Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta: Which is Better for Travel in 2023?

Cancun Vs Puerto Vallarta. Which place is better?

If you are traveling to Mexico for the first time, it can be overwhelming to decide where to go. After all, the country is huge and if you are seeking rest and relaxation by the sea, there are a seemingly infinite number of options to choose from.

Cancun Vs Puerto Vallarta 

Both Cancun and Puerto Vallarta are popular destinations for beach getaways. Cancun is arguably one of the most popular travel destinations in all of Mexico and Puerto Vallarta is increasing in popularity with every passing year.

Both cities have an excellent tourism infrastructure and boast gorgeous beaches, luxe hotels, international eateries, and cultured activities. But which is better? 

Honestly, it depends a lot on you, your travel style, and the things you like to do on vacation. Truthfully, you cannot go wrong with either option, but this guide will compare and contrast the different aspects of visiting each city so that you can choose which one is truly better for you.

Puerto Vallarta: Better for Local Life 

Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta

Cancun is definitely not a cultural city. Its downtown is unsightly, chaotic, and very run down in parts. 

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. They are far from cultured and definitely do not give a glimpse into the real, authentic Mexico.

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.

There are several local markets (mercados) in Puerto Vallarta where people go to purchase fresh fruit and vegetables and homemade treats. Similarly, there are several beaches that escape the attention of international travelers. (For instance, burros or pangas beaches).  

While Cancun makes a great base for exploring the rest of the Riviera Maya, many of the nearby settlements and islands are also very touristic in nature. This includes Tulum, Playa del Carmen, Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox. 

That is not to say that these places are not worth your time. It is just that they offer a very different vibe and may not be what you are looking for if you want to experience Mexican culture. 

However, from Puerto Vallarta, you can reach several charming, off-the-beaten-path mountain villages in an hour or two. This includes the Pueblo Magicos of San Sebastian del Oeste, Mascota, and Talpa de Allende. You can also travel from Puerto Vallarta to Guadalajara in a couple of hours if you want to experience Jalisco city life. 

Puerto Vallarta: More Economical Option 

If we are being completely honest, neither Puerto Vallarta nor Cancun is the cheapest travel destination in Mexico. Anywhere that is popular with tourists usually sees largely inflated prices.

If you were to travel more off the beaten path to say, Chiapas, or offbeat places in the Yucatan, you may be surprised at the price difference between those destinations and Puerto Vallarta and Cancun. However, between these two popular destinations, Puerto Vallarta is the cheapest option.

To give an example, you can find a basic hotel in downtown Puerto Vallarta for as little as $25 a night. Meanwhile, in Cancun, you are looking at at least $50 a night. That is for a hotel in the downtown area, or on the outskirts of town.

If you are traveling on a budget, you will find it trickier to find comida economicas and local taquerias in downtown Cancun (although they do exist) compared to Puerto Vallarta. In Puerto Vallarta, you are more likely to stumble across plenty of low-cost eateries as well as international restaurants for tourists.

Short-term rentals and vacation apartments are also more affordable in Puerto Vallarta, particularly if you are flexible with which area you stay in. So, with the abundance of local mercados and supermarkets, it is very easy to cook your own food and maintain a much smaller budget here. 

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. The ancient city needs no introduction. 

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, translating to mean ¨black jaguar¨ in Mayan was only discovered in the 1980s after it had been engulfed by the Yucatan jungle.

The city was occupied for more than 1,000 years and thrived between 770 and 840AD. Today, 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. The archeological site of Guachimontones is very worthy of your attention. However, it is in the northern part of Jalisco state, several hours north of Puerto Vallarta.

Cancun: Better Beaches 

Both Puerto Vallarta and Cancun boast some beautiful beaches. Furthermore, both locations offer a variety of different beach experiences.

There are serviced beaches where you can rent a sunbed and an umbrella for the entire day for just a couple of pesos, and where you have several seafront restaurants immediately there when you need them. Then, there are secluded beaches that escape the attention of most tourists, as well as exclusive beach clubs.

So, whatever your beach day style, you will find what you are in looking for in either Puerto Vallarta or Cancun. However 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. Some places are popular for a reason.

Conchas Chinas and Colomitos beach, as well as the ¨secret¨ beach of the Marietta islands, are gorgeous. But nothing quite compares to the soft powdery white-sand beaches of Cancun, and the warm, translucent turquoise waters that run parallel to them.

If you want a change of scenery but you want to remain on the coast, Cancun offers more opportunities for that too. From here, you can take a trip across the water to the island of Cozumel, visit some of the exclusive beach clubs in Tulum, or even venture out to some of the Yucatan state beaches such as El Cuyo. 

From Puerto Vallarta, you could absolutely travel out to Sayulita, Nayarit for the day. But in general, there are more options in Cancun.

Cancun: More International Flight Routes 

Cancun and Puerto Vallarta both have international airports, and both of them are located conveniently close to the city center. However, Cancun’s airport is substantially larger and in fact, it is the second largest airport in all of Mexico.

As a result, there are many more airlines and flight routes that serve Cancun International (CUN). This airport is essentially the global gateway to the entire Yucatan peninsula.

A number of direct flights connect Puerto Vallarta with the United States and several countries in Latin America. Aeromexico, Air Canada, American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Delta, Korean Air, and Southwest Airlines all offer non-stop flights.

That being said, direct flights only run to Puerto Vallarta from a select number of cities. Depending on where you are flying from, you may have to transfer in Mexico City or Guadalajara.

In terms of domestic flights within Mexico, Cancun has far more options in this regard too. From Puerto Vallarta, you can only fly domestically to CDMX and Guadalajara.

This logistical aspect is worth keeping in mind. If you have to make a long journey to the airport in your hometown as it is, then you have to think about changing flights, etc, it can add extra time and hassle to your adventures in Puerto Vallarta. 

Puerto Vallarta: Better for Nightlife 

Both Puerto Vallarta and Cancun offer great nightlife and there are many travelers that 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. 

Cancun Nightlife 

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-mentioned spots is only around $30-$35 USD per person. The City is said to be 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 ambiance, 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 things here are spread out.

There is a concentration of bars around the marina, the hotel zone, and the downtown. But it isn’t really the case that you can go on a bar crawl here. You really have to choose a place to go for the evening and then take a Cancun Uber to get there. That’s where Puerto Vallarta wins out.

Puerto Vallarta Nightlife 

Puerto Vallarta has a little something for everyone from a nightlife perspective. 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 favorites in this area. The city is also home to one of the best LGBTQI districts in Mexico: 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 favorites. The great thing about Puerto Vallarta is that you don’t have to walk far to go from one bar to another.

You have dozens of options all just 2-3 minutes away from each other. If your preference is to just have a quiet nightcap before bed, head to the cobbled streets of the old town for one of the more laidback options there. 

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. 

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 

It may be interesting to note that Mexican food varies from one part of the country to another. While yes, Mexican food does mean tacos, burros, quesadillas, and Mexican breakfast dishes like chilaquiles, it is also so much more than that. 

Restaurants and food in Cancun

The Yucatan peninsula, where Cancun is located, is home to Yucatecan cuisine. This is markedly different from the food found elsewhere in Mexico and is probably unlike anything you have ever tried before.

A lot of Yucatecan dishes follow recipes that were created by the ancient Mayans. The same traditional cooking methods are also followed. (For instance, many regional dishes are cooked in an underground oven known as a ¨pib¨ that was created by the Mayans).

You can sample things here such as cochinita pibil and relleno negro, that simply are not found in other parts of the country. These are also some of the best things that you are likely to sample during your time in the country and are as much of a highlight of visiting Cancun as the beaches and the sights. 

If you want to sample authentic Yucatecan cuisine in Cancun, stop by Restaurant Michoacan y Yucatan (Palenque S/N, 77513) and Tuch Cantina Yucateca (Av. Bonampak). There are also a lot of fine dining and international eateries in Cancun. You will find everything from steakhouses and Mexican restaurants to Asian fusion eateries here.

Restaurants and food in Puerto Vallarta 

Puerto Vallarta is in the Mexican state of Jalisco, and Jaliscan food is markedly different from the cuisine in Cancun. Pozole and birria are popular local dishes.

If you want to try something unique and fun to eat, head to a little roadside takeaway and order yourself a torta ahogada. This sandwich is extremely popular in Guadalajara, although it can be found all over Jalisco.

To make it, pork carnitas are served in a crusty bread roll with red onions and then drenched in a slightly spicy, warm tomato salsa. It is perhaps the only time in your life you will ever eat a sandwich with a spoon!

The best restaurants in Puerto Vallarta are a varied bunch. They range from the aesthetic and glamorous, to the homely and family-owned.

Mar Y Vino provides one of the most unique concepts. The restaurant is a photographer’s paradise and is set inside the elegant Hotel Playa Los Arcos. 

Wooden accents, romantic lights, palm-tree decorations, and an infinity pool make this restaurant a mind-blowing place to catch the sunset. Some of the tables and chairs are set inside the crystalline waters of the swimming pool, so you can dangle your legs in the water 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.

Cancun: Best for Nature and Spotting Marine Life 

The crystal-clear waters off the Caribbean coast of Cancun, and the translucent waters of the Pacific Ocean by Vallarta, are both perfect for snorkeling and seeing marine life. You just have to know where to go.

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 ray, turtles, and octopuses.

Cancun arguably has more scenic spots for snorkeling. The Great Mayan Reef off the city’s shore is not only one of the best places to go snorkeling in Mexico but one of the best places in the entire world!

Add Xel-Ha, Isla Contoy, Cozumel, Punta Nizuc, Akumal, and Manchones Reef to your radar if you want to go snorkeling in and around Cancun. You will also find many local tour companies that offer excursions to these destinations. 

You can go whale shark watching in Cancun between April and late July and even swim with them if you are interested in doing so. Meanwhile, Puerto Vallarta is better for whale watching.

The whale watching season runs between December and late March. This is one of the best things to do in Puerto Vallarta during the peak travel season.

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. 

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.

Some Cancun resorts cater to adults only, whereas others are more suited for families traveling with children. Le Blanc Spa Resort is one of the most exclusive adults-only resorts in Cancun and is located right on the beach. It was recently recognized as being one of the top 100 hotels in the entire world!

If you are traveling with kids, consider a stay at the Moon Palace all-inclusive, the Seadust Cancun family resort, or the Iberoselection Cancun. There are several resort-style luxury hotels in Puerto Vallarta, but they exude more of an independent, boutique hotel vibe. Not everyone loves giant resorts so depending on what you are looking for, Puerto Vallarta may be more your style.

Puerto Vallarta: Safest Option 

Cancun Vs Puerto Vallarta
Cancun Vs Puerto Vallarta

Safety is a major concern for a lot of people planning their trips to Mexico and the same can be said if you are considering traveling to either Cancun or Puerto Vallarta. Mexico can be a safe destination provided that you use your common sense.

Generally, you won’t find trouble here unless you go looking for it. Many of the crimes documented in the country do not affect tourists and for the most part, Mexico often receives an unfair media portrayal. 

State warnings for Quintana Roo and Jalisco

You should always read your government’s travel advice before traveling to a new country and the same is true when traveling to Mexico. You can find the UK government travel advice for Mexico here and the USA government travel advice for Mexico here. 

Both are sternly worded but you should not let that be a deterrent. It is also worth noting the different state warnings that the US implements for various Mexican states.

Cancun sits in the state of Quintana Roo on the eastern coast of Mexico. Meanwhile, Puerto Vallarta can be found in the southern part of Jalisco state in western Mexico.

Currently, the US government advises that you ¨exercise increased caution¨ when traveling to Quintana Roo and ¨reconsider travel¨ to Jalisco. That may make Puerto Vallarta sound like the riskier of the two options. 

However, it is important to recognize that the state of Jalisco is relatively large and the security situation varies significantly from one region to another. Northern Jalisco close to Zacatecas is the area to avoid but that is nowhere near Puerto Vallarta. 

Puerto Vallarta is safe for tourists. Both cities see crime and cartel activity but as a tourist, this is not something that you need to be concerned about, provided you don’t get involved with drugs or the cartel.
The chances of you being in the wrong place at the wrong time and being caught up in something are small in both cities. However, at present, different crime syndicates fighting for territory in Quintana Roo has meant that there have been a couple of incidents where innocent bystanders and tourists were killed or injured in shootings.

Millions of tourists travel to both destinations each year, and most visits are trouble-free. However, visiting Puerto Vallarta probably offers more peace of mind than Cancun.

Best Time to Visit Both Destinations

Despite being on opposite sides of the country to each other, Cancun and Puerto Vallarta both boast comparable, tropical climates. Generally speaking, the months of December and January through April are the best times to travel to this part of the country.

Coastal regions in Mexico do not see cold winter temperatures. Instead, they see winter months that probably offer better weather conditions than what most countries experience during the summer. 

At this time, you can expect average daytime temperatures of between 77° and 86° degrees Fahrenheit. In the summer months, you can expect temperatures between 86°and 100° Fahrenheit. It is also not unheard of for it to soar above 104°.  

Summer season in Puerto Vallarta and Cancun 

The summer season in each destination sees higher levels of humidity and more rainfall. June to November is the hurricane season, and most tropical storms tend to happen around late August/early September. 

The most ferocious rainstorms tend to subside somewhat by late October. Still, Mexico is a wonderful year-round travel destination, and even if you decide to travel during the rainy season, it will not ruin your trip.

Showers are usually brief and quickly subside for warm, sunny days. It is seldom the case that it is dreary and overcast all day.

Do keep in mind that occasionally, strong storms have affected the internet and electricity lines. Outages have lasted anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days in the past. 

Winter season in Puerto Vallarta and Cancun

While conditions are better in the winter season, this is also the most popular time of year to travel. At this time, you can expect both destinations to be more crowded with western tourists and snowbirds that spend their winters in Mexico and their summers elsewhere.

The costs of flights, car rentals in Mexico, accommodation, and local excursions are at their annual high. Some properties are at maximum occupancy, particularly around Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

So, it is important to make your reservations in advance if you hope to travel during this time. The best hotels and resorts tend to book up quickly.

If you want to escape the crowds, it is worth traveling towards the end of the winter season in May, or in early November. You should also check the dates for American spring break. During this time, thousands of partygoers descend on Cancun and that may be something you want to avoid (or be a part of!)  

Cancun Vs Puerto Vallarta FAQs 

Cancun Vs Puerto Vallarta
Cancun Vs Puerto Vallarta

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? Hopefully, you will find the answers you are looking for below!

Is Cancun more expensive than Puerto Vallarta?

Cancun is more expensive than Puerto Vallarta across the board. This can be seen in everything from hotels and resorts, to the prices at restaurants and beach clubs.

Both destinations are very popular with domestic and international tourists. However, since Cancun is one of the best-loved beach destinations in the world, local tourism businesses are aware that whatever they charge, people will pay, as there are millions of people eager to experience Cancun. Generally, Puerto Vallarta is more budget-friendly.

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 characterized by 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 

So Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta, which appeals to you the most? Have you traveled to Mexico before? What did you think? 

If you are visiting the country for the first time, you may enjoy browsing this list of things to know before you go. Whichever destination you end up choosing, you are sure to have a wonderful time!

Safe travels! Buen Viaje! Xo 

Melissa Douglas

Melissa Douglas is a British Travel Writer based in Merida, Mexico. She has produced written content for several high-profile publications across the globe - including Forbes Travel Guide, the Huffington Post, Rough Guides, and Matador Network.