In this guide I explain why rejecting the fancy all-inclusive resorts was the best decision I ever made and how to make the most of 4-5 days of traveling Mexico.
I knew going in that this trip was going to be a complete whirlwind. We had only four days and about a week’s worth of adventure to cram into that time. I’m going to attempt to cover everything, from cliff-diving, to tearing around Tulum on scooters, to snorkeling through an underwater museum, to eating our weight in tacos.
In so doing I hope to share a lot of useful information for future travelers to Mexico. And I hope to inspire readers to bypass the fancy all-inclusive Cancun resorts and hit the road to experience another side of Mexico. I’ve done Mexico both ways, and with this guide I’m saying goodbye to the resorts forever. Trust me, it’s that much better.
This is my most requested write-up ever. I have received more questions about this trip than all of my other trips this year combined — literally over a hundred comments and private messages on my Instagram.
(By the way, if you’re visiting from Instagram, and I haven’t answered your question here, then please leave a comment. I’d love to help as much as I can.)
Here is my complete guide to Mexico. I hope you enjoy it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. If you do, consider sharing it on your favorite social media.
Why Travel to Mexico?
Every year on my birthday, my family surprises me with a trip and we all go together. This tradition goes back at least 6-7 years. We all pay our own way, but the gift of traveling with my family is priceless.
They choose the destination and then let me take care of the rest.
This year they chose Tulum, Mexico. They chose Tulum over other places on my list partially because the travel was insanely cheap and that allowed us to bring a bigger group — 8 people in all.
Tulum is a small gypsy town on the Caribbean coast two hours straight south of Cancun by car. If you spend any time on Instagram then you know that it’s become a hot spot for the insta-famous and travel blogger types.
It’s been on my GO list since 2013 when I visited for a single afternoon. It was a stop on a bus tour I took during my last visit to Mexico. After that short visit I told myself I had to go back for a full trip.
It’s famous for the best little hotels tucked away in the jungle, a food scene that rivals any big city’s, and beaches that are long, lazy, and crystal clear.
How to Travel to Mexico
By the way, this article is specifically about the Caribbean coast of Mexico (aka the Yucatan Peninsula). I fully realize there’s a lot more to Mexico than just the coast. I’ve traveled all over. However, for most travelers this is the best region to visit. In this guide, unless otherwise noted, when I say “Mexico” I’m referring to the coast.
Flights to Cancun are extremely reasonable year-round as long as your exact dates are flexible. I fly from North Carolina, but I’ve found cheap flights from just about everywhere.
As of the writing of this article it’s actually cheaper to fly to Cancun from Portland, Oregon than from North Carolina. Go figure. My point is, don’t assume it’s expensive just because you live up north. Sometimes you’ll get better deals than travelers from states in closer proximity. It all depends.
Finding the Cheapest Flight
If you live in the U.S. flights range from $200-400 roundtrip. Use Google Flights and pick something affordable. This is one of the rare exceptions where finding the best deal will be easy.
By the way I wrote a super simple guide to find the best flights to any destination. It doesn’t include any of the dumb tricks you hear about that don’t actually work. It also doesn’t include any fancy software and doesn’t require you to scour the internet for six hours a day, and yet it works every time. And I normally get anywhere between 50-75% off normal price for my flights without using a frequent flyer card. You can read it here.
I use the Google Flights “Track Price” feature to get email notifications when prices rise or fall. I like to track several different itineraries simultaneously. If a super cheap flight pops up, I’ll know about it. In the end I flew United for $357 roundtrip.
Should You Rent a Car in Mexico or Use Public Transit?
We decided to rent a car, and here’s why.
The bus system in Mexico is fantastic, incredibly cheap, and easy to use. I seriously give it two thumbs up. Plus, the last time I was on a bus in Mexico, a street musician hopped on board with his guitar and sang “La Bamba” to me hoping for tips. It was so much fun, I gave him all the change in my pockets
Buuuut using the bus system still means you’re living on somebody else’s schedule, and we had to too much to do to stand around waiting for buses. If you are planning a longer stay and aren’t in a rush, you might consider taking the bus.
We rented two cars — Volkswagen Gols — from America Car Rental for five days at $302 each. There were cheaper options but the Gol had a bigger trunk. If we had been traveling with fewer people or bags we probably would have opted for a the smallest economy sized car.
Still, it worked out to about $15 per day per person. Plus, what we saved by staying Airbnb versus a beach resort more than paid for both cars.
The Risks of Renting a Car in Mexico
A word of caution about renting a car in Mexico. When you search rental cars on Priceline (or equivalent) you’ll see loads of cars available for as little as $3/day. Score! Well, not really. That is the base price used to attract tourists, but it doesn’t include insurance or the deposit. Insurance is around $35/day but varies slightly from company to company.
Insurance is necessary in Mexico. If you were involved in an accident, you could be held (yes, arrested) until everything gets figured out, even if the collision wasn’t your fault. I’m a pretty adventurous person but I’ve read enough horror stories on Tripadvisor to just suck it up and buy insurance. It’s worth it.
Our flight arrived in Cancun at 2:00PM.
We walked directly out of the airport to find the America Car Rental shuttle that would take us to their office off site. I chose America because they were upfront about the actual price and had required only a small deposit. When searching for a rental, remember if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is!
Picking up the rental cars took a while — just like in the states — so make sure to hold off on the dinner reservations until you make it to town.
Where to Stay in Mexico
When traveling on a budget the temptation is to treat lodging as an afterthought. “Wherever is cheap will be fine.”
However this is one part of the trip worth obsessing over.
Although my family picked the destination it was up to me to plan the rest of the trip. So after a long internal fight I decided not to stay in Tulum, but rather 45 minutes away in Playa del Carmen.
It was a difficult choice but several factors influenced my decision. I was traveling with a group of eight (no couples), and we all wanted to stay in the same place. The hotels in Tulum are magical but the rooms are small and we needed more space.
Why Playa Del Carmen?
More importantly, Playa del Carmen is more centrally located. It allowed us to get to all of our major points of interest in under two hours. I’ll cover this later, but if you stay in Tulum, it’ll be a three hour drive to Chichen Itza. Two and a half hours to get to Isla Mujeres. And that’s just one way.
If you choose to stay in Tulum, plan on staying in Tulum for the majority of your trip. Playa del Carmen on the other hand is perfectly situated between all the places I wanted to go. If you’re looking for a centrally located “hub” from which to launch different adventures every day, Playa del Carmen is perfect.
I checked all of my go-to travel sites but for Mexico Airbnb has the best selection by far. Airbnb has tons of great condos that would have met our budget of $50 per person per night. But of course I fell in love with an oceanfront penthouse that was waayyy over budget.
So I negotiated. Yes, it’s okay to negotiate on Airbnb, just don’t be obnoxious.
Negotiating with Your Airbnb Host
If you’re uncomfortable negotiating, I’ll give you my go-to opening line. I always hated negotiating things before I learned this, so give it a try:
If they respond positively, be honest and tell them what your desired budget is and go from there.
Ultimately we negotiated a price well below our budget ($43.75 per person per night).
However, there were a couple factors that played in our favor: 1. It was less than two weeks away and they had no other inquiries and 2. The listing had no prior reviews and I assured them by email that they could count on a great review from us (assuming the unit and service was as advertised).
That sealed the deal, and we saved over $600 from the list price, which conveniently covered the cost of both rental cars.
Amazing Oceanfront Penthouse Condo
Since my stay, they have received lots of other amazing reviews, so they will have less incentive to drop the price now. But there are new listings going up on Airbnb every day. Keep an eye out for them and try to use it to your, and your host’s, advantage.
Again, I want to highly recommend Playa del Carmen as a convenient hub for your Mexico adventures. Not to mention Playa del Carmen has its own amazing little village with tons of shopping and eating.
Not too shabby for Rachel.
How Much Does Traveling to Mexico Cost
Before we get into specifics of where to eat and what to do in Mexico, I want to break down the cost of travel.
We’ve all had one of those annoying situations where we’re telling a friend about our most recent trip and they say “Yeah, I would travel there, but it’s so expensive.”
I always want to say “I think your cable subscription is expensive!” but instead I just break down the actual cost and show them how affordable it can be.
Here are the actual numbers from my trip to Mexico last August:
Air Travel: $357.00
Rental Car: $75.00
Obviously we had a large group that helped bring down the average cost per person. But we also could have done things a lot cheaper.
We stayed in a luxury oceanfront penthouse and spent extra for a nicer car. In other words, this trip could have easily been even cheaper.
For comparison, the all-inclusive resorts are around $500 per person not including your flight. And while the hotels are nice, our Airbnb was even nicer.
Where to Eat in Mexico
When abroad, I like to experience the native food. No Senor Frogs or Margaritaville for me. I do my best to eat like a local. For many readers this will seem like a “duh” thing. But I talk to many people who still view small local restaurants as risky or “unclean”.
Sure, sometimes you won’t like the food. It’s unlikely your palate is prepared to enjoy every cuisine on earth. Mine certainly isn’t.
But it’s fun and the only downside is that sometimes you might have to grab a little snack later if you make a bad choice. (I carry protein bars and goldfish everywhere with me.)
By now I almost have a sixth sense about finding good food. But you can develop the same sense by following a few simple rules.
- Start by walking the neighborhood at dinner time. Note any restaurants with long lines of locals waiting to eat. Locals, not tourists! Tourists tend to stop at whatever restaurant looks familiar or has the best marketing. Locals only wait in line for good food.
- Next, listen for restaurants full of loud boisterous guests. It’s a fact. People are happier at good restaurants. If you walk by a restaurant that is buzzing with happiness, add it to your list. This rule sounds stupid but really works. (You can try this in your hometown too.)
- When ordering ask the server what they like, and then order it without question. I’ve worked at restaurants my whole life. When people ask “what’s popular?” we assume the guest is a picky eater. If they return their food, it’s a major annoyance. So we don’t recommend the best dish. We just recommend the dish they are least likely to return. Instead, ask the server what their favorite dish is. It shows trust and they won’t want to let you down.
Several food stops stood out on this trip.
Los Aguachiles (Playa del Carmen)
LA is there open air taco joint right off of 5th avenidas where we ate dinner our first night in Mexico. We checked into the airbnb and headed straight out to eat, starving.
Fifth Ave is where I’d read everything happens in Playa del Carmen. It was only a ten minute walk for us and we stayed at the farthest north edge of town. It would be less anywhere else you stayed.
My “sixth sense” led us directly to LA. We hadn’t eaten all day so we went crazy ordering several appetizers and huge entrees. The highlight of the night was something they called “poison beans” — refried beans over lime splashed tortilla chips and topped with pork cracklins and pickled onions. I would go back just for that dish.
We all got stuffed on an assortment of tacos — at least 20 in all. We even tried the squid, which was icky as you’d expect but still somehow really good.
The bill for all eight of us including tip rang in right at $2000 pesos. Which is less than $15 USD per person, including appetizers, alcohol, and cokes all around. I love eating in Mexico.
Posada Margherita (Tulum)
This is an Italian restaurant. Now before you judge, I’ll tell you that Mexico has good Italian food almost everywhere and it’s worth trying. PM was recommended by a friend who manages a high-end steakhouse in NYC and OHMYGOODNESS.
Everything was made in house. The pasta, the bread, the mozzarella cheese. And all of it was amazing. It was the only pricey restaurant I ate at while in Mexico but well worth it.
Note: Tulum is a very trendy place right now, and everything is just a little more expensive there. If you want to keep things cheap, pack food or plan your meals in other towns.
Que Huevos (Playa del Carmen)
My second favorite meal was breakfast at QH, which was just a short walk from our Airbnb. It’s a TINY open air cafe that holds 15 people max. So adorable, and they serve fresh fruit juices, yogurt, chile quiles, and my personal favorite a burrito stuffed with eggs, chiles and chorizo.
Taqueria Fogon (Playa del Carmen)
We drove past this place every night on our way back to our condo. One night, it was well past 10PM and a long line of locals still laced the block. As you know that passes rule number 1 and 2, so I knew I wanted to try it before we left.
TF is traditional Mexican tacos complete with meat off the spit and pickled pink onions. The taco al pastor was a game changer, and even though I HATE standing in line, I’m so glad I didn’t skip this. If you visit Playa del Carmen go here first!
The Little Helados Guy on His Motocycle (Tulum)
I doubt you’ll ever be able to track this one down, but I’ll mention it just for fun. Tulum is hot. Hotter than any place I’ve been in Mexico. Trust me, you’ll get tired just standing in the shade.
While we were waiting around for our scooter rentals (more on that later), up rides a perfect little ice cream cycle driven by an old man that made the helados himself. I wanted lime and coconut, so I actually ordered two!
Maybe it was just the heat, but honestly it may have been the best icecream I’ve ever had. If you see him, waive him down. You won’t regret it.
Where to Go and What to Do in Mexico
The last time I visited Mexico I had gone the conventional route. I stayed at an all-inclusive resort that looked like it was straight out of a magazine. I spent most of each day lounging on the beach or ordering flaming Mexican coffees just to watch the show.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed myself immensely. But my favorite parts of the trip were when we ventured away from the resort to see the real Mexico, and the experience left me itching to come back and see more of the country than they show you in Condé Nast.
There are five big things everyone should do while visiting this part of Mexico. I was going to attempt to do all five in just four full days in the country.
Most are relatively inexpensive thanks to the favorable exchange rate. This is not by any means an exhaustive list of the adventures that can be found on the Yucatán Peninsula. These are just what I consider to be the most important things to do if you’re short on time and want to get the most out of your trip.
Chichen Itza is the location of the most famous of the Mayan ruins in Mexico. The famous pyramid everyone has seen in pictures.
How to Find It
It’s about a two-hour drive from Playa del Carmen. As you can already tell I’m very budget-minded so I rarely pay for data service when overseas. That means no relying on Google Maps to find our way to the ruins.
Make sure you plan your trip in advance. I’m a natural navigator so I studied the map and we took off inland toward Chichen Itza. You might even consider bringing a paper map with you and tracing your route beforehand. I know, what year is this?! But it’s better than getting lost in Mexico or returning home to a $500 cell phone bill.
We only turned around twice! But we still made pretty good time.
Driving the highways in Mexico is fun. We saw dozens of tarantulas crossing the highway and tons of rope bridges that stretch from one side of the highway to the other. We were told they were there to allow monkeys to cross the highways safely! I had my fingers crossed to see one but no luck.
The Best Way to Enjoy Chichen Itza
When you get there, you can park at the main ticket office or on the side of the street leading up to the archeological site. Parking at the office will cost you. Parking on the street is free but is “watched over” by several impromptu parking attendants hoping to earn tips for their help.
We parked for free and paid them a few pesos when we left. They were also selling cups of sliced mango covered with habanero salt so we bought a round of those too.
Once you get to the ticket office, the line can be extremely long and the sun is murder. I recommend purchasing tickets beforehand and walking straight in.
Once inside you know what to do. This ancient city will blow your mind, structure after structure. You don’t need a guide. You can walk the city at your own pace, and the paper guides are quite good.
This is one of the New 7 Wonders of the World and for good reason. I can’t explain the feeling of standing in front of these pyramids knowing how old they are. It’s incredible.
Ik kil Cenote
Mexico is famous for its cenotes (pronounced “seh-NO-tays”) — natural sinkholes bubbling with crystal clear spring water. There are hundreds of them all over the Yucatán but Ik Kil is probably the most famous.
It’s less than 10 minutes away from the ruins at Chichen Itza, perfect for a refreshing dip after baking in the heat of Chichen Itza. The water is ice cold and crystal clear.
The entrance fee is $20 pesos or about $5USD.
Beware, its crowded! I was quickly losing my patience with hundreds of people pushing and shoving like a Disney theme park.
Then I saw it. The top is open, vines and greenery draping in, along with a few natural waterfalls… it’s stunning.
The mouth of the crater is about 85 feet above the water level and you walk down a manmade staircase if you want to go for a swim (we did).
I took the leap off the highest platform (around 20ft high) into the freezing cold dark water! It was amazing. There were a few black catfish swimming along minding their own business, but other than that it was just hundreds of feet of crystal clear fresh water.
After about an hour of treading water and taking in all the beauty my chattering teeth let me know it was time to go.
It was an amazing experience but beware of some of the other visitors. So many people cling to the outer sides of the cenote. Some with life vests, some not. But they’re all swimming like they’re drowning. (ie swimming erratically.) I’m a very strong swimmer and I was pushed under twice, kicked, and my gold chain bracelet was torn from my wrist! So if you don’t feel comfortable swimming for long periods then a life jacket is recommended!
Xel-ha is an all inclusive closed snorkeling reserve. It’s mostly natural too. They have Coves, cenotes, lagoons, caves, ziplining, etc. Look them up on Instagram. I tagged them in one of my posts on Mexico.
It’s one of the more expensive things I did in Mexico, coming in around $90 per person. However you get 10% off if you buy your tickets online at least 7 days in advance, and food and drinks are included all day.
I had been here before and didn’t want my family to miss out on it. We spent the entire day snorkeling, swimming, jumping off big rocks, laying out, eating, and diving.
On my first visit here I got to touch a wild sea turtle swimming about 10 ft below the surface. It was unforgettable.
It’s a little touristy for Mexico, but nowhere near what Americans are used to. To Americans it feels downright wild.
The reserve is closed off (to keep out predators) but it is truly natural. And it’s big enough that you can swim all day and only encounter a handful of other snorkelers.
The drive was simple but once we arrived to the city of Tulum it was difficult to find the famous “strip” you see in all the pictures. Hang a left and head toward the beach. Pretty soon you’ll enter the gypsy village of Tulum. It’s one big long strip of restaurants, shops, and hotels.
It can only be described as magical. We drove several miles nice and slow just taking it all in. Treehouses, open air restaurants, cenotes and super stylish girls everywhere you look.
Our initial plan was to park and rent bicycles. That seemed to be the preferred method of transportation between the various beaches and shops. However, I’m glad we didn’t because it’s waaayy too hot to be doing any cardio.
Instead we happened to pass a bar that had scooters for rent. 400 pesos for the afternoon — about $25 USD. Do this. It was so much fun.
We tore around Tulum until almost dark. The beaches were perfect, some flat and calm. Others parts of the beach had large rocks you could climb and watch the turquoise waves crash into.
How to Find the Best Beach in Tulum
Most of the beaches are privately owned by businesses in Tulum. The public accesses are hard to find, crowded, and are typically less desirable stretches of beach. If you’re not staying at a hotel in Tulum, but you want you still want to enjoy the premium sections of beach, then go eat at one of the oceanfront restaurants or bars. They will allow customers to stay on their beach all day.
We went to two different restaurants and both were amazing! Who would’ve thought I’d have one of my favorite Italian meals EVER in Mexico?!?
One more quick note about Tulum. It is a thousand degrees and you can cut the humidity with a knife. I don’t recommend makeup or getting fancy because it’s just too darn hot. Au natural is definitely the way to go.
Isla Mujeres is a famous snorkel/dive spot in Mexico. They are most famous for the “underwater museum” (MUSA) — hundreds of stone sculptures they dropped into the water in an attempt to jumpstart the eroding coral reef.
We saved this for our last day in Mexico. Our flights home was the following morning.
There are about a zillion different tour companies that will take you to snorkel the MUSA site.
It was long past lunch time. I was starving and our guide was running late. We grabbed a few quesadillas, guacamole, salsa and chips from a cafe next door to the tour company. I’d later regret that decision.
The tour guide arrived shortly after and led us to our dock. He explained a few simple things about the necessity of a life jacket and began explaining where our 5 hour trip would take us. We boarded a small boat that took us to our first site. Beautiful fish everywhere. The water was chilly but I could’ve stayed in forever.
Things Take a Turn for the Worse
I noticed on our way to the second dive site that I wasn’t feeling well. By the final stop at MUSA my stomach was really churning.
I ignored it. I jumped out of the boat and dove down as far as I could. Turns out, it wasn’t anywhere close to the statues that sit 40 feet below the surface. It didn’t matter, I was in awe! Even swimming above them was magical. There are 500 sculptures. Their purpose is to draw tourists away from the natural coral reef that is being destroyed by uncaring visitors.
They recently added a new exhibit an eight ton cement replica of the original Volkswagen Beetle. The purpose of these sculptures is to bring awareness to the major destruction tourist bring to the world’s coral reef.
Shortly after one last attempt to dive down to get 23 feet below the water to the VW bug, I violently vomited up all the food I ate before we left. Right on top of two scuba divers on their way back up to the surface! I don’t recommend it.
What I Would Do Differently
On the morning of our flight home I woke up before my alarm (that NEVER happens)… to vomit. I didn’t stop there. It was definitely an “Oh no!” Kind of travel day. I barely made it from the baños to the nearest trash can in airport security to the next bathroom and so on. In all likelihood, I had a parasite.
It’s hard to narrow down where I picked it up. It could have been from swimming in the cenote, or eating fresh lychee we bought off the street.
Or it could have been the tap water when I brushed my teeth. The effects lingered for three long weeks and I’ll go ahead and tell you… YOU DON’T WANT IT! The next time I go to Mexico, I’ll take an over the counter probiotic prior to my trip. Also, some doctors recommend to have a single shot of alcohol with every meal, which serves as a quick antibiotic to many of the parasites common in the Mexico.
Mexico is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Unfortunately if you stay at an all-inclusive resort you’re only going to experience a tiny fraction of what it has to offer. I’ve done Mexico both ways, and I can confidently say that I will never stay on a resort again.
Rent a car, Airbnb, and explore several different cities on your next trip. And if you have any questions while you’re planning, ask me in the comments, or send me an email. As always. everything I publish it free, but if you found it helpful consider giving it a share on your preferred social media.