juice and spices.  It sounds weird, but you only live once!

Taste Mezcal - Backpacking Mexico Backpackers guide
Taste Mezcal – Backpacking Mexico Backpackers guide

Shout Your Heart out at Lucha Libre

Going to see a Lucha Libre wrestling match was one of the best nights out I had in Mexico!  There are arenas all over the country, where masked fighters in spandex hurl themselves across the ring in a terrific show of skill and showmanship. 

Have a few beers and get in with the locals as they shout and scream at the luchadores, you’d be surprised how much a Mexican housewife can swear when she’s at a Lucha fight!

READ MORE: Watching Lucha Libre in Mexico City

Experience Mexican Culture

Mexico has a rich cultural heritage which you can find everywhere.  From beautiful colonial towns like San Miguel de Allende and Merida to the hundreds of museums in Mexico City, take time to learn about Mexico’s history and enjoy the local festivals. 

The Day of the Dead is probably the most famous festival, on 1st and 2nd November, but there are huge celebrations for Easter, Christmas and plenty of other occasions throughout the year.

Colourful Ofrendas are displayed for Day of the Dead - Mexico Backpackers Guide
Colourful Ofrendas are displayed for Day of the Dead – Mexico Backpackers Guide

Enjoy Mexico’s Natural Wonders

Mexico is a diverse country and has many incredible natural wonders to experience.  Stroll along white sand beaches on the Riviera Maya, hike a volcano near Mexico City, surf the Pacific Coast and go whale watching or dip your toes in a pink lake

Marvel at the Monarch Butterfly migration in Michoacan, stand at the top of a stone waterfall at Hierve el Agua and traverse huge canyons or dive with crocodiles in the Yucatan.  The scenery and nature in Mexico really are outstanding.

Where to Go Backpacking in Mexico

Backpacking Mexico City & Surrounding Areas

I spent four months in Mexico City and loved it!  There are tons of things to do in Mexico City, from incredible museums to ancient pyramids.  Don’t underestimate Mexico City, I’d advise spending at least a few days here.

Puebla is a popular trip from Mexico City, where you’ll find the largest pyramid in the world, now buried beneath a hill.  One of the most beautiful natural phenomena I have witnessed is the migration of monarch butterflies, who settle in the Michoacán state after migrating 3000 miles from northern USA and Canada, and should be a must for nature lovers backpacking in Mexico.

READ MORE: 10 Awesome Things to do in Mexico City

Backpacking in the Yucatan

The Riviera Maya in the Yucatan region is the most popular destination in Mexico.  The tourist hotspots of Cancun and Playa del Carmen are filled with all-inclusive resorts, but backpackers can still find hostels and budget things to do in the Yucatan. 

Take a ferry to Cozumel for diving, or head south to Tulum and Bacalar, for more beautiful beaches and turquoise waters that are relatively quiet, or inland to Merida and Valladolid to find more beautiful colonial towns and a strong Mayan culture.

READ MORE: Backpacking Tulum: What to do in Tulum for Backpackers

Picturesque Tulum Ruins and the Blue Ocean
Picturesque Tulum Ruins and the Blue Ocean

Backpacking Oaxaca & Southern Mexico

Visiting Chiapas, San Cristobal and Palenque is a must for many Mexico backpackers.  The beautiful jungle Mayan ruins of Palenque are worth visiting in their own right, but combine it with a trip to nearby San Cristobal de las Casas and you can’t help but fall in love. 

Continue your Mexico backpacking trip to Oaxaca for delicious local food, fascinating culture, mezcal distilleries and stunning natural scenery like Hierve el Agua.  Oaxaca is a popular destination for the Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos) festival, where locals prepare offerings for their loved ones who have passed, decorating graveyards and shrines in their homes.

Backpacking Baja California & the Pacific Coast

Baja California is a popular destination for Americans who pop across the border for their fix of sunshine, tequila and seafood tacos.  But Baja is more than that, it is a paradise for surfers, divers and nature lovers too, and a great place to go whale watching. 

The Pacific Coastline has some fantastic surf towns too, check out Puerto Vallarta, but be wary of some areas which are on the drug route to the US.  Acapulco has unfortunately become quite dangerous in recent years.

Backpacking Northern Mexico

North of Mexico City are the states of Guanajuato, Hidalgo and San Luis Potosi, where you can find beautiful colonial towns like Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende.  There are lots of things to do in Guanajuato, from visiting a mummy museum or the beautiful basilica, and simply wandering the streets in San Miguel de Allende. 

For something completely different, Xilitla in San Luis Potosi is famous for the Las Pozas garden, created by English artist Edward James, which is full of mystical sculptures, waterfalls and pools in the rainforest. 

Further north is more off the beaten tourist path, and although there are some awesome places to visit like the Copper Canyon, safety can be an issue in some areas so do your research before you go.

Eating Street food in Mexico will save you lots of cash! - Backpacking Mexico
Eating Street food in Mexico will save you lots of cash!

Backpacking Mexico Budget

Mexico is a relatively cheap destination to visit, compared with the USA, Canada and Europe.    If you are backpacking in Mexico on a budget, you can find hostel dorm beds for $10 USD or less in quieter places, up to $12-$15 USD per night for decent hostels in places like Mexico City, Tulum and Cancun.

As with anywhere, when travelling in Mexico backpackers should be aware that the popular tourist destinations will be much more expensive than quieter towns.  If you like street food (and you definitely should try it!) you can get a good meal for $2 or $3 dollars. 

In the expensive touristy areas, eating in a good restaurant can cost $10-$20 USD but there is no need to splurge every night when street tacos are sooooo good!

Bus travel in Mexico is cheap and convenient for short journeys, and you can get great deals if you book your tickets a few days in advance.  If you are travelling long distances, check flight prices too, as flying from Mexico City to Cancun is probably cheaper than taking the bus.

Transport in Mexico

Flights in and to Mexico

Due to its immense size, internal flights in Mexico make a lot of sense if you are short on time, and don’t want to spend over 12 hours on a bus.  Interjet and Volaris have good deals on internal flights, and Aeromexico is the national airline, although it tends to be a bit more expensive. 

For flights to Mexico, You can find some cheap deals for flights to Cancun from Europe, with airlines like Thomas Cook from the UK, and Eurowings from Germany.  Check Skyscanner for the best flight deals here, or download the Skycanner app.

A new airport in Tulum is under construction, originally scheduled for opening in 2023 it has been delayed due to COVID and environmental concerns.

Buses in Mexico

Buses in Mexico are generally good quality, in particular for the 1st class ADO buses.  These have comfortable seats, air conditioning and you can reserve seats in advance. 

You can only book online if you have a Mexican credit card, but you can purchase tickets from any ADO ticket office found in most bus stations.  Try to book your seats a couple of days in advance if you can, especially in peak season. 

There are also 2nd class buses which are more often used by the locals, for example, Mayab buses in the Yucatan.  These are cheaper, but definitely less luxurious, often without aircon, or with broken vents so you have freezing air blasting in your face for the whole journey. 

Travelling during the day is safer than at night, there have been reports of holdups and thefts on night buses, but if you do want to take a night bus, ADO buses are the way to go.

Flying Into Mexico City - Backpacking Mexico Travel Guide
Flying Into Mexico City – Backpacking Mexico Travel Guide

Trains in Mexico

Most of the train lines in Mexico are only for freight trains, but the Chihuahua al Pacífico is a tourist train through the Copper Canyon which is certainly worth a ride. 

The Maya Train is due to be completed at the end of December 2023 which will connect several tourist hotspots in the Yucatan Peninsula.  The project has had mixed reactions, to say the least, with environmentalists and archaeologists concerned about the destruction of valuable ecosystems and cultural sites across the region.

However, the Maya Train’s biggest supporter is the President of Mexico so he is doing everything in his power to ensure construction goes ahead.  The train will certainly make travel for visitors much easier and could have huge economic benefits for communities outside of the tourist hubs of the Riviera Maya, but I will wait to see what happens before I pass judgement!

Taxis in Mexico

There are risks of kidnapping and fake taxis in Mexico, so if you do need to take a taxi, use an official company.  At airports and bus stations you will find official taxi ranks, where you usually pay for the taxi at a booth before getting into the taxi. 

Uber is a good alternative if you have access wifi or data to book one. Uber in Mexico City particularly is a great way to get around the city after dark as you can track the driver and pay for your journey on the app, as well as share your journey with someone you trust so that know when you are home safe.

Mexico Backpackers’ Accommodation

If you are backpacking in Mexico on a tight budget, you could try Couchsurfing, although hostels in Mexico are plentiful and generally of good quality.  Check reviews for recommendations from other travellers and choose your hotel or hostel carefully as you would in any destination.  

Hostelworld is a good choice to book hostels and seeing what options are available.

I stayed in the wonderful Hostel Home in Mexico City and Mermaid Beach Hostel in Cancun as well as several hostels in Merida, Tulum and Bacalar.

You can also find homestays, budget hotels, and luxury hotels and resorts in Mexico too, so there is something for every budget if you feel like trying something different.  In busy times and public holidays, it is advisable to book ahead, especially in popular destinations.  I usually use Booking.com to check reviews and prices.

You can also find plenty of Airbnbs in Mexico. 

Work Exchange and Volunteering in Mexico

If you are backpacking Mexico slowly, you might want to take advantage of the work exchange opportunities in Mexico which allow you to work and travel Mexico without spending much money.  This isn’t volunteering in the traditional sense, it is more of a cultural exchange.

Volunteering work varies from working on reception at a hostel to teaching in schools, helping to build eco-projects or helping a family to care for their kids.  Volunteering in Mexico like this is a great way to meet local people and become part of the community, and to save money. 

In exchange for part-time work, volunteers usually get lodging and some food included.  Spanish is useful but not always essential for volunteering in Mexico, check the individual placements for details of what is required, and what you get in return.

You can find volunteering placements in Mexico on work exchange sites like WorkawayHelpX and WorldPackers, where you pay a small fee to register on the site which allows you to browse available opportunities and contact the hosts.  I used to use Workaway but have now switched to Worldpackers (check my full review of Workaway to find out why)

I volunteered at this hostel in Mexico City for 4 months and loved every minute of it, and there are lots of other placements available on Worldpackers to choose from. 

READ MORE: How to Travel for (almost) Free Volunteering with Worldpackers

Get a $10 Discount on Your Worldpackers Membership

I’ve teamed up with Worldpackers to offer all Tales of a Backpacker readers a $10 discount, which means you only need to pay $39 USD for a full year’s verified membership.  Once you are a verified member you can apply to and message all the hosts on Worldpackers and volunteer all over the world.  What are you waiting for?!

ACTIVATE YOUR $10 DISCOUNT

Places to Visit in Mexico in Detail

Read more about these backpacker destinations in Mexico and things to do in Mexico below.  You should also take a look at some of the unique places to visit in Mexico to get more travel inspiration.

The Yucatan & Around Mexico

Mexico City

Have you been backpacking in Mexico?  Have you any tips I’ve missed here?  I’ve love to hear your thoughts, please leave your comments below.

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