Not as cheap as you might think, but not bad. To track exactly how much I was spending, I kept a simple ledger of my expenses broken down by category. I’ve included it below for the detail-inclined, especially when it comes to finances (cough cough, Mom! :-)).
First, a quick note on money in general. ATMs and money changers were ubiquitous. When I was there, I saw exchange rates vary from $12.5-11.2 pesos to $1 USD. At touristy places in Playa, and occasionally Tulum, prices were doubly quoted in pesos and USD. Credit cards were seldom accepted at the places I frequented, but I was able to purchase ADO bus tickets, >$50 USD purchases at shops with higher-end clientele, and once a hostel bill on credit.
One thing I was surprised with was the obsession with exact change. Everyone always wanted exact change down to the peso; I can understand this for small items on the street but this was the case in more formal shops and restaurants across the board. It was the rare place that would change a $500 peso note (what most ATMs dispense) at all, let alone without a dirty look!
Over 22 days in Mexico, I spent a total of $1,053 USD for an average of $47.85 USD per day. This is right under what I budgeted; I expected I could make it in Mexico on about $50/day. I heard the minimum for Mexico was $25-30 for a painfully cheap lifestyle and Lonely Planet said budget travelers should plan on $40USD/day for basics and $60-80 for more attractions and incidentals.
My most expensive day: $121 on the last day in Tulum where I bought two expensive things–a pricey first class overnight bus ticket to Palenque and a beautiful mermaid shadowbox. My cheapest days were those without travel and minimal ticketed activities: $19.50 soaking up San Cristobal and $20.50 beach day in Tulum. Notably, my cheaper days were often my favorites.
I was conscious of my money but didn’t scrimp painfully. I slept in dorms, usually ate cheaply/moderately or ate set menus at nicer restaurants but did have one fancy dinner out, went to attractions but did not get private tours, mostly took first class buses and public colectivos instead of taxis, didn’t buy many souvenirs but did make a few “major” purchases (my shadowbox and a dress that will look kickass in the fall with a pair of boots) when I found something I really liked.
Without further ado, here’s the nitty gritty: