The Riviera Maya on a shoestring

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It may seem like the resort-studded tropical coastline of Mexico's Riviera Maya might be out of reach for the budget traveler. Think again. Though it might take a little more advance planning and a willingness to forgo the luxury digs, it is quite possible to enjoy this piece of paradise - running from Cancún through Playa del Carmen and down to Tulum - on the cheap.

Sleeping cheap

Visit in the off-season, roughly May to October, when flights and hotels are at their cheapest. Just keep in mind that a hurricane might brew off the coast from July through October so you'll be taking a chance (however small).
Look for budget accommodations outside of Zona Hotelera in Cancún and in smaller towns up and down the coast. Check out Lonely Planet's Hotels & Hostels - we've got recommended accommodations for every budget.
If you're interested in getting out and trying local cuisine, make sure the resort has flexible plans depending on how many meals you plan to eat at the hotel.
Travelling with a group or staying a while? Consider renting a beachfront house. In Isla Holbox (north of Cancún) these beach houses can go for as little as $30 a night.

Image by rbrands

Eating for less

Make your own meals for a sunset picnic supper at a park or on the beach. In Cancún, hit the Comercial Mexicana supermarket located on Tulum and Uxmal avenues near the bus station. There are also two traditional markets - the city's main market, Mercado Veintiocho, west of the post office, and Mercado Veintitres, north of the post office. You can buy your own fixings or enjoy a homemade dish from one of the markets' many eateries.
Skip the hotel restaurant and eat where the locals eat - mom'n'pop restaurants and fonditas (little cafés). The food will be both cheap and delicious.
Don't forget the freebies! There are many beach-front restaurants in Playa del Carmen that offer free appetizer or drink coupons.

Sights and shopping for a song

Under Mexican law you have the right to walk and swim on every beach in the country except those within military compounds - at no charge! Of course, in a place like Cancún the only catch is getting to them. About a dozen blue-and-white 'Aceso a la playa' signs on the main road mark legal access points. Or you can discreetly walk through a hotel lobby to the beach. To use any of the hotel's beach chairs and tables you'll need to buy a drink.
Ruins and natural park admissions are inexpensive. Be sure not to miss the achingly beautiful Tulum ruins (admission the equivalent of about US$5), which preside on a cliff over a rugged coastline and turquoise waters.
Take a ferry to Isla Mujeres off the coast of Cancún. Check out the sea turtle farm, Isla Mujeres Tortugranja, which serves to protect this endangered species' breeding grounds and guard the eggs and hatchlings. Admission is only about the equivalent of US$3.
Browse the artisan market at Puerto Morelos, a quiet little beach town halfway between Cancún and Playa del Carmen. You'll find hammocks, fine jewelery, pottery and clothing at much better prices than you'll see in Playa del Carmen and Cancún.

Transport tricks

Scour the internet for absolute steals on airfare to Cancún. Mexican tourism has taken some hits lately and the country wants your business.You don't need to rent a car to explore the Riviera Maya. It's actually quite convenient and inexpensive to take buses to and from destinations all along the coast.
Want more great tips? Get the latest edition of Cancún, Cozumel & the Yucatán and Mexico - or just download it by the chapter.