Backpacking Mexico is no easy task given the sheer enormity of the country and the numerous areas that deserve a visit. There are some intrepid individuals who will spend months exploring the entire country, but for those of us who do not have the luxury of unlimited travel time or who, perhaps, want to spread themselves over more Central American countries than just Mexico, the East Coast is a great place to experience the country and have some fun along the way. Most people visiting this side of Mexico will fly into Cancun, however, I suggest getting out of that place as quickly as possible unless you want to see your precious holiday fund dissolve before your very eyes.
Playa del Carmen
Ok, so you high tailed it out of Cancun but you still want to party like you’re on Spring Break? Playa del Carmen will solve your dilemma. It’s by no means cheap but it is a step below Cancun on the over-priced drinks scale and if you’re a girl you can often wangle a free drinks wrist band from a couple of the clubs (Blue Parrot is a good place for this). There are a lot of happy hours kicking about and the further up 5th avenue you go (away from the ferry port), the cheaper they get! So hold out and you could find yourself sipping 2 for 1 mojitos at a very attractive price. Be warned, Playa del Carmen is pretty culturally void and should under no circumstances be counted as a proper Mexican experience. Get fucked up here for a couple of nights and then move on.
Stay: Hostel Playa because it has a paddling pool and it is opposite the blissfully air conditioned Wal-Mart
These are undoubtedly the most popular ruins in Mexico and with good reason. The main temple is pretty magnificent (although you will see a lot of annoying tourists standing around the edges of it clapping because the reverberation makes a weird noise) and there are loads of smaller ruins you can get your culture fix from. Ignore the hordes of vendors trying to get you to buy magnets and shit and learn a bit about Mayan history and you’re day will be all the more enjoyable. You can get ADO buses to Chichen Itza but a word of warning – it might be tempting to go for the cheaper second class buses but they will take hours longer than the first class buses. So unless you particularly love long bus journeys, splash out. Trust me, it’s worth it. Entry for the site is around 200 pesos.
Stay: Nowhere. This is a day trip.
This island is busy and touristy but if you can get away from the main strip and delve a bit further mainland, you start to get more of a feel for local life on the island. If you’re hungry check out the interesting but delicious Chinese-Mexican BBQ street stand or the taquería El Pique both serve amazing food for virtually nothing. For something a bit more upmarket, definitely swing by La Choza and make the most of their free unlimited nachos accompanied by a homemade Chipotle sauce that will blow your mind. During the day I fully recommend taking a snorkelling trip or hiring a vehicle (jeeps are a good shout if there’s a group of you to split the price) and exploring the island. The beach is a bit of a drive away but you will be rewarded with some gorgeous scenery and some good stories to take home with you.
Stay: Amigos because it has a pool and the vibe is chilled
This town isn’t really much more than just a road with some bars and restaurants along it but it acts as a gateway for a lot of cool activities and some of the most beautiful sites in Mexico. First of all, hiring bikes for the day is a really good idea because all the best things are pretty spread out and being crammed into a sweaty colectivo is far from ideal. You can get a bike for around $5 for the day and you can the cycle the 15 minute journey to Gran Cenote for an experience that will completely blow your mind. Picture yourself swimming through ice cool, crystal clear water inside a huge cave filled with bats and stalactites. Don some snorkel gear to make the most of this place. Next on your itinerary should be the Tulum ruins, which are conveniently located right on the beach. There isn’t much by way of shade here so take plenty of water and prepare for possible sunstroke and probable sunburn. The Coba ruins are near to Tulum and arguably more spectacular than the Tulum ruins, however, they are a bit of a trek, although if you are a real ruins enthusiast (Mexico attracts a lot of these), this shouldn’t pose much of a problem as there is regular transport to and from the site.
Stay: Hostel Sheck just because
Bacalar is a sleepy town located on the edge of one of the most beautiful lagoons you will ever see and is the ultimate venue for chillaxing. Activities are limited to swimming in the lagoon, sun-bathing, paddle-boarding and making friends. In the main square you will find a couple of restaurants and a quesadilla shack or two but if you want to really make the most of your time here, I suggest whipping up your own food (basically guacamole and nachos because this is Mexico) and eating it on the pier of the lagoon in the moonlight. Pretty magical.
Stay: Green Monkey because, well, location location location