Yes, it can be cheap to visit Cancun, Mexico! See the real Cancun, or stay on the beach for much cheaper than you'd expect! Transportation, lodging, and things to do on a budget.
The best way to visit Cancún on a budget is to give up the fancy hotel on the beach and stay downtown instead. The actual city of Cancún gets greatly ignored by most tourists. Staying in the city is cheap and interesting! You'll get a much more authentic visit and can still visit the beaches.
I'm not usually there for the beaches anyway, but just passing through on my way to other parts of the Mayan Riviera (for instance for a beach holiday on Isla Mujeres) so staying downtown works out great. But if you do want more of the directly-on-the-beach experience, there are a few reasonable options in the Hotel Zone, too.
Where to Stay in the Hotel Zone
No matter where you stay, a big money-saver is having food in your room. If there isn't a min-mart nearby, you can take a local bus into the city and get some groceries there. There are a few taquerias near the main shopping area of the hotel zone, but you won't find Mexican street food in the Hotel Zone. Mayan Monkey Hotel & Hostel
is actually a hostel in the Hotel Zone! it's not on the beach, but is on the water on the lagoon side of the strip. It's modern and all the rooms look out to the water which is a nice touch. You can walk to taco shops and the main center of the hotel zone with the stores and bars. $10/night for a lagoon front bunk or $57/night for a lagoon front private room/bath. They have an airport shuttle for $15/pp which is a fair price.The Royal Caribbean
is our go-to for beachfront hotel in the Hotel Zone when we're not on a strict budget. It's a nice place with great pool, swim-up bar, a mini-mart on site, they recycle, exchange money, have a few restaurants on site that are not as pricey as at some of the other hotels, and you can visit their sister resorts for free. And you can get a room for around $115.
This is our favorite Hotel Zone place to stay. Reasonable prices and the place is run very well.
Where to Stay Downtown
My favorite area in the city is around the Parque de las Palapas. This is a good place to find some great hotel deals for a nice place with a pool, there is a large Chedraui grocery store within walking distance, it's right by the main ADO bus station, and there are may restaurants, shopping, and clubs nearby.
There are always new places popping up and there are always so many to choose from. The hostels I've stayed in before are no longer there and news ones are in their place. Be sure to have a look at budget lodging on Booking.com.
Hotel Xbalamqué ($23) is one of my favorites. It's a wonderfully strange sort of place with ornate Mayan decor and murals. It has a pool with drink service (whoop whoop!) and is very nice for the price.
Hotel Alux Cancun ($21) is a bit more of a drab option but it's almost right next to the ADO bus terminal. The rooms are basic but decent. I would only stay here for a quick layover since the location to the bus station is great.
Here are more budget lodging options with the best ratings and price in a good part of town.
Hotel Xbalamque in Cancun is fantastic.
The pool at Hotel Xbalamque may not be world class, but it is cool and clean and even has someone who will bring you drinks poolside. Score.
Hotel HC Internacional ($16 double) I think this is the place I'll try next time.
Hotel Inn Cancún ($6 dorm, $13 single) Or maybe this one.
Cool Studio ADO ($20 studio apartment with kitchenette) Nope, this is the one I might try.
The Mermaid Hostel ($6 dorm, $21 single)
Fiesta Party Hostel ($7 dorm, $34 single)
Moloch Hostel & Suites ($8 dorm)
Selina Cancun Downtown ($12 dorm, $23 single)
Hotel Kavia ($20 single)
Hotel Suites Le Monde ($25 double)
Capital O La Casa de los Alcatraces ($30 double)
Ramada by Wyndham Cancun City ($36) if you fancy more of a large chain hotel.
Things to Do in Cancún on a Budget
In the evening enjoy the
Parque de las Palapas. Even if you're not staying downtown, you can take the bus into the city in the evening for a stroll and some good cheap greasy food stall dinner. Locals gather here for their kids to play, watch local entertainment, and enjoy inexpensive local food from the park vendors. One winter we actually saw a free performance of The Nutcracker performed on the large stage in the park along with hundreds of locals!
Downtown is a good place to do some
Parque de las Palapas - hang out here in the evenings to get a taste of the real Cancún.
Lots of delicious greasy food made to order.
shopping. The big Chedraui grocery store within walking distance of the park (to the south west on the corner of Tulum and Coba) and there are a lot of pharmacies in the area if you need anything that might cost a zillion times more in your home country. There's even a Walmart about a mile away.
Less than 1/2 mile to the west of the park, in the middle of Ave Xel-ha circle is
Mercado 28, a huge flea market where you can find just about everything including food stalls to grab a bite while you wander around. Do not go to the indoor orange buildings (fake Mercado 28), and do not be enticed by men trying to take you to the market. Market 28 is mostly an open-air outdoor market with lots of stalls. Put your bargaining hat on! See Haggling For Newbies for bargaining tips.
There are also plenty of
bars, restaurants and night clubs depending on what your taste is. Have fun walking around to check out the latest places and their 2 for 1 happy hours.
Staying downtown, you can still enjoy the
main beaches in the Hotel Zone. Although the beaches are public, access to the them through the hotels is usually denied. But there are a few public access points, so just hop on the bus (see below How to Get Around Cancún) and ask them to drop you at one of these beaches.
From downtown, first you come into the Hotel Zone along the top of the "7" shaped strip. Here are the beach access points in the order that you'll come to them, meaning right to left along the north shore, then going south, along the east shore.
Along the north for quieter beaches without waves:
Playa Las Perlas,
Playa Caracol/Las Palmas. Playa Caracol/Las Palmas is considered the best beach on the north side. Enter through the small wooden door next to Fiesta Americana Coral Beach or go through the Xcaret bus terminal.
Chac Mool Beach (this is considered one of the best beaches and is across from Señor Frog’s),
Playa Marlin (access is behind Plaza Kukulcán, between Punta Cancun and Punta Nizuc),
Playa Ballenas (enter along a sidewalk along the Wall of Meridien Hotel),
Gawk at the monstrosities like Sr. Frogs. Bubba Gump Shrimp, and of course the infamous Coco Bongo in the main shopping section of the Hotel Zone. You can take the same R1 or R2 bus there. Go walk around, shop, have a drink or a bite. It won't be cheap but you can get a look at all the hype that is tourist Cancún. Sometimes you can get lured into a bar with an introductory drink special. Take advantage of these! You're not obligated to stay past the first drink. ;)
Right in the Hotel Zone are the Mayan
El Rey Ruins. I had been going to Cancun for years before I even realized this site was there. It's no Chichen Itza without any pyramids intact, but has 47 documented structures, is super convenient, is littered with iguanas, and costs only 50 MXN entry! Take the R1 or R2 public bus. The ruins are located at KM 18. There, you just saved over $100 by not going to Chichen Itza. LOL
Grab a taxi ($5 from the ADO bus terminal) or colectivo (if I remember right, you can get them on the north east corner of Bnampak and Kukulcan) from downtown to Puerto Juárez and head over to
Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres for the day. The ferry costs $15 round trip and you can walk to the main beach from the ferry. Spend the day soaking in sun and cocktails on one of the top beaches in the world or take the local bus around the island. See Isla Mujeres, Caribbean Luxury at Mexico Prices! for more details on how to get there, things to do, and places to eat.
Playa Norte is amazing! This was taken on a particularly busy weekend.
Ave Hidalgo is the main drag on Isla Mujeres with bars, restaurants, and shops. We always have a good laugh at that blood-red ice cream cone.
Chichen Itza is of course a popular day tour destination, but it's so much better if you do it on your own. Take an ADO bus from the nearby station, stay overnight in the town of Piste, and walk to the ruins in the morning before the tour buses arrive. Then stop at the Ik Kil cenote for a refreshing swim and cool margarita after a hot day wandering the ruins.
Save money with a DIY self-guided tour of Chichen Itza and beat the tour buses.
Ik Kil cenote near Chichen Itza is a great refreshing swim.
Cheapest Way to Get Around Cancún
From the Airport
See Cheapest Transportation from the Cancún Airport. It's really important to plan your transportation from the airport ahead of time or you could easily be stuck paying a small fortune.
Crowded vans run around town for only around $.50 so if you can figure out their routes, this can be your cheapest option. For me, I have always been able to manage on foot or by taking the public bus (for about the same price). I've used colectivos to get from downtown to Puerto Juarez before which is great as long as you only have carry-on luggage.
The Hotel Zone basically consists of just one road, Avenida Kukulcan, in the shape of a 7 with downtown at the top, and the airport near the bottom, so it's easy to get around. Locations are usually referred to by the kilometer marker they are closest to on Avenida Kukulcan, with km 0 starting downtown, and k 25 ending at the highway near the airport.
Public buses are by far the least expensive way to get around Cancun. R1 and R2 buses (clearly marked with a big sign in the window) cost only 12 pesos ($.60 USD) within the hotel zone no matter how far you're going and run frequently, like every 5 minutes. Buses on the beach side of the hotel zone are going toward downtown, and buses on the lagoon side are going south toward the airport. Fare within the city is 10.5 pesos ($.50).
If you pay attention and know your stop, pull the cord or yell "alto por favor". Otherwise, politely tell the driver where you're going when you pay your fare (Playa Tortugas por favor?). They are *pretty good* at remembering to stop at your requested location so try to pay somewhat attention.
Taking the R1 or R2 within the Hotel Zone is easy. If you are heading into downtown, know that R1 takes different routes once it enters the city. The destinations are marked on the front window. Both buses pass the Chedraui Tulum supermarket (at the northwest corner of the second roundabout) so that can be your stop if you are going to the Parque de las Palapas area.
R1 will either go downtown or to the ADO bus station and on to Puerto Juarez.
R2 will go to Wal-Mart and Mercado 28 (actually a few blocks away).
R2 public bus
R1 public bus with a sign in the bottom left saying that it's going to Puerto Juarez.
If you take a taxi anywhere, set the price before you get in. It's best to ask a local beforehand what your ride should cost, then you have a point of reference so you don't get totally ripped off.
Getting Out of Cancún
Short and sweet. There are various shuttles (as you saw at the airport), but your cheapest transportation is going to be on the ADO bus. They have very nice coaches, and go to most main areas around Quintana Roo.