I lived in Mexico City for 4 months for a semester abroad as part of my Master studies. During this time, I got the chance to see a lot of the country while backpacking Mexico. I absolutely fell in love with the Mexican culture, the diverse landscape, the lovely people, and the incredible places I visited. In the following, I’ll give you a quick guide to everything you need to know for your big Mexican journey.
These are my highlights of backpacking Mexico in a short video:
Why I love Backpacking Mexico – in a nutshell
⇒ The open and interesting Mexican culture
⇒ The friendly and kind Mexican people
⇒ The delicious (street) food – not very healthy, but awesome!
⇒ The history and the incredible Mayan ruins (my highlight: the ruins of Palenque)
⇒ The beaches with their crystal-clear waters (Riviera Maya)
⇒ The diversity (beaches, jungle, ruins, mountains, colonial cities – Mexico has everything!)
⇒ The colorful colonial cities (so called “Pueblos Mágicos”)
⇒ The low costs (cheap street food, affordable entrance fees)
⇒ The good network of hostels (you’ll find them everywhere in the country)
⇒ The ease of travel (great bus network and cheap flights)
People & Culture when backpacking Mexico
Mexican people are awesome – super friendly, kind, and open. I got to know many Mexicans during my exchange semester in Mexico City and became close friends with them. Don’t worry about traveling around Mexico (and don’t listen to Mr. Trump!); – the locals are super helpful and will try to help you whenever they can.
I also fell in love with the Mexican culture. Interesting history, stunning Mayan ruins, delicious food, colorful markets, vibrant parties; – all of these are part of Mexico’s wonderful culture and way of life. If you come to Mexico, don’t only visit the touristic and Americanized areas such as Cancun, but also explore the “real” Mexico!
Where to stay when backpacking Mexico
There are lots of good and affordable backpacking accommodation around Mexico! A night in a hostel dorm should normally cost you around 10$.
Travelers you’ll meet backpacking Mexico
Lots of resort/luxury tourists and drunk Americans in the Cancun area (better avoid). Lots of Mexican families during holidays (Christmas and Semana Santa/Easter). At the Riviera Maya/Yucatan peninsula, you’ll meet many short-term travelers and groups of friends who only visit for 1-2 weeks; but as soon as you leave the super-touristic areas and get into e.g. Chiapas, Oaxaca, or the Mexico City area, you’ll meet plenty of chilled and friendly backpackers who spend some more time in the country.
Safety & Health when backpacking Mexico
This is a big topic for Mexico, and the first question people ask me after hearing that I’ve lived in Mexico City is “was it safe”? I can’t blame them, there’s a lot of negative press and its crime statistics are high. So, is Mr. Trump right about his generalization of Mexicans as murderers and rapists? NO! The big majority of all Mexicans is super friendly, kind, and helpful. The touristy areas at the Riviera Maya can be considered as very safe (besides the usual petty crime including pickpocketing). I also felt very safe, even in the night, in other smaller and touristy places such as San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Oaxaca City, and San Cristobal.
It’s important to know that the big majority of all crimes and murders (which lead to these horrible crime statistics) happen in the cartel / gang business and don’t have anything to do with tourists and most locals. Due to drug trafficking, the border areas to the US are considered to be dangerous and should be avoided. But then again, no tourist would ever go there anyway (besides Tijuana, a city which I visited several times during the day, but which I avoided as soon as it’s dark).
There are also some further areas in the country where crime is increasing (e.g. the state of Guerrero, including Acapulco) and some northern states. So, do your research before traveling around the country, but don’t be over-concerned. As long as you stick to the touristic places and don’t get involved in any drug activities, you’ll do fine. I even traveled around some of the most dangerous states in Mexico, e.g. to Sinaloa and Chihuahua to see the Barranca del Cobre by the “El Chepe” train – one of my favorite trips in Mexico. I always felt super safe, since most of the places I passed through were small and cute towns and I obviously avoided any border cities.
One last word to the big cities, especially Mexico City with its bad reputation. As everywhere in the world, big cities have higher crime rates than smaller places. It is important to be cautious, which means in Mexico City you should try to use Uber (much safer than street taxis), avoid walking around in unknown areas and small/empty streets, avoid any walking by yourself as soon as it’s dark and avoid showing off any expensive valuables or jewelry. Be extremely cautious in the metro and in busses regarding pickpocketing. By sticking to these rules, you’ll immensely minimize the risk that anything will happen to you. Before leaving your accommodation, just make sure to do some research about areas to avoid.
In the unlikely event that someone will try to rob you with a gun or knife, don’t try to be a hero – just give your valuables without any discussion. Your life is worth more than your smartphone. My guide about safety in South America can help you – have a look here.
Mexico City is a wonderful city full of sights, history, incredible food, and nightlife, and it’s a place which I definitely wouldn’t skip because of some horror stories you might hear. I lived in this city for four months, and nothing ever happened to me and neither to my exchange friends.
Language barriers in Mexico
You should be fine to get around with English (especially in the touristy places and in hostels/hotels). However, I recommend learning at least some basic Spanish words and phrases. Spanish is not a difficult language to get into, so it’s quite easy to get some basic skills and pick up a few words. It’s definitely helpful and will leave a good impression on the locals you’ll talk to.
When to go backpacking Mexico
Mexico can be visited year-round, but keep in mind that there are still some differences between seasons. The summer season is hot, humid, and wet (it’s hurricane season in the Caribbean!), whereas the winter is dry and in some parts (especially in the north and in places with higher altitudes) cold, especially in the night – so don’t forget to pack a jacket. Since the country is so diverse, temperature varies a lot; – from the tropical states of Chiapas, Veracruz, and the Yucatan peninsula, to higher Mexico City and the mountainous North.
Try to avoid peak season (winter holidays and Semana Santa) especially for the touristic areas, since places get super crowded, and definitely book your accommodation in advance for these periods.
How to get around Mexico
Getting around Mexico is super easy, thanks to cheap, low-cost airlines (Volaris, Viva Aerobus) and its extensive long-distance bus network. Don’t underestimate the size of the country – for some journeys, it’s definitely recommended to take a quick and cheap flight, rather to spend 20+ hours in a bus. That being said, most long-distance bus companies in Mexico have good quality and are comfortable, clean, and safe to use. You can also decide on the class you’d like to travel, ranging from simple seats, to sleepers including wifi, food, and your own TV screen. The most famous bus company in Mexico is “ADO”, but there are also many other alternatives. Tickets can be easily bought online or at the local ticket office, just make sure to book a little bit in advance (especially during peak season).
Budget for backpacking Mexico
The amount of money you’ll spend depends heavily on the places you’ll visit and on your style of traveling. Tourist meccas along the Riviera Maya have almost European restaurant prices, tours will also cost more. Therefore, it’s not that easy to travel i.e. Cancun on a budget. Things get cheaper as soon as you continue into Chiapas and Oaxaca. My living costs in Mexico City were also influenced by the areas where I spent my money. While you find cheap street tacos around every corner; housing and restaurant prices in the “expensive” neighborhoods such as Polanco, Roma, and Condesa were at the same level as prices in major European capitals. Nevertheless, by staying in hostels, eating delicious street food, and organizing your activities by yourself rather than joining tour groups, you can definitely travel Mexico on a shoestring.
Here’s a rough overview of typical expenses:
⇒ Night in a hostel dorm: 10$
⇒ Street food: 1-3$
⇒ Meal in an average restaurant: 5-7$ (more at the Riviera Maya)
⇒ Beer in a supermarket: 1-2$
⇒ Beer in a fancy club: 5$
⇒ Entrance to Mayan ruins: 5$
⇒ Uber ride through Mexico City: 2-5$
⇒ Night bus: 20-30$
Overall, try to budget roughly 30-40$/day for your Mexico journey, depending on your style and speed of travel.
When backpacking Mexico, it’s also good to know about tipping in the country. Here’s an extensive guide about tipping in Mexico.
How much time do I need for backpacking Mexico?
This question is difficult to answer. The country is so huge that you will have difficulties to see everything during one trip anyway, so don’t even try to squeeze in!
If you only have 1-2 weeks, you should focus on one area.
⇒ If you’re into beaches, your obvious choice is the Riviera Maya. Try to avoid Cancun and spend your time at the beautiful beaches in Tulum, where you can swim with the turtles in Akumal. Head to the beautiful blue lagoon in Bacalar or escape it all on the remote Isla Holbox. You could even do a detour to Palenque in Chiapas, to see the most stunning Mayan ruins of the country and some beautiful waterfalls. This is kind of the typical tourist trail, therefore you’ll have a great and well-developed tourist infrastructure and plenty of accommodation – particularly in Playa del Carmen and Tulum – for every budget.
⇒ If you’re into culture and cities, base yourself in Mexico City and do some shorter trips to nearby places such as Puebla, Taxco, San Miguel de Allende, and Guanajuato, or Oaxaca City. I love Mexico City and highly recommend a visit – read more about the best things to do in Mexico City.
⇒ Another option would be a road trip from Tijuana down the Baja California through La Paz and further into Los Cabos.
If you have 3-4 weeks, you can see a bigger part of the country.
⇒ I would recommend the overland journey from the Yucatan peninsula to Mexico City (or vice versa) through the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca.
⇒ If you have some extra time, add some shorter trips to Puebla, Taxco, San Miguel de Allende, and Guanajuato from Mexico City as your base.
What if you’ve got even more time?
⇒ For some Caribbean flair, check out the state of Veracruz (Papantla with its famous “El Tajín” ruins and Veracruz City).
⇒ To see canyons and mountains, do the stunning “El Chepe” journey from Los Mochis to Chihuahua. Stay a night or two at the Barranca del Cobre.
⇒ If you’re looking for surfing and beach time, check out the West coast with beach towns such as Sayulita, Puerto Vallarta, and Puerto Escondido. If you enjoy the ocean, you could even check out Huatulco for snorkeling, only two hours away from Puerto Escondido.
You see – Mexico definitely doesn’t get boring and you’re spoilt by choice! So pack your bag and go! And if you have enough time, you could even combine Mexico with other countries in the area. For example, you could get a cheap flight to explore Cuba!
Have you already been to Mexico? Would you like to go? Let me know in the comments!