5 Days in Cancun on a budget – What to do?
The Mayan Riviera is a 130-km stretch of Caribbean coastline in southeastern Mexico. Between Cancun in the north and the Mayan ruins of Tulum in the south are countless white-sand beaches on the calm turquoise water of the Caribbean.
Cancun is famous for all-inclusive luxury resorts, while formerly lesser-known beach hangouts like Playa del Carmen are now firmly established on the beaten path. But a budget-conscious side remains to these world-class tourist destinations. You can still get a nice hotel room for under $30 USD in downtown Cancun, and eat the best—and cheapest—local food just a few blocks from the beach in Playa del Carmen.
Although you could easily spend your entire vacation with your toes in the soft white sand and a sweating Corona in your hand, there’s a lot more to the Mayan Riviera than the beach. The thick jungle covering the entire Yucatan Peninsula contains ancient Mayan ruins, pretty colonial towns, abundant wildlife, and freshwater sinkholes and limestone caves called cenotes—fun places to swim, snorkel and scuba dive.
The great Mayan city of Chichén Itzá, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, is only three hours from Cancún on good highways. In the other direction, rocky Tulum rivals Chichén Itzá with its location on limestone cliffs overlooking the sky-blue Caribbean.
Just down the road from Chichén Itzá, Valladolid is the nearest place to get some authentic Yucatan culture. It has streets of pastel-painted colonial buildings, a colorful local market, a 16-century chapel, a cenote, and a relaxed vibe that’s worlds apart from the resorts and party scene of Cancun.
So, with so many options, how would you organize a week-long trip to Cancun and the Mayan Riviera? Well, allow me to recommend the guidebook I wrote for the region (please click the book or the links):
In this guidebook, a five-day itinerary in Cancun, you visit the following places in the Yucatan peninsula: Cancun, Valladolid, Chichén Itzá, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum, with stops at a few cenotes on the way, and enough alternatives to keep you busy for weeks.
Chichén Itzá is much more than the iconic, hugely impressive pyramid. While many visitors to Chichén Itzá go in a large, loud, rushed tour group, going on your own is easy. If you get there at 8 a.m. when it opens, you’ll have plenty of time to explore every jungle path at the large site.
Staying in Valladolid the night before visiting Chichén Itzá not only puts you in a great position to get to the ruins early, but the pretty town will give you a taste of the culture of the Yucatan which you certainly wouldn’t get if you only stayed at the beach. Don’t miss its traditional market, a great place to buy fresh fruit, vegetables, and honey.
Of course, because of its international airport, your first stop will be Cancun, even if you don’t stay in a resort there. When travelers talk about Cancun, they mean the long thin island of beach and big all-inclusive resorts. If you want to stay cheap, stay in downtown Cancun on the mainland.
In downtown Cancun, visit Parque las Palapas to have lots of options for local food from its many food stalls. If you prefer a restaurant, they are all around the park, with better prices than the tequila-shooter-and-nacho spots in the hotel zone.
Just down the road is Mercado 28, a tourist market with the best prices for souvenirs in the region. There’s good cheap restaurants (fonditas) in there too.
Getting to the beach from downtown Cancun is easy.
If you like the low prices and modest hotels of downtown Cancun, but want the beach access of the hotel zone, then look no farther than Playa del Carmen about one hour south. ADO, the bus that goes from the airport to downtown Cancun, also has a direct bus to Playa del Carmen.
In Playa del Carmen, you can stay a few blocks from the beach for as cheap as $30 a night. The bustling nightclubs, restaurants, and shopping centers of Cancun can also be found in Playa del Carmen, along with many more options for local and international food. And in Playa, you can get everywhere on foot.
At night, walk down Quinta Ave. (5th Ave), the main drag in Playa del Carmen that follows the beach.
Of course, if you have more than a week or are looking for something different, there’s much more to see and do in the Mayan Riviera.
You can take a trip to an island (Cozumel, Isla Mujeres, Holbox), explore lesser-known ruins (Coba, Ek-Balam, countless more), go snorkeling or scuba diving (Akumal, Puerto Morelos, many more), venture through an underground river, golf, go fishing, go mountain biking, have a spa day, or relax on a beach that’s much less developed than Cancun or Playa del Carmen. Tips, suggestions and directions to all these places and many more can be found in my guide.
My Cancun and Mayan Riviera 5-Day Itinerary is for the independent traveler who likes the beach but also wants some culture. Besides saving a lot of money, you:
- Have two full days on two gorgeous beaches: Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
- Explore two Mayan ruins: Chichén Itzá, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, and Tulum, a sunny fortress built on cliffs overlooking one of the most iconic beaches in Mexico.
- Dip your toe into local culture in Valladolid, a small colonial town in central Yucatán.
- Swim, snorkel, or scuba dive in the clear, freshwater Dos Ojos cenote.
- Eat what Mexicans eat: seafood, tacos, and Yucatán specialties like panuchos and salbutes.
- Shop, party, get tan, and learn some Spanish, history, and culture. And, if time permits, explore more places in the region, including Puerto Morelos, Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, the Cobá ruins, Xpu-Ha beach, and many more.
You’ll save its low price the first time you follow my advice on a bus, restaurant or cenote.
(BTW, if you download it and like it, then could you help me out by writing a review on Amazon? Thanks.)
This part of Mexico may be the most visited, but in some ways the least understood. I try to remedy this with my modest guide.
Posted on November 15, 2013, in Mayan Ruins, Mexico, Travel in Mexico and tagged budget travel, cancun, cancun centro, cancun cheap, cancun discount, cenote, chichen itza, downtown cancun, mayan riviera, mexico travel, playa del carmen, tulum, valladolid. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.