Last Updated on August 26, 2020 by Bryony Clapperton
Heading to Mexico? This is how to spend one night in Cancun on a budget. I’ve been lucky enough to visit Cancun twice now, both times on a budget.
That’s why I’ve created this useful guide on everything you want to know about Cancun nightlife, budget eats and where to stay for cheap in downtown Cancun.
Cancun is very much a tale of two cities. You’ll hear it a million times. The popular and swanky Zona Hotelera vs. the local haunts in Downtown Cancun.
Both areas of the city are very different but are filled with budget favourites and plenty to see and do on a lower or backpackers budget.
Travel to Cancun on a budget
The words Cancun and budget aren’t always used together in the same sentence. Especially if you know someone who’s been on a Zona Hotelera all inclusive to Cancun and enjoyed the wild nightlife in Cancun.
However, it is definitely possible to see Cancun on a budget. If you visit at the right time and do your research you’ll be well versed in staying clear of those common tourist traps.
Cancun is a very popular destination in Mexico and because of this the regular tourist inflated prices should be expected.
When to visit Cancun?
If you travel to Cancun in the low season there’s more chance you’ll be able to grab a bargain. Things get very busy in the peak season and the cheaper hotels book up quickly.
Where is Cancun?
Cancun, if you don’t already know, is situated on Mexico’s Caribbean and the Yucatán Peninsula.
It’s a year round popular tourist destination due to it’s climate and geography. As mentioned despite it’s year round heat – Cancun does have a low and peak travel season.
Cancun’s Caribbean appearance and Mexican spirit have been attracting North American and European tourists for decades.
Resorts in Cancun are usually considered on the luxury side and that’s why most people believe you can’t see Cancun in a more budget friendly way. But that’s not true and why Cancun is very much a tale of two cities.
The Downtown area of Cancun is more representative of an authentic Mexican town and with that much much cheaper than the resorts.
The Tale of Two Cities
Mexico is generally a budget friendly country to travel. However, Cancun is one of the more expensive and luxury resorts due to it’s popular Zona Hotelera and beach front hotels.
This area of Cancun is what the tour guides sell you. But the Downtown Cancun area is just as nice, filled with fun and much better if you are spending any time in Cancun on a budget.
Areas of Cancun can be quite different to the rest of Mexico if you are visiting for the first time and have experienced the Pacific Coast.
The Zona Hotelera, Cancun
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. 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.
This is 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.
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.
As mentioned Downtown Cancun, is where we stayed and as a budget traveller. It’s the only place you should consider when thinking about where to stay in Cancun.
Downtown Cancun is much less glamorous, but it is where the locals live and the real authentic Mexico exists.
You can find budget eats, drinks and some authentic tequila bars filled with locals. You’ll also find many of your amenities in Downtown Cancun with plenty of supermarkets and malls for shopping.
From Downtown Cancun it’s only a short inexpensive bus ride to The Zona Hotelera. Expect to pay around 24 Pesos per ride.
I love Downtown Cancun – it has character and is just generally a very vibrant place to spend any amount of time.
As a backpacker by staying in Downtown Cancun and heading into the Zona Hotelera as you please, you really get to see the best of both worlds in Cancun.
Getting to and from Cancun
From the airport it is pretty easy to get to downtown Cancun. Busses leave the airport regularly.
The ADO is a popular mode of transport in Mexico. It’s budget friendly, air conditioned and convenient.
Most of these ADO busses are 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 or station if you are returning.
If you are looking to save more money why not jump in a collectivo – prices are usually always around 40 Pesos per journey.
A collectivo is a small mini bus service that most locals use to get around. You’ll find them parked outside of most bus stations or a couple of blocks away.
Where to stay in Cancun on a budget
As backpackers visiting Cancun you have a few options – hostels, cheap hotels or an Airbnb.
On my first visit to Cancun I stayed in an Airbnb. During my second trip to Cancun I booked a room in the popular and lively Hostel Ka’beh.
Hostel Ka’beh, Cancun
Hostel Ka’beh is located in Downtown Cancun. There are a couple of small private rooms and some larger mixed dorms.
The hostel itself is very much a weekend party hostel and attracts backpackers from all over the world.
With free breakfast, free dinner and all you can drink beer at happy hour – whats not to love?
If you are backpacking Cancun you’ll want to check out Hostel Ka’beh for sure.
Budget friendly things to do in Cancun
Although you won’t be staying in The Zona Hotelera in Cancun it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit. Most of the best things to do in Cancun are located in this popular tourist area.
There are so many free and budget friendly things you can do in Cancun as a backpacker. As a 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.
The best things to do in Cancun include;
- Hit the pristine beaches of the Zona Hotelera – take a bus from Downtown Cancun to this area and enjoy the fresfly 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.
- The Nightlife in Cancun. 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.
- Isla Mujeres day trip from Cancun – this is a must, it can be done on the ferry or easily with a tour.
- 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.
- Diving is a big one in Cancun, but it can be a little cheaper to travel to the nearby Playa del Carmen for diving and check out Halocline Divers.
Nightlife in Cancun
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 the cheap 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. As a budget traveller in Cancun it’s probably worth figuring out when the best promotions and deals are on.
When speaking about Cancun nightlife it’s very likely you’ll heard the words ‘Coco Bongo’. Coco Bongo is Cancun’s premier and most famous (infamous?) club.
Tickets for the main club can be pricey, but the drinks are included and the show is a lot of fun. If you are doing Cancun on a lower budget this will be a bit of an expense, but if you travel in the off season expect discounts.
Congo is the other less fancy, less famous club opposite Coco Bongo’s – I’ve now done both and had a taste of both sides of the nightlife in Cancun.
Safety in Cancun
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 evenings. because I was always in a group of four. I can’t speak for all round safety in Cancun and the Zona 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 in Cancun. If a friendly local wants to sell you drugs be cautious of your response. 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.
Where to eat and drink in Cancun
When you are visiting Cancun you will want to spend some time in The Zona Hotelera. This is where a lot of the budget eats and bars can be found believe it or not.
Within The Zona Hotelera in Cancun there’s bars and clubs, souvenir and clothing shops, hundreds of hotels. Basically every other possible convenience you would require.
Almost everything in The Zona Hotelera, Cancun is open 24 hours . This is for tourists convenience.
You’ll find loads of places to eat including McDonalds, Subway, KFC and some popular Tex-Mex fast food chains. These are always a good shout for eating on a budget.
You can also eat for very cheap in Downtown Cancun. There are a lot of traditional Mexican taco stands where you can grab a lot of food for a very low cost.
You will also find Oxxo’s everywhere in Mexico. Oxxo’s is a chain of petrol stations where you can grab cheap food and booze in Cancun and throughout Mexico.
Cancun budget breakdown
The budget below is based on two people sharing for one night in Cancun. It is also dependent on two people sharing the cost of an AirBnB in Downtown Cancun and using public transport.
To get an accurate view of costs you may want to multiply this by the number of nights you are staying. However, the fun budget is based on two people going on a night out spending $50 each. This can be adjusted accordingly.