If you are looking for a relaxing tropical getaway to Mexico, you might be struggling to decide between Cancun versus Puerto Vallarta. The two coastal towns are among the most popular travel destinations in the country and on the surface of things, their offering looks quite similar.
Cancun and Puerto Vallarta are both known for their gorgeous beaches, year-round sunshine and luxe hotels and resorts. If we are being honest, you really can’t go wrong with either place.
But which is the better option of the two?
You are in good hands here because I have been living in Mexico for the last two years. I own a house in Merida, a couple of hours away from Cancun, where I have been seven times, and I spent several months in Puerto Vallarta this year and last year when I almost moved there.
In short, I am not someone who briefly passed through these towns once. I live in Mexico and know both destinations very well.
There is definitely some element of personal preference involved in choosing between Cancun and Puerto Vallarta but in this post, I will help you identify the destination that is right for you.
Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta:
Which should you choose?
I think that the first thing is to establish what you want to get out of your vacation. Both cities are located directly on the coast so you can easily roll out of bed each morning and head straight to the beach.
However, Puerto Vallarta is on Mexico’s Pacific Coast in the west-central part of Mexico, and Cancun is in the Mexican Caribbean. The water and the beaches are definitely more beautiful around Cancun and the Riviera Maya (think soft, powdery white sands, crystal clear turquoise waters) but their beauty draws crowds, and there are often more tourists in Cancun and the Riviera Maya, especially during the high season.
You will find quieter beaches and secluded coves up the coast from Vallarta, but the water is often murky and not as pretty.
Neither Vallarta nor Cancun are anywhere near being the cheapest place in Mexico because they are both very popular among Western tourists and many restaurants and local businesses specifically cater to international travellers.
If you are hoping to spend time exploring world-famous Mayan ruins like Chichen Itza, Coba and the Uxmal ruins during your time in Mexico, Cancun is the best base like that. There are literally dozens of archaeological sites located just a couple of hours away and you will be spoiled for choice of which you want to prioritise visiting.
Conversely, there are no major archaeological sites near Puerto Vallarta (unless you fly to Guadalajara and then drive out to Los Guachimontones but that would be a massive trek). Meanwhile, Puerto Vallarta itself is a little more “authentic” than downtown Cancun.
Cancun: Better for beaches
Both Puerto Vallarta and Cancun are home to stunning stretches of coastline and both locations offer beaches for every taste. Wherever you opt to travel, you will find serviced beaches where you can rent a sunbed and an umbrella for the day for just a few dollars, as well as more exclusive beach clubs and remote, secluded spots that escape the attention of most tourists.
Still, with that being said, when it comes to aesthetics and natural beauty, there is one destination that stands out for its pristine beaches, and that is Cancun.
Cancun sits on Mexico’s Caribbean coast and some of the prettiest beaches in the country can be found here. Playa Norte, Playa Delfines and Playa Langosta are among the most popular, while you can also find quieter spots like Punta Brava and Playa del Secreto a short distance from the city.
Using Cancun as a base, you can also head further along the coast to tranquil fishing villages and beach towns like Mahahual, Akumal and El Cuyo.
Sure, there are a lot of beautiful coastal destinations in Mexico. However nowhere has waters that are the same gorgeous shade of turquoise, crystal-clear, calm and warm as Canun and the Mexican Caribbean.
Puerto Vallarta beaches
Puerto Vallarta may not offer the same blue-green waters as the Mexican Caribbean but that isn’t to say that the Jalisco beach town isn’t home to some great beaches. The Puerto Vallarta Malecon runs parallel to the coast and is a great place to walk or cycle along the coastline.
It extends from Playa Camarones to Rosita Beach and Los Arcos. From there, you can continue onwards to Playa Olas Altas and Playa Los Muertos.
All of these city beaches are often pretty busy with locals and tourists alike but the waters are usually calm and clean and you have great views out to the Bahia de Banderas (Bandera Bay) from the shore. As you relax, street vendors wander up and down the sands selling fresh shrimp (“camarones”) and Mexican candies (“meringues”).
As you may expect, you can find quieter beaches if you head a little out of town. Conchas Chinas is an upscale district home to a gorgeous white pebble beach that is usually fairly quiet.
Heading further afield, you can drive or take the bus out to Boca de Tomatlan and then take a little fishing boat to Playa Colomitos. This lush tropical paradise is set inside a natural bay, surrounded by palm trees and seldom busy.
Puerto Vallarta: Better for Local Life
Since Cancun and Puerto Vallarta are both visited by millions of tourists every year, they definitely both have their areas that are massively gentrified and predominantly cater to tourists. This constitutes the majority of Cancun, whereas Puerto Vallarta boasts several districts that remain authentically Mexican.
Puerto Vallarta and its authentic neighbourhoods
The Versailles and Las Glorias areas of Vallarta are characterised by their leafy, tree-lined streets that boast lots of excellent local restaurants, coffee shops, artisanal stores and boutiques managed by independent Mexican designers.
In some ways, the area feels a little like the Colonia Americana or Chapalita districts in Guadalajara. (Or perhaps, a more humid, Mexican coastal answer to NYC’s Greenwich Village!)
El Pitillal is another great local district that was once its own individual settlement but thanks to urban expansion, has been engulfed by Puerto Vallarta’s ever-expanding borders. The little area may look a little rough around the edges but it is perfectly safe to explore and enjoy.
Its cobblestone streets contain many interesting stores selling virtually every item imaginable – from elegant, sparkly Quinceñeara ballgowns, to fresh fruits and vegetables and clothing. There is even a cowboy clothing store called “El Vaquero” in case you ever decide that you want to go out and live your best ranchero life in rural Jalisco.
The central square of Pitillal, often affectionately referred to as “Piti-Park” is a great place to people watch. Flanked by the impressive Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel Catholic church, many excellent street food stalls pop up here in the evenings and at weekends, the square is a popular rendezvous point among locals who come here to dance to Mexican banda music.
Cancun is definitely not a cultural city and its downtown is far from being a great beauty. It is unsightly, chaotic, and very run down in parts and many of the residential districts on the outskirts of the city don’t really offer much for tourists to see.
The Hotel Zone and certain upscale districts that cater to foreign investors and ex-pats are characterized by glittering hi-rises, modern apartment complexes, and contemporary-style malls. However, even the more glamorous parts of the city feel artificial and have been built for the purpose of satisfying Cancun’s growing real estate market.
Cancun: Better for day trip opportunities
We have already established that Cancun is a great base for visiting Mayan ruins in the Yucatan but there are so many interesting things to do in the Yucatan peninsula that the ruins are just the tip of the iceberg.
From Cancun, you can also visit countless cenotes (freshwater sinkholes), Yucatan pueblo magicos like Lake Bacalar and Izamal, and adventure parks like Xcaret and Xplor. Once the Maya train is completed in December 2023, it will be easier than ever to do day trips from Cancun to places like Valladolid and Merida.
Since Cancun and the wider state of Quintana Roo are so popular among travellers, the tourism infrastructure here is excellent. Many reputable tour companies run affordable day trips to the various points of interest in the area, and everywhere is well connected by bus.
Day trips from Puerto Vallarta
There are some interesting day trips that you can take from Puerto Vallarta too, but there is less variety as compared to Cancun and some places are a little awkward to get to without a car.
If you like hanging out at the beach, you can visit Nuevo Vallarta or perhaps the surfer’s paradise of Sayulita in Nayarit; Both are easy to reach by bus or Uber.
There are some charming villages in the Sierra Madre mountains above Vallarta that are completely unlike something you would expect to find in Mexico.
San Sebastian del Oeste is a quaint village surrounded by rolling hills that was once at the centre of the gold and silver mining rush in Mexico. Today, the mines have closed, but the village, with its cobblestone streets and adorable red-roof/grey stone houses, is a great place to relax in nature.
The nearby settlements of Mascota, Yerbabuena, La Estancia and Talpa de Allende are also well worth a visit. However, even though there is a bus that runs through the region, it doesn’t run all the way to San Sebastian del Oeste, you have to get off in La Estancia and transfer.
It doesn’t run daily either and the schedule is a little awkward. Sure, there are a few guided tours in this area, but they give you a very limited window of time to explore each village and so it really can be awkward to explore wider Jalisco unless you are happy renting a car in Puerto Vallarta.
Best for travelling on a budget: Puerto Vallarta
Because of the popularity of both Puerto Vallarta and Cancun, neither place is ultra-cheap and budget-friendly. As a matter of fact, you might not notice much difference in the prices between some of the bars and restaurants in the Cancun Hotel Zone and the Puerto Vallarta Malecon compared to what you pay at home!
If you are on a very tight budget, you want to be looking at travelling to more off-the-beaten-path places in Mexico like Chiapas, state, some of the lesser-known places in the Yucatan, or cities like Queretaro and Guanajuato.
Still, between Puerto Vallarta and Cancun, you get ever so slightly more bang for your buck in Vallarta. If you are willing to stay in a local district like El Pitillal or on the outskirts of town/just across the border in Nayarit, you can easily find accommodation for as little as $25 a night.
In Cancun, you can save money by staying in downtown Cancun rather than the hotel zone. However, since Quintana Roo is so popular, you can seldom find anything for less than $60 a night.
In both places, you can find some great street vendors and mercados selling things like tacos, elotes and tortas for just a couple of dollars. However, you definitely have to venture away from the hotel zone in Cancun if you don’t want to pay Western tourist prices.
Cancun: Better for Ruins and History
Visiting Mayan ruins and learning about the history of Mexico prior to the Spanish colonization is a highlight of visiting the country. Ancient Mayan cities are scattered all over Mexico and wider Latin America.
However, some of the most famous are found in the Yucatan peninsula and are easily accessible from Cancun. This includes the infamous Chichen Itza, one of the “new” seven wonders of the world.
You can travel from Cancun to Chichen Itza in just 2.5 hours and if you only have time to see one Mayan archaeological site during your Mexico trip, make it this one. No matter how many times you have seen the legendary Temple of Kukulkan photographed in travel literature and on social media, nothing compares to seeing it with your own eyes.
The city was once home to over 35,000 people and dates back to around 400 AD. Nearby, you can also tie in a trip to Chichen Itza with a visit to the fascinating ruins of Ek Balam.
The site, whose name means “black jaguar” in Yucatec Mayan was only discovered in the 1980s after it had been reclaimed by the Yucatan jungle and is home to one of the largest pyramids in the peninsula.
Ek Balam was occupied for more than 1,000 years and thrived between 770 and 840 AD. Although there are several structures and pyramids that you can explore, the piece de resistance of seeing the site is the 95-foot-tall El Torre pyramid.
Climbing to its peak offers incredible views over the jungle canopy. On a clear day, you can also see out to the ruins of Chichen Itza and Coba!
Although there are historic villages close to Puerto Vallarta, there are no Aztec or Mayan ruins in the city’s immediate vicinity.
Most LGBTQI friendly: Puerto Vallarta
Both Cancun and Puerto Vallarta can be considered LGBTQI friendly but Puerto Vallarta has the edge here by a country mile. The city’s “Zona Romantica” is known as its LGBTQI district and it is widely regarded as the best district of its kind both in Mexico and in Latin America overall.
The streets are lined with gay and lesbian bars, theatres hosting drag shows and gay hotels. Many members of the LGBTQI community live here permanently and so if you are spending an extended amount of time in Vallarta, you will find it easy to meet like-minded people.
There are a couple of gay-friendly hotels and bars in Cancun but not really to the same scale. (There are literally just one or two places and not a dedicated district.)
If you are interested in visiting Cancun though, add 11:11 Club and Laser Hot Bar to your radar, and consider staying at a gay hotel like Secrets the Vine (adult-only, gay resort) or the Ritz Carlton Cancun.
Safest destination: Puerto Vallarta
Mexico, on the whole, can be a safe place to travel to provided that you use your common sense. It generally doesn’t deserve the “dangerous” reputation it has and if you don’t go looking for trouble, trouble won’t go looking for you.
Puerto Vallarta and Cancun both have a moderate police presence. Since tourism is such a major contributor to the Mexican economy, the local authorities go above and beyond to ensure the safety of travellers.
There have been a couple of clashes between criminal groups in Cancun and Tulum in recent years but tourists have never been the targets and the chances of being in the wrong place at the wrong time are slim. Puerto Vallarta is arguably the safer city of the two, largely because cartels are not currently arguing over the territory here as they are in Cancun.
However, you don’t need to be afraid of visiting either destination.
Puerto Vallarta: Better for Nightlife
Both Puerto Vallarta and Cancun offer great nightlife and many travelers fly to these cities for this reason alone. In particular, Cancun is a renowned spring break destination, and PV is known for its annual “White Party” that takes place every November.
There is something for everyone in each city. That is, whether you are looking to mingle with a well-heeled crowd at chic, exclusive beach clubs, whether you want to party until the early hours at a raucous nightclub, or whether you just want a few cocktails with a view.
The City, Dady´O, and Palazzo are some of the best-loved clubs in Cancun and you will often find acclaimed international DJs hosting sets in each of them. The cover charges are not as high as you may assume either.
While there are definitely more costly, exclusive clubs in Cancun, entrance to the above spots is only around $30-$35 USD per person and The City is the largest nightclub in all of Latin America
If you seek rooftop bars, you have plenty of choices in that regard too. Taboo Cancun (Blvd. Kukulcan Km 13.5) offers an exclusive ambience, exquisite cocktails, and unparalleled Mediterranean food overlooking the turquoise waters of the Caribbean.
Chambao is a great place for gin-infused cocktails and steaks, while for something completely different, head to Route 666 Bikers bar.
The only problem with the nightlife in Cancun is that the bars here are spread out between the marina, the hotel zone and the downtown rather than there being one main strip. So, you cant really go on a bar crawl and have to take Ubers to get from bar to bar,
Puerto Vallarta Nightlife
Puerto Vallarta has a little something for everyone. Enjoy an evening stroll along the Malecon to watch the sunset and then make your way into one of the bars that line the seafront.
If you are looking for something a little wilder, Mandala, the Zoo, and La Vaquita are local favourites in this area.
In Zona Romantica, Mr. Flamingo (Lázaro Cárdenas 247) is a cheap and cheerful gay bar set inside a bamboo hut where everyone is welcome. It offers happy hour cocktails from 2 until 8 pm and is a great place to start the night.
La Noche, Queens Bar, and Blondies Loft are other local favourites. The great thing about Puerto Vallarta is that you don’t have to walk far to go from one bar to anotherand you have dozens of options all just a short walk away from each other.
Both Cities: Great for Watersports
If you are hoping to try your hand at some watersports while in Mexico, both Puerto Vallarta and Cancun offer plenty of opportunities for this. On touristic beaches in both destinations, you can rent jet skis, organize surf lessons, go kayaking, and rent a SUP (stand-up paddle board).
Of course, the wind conditions make certain beaches better than others for things such as kitesurfing. Bucerias in Puerto Vallarta is one of the best kitesurfing destinations in the country and many people travel here specifically to try their hand at windsurfing and hydrofoil kiteboarding.
There are also several kiteboarding schools scattered throughout the region.(Look out for Kite Zone, Surf Mexico, and Kite Mexico.)
If you happen to be in Jalisco in May, you will be able to catch the Bucerias Kite Festival (Festival del Viento), an International Kiteboarding Championship.
If you want to try your hand at kitesurfing in Cancun, your best bet is to travel up to Isla Blanca, just 45 minutes north of the city. Playa Ballenas, Playa Delfines, Playa Chac Mool, and Playa Marlin are the best beaches for surfing in Cancun.
Both Cities: Great for food and restaurants
If you consider yourself a foodie traveller, you will be delighted by the dining options in both Cancun and Puerto Vallarta. Both cities are quite the gourmand and offer something for every taste and budget – from street food markets and cocina economicas to fine dining restaurants.
Eating out in Cancun
It is worth noting that different parts of Mexico are each home to their own regional cuisine. In Cancun and the Yucatan peninsula, a lot of restaurants serve traditional Yucatecan dishes that follow recipes that were created by the ancient Maya!
Cochinita pibil (marinated slow-roasted pork) is essentially the main regional delicacy in this area and a lot of the foods that you will find here are not made in other parts of Mexico.
To try regional delicacies in Cancun, head to Restaurant Michoacan y Yucatan (Palenque S/N, 77513) and Tuch Cantina Yucateca (Av. Bonampak).
Eating out in Puerto Vallarta
Restaurants in Puerto Vallarta range from the aesthetic and glamorous to the homely and family-owned. Birria, pozole and jericallas are among the most popular local dishes you will find in Jalisco.
Mar Y Vino restaurant set inside the Hotel Playa Los Arcos is a unique concept restaurant where many of the tables and chairs are set inside the crystalline waters of an infinity pool so you can dangle your legs in the water and admire the views over the sea as you dine.
The menu focuses on Jaliscan delicacies and fresh seafood, all prepared with a modern twist. For a more Mexican experience, head to El Palomar de Los Gonzalez (Aguacate 425, Alta Vista).
This family-owned restaurant focuses on recipes that have been passed down through the generations. It feels more like going to a friend’s house for dinner than dining out in a restaurant.
Best for nature and marine life: both
Both Puerto Vallarta and Cancun offer wonderful opportunities for getting back to nature and seeing marine life.
In Puerto Vallarta, head to Los Arcos National Marine where you will find a coral reef, caves, and deep tunnels. You can see various creatures beneath the water’s surface here, including the giant Pacific manta rays, turtles, and octopuses.
Cancun arguably has more scenic spots for snorkelling. The Great Mayan Reef off the city’s shore is not only one of the best places to go snorkelling in Mexico but one of the best places in the entire world!
Add Xel-Ha, Isla Contoy, Cozumel, Punta Nizuc, Akumal, and Manchones Reef should also be added to your Cancun radar if you like snorkelling. Many tour companies offer excursions to these destinations.
Whale-watching season in Puerto Vallarta runs between December and late March. This is one of the best things to do in Puerto Vallarta.
Head out to Las Islas Marietas where you can also catch hawksbill turtles, Mexican spiny-tailed iguanas, and prairie falcons, among whales and other animals, in this protected reserve. You are very likely to see whales during any PV whale boat tour.
If you are unfortunate enough not to, many companies will give you a refund or let you come back again on a different day.
In Cancun, you can go whale shark watching between April and late July and even swim with them if you are interested in doing so.
Cancun: Better Resorts and All-Inclusive Options
If you are looking to go all-inclusive on your trip to Mexico and you want a vacation where everything is taken care of for you, Cancun is the better option for that. There are several grand, sprawling modern resorts here that place you in the best location in the city.
Some are set within the Hotel Zone, or close to Plaza La Isla so you can enjoy incredible panoramas over the sea from your balcony. Many of these accommodations contain several restaurants, bars, cafes, spas, and stores within them so you don’t even need to leave the resort if you don’t want to.
If you want to escape the city and stay in nature, you can also consider booking your stay at a luxurious resort between Cancun and Playa del Carmen, such as the Mayakoba complex.
Some Cancun resorts cater to adults only, whereas others are more suited for families travelling with children. Le Blanc Spa Resort is one of the most exclusive adults-only resorts in Cancun located right on the beach and it was recently recognised as being one of the top 100 hotels in the entire world!
The hotel scene in Puerto Vallarta is more about luxury, boutique hotels. However, that may well be more your style if you are not much of a resort person.
Secrets Vallarta and The Four Seasons in Punta Mita are two of the newest, upscale resorts that opened in Puerto Vallarta in 2023. The Grand Miramar in Conchas Chinas and the Vidanta Resort in Nuevo Vallarta are other good options.
It looks like Puerto Vallarta is shaping up to be a firm contender for Cancun on the resort front in the future but for now, Cancun just takes the title.
Best Time to Visit Both Destinations
Despite being located on opposite sides of the country, both Puerto Vallarta and Cancun have tropical climates. The rainy hurricane season runs in each city between June and November and the winter season is dry and hot.
Temperatures and conditions in both places are comparable. In the winter you can expect daytime temperatures of between 77°F and 86°F (25°C-30°C) and in the summer, temperatures average out at between 86°and 100°F (30°C-38°C).
It is not unheard of for it to soar above 104°/40°C during the day, especially in April and May which are the hottest months of the year. November through March is arguably the best time to travel to both areas, although this is also the “high season” so prices are at their highest and packers are often a little more crowded.
If you want to avoid the tourist hordes, consider travelling right at the start or the end of this season. (E.g. late October/early November).
Cancun: More international flight routes
Cancun and Puerto Vallarta both have international airports, and both of them are located conveniently close to their respective city centres. However, Cancun’s airport is substantially larger and in fact, it is the second-largest airport in all of Mexico.
A number of international and domestic Mexican airlines fly to both Cancun and Puerto Vallarta but there are often more options into Cancun.
Cancun Vs Puerto Vallarta FAQs
Do you have any further burning questions or concerns about planning your trip to Mexico? Are you still unsure which destination is better out of Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta?
The answers to some frequently asked questions are detailed below. Hopefully, you will find the answers you are looking for here.
Is Cancun more expensive than Puerto Vallarta?
Cancun is more expensive than Puerto Vallarta across the board. However, both destinations are very popular with domestic and international tourists and are on the more expensive end of the spectrum as far as Mexican destinations go.
Which is warmer: Cancun or Puerto Vallarta?
Both Cancun and Puerto Vallarta boast similar tropical conditions. You can expect daytime averages between 77° and 86° Fahrenheit during the winter months and between 86°and 100° Fahrenheit in the summer.
What’s the difference between Puerto Vallarta and Cancun?
Aside from the fact that Puerto Vallarta and Cancun are both Mexican beach towns, there are very few similarities between the two settlements. Puerto Vallarta has a quaint and charming old town filled with narrow alleyways and cobbled streets, while Cancun is predominantly a modern city.
Cancun offers more all-inclusive resorts and places you in a better place for exploring various Mayan ruins and the wider state of Quintana Roo, while Puerto Vallarta puts you close to many cute villages. Each region also boasts a different type of local cuisine.
Final Thoughts on choosing between Puerto Vallarta and Cancun
While Cancun has better beaches and is arguably located in a better position for a wider exploration of Mexico (especially if you like history and ruins), Puerto Vallarta offers more by way of local culture and is a great jump-off point to lesser-known destinations in the state of Jalisco. Whether Cancun or Puerto Vallarta is the best travel destination for you depends on your own preferences and how much weighting you give to certain factors.
Whichever destination you end up choosing, you are sure to have a wonderful time!
If you are visiting Mexico for the first time, you may enjoy browsing this list of things to know before you go.
As I mentioned, I live in Mexico (in Merida) and I know both cities very well so please do not hesitate to reach out to me if you need anything. I will do my best to get back to you as soon as I can.
Safe travels! Buen Viaje! Melissa Xo