On the road… One night in Cancun on a budget

On the road

How to spend one night in Cancun on a budget, well two nights if you include the extra night taken to get over my Cancun nightlife induced hangover. Cancun as a backpacker destination is very much a tale of two cities. I’d heard this a lot prior to my visit and after seeing the contrasting Zona Hotelera and Downtown Cancun I now fully understand the meaning. As Cancun backpackers visiting Cancun on a budget we chose to stay in Downtown Cancun in an Airbnb which meant we got to experience Cancun on a budget and without the usual associated price tag and as budget backpackers heading to Cancun for one night that was always our intention.



The words Cancun and budget aren’t always used together in the same sentence but it is definitely possible if you do your research and stay clear of those obviously obvious tourist traps.

Mexico as a country is generally very cheap to travel (I spent 5 weeks in total in Mexico), but Cancun is one of the priciest and most popular of the famous Mexico beach resorts. My advice to anyone hoping to visit Cancun on a budget would be to not let it’s pricey reputation and 5 star exterior but you off.

If you are clever in what you do, you can easily do Cancun on a budget and very happily enjoy Cancun for cheap.

It’s hard to picture Cancun if you haven’t experienced it first hand, we had fresh eyes arriving from a country like Cuba that’s everything Cancun is not. Our bus from the airport took us through this capitalist heaven as we passed advertisement after advertisement on the side of the road.

During this time I knew my experience with Cancun would be love and hate and as someone visiting Cancun on a budget I think I’ll definitely return on a seperate trip to experience Cancun without the budget backpacker status.


Cancun if you don’t already know is situated on Mexico’s Caribbean Yucatán Peninsula. Cancun’s Caribbean appearance and Mexican spirit have been attracting North American and European tourists for decades.

Cancun is usually considered one of the more luxury holiday destination, in North America and initially I was unsure that you could do Cancun on a backpacker budget. But after booking our Airbnb and getting to know our local hosts we realised you can in fact visit one of the world’s premier resorts on a budget.

By using a little intelligence and some backpacker savvy we arrived in Cancun from Cuba on a flight that cost around $90. Regular flights from Cuba arrive in Cancun on a weekly basis, if you are interested in figuring out some cheap routes through Central America this one is certainly worth considering.


If you know someone who’s been to Cancun then you have probably heard of The Zona Hotelera. The Zona Hotelera is a thin strip of jam-packed sand with the Caribbean Sea on one side and the Laguna de Nichupte on the other. This is where you’ll find absolutely all of the famed 5 star boutique and luxury spa hotels that usually spring to mind when you think of Cancun.

The Zona Hotelera is not where you’ll be staying if you choose to visit Cancun on a budget. Here’s why;

The Zona Hotelera was created on this picturesque strip of Mexican Caribbean solely for tourism. As The Zona Hotelera and the resort of Cancun is Mexico’s oldest and most successful tourism project and easily one of Mexico’s biggest economic triumphs, but that’s due to the number of tourists that are attracted to this little spot.

If you want to visit Cancun and stay in one of these resorts that’s fine and you’ll have an incredible time, but you’ll need to be aware that you are part of Mexico’s little economic plan as prices within this area don’t reflect the rest of Mexico.

Downtown Cancun, on the other hand is where we stayed and as a budget traveller the only place you should consider when thinking about where to stay in Cancun.

The Downtown Cancun area is where I would recommend all budget travellers visiting Cancun to stay. Downtown Cancun is much less glamorous, but it is where the locals live and the real authentic Mexico exists.

From Downtown Cancun it’s only a short inexpensive bus ride to The Zona Hotelera but it worked out perfect for us spending a couple of nights in Cancun on budget.

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Although as previously mentioned The Zona Hotelera isn’t somewhere you’ll want to book your accommodation if you are travelling to Cancun on a budget, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spend some time here.


There are things you can do in Cancun on a budget and as a backpacker and lover of budget travel it’s always good to know where to find these budget activities in Cancun. Whether you want to enjoy the beach or explore some of the city a little further there is something for even the most frugal backpacker in Cancun.

  • Hit the pristine beaches of the Zona Hotelera – take a bus from Downtown Cancun to this area and enjoy the resfly cleaned beaches and incredible clear blue waters. There is public access to the beaches along this strip and once you have access to one beach you have access to them all.
  • Nightlife and drinking – it’s Cancun, partying has to be incorporated into your trip and believe it or not there are budget options here for partying. Buy one of the all you can drink nightlife passes from one of the lesser known clubs for $30-$50 and drink the night away. (Stay clear of the bigger clubs such as Coco Bongo if you are on a strict budget).
  • Eating traditional – Although most of the top restaurants in The Zona Hotelera are out of your price range this doesn’t mean you can’t eat traditional Mexican food. In Downtown Cancun you’ll find all the tacos you could ever eat in small typical Mexican restaurants and classic food stalls.
  • Taking excursions – Maybe you don’t want to take an organised excursion to Playa del Carmen, Chichen Itza or Isla Cozumel but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take unorganised excursions. Utilise the amazing transport options in Cancun and use better value public transport to visit all the tourist favourites from Cancun.
  • Explore by car – It might be worth checking out some budget car rental options in Cancun if you wish to do a little more exploring.


You may be seeing Cancun on a budget but that shouldn’t stop you spending some time getting to know the Zona Hotelera. Anything you feel a holiday resort could need or should have lives The Zona Hotelera, which is often referred to as America’s playground.
There’s bars and clues, souvenir and clothing shops, hundreds of hotels and every other possible convenience you would require whilst staying on the pristine 21km beach strip including a dentist, pharmacy, tourist information and more.
Almost everything in The Zona Hotelera, Cancun is open 24 hours for tourists convenience including McDonalds, Subway, KFC and some popular Tex-Mex fast food chains which are always a good shout for eating in pricey areas on a budget.
The Zona Hotelera in Cancun is possibly the most commercialised place I have ever been to and everything here works like clockwork to accommodate the tourists and turn over a heft profit. Perhaps its my Tourism Management degree speaking but I couldn’t help but enjoy and evaluate the exploitative nature of a resort like Cancun.
The whirlwind romance between Cancun and its tourists is like no other, a mutually exploitative and mutually beneficial tourism relationship. Everyone wins when there’s tourists holidaying in Cancun.
Every morning the hotels send someone out to scrape the seaweed into piles to make the beach more attractive


Discover more from my On the road series


The best types of budget accomodation in Cancun are the obvious ones. Look at older, dated hotels that may be offering cheaper rates against the bigger 5 star hotels. Also check out hostels as there are some available in Downtown Cancun.

The best option for budget accomodation in Cancun for us was using an AirBnB although it was basic we were able to stay in Cancun for two nights for very little meaning we could spend our budget on more important things aka. food and drink.

One of the joys of staying in an Airbnb with a host is that you have an unlimited resource of insider knowledge and local secrets. We found this to be essential to our budget stay in Cancun. If no Airbnb’s are available have a look for alternatives and house sitting/couchsurfing options.


The nightlife in Cancun is definitely something I would recommend all tourists spending one night in Cancun to experience. As mentioned earlier there are budget ways to enjoy the nightlife available to tourists in Cancun.
Most bars in Cancun have drinks offers and deals and all bars and restaurants have a happy hour. One of the best ways to enjoy Cancun on a budget especially when it comes to nightlife is by exploiting these offers.
The majority of bars offer all you can drink options and some even allow girls to drink for free on certain nights of the week (Ladies Night). Ladies nights are very common across Latin America and as a budget traveller in Cancun it’s probably worth figuring out when the best nightlife promotions and deals are on ahead of your visit.


Experience a Vegas style strip with all the novelty and fun you can dream off. Ibiza meets Vegas is what I kept thinking as I wandered the crowded drunken streets. I didn’t feel unsafe in Cancun during the evening but I was always in a group of four with two boys and two girls so I can’t speak for all round safety in Cancun and the Zone Hotelera.
Like with any tourist resort in Latin America it is very easy to find drugs, prostitutes and trouble in a resort like Cancun. It is also very easy to get arrested as Mexico’s stance on the war on drugs remains unchanged over the last few years. Be wary of who you speak to and if a friendly local wants to sell you drugs be cautious of your response as generally speaking most of these people will be police officers.
Bribes and robbery do occur in Mexico and in Cancun too, it’s always advised when travelling this area that you take care of your valuables and stay cautious of trouble especially when you are drunk.
One night in Cancun
Sand so perfect it’s probably artificial – A photo from flying into Cancun


One night in Cancun
One night in Cancun with our Airbnb hosts – Thanks!



Getting to and from Cancun

Busses leave the airport regularly. Many heading to the main bus terminal in Downtown Cancun if you don’t have a transfer. Tickets are easily bought from any of the retailers in the airport. You can also grab currency and other travel essentials here. Busses in the Downtown Cancun area run all night to the Zona Hotelera but if you don’t fancy that taxis are also cheap in Mexico generally and Cancun is no different.

Sleeping in Cancun on a budget

Airbnb was our best choice for Cancun especially considering we were only spending one night. We didn’t have the budget to stay at a 5 star in the Zona Hotelera, check on Airbnb for a Cancun steal. If you plan on staying for one or two nights an Airbnb is probably the most budget friendly option.

Things to avoid in Cancun

‘Book now, we only have one seat left’ type scams. Everybody is going to Chichen Itza or Playa del Carmen. Everyone is going to try and get you to buy a ticket. Be smart and be savvy if it seems overpriced that’s because it is. Most things are in Cancun. Save Chichen Itza for Merida.

To do list for one night in Cancun, Mexico

Eat Tex-Mex fast food, its cheap and it’s tasty. If you head to the Zona Hotelera for a meal you’re going to be paying over the odds for a meal. Head to downtown Cancun for a Mexican Taco or Quesadilla for pennies. Oxo is also your friend. Stock up on cheap drinks and snacks at the 24 hour store and get used to seeing them in Mexico.

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  1. The sand isn't artificial but earlier this year it was manually cleaned when an unprecdented raft of muck came ashore and covered the beach, so perhaps it is cleaner than in previous years.

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