With its chic all-inclusives, flashy nightclubs and pricey waterfront restaurants, Cancún may feel at times like a playground for the rich, but it can be budget friendly as well.
Downtown, for instance, overflows with good-value accommodations and savory Yucatecan eats that go easy on your wallet. And then there's the hotel zone's star attraction, a swath of mesmerizing turquoise beaches that won't cost you a single peso.
Here are some insider tips on how to stretch your money in Cancún, and for good measure we've included a breakdown of how much one can expect to spend on a modest budget.
- Hostel: M$200-500 (dorm bed)
- Basic room for two: M$600-1000
- Self-catering apartment (including Airbnb): M$400-1200
- Public transport: M$12
- Coffee: M$40-70
- Beer: M$40-120
- Mezcal or tequila shot: M$100-200
- Tacos: M$15-30
- Sandwich or torta: M$40-200
- Dinner for two: M$400-600
- Average daily cost: M$1,500-2,000
1. Steer clear of the spring break and winter holiday rush
Cancún's costly peak travel season runs from December to April. It comes with an even steeper price tag around Christmas, New Year's and spring break when airline, hotel and car rental rates skyrocket. During spring break, usually around March, hordes of college students descend on the megaresorts to let it all hang out at wild fiestas in the beach clubs, bars and thumping discos, giving the city an overcrowded and boozy anything-goes vibe. For quieter and more affordable times, come during the low-season months of May, June, September and October.
2. Eat like a local in atmospheric markets and taco joints
To get some serious bang for your buck, not to mention authentic eats that would have made Anthony Bourdain smile, hit the downtown market stalls and moderately priced eateries specializing in homestyle Yucatacen fare. For regional classics such as panuchos (fried tortilla snacks), sopa de lima (Mexican lime soup) and cochinita pibil (slow-cooked pulled pork), you'll find dozens of informal restaurants lining the aisles of Mercado 23 and Mercado 28. Also, some downtown establishments feature a menú del día, a ridiculously cheap three-course lunch that may or may not induce a food coma. Come nighttime, wrap your fingers around the al pastor (spit-cooked marinated pork) tacos at Taquería Coapeñitos, or get some munchies on at hotel zone hole-in-the-wall Surfin' Burrito.
3. Catch the economical airport bus
Upon arrival at the Cancún International Airport, look for the red ADO buses that run frequently from the terminals to the downtown bus station. They cost about a third of what the airport taxis charge, but they don’t go to the hotel zone, so you will have to take an airport shuttle if you're staying on that side of town.
4. Stay in downtown, or perhaps a hotel zone hostel
Many budget-conscious travelers like to stay in the hostels, guesthouses and hotels clustered around downtown's Parque de las Palapas, Avenida Yaxchilán and the ADO bus station, in the heart of the Centro. Tried-and-true faves include Nomads, a convivial hostel sporting a rooftop bar and pool, or Hotel Náder, which has great low-season rates for its impeccably spacious rooms. Lodging, food and transportation tend to cost less in the downtown area. Nevertheless, it's possible to find several reasonably priced digs in the hotel zone: Mayan Monkey and Hostel Natura put you within stumbling distance of the party zone, but book ahead as rooms and dorm beds go fast.
5. Plunge into inexpensive cenotes
In Cancún's outlying areas, you’ll find dozens of sublime jungle-set cenotes (sinkholes, caverns and underground rivers) that are ideal for swimming, snorkeling, and in some cases, diving. Admissions range from M$150 to M$500, depending on the activity and equipment needed. The bulk of them are fairly budget-friendly, considering that you can easily spend a half-day frolicking in otherworldly natural wonders.
6. Spend in Mexican pesos and use fee-free credit cards
Most hotels and restaurants will gladly accept US dollars, but with the caveat that you'll probably be getting a not-great exchange rate. Even cab drivers typically charge more when quoting fares in US dollars, so whenever possible, pay with Mexican pesos.
When using plastic, take into account that you may get dinged with foreign transaction fees for ATM withdrawals and debit card purchases. Some major credit cards have no transaction fees, making them the smartest payment option if you want to stick it to the banks. Cancún's ATMs dispense Mexican pesos.
7. Hop on the bus for the cheapest ride in town
At just M$12 a ride (less than US$1), Cancún's city buses cost a fraction of what you would pay for taxis, plus you eliminate the hassle of having to negotiate overpriced cab fares. Lines R-1, R-2 and R-27 run about every 10 minutes between downtown and the hotel zone, allowing you to zip back and forth with ease between the beaches and Cancún Centro. R-1 stops at the ADO first-class bus station along downtown's main drag, Avenida Tulum, then it plies a route through the L-shaped hotel zone, a barrier island spanning about 24km.
8. Pile into shared vans to explore Cancún's outlying areas
Locals often get around Cancún and its surrounding areas in low-cost shared vans, known as colectivos, and it makes perfect sense once you see how convenient and relatively affordable they are. To reach downtown's Isla Mujeres ferry terminal, hail a 'Puerto Juárez' colectivo from a stop across from the ADO bus station. Island getaway Isla Mujeres makes for an easy day trip from Cancún, and the scenic 20-minute crossing won't break the bank. To reach the Riviera Maya beach towns south of Cancún, air-conditioned Playa Express vans are cheaper and faster than most buses, and they'll drop you off at any point along the highway, including the turnoff to the underrated Puerto Morelos. The vans depart from a parking lot in the ADO station.
9. Find out why the best things in Cancún are free
We might be going out on a limb here, but we're guessing that beach time sits high on your Cancún to-do list, and since it costs absolutely nada, we have a few additional tips for you. If you're traveling with children, hit the hotel zone's north-facing beaches, such as Playa Las Perlas and Playa Langosta, where the calm, swimmer-friendly waters feel more like a lake.
Alternatively, the beaches hugging the east shore, such as Playa Marlín and eco-friendly Playa Delfínes, may have strong undercurrents, but the Caribbean Sea along the coastline is downright breathtaking. For a cool stroll, walk about 1km north of Playa Marlín to the weathered remains of Yamil Lu'um, a small Maya structure known as the Scorpion's Temple. Used as a place of worship by maritime settlers from 1200 to 1550 CE, the ancient ruins stand in stark contrast to the backdrop of sleek hotels.
10. Any other ways to pinch pesos?
Many hotels, apartments and guesthouses in Cancún come with full kitchens, allowing you to reduce travel expenses by self-catering. In some hotels, children can stay for free, while various attractions, long-distance buses and ferries provide discounted prices for kids. Family-run hotels often cut guests a deal for multiple-night stays or payments in cash. In the off-season, some of the large resorts run promos offering essentially high-end rooms at midrange rates.