Five places to stay in the Yucatan that aren’t Cancun – Plus tips and travel hacks for backpackers.
While Cancun is famous for its all inclusive resorts I’d heard from many travellers it’s not the best place to be a backpacker. So where else can you stay on the peninsula? Here’s a run down of some of the most popular as well as some lesser known spots.
Puerto Morelos lies on a quiet piece of coastline between busy Cancun and touristy Playa del Carmen. It has managed to avoid over development since most of the surrounding land has been declared a conservation area. Making it a great place to stay to get away from the crowds. The town has a relaxed vibe with great beach side restaurants, dive shops, snorkelling, markets and a huge brand new supermarket.
Croco cun zoo is just outside the town and offers animal encounters without the negative connotations of places like Xcaret park’s ‘Dolphinariums’ (not to mention a quarter of the price!). It was set up as a rescue centre for animals from the pet trade such as crocodiles, snakes, Mexican hairless dogs, turtles and monkeys. Unfortunately they can no longer survive in the wild. There are also deer that you can buy a food pack for and hand feed. All of the animals are in great condition and the one hour tour from the passionate keepers gives some great insight into the animals lives and conservation efforts. Plus you have the chance to handle some of the tame animals, the monkeys however are semi wild so you are not guaranteed any interaction.
Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen is a place that has everything you need. Doctors, pharmacies, nightlife, shopping, day trips to anywhere. Of course along with it comes the hoards of tourists, pushy sellers and fast food chains. 10 Avenida is my idea of hell, similar to Las Ramblas in Barcelona. Try to stay a few blocks back on 30 Avenida where you can find great food at good prices like El Fogon!
Cozumel is well known as one of the best places to dive. It is also, however, a very popular stop for cruise ships and one of the most frequented stops in the Caribbean harbouring up to nine massive ships a day! Of course all these cruise ships bring with them problems and pollution which has a negative impact on the reef.
Away from the port you will find a relaxing town where locals say hola without trying to sell you something. Rent a scooter (Pipian Rental is super reliable and helpful giving a set rate) and drive around the island visiting ancient Mayan ruins like San Gervasio and empty beaches alone the east coast. Unfortunately the empty picturesque east coast is too rough and dangerous for snorkeling so instead you generally have to pay to access the beach on the west and south coast.
Palancar beach is the most famous, open daily from 9am-5pm, but can get very busy. A good alternative is to visit one of the bars and restaurants on the coast to gain access to the sea. Many have a minimum spend of $15pp, like the Money Bar and Hotel Cozumel, but are great for lunch and a snorkel. Jeanie’s has no min spend so you can snorkel for the price of a drink, there is a surprising amount of sea life considering its proximity to the city but no real reef.
Akumal is a great local feeling town full of street art hinting towards a real love for nature. Restaurants are cheap and locals are friendly. The beach has however gotten a bit caught up with the tourist buzz. Famous for its sea turtles, the beach at Akumal is a little slice of paradise, but comes at a price. It seems the locals have banded together to close off the beach unless you pay a 100 pesos entry fee. It’s not too bad as you get the use of showers, toilets and lockers for this cost. Again once you are inside there are strict rules about swimming with the turtles (hopefully primarily for the animals welfare) in which you cannot swim without a life jacket or guide in certain areas.
However our hostel owner told us if we just walked up the beach a little further you can snorkel without a life jacket or guide in the swimming area, so that’s what we did. On several occasions we also just wanted to go to the beach for a drink or to relax and so entered through the Hotel Akumal Caribe (with security guards) stating we wanted to go to the Lol Ha Restaurant. This is (we think the only) free way to enter and the restaurant is great too!
A great day out from Akumal is Aktun Chen, a wildlife reserve with ziplines, cave systems, ATVs and a cenote. A collectivo from the turtle statue in Akumal is just 20 pesos, then a free shuttle takes you from the entrance to the park. Named one Nat Geo’s top 10 underground walks the cave tour costs just $20 and ends in a stunning underground cenote. The best part, in my animal obsessed opinion, is the zoo; free with any tour. Deer and monkeys roam freely and seem to be unfazed by human observers.
Our final and probably favourite stop along the Maya Riviera, Tulum is a mix of all of the best bits of the coast. The town has a diverse and multicultural culinary scene, perfect beaches, access to cenotes and it’s very own Mayan ruins. Playa Paraiso is a public (free) beach that rivals any Caribbean paradise. The Tulum ruins are very popular with travellers from all over the peninsula, smaller than others but right on the coast.
There are so many great things to do near Tulum. Take a mud bath at Laguna de Kaan Luum (just 50 pesos!) and venture into Sian Ka’an nature reserve with a tour to spot dolphins turtles and a myriad of birds. Just a 10 minute taxi from Tulum (200 pesos) to Casa Cenote and you can snorkel with freshwater fish and then walk straight to the small beach nearby. Another great idea is to take a day trip to Coba ruins, less busy than Chitchen Itza and more fun to climb around. As you can see Tulum is popular for good reason, there’s so much to do from here you might end up staying longer than you thought!
How Much Do Things Cost In The Yucatan?
Collectivo’s are the best way to get around. There is a 20 peso minimum charge but after that the cost is negligible. They have set pick up areas (ask a local of any town you are in) but can be flagged down on any main road and will drop you off wherever you ask along the route. We didn’t see any other tourists using them but they are an incredibly cheap and useful way to get around short distances and save you a fortune in taxi fares. A bit of Spanish helps but it’s relatively straightforward if you keep an eye on your offline Google maps and tell them when you want to get off.
For longer journeys ADO or Mayan buses are great for getting in between major cities with luggage. With AC and all the mod cons there’s nothing much to complain about apart from some of the “driving styles”. Buying tickets in advance at the bus station can be a good idea as they can get busy and have limited services in some areas.
Cenotes are everywhere in the Yucatan peninsula, you can do everything from cave walks, swimming, snorkelling and diving in them. They usually cost around 100 to 200 pesos to enter. Many tours are offered but there’s no reason to not turn up by your own means and just pay the entry fee. Dos Ojos and Taj Ma Ha are two of the most popular for diving while smaller ones like Casa Cenote can be an easy place to swim and grab a drink.
Accommodation can vary hugely in this area, we saw one resort charging $700 per night! Back in the real world it’s reasonable to expect to pay $30 per night for a double room, for a good location and good quality (read hot water). A mixture of Air BnB and Booking.com can bring up a good choice of places fairly last minute even in high season. Always check the tax and extra charges in the booking conditions, it’s not always made obvious.
It’s not the cheapest place to dive in the world with cenotes costing around $120 for two tanks, bull sharks dives at around $100 and regular single tank dives at around $60. Dive courses can vary hugely between shops and sometimes don’t have full equipment/ course materials included. Two great shops I found and highly recommend are Good vibes in Playa del Carmen and Barefoot in Cozumel. Good and easy to comprehend prices and nice new equipment.
Local food is fairly cheap if you look in the right places. Tacos del pastor, huevos rancheros and rice and beans are all firm favourites that can be found for less than $5 a meal. There is also plenty of western food around with pasta, pizza and burgers generally costing a little more let’s say $10 a meal. Higher end food can cost up to double which can definitely affect a food loving backpackers budget!
A little tip I learned after perforating my ear drum on a dive was that many pharmacies have doctors attached. Consultations are just 50 pesos and great for minor ailments, no insurance needed but basic Spanish is an advantage as not many speak English. For anything more serious the best place to be is Playa del Carmen where there is a proper hospital.
Of course no trip to the Yucatan is complete without a visit to Chitchen Itza but, as one of the modern seven wonders of the world, it helps to know how to avoid the crowds. Read my guide here of how to beat the crowds (and the heat!) when visiting Chitchen Itza.
If you really want to get away from it all how does a remote island in the middle of a huge nature reserve sound? Read all about Holbox island here.
How to travel better for less
These are the companies I use to travel the world for less. The reason long term travel is cheaper than you think is often down to shopping around for a great deal, here I’ve done the hard work for you!
Booking.com – I always book with this site if looking for cheap accommodation as the filters are so easy to use. Become a genius member after five bookings and get great discounts too!
Air BnB – Sometimes you can find great local places to stay on Air BnB. In some countries, like Cuba, it’s the only way to book!
Transferwise – A debit card you can use all over the world and get great exchange rates with no hidden fees. This bank has saved me £100’s in bank fees!
Monzo – A similar travel card to the above with additional features like joint accounts and bill splitting.
World Nomads – Travel insurance is one of the most important things you can have while travelling. Don’t leave home without it! World Nomads provide the very best cover.
What to pack – Here is my ultimate list of what to pack for every trip, available on Amazon. Plus eco friendly alternatives to your toiletries.
Omio – The place to go for all of your public transport needs in Europe. Save a bundle!
G Adventures – A sustainable, fun, responsible travel company. I’ve travelled with them many times and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of their amazing trips of a lifetime.