Whether you want to dive in crystal blue waters, explore ancient ruins, feast on local flavors, or simply lounge on the beach and tan, Mexico’s Riviera Maya has much to offer. And when airfare to Cancun’s international airport is typically half the cost of a ticket to Hawaii, it’s easy to make this tropical vacation fit a tighter budget—if you know where to skimp and where to splurge.
Located on the eastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, this lush strip of land along the Caribbean is the home of world-renowned scuba spots, ancient Mayan ruins, numerous hotels and resorts, and miles of white sand beaches and bright blue surf.
Avoid all-inclusive hotels.
Though having all your meals included with your nightly rate seems like a great deal, you’re actually getting less for your money. All-inclusive rates cover the cost of alcohol, whether you drink or not. Why pay for all of your neighbor’s piña coladas when you could stay at a resort like the five-star La Amada (left) for a fraction of the price?
Go for an inexpensive rental car.
The phrase “tin can” might be the first thing to come to mind when you see the tiny budget rentals, but you’ll fit in with the local drivers, spend less on gas, and navigate the narrow roadways much more easily by foregoing the big SUV.
Exchange money before you go or arrange for a wire transfer.
Many places in Mexico don’t accept US credit cards, and you’ll get slammed with fees if you try to exchange money while in Mexico. Your local bank in the States can easily—and often without extra fees—arrange for a transfer to an international bank in Mexico, such as IBC. Since most hotels and condos have safes in each room, you don’t even have to worry about security for your stash of pesos.
Ask the locals.
The ritzy restaurant recommended by your hotel’s concierge is sure to please American pallets while only slightly stretching your wallet. But the best meal I’ve had in Mexico was at La Misión, a local parilla (grill) that the hotel gardener said I couldn’t miss. It took a bit of extra time and exploring to find this local hotspot, but the tacos al pastor (spiced grilled pork tacos) with fresh pineapple and handmade tortillas made braving the local avenues worth it. And because each taco cost only about 40¢, my wallet was left as full as my stomach. Ask bellhops, shopkeepers, or taxi drivers about their favorite beaches and restaurants, and don’t hesitate to carry a map. Street signs in a foreign language can be confusing, so having your new local friends circle the locations of their favorite places on the map will save you a lot of time wandering.
Buy a guidebook.
A good guidebook will help plan your trip around what’s important to you and help you make the most of your time. Get your guidebook before your trip; most of the books you’ll find in Mexico are in Spanish—not helpful if you no hablas.
Hire a personal guide for a day.
Wandering around ancient ruins is fun, but a tour guide will help you understand the significance of the ancient symbols and art while pointing out many things you might miss. Many places don’t permit tourists to climb the ruins, but a guide can help you find those that still let you explore, like the rural Ek Balam.
Extra Bonus: Licensed tour guides can often get you a better admission rate to the popular ruins like Chichen Itza.
Discover scuba diving.
In Mexico, you can learn to scuba dive on a “resort certification.” Translation: less time and less money. Getting certified in the United States can easily cost you over $600, but a brief instruction session and an hour dive on some of the world’s best reefs will set you back only about $80 in Cozumel. Breathing underwater may sound scary, but most swimmers find scuba diving easier than snorkeling. Your dive master stays by your side throughout your dive, so you can enjoy cruising the reefs with lobsters, sea turtles, and more tropical fish than you’d see in your dentist’s aquarium, all without worrying about a mishap.
DON’T MISS THESE MAYAN ADVENTURES…
This coastal ruin is beautifully preserved. Though smaller than Chichen Itza, the breathtaking sea-cliff location of these ancient ruins makes Tulum (above) worth the trip.
Swimming in a cenote.
These hidden pools are often fifty or more feet below the jungle floor. Getting to the water may require a bit of clambering, but plunging into one of these natural wonders (ancient sinkholes that centuries of rainfall have filled with fresh water) is a refreshing experience you won’t forget.
Day tripping to the Island of Cozumel.
An hour-long bus ride from downtown Cancun and a short ferry across the Caribbean inlet will take you to Cozumel, a small island rich in Mexican culture and brimming with islander warmth—and that’s warm personalities, not just temperatures. Cozumel boasts some of the world’s lushest tropical reefs, and downtown offers a variety of shopping without the crush and rush of Hotel Row in Cancun.
You may not find remnants of the Maya’s legendary gold, but Mexico’s Mayan Riviera is certainly a treasure. And if you know where to skimp and where to splurge, you can have the tropical adventure of a lifetime without breaking the bank.
- Kelsey Holloway
There are plenty of grand opportunities found in Southern Mexico on which you can skimp and splurge. Check it out here.
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