You backpacking Mexico itinerary at a glance

Traveling Mexico is a huge task when you only have limited time. I would know, I recently spent three short but jam-packed weeks here. It’s a huge country with a lot of ground to cover. However, I’ve designed a Mexico travel guide that allows you to fit in as much as possible. Here is my ideal itinerary for where to go in Mexico for vacation when you only have 3 weeks. With the right amount of colonial cities, ruins and beaches, follow this and you won’t be disappointed.

P.S This itinerary can also be done in reverse (obvy).

1. Isla Mujeres | 3 Nights

We started our Mexico trip off right with Guacamole and Margaritas in Isla Mujeres.

Why You Should Visit

Most flights into the East Coast of Mexico will land you in Cancun… Do yourself a favour and get out of there as soon as possible. Unless you want to feel like you’re smack bang in the middle of a holiday park in the USA. Isla Mujeres is a quaint little island off the coast of Mexico, with bountiful natural attractions and cute eateries. It’s one of the most perfect places to visit in Mexico to de-stress post plane ride (if you’ve come from Australia like me).

Things To Do In Isla Mujeres Mexico

There are tonnes of awesome things to do in Isla Mujeres aside from veg out on the beach. But if you’ve only got three weeks in Mexico here are the three things to do in Isla Mujeres before you leave.

  1. Swim with whale sharks: Whale Shark season runs from mid-May to September. These guys are massive and don’t actually eat meat so you’re pretty safe swimming with them. It’s such an incredible part of a backpacking Mexico itinerary that I’d actually recommend planning your trip around this!
  2. Eat exceptional local seafood: As you’re on a tiny island there is so much incredible seafood to be eaten. Fish tacos, conch ceviche and freshly grilled Octopus should be your priorities. Bally-Hoo and Sunset Grill are both great options.
  3. Hire a golf cart for the day: Hiring a golf cart is definitely the best way to see the island and was one of my favourite things to do in Mexico. Hiring one for the day will set you back about $50 USD but the freedom of touring the island on your own is totally worth it!

Where To Stay In Isla Mujeres

Hostel Poc Na Isla Mujeres

The most popular hostel on the island with big restaurant on the beach and nightly entertainment.

Balu Hostel

Brand new hostel with free yoga and fitness classes and a bar to balance it all out!
Check rates and availability

Casa Alkimia

Cute guest house with super friendly hosts over looking the ocean.
Check rates and availability

Casa de los Suenos

Boutique hotel with an infinity pool, friendly staff and only 10 rooms.
Check rates and availability

2. Playa Del Carmen | 2 Nights

Why You Should Visit

Playa Del Carmen is Cancun’s little sister and while it’s still quite westernised it’s worth stopping in for a few good nights out, some awesome shopping (this gal can’t resist the bargains at Forever 21) and some more relaxing beach time. Wondering where to go in Mexico? Add Playa to the list!

Things To Do In Playa Del Carmen

  1. Dance to awesome live music: One of my favourite things to do in Playa Del Carmen was experiencing the live music scene. Many restaurants host Mexican cover bands exclusively playing hits from 2004. It’s totally daggy, but a great way to spend a night while sipping plenty of Margaritas.
  2. Have the best night out of your trip at Coco Bongos: One of the best things to do in Mexico and something you can’t leave Playa Del Carmen without seeing is a night at Coco Bongos. I avoided it as I thought it was too expensive and would be totally lame. However when, on my last night I was persuaded to go by some fellow travellers, I was blown away by the showmanship and expertise of the dancers. It’s pricey, but it’s all-you-can-drink once you’re in there. Do NOT leave Playa Del Carmen without going! You’ve been warned. Three weeks in Mexico is not the same without a trip to Coco Bongos.

3. Tulum | 4 Nights

The Cenotes in Tulum definitely need to be on your list of where to go in Mexico.

When deciding where to go in Mexico when you’re time poor Tulum is one location you can’t leave off your list. A bicycle is your best friend in this little village. I recommend staying in the town as the beach is quite far away and very touristy. It’s definitely worth visiting though, so jump on your (pre-hired) bike, and venture down there for a relaxing day drinking cocktails on the sand.

You should also spend a day cycling to the local cenotes. Make sure you take your camera, as exploring the underground rivers and swimming holes created by volcanic activity was one of my favourite Mexico activities. Go for a swim, snorkel or if you’re game you can dive them. Expect to see fish, bats and turtles. We stayed at the Weary Traveller Hostel and I recommend this to anyone who’s interested in chatting to fellow travellers, free salsa lessons and free drinks… So, everyone?

4. Chichen Itza | Day Trip

Wondering where to go in Mexico? The incredible Chichen Itza needs to be on your list.

If you’re wondering what to do in Mexico you can’t go past Chichen Itza. It is one of the New 7 Wonders Of The World for a reason. The huge complex of Mayan ruins sits on the road from Tulum to Merida. I would recommend avoiding a paid tour and getting there yourself. Ideally, head there early in the morning, spend the day exploring the ruins and taking in the history and then continue on to Merida or Cancun to catch a flight to Oaxaca City.

5. Oaxaca City | 4 Nights

Wondering where to go in Mexico? You can’t go past the BBQ’d meats in Oaxaca’s central market.

Oaxaca was one of my favourite Mexico travel destinations and while it’s not part of a traditional Mexican travel itinerary I highly recommend it. It really reminded me of Melbourne, incredible food, rooftop bars and friendly people. The church of Santo Domingo is the centrepiece of the town, and definitely worth a stroll and a few pictures.

Do not leave Oaxaca city without visiting the food market where you can choose from a selection of meats and sides and watch as the staff prepare them on smoky barbecues while you watch. My other recommendation would be to take the night bicycle tour. While you won’t learn anything about the city, you will cycle around it with 50 other strangers while the leader blares pop music out of a giant speaker attached to his bike. It may be one of the strangest things I’ve ever done, but it was hilarious and free so well worth it. Just make sure you hire a bike early in the day as they sell out.

6. Puerto Escondido | 4 Nights

The beautiful beach in Puerto Escondido needs to be on your list of what to see in Mexico.

This tiny surf town stole my heart, and while I ended up staying for over two weeks, it’s a great place to chill and explore for 4 nights. If you’re taking a tour of Mexico make sure Puerto Escondido is on the list. The food is fantastic, the scenery amazing and the surf next level. Don’t believe me? Check out my article on ‘Why You Should Learn To Surf In Puerto Escondido‘.

7. Mexico City | 4 Nights

On the ‘Gringo Trail’ you hear all sorts of Mexico travel advice and horror stories about how dangerous Mexico city is. But from this Gringa’s perspective, like anywhere with a dangerous reputation, if you’re street smart, you will be fine. While there we caught the hop-on-hop-off bus around town to get a quick overview and then ate amazing food and sipped on margaritas in the eclectic neighbourhood of Condesa. If you’re looking for more to-do’s in Mexico City check out Why Mexico City Is The Most Overlooked City In The World.

Looking for more places to go in Mexico? Check out this article on Baha Mexico, budget traveler’s paradise.

Feature image credit: Aura Tulum Beach Club

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