This is a story of four ‘Not-so-very-rich” Atlas Corps fellows visiting Mexico on a low budget but still having an amazingly beautiful and fun trip. I’m here to provide some guidance to others wishing to do the same.
When and where to go
We found it was the cheapest to go in January and to fly to Cancun. Tickets cost around $350 from DC and NYC. It is a good time to escape the January cold, meanwhile, in Mexico, it’s sunny and beautiful, and yes, you can swim! I was obsessed with tanning but there was not much time for me to just lay down on the beach. Our days were packed with activities.
Where to stay: Airbnb vs. All-inclusive resorts
We decided to go with the Airbnb option. It was so cheap. Each of us paid around $100 for 5 nights in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum. Airbnb in Cancun was a little far from downtown and the beach, but taxis are available. There is this WhatsApp group in Cancun. Ask your host to add you there, and you can order taxis for a better price than you would get by stopping one on the street. However, if you have a bigger budget, it may not be a bad idea to look for all-inclusive resorts deals. Depending on how many days you want to spend in Cancun, it may be worth opting for the resort. You would save money on food. But then, you would miss out on great restaurants that are in the area.
Once you reach Cancun, you only need a day to explore the city. You should expect a lot of tourists from around the world, but mostly from the US. I must admit, Cancun wasn’t my favorite. On the other hand, there is this small and beautiful island – Isla Mujeres, a 20-minute ferry ride from Cancun. The North beach – Playa del Norte is one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. The ferry costs around $20 for a round-trip but definitely worth going. You can rent a scooter or a cart or just walk around to explore the island. I tried my first Coconut water there. Didn’t like that much.
Be sure to eat as many tacos as possible in Cancun.
Playa Del Carmen
It’s a lot of fun with nice beach areas but again very touristy. The accommodation is cheap, but we only stayed there for one night. You could hear club music until about 4-5 AM. And yes, all of us were very tired so we didn’t stay out late. We did hit Taco Tuesday’s event at one of the bars with “buy one drink or plate and get one free deal” but drinks were mostly made of sugar, water, and ice, no alcohol present.
Be sure to eat as many tacos as possible in Playa del Carmen.
We rated Tulum the highest. It’s more authentic with tons of local restaurants and shops. It is easy to get to Chichen Itza from there (2-hour drive). Near the Chichen Itza, there is a small town Piste. Very cute and with great food. When in Tulum, there are a couple of things you must do:
- Visit Chichen Itza – unfortunately, we found out that ticket prices have been doubled for foreign nationals since last year, but it is what it is, it’s still a must-see.
- Cenote Ik Kil – see the below photo. Only around $8 to enter and it’s very beautiful and spiritual. I took a swim in the cenote and I could swear that I heard ancient spirits. It is a heavenly place.
- Cenote Dos Ojos – not as impressive as the cenote Ik Kil and costs I think triple to enter but still very unique and highly recommended.
- Paradise beach – warm white sand and beautifully organized.
- Nightlife – Now here we did go out and it was amazing. Gitano is very popular with a huge line at the entrance, but that whole area has tons of places to choose from.
Oh and, be sure to eat as many tacos as possible in Tulum.
Some other tips:
- Always negotiate while buying things or paying for services (Taxi), or if you aren’t a good price negotiator, take a friend who is (Special Thanks to my lovely Irma!).
- It helps if you speak at least a little Spanish.
- I love to drive so I decided to rent a car. That was my biggest expense but totally worth the freedom that comes with it. The only downside is that you have to stay sober but if you love driving more than you love alcohol (it’s a hard choice I know) then go rent a car.
- If you are renting a car, you can go ahead and speed 20km/h over the speed limit (which is 100 km/h) but I wouldn’t risk going faster; police are everywhere. And yes, they use kilometers, not miles! Also, don’t drive at night. Streetlights are not installed on the secondary roads and the lights from the cars driving from the opposite direction will blind you. I held my breath literally the whole time. I couldn’t see anything! The other thing is to watch out for Mexican topes (speed bumps). Topes are very different than regular speed bumps. They are larger and higher. There were a couple of times when I didn’t see them and the girls in the backseat screamed at the top of their lungs.
- If you are a food lover, which I’m not but the rest of my travel buddies are, try to search for local authentic places in all of those 3 destinations. It’s going to be cheaper and it’s going to be the real deal.
- Apparently, we get T-Mobile Data roaming for free in Mexico which I wasn’t sure about. Therefore, I bought a Mexican sim card. It was useful when I had to make calls.
- And please, try to plan ahead where you want to go. We were struggling with that a little. Funny example: after visiting one of the cenotes we know we want to go to the beach. One of my girls googled and found a good beach nearby so I get on the highway and start driving towards it. Meanwhile, another friend found out that at a different beach that was located in the opposite direction, they had turtles and you could swim with them. So obviously, you can’t say no to turtles. I make a U-turn on a highway and start driving back. After around 10 minutes, yet another friend in a car finds out that you have to pay to swim with turtles, it’s not a public beach. Apparently, we like turtles but not that much to pay to swim with them. So back to the first beach option, I make another U-turn on the highway and start driving back. Meanwhile, people got hungry and we decided to grab lunch in the city. This should explain why I don’t have a dark-enough tan.
Overall, it was a great trip and highly recommend you to take it. As a side note, I’m very proud of myself for taking a risk and driving in a foreign country. I was a little nervous, but then I remembered that my male friends would never hesitate to do it. And I remembered that I’m no less courageous than men, I’m a strong woman and will not fear anything (except cockroaches, I’m terrified of them)! So, I did it, and thankfully we are all safe and sound.