Choosing between Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta can be a big decision if you have never been to either destination.
Not sure which big, beautiful Mexican beach destination to choose for your next vacation? You’re not alone.
The two most popular beach destinations in Mexico are Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, probably because of their proximity to international airports, but it’s about more than just convenience – these two cities are full of culture, beauty, and fun.
And deciding which one is best is no easy feat. On the one hand, you have Cancun that boasts world-famous nightlife and magnificent beaches.
On the other hand, you have Puerto Vallarta, known for its charming old town and Pacific coast vibes. How does one choose?
It’s not like some destinations where, if you have the time, you can visit both — they are on completely opposite sides of the country.
Sunrise or sunset? The Caribbean Sea or the Pacific Ocean? Spring break or romantic getaway? It all depends on what you’re looking for, and in this article we’re going to help you figure out which is best for you.
In this guide, I’ll be comparing the two cities and how they stack up against each other when it comes to beaches, nightlife, hotels, and, of course, food.
There is no one size fits all. What someone likes for their vacation is totally subjective.
Maybe you won’t like what I like, or perhaps your price range is different than mine – either way, I’ll give you all the necessary information so you can choose which one suits you best.
Puerto Vallarta or Cancun: At a Glance
Stick around while I give you an overview of what each city offers.
- Pacific coast vibes
- Authentic old town
- Cobblestoned streets
- Tons of cool day trips
- Some of the most beautiful beaches in Mexico
- One of the safest places in Mexico
- Dive bars and a live music scene
- Outdoor adventures like zip-lining and horseback riding
- Easily walkable and everything is close together
- Incredible selection of local restaurants and street vendors
- Hotels and experiences available for every budget
- LGBTQ+ friendly
- Amazing sunsets
- Caribbean Sea destination
- White sandy beaches with crystal-clear water
- Home to many all-inclusive resorts
- Close to beautiful islands like Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox
- World-famous nightlife with massive nightclubs
- Leans more towards the luxury end of things, but still options available for mid-range travelers
- Large hotel zone with high-end shopping and restaurants
- Great base destination for exploring nearby ruins and parks
Puerto Vallarta or Cancun: Beaches
When it comes to which beaches are the best, there is a lot to consider. Are you a surfer or do you want to scuba dive? Want to see whale sharks or humpbacks? Turquoise waters the temperature of a bathtub or dark blue seas that cool you off on a hot day?
The reason the beaches are so different is because they’re different oceans. Puerto Vallarta is located on the Pacific Ocean, meaning its waters are rougher and have a stronger current. Meanwhile, Cancun, located in the Caribbean Sea, has calmer waters with shades of turquoise and emerald green.
If you’re looking for a beach to just relax and take a swim without any worries, Cancun’s beaches are your best bet. However, if you’re the adventurous type and enjoy surfing or boogie boarding, the beaches in Puerto Vallarta offer a more exciting experience.
You can’t talk about beaches without talking about crowds, and let me tell you, both of them are popular tourist destinations, meaning their beaches can get crowded.
However, Cancun’s hotel zone is more developed and has a higher number of resorts located on the beachfront, making it more crowded than Puerto Vallarta’s smaller hotel area.
But if you’re staying at an all-inclusive resort, you’ll have a little beach area that is reserved just for the hotel guests. So it really depends on what kind of holiday you’re keen on.
In Cancun, you can go to the public beach but prepare to be swarmed by vendors trying to sell you everything from souvenirs to parasailing experiences. Puerto Vallarta’s public beaches, while still having vendors, are not as overwhelming and feel more peaceful.
You can grab a chair and umbrella at some places and just need to buy a beer or food, and you’re all set. Plus, the sunsets are out of this world. You’ll just see a big orange sun dropping into the water.
Cancun Vs. Puerto Vallarta: Restaurants
Behind beaches, the second most important thing when coming south of the border is dining on authentic Mexican food. And both of these destinations don’t disappoint in that department.
Cancun is much bigger and more developed. I mean, they have about 600,000 more inhabitants than Puerto Vallarta. So, you can imagine the restaurants in Cancun offer a wider variety.
From high-end fine dining restaurants to local street food stalls. You’ll have a wide range of options to choose from, including traditional Mexican dishes as well as international cuisine.
Puerto Vallarta may be smaller, but don’t let that fool you when it comes to food. This coastal town has a rich culinary scene with numerous restaurants offering fresh seafood, authentic Mexican dishes, and fusion cuisine.
You can also find some great local gems for street food, such as fish tacos or grilled shrimp skewers. On the beach, you’ll find freshly shucked oysters for about 30 cents each, and wow are they amazing. The restaurants in Puerto Vallarta are some of my favorite in all of Mexico when it comes to seafood.
If you’re traveling like a backpacker, I’d say Puerto Vallarta will be a bit cheaper and have more local restaurants to pop into.
In Cancun, you’re going to have a lot of upscale restaurants, fancy bars, and clubs, but don’t worry; there are still plenty of affordable places to eat.
Just outside the hotel zone away from the all-inclusive resorts, you’ll find more local food options that will save your wallet while giving you an authentic dining experience.
Puerto Vallarta or Cancun: Things To Do
There is really no limit to the number of things you can do in either city. While some beach vacations are all sand and sun, Cancun and Puerto Vallarta offer a variety of activities for all types of travelers. Whether you prefer adventurous excursions or laid-back beach days, both cities have something to offer.
You can also swim with dolphins, go snorkeling or scuba diving in crystal clear waters, and even take a trip to Isla Mujeres for a day of relaxation on some of the most beautiful beaches in Mexico.
There is a big list of things to do in Puerto Vallarta, but with a different vibe. You can go zip-lining through the jungle or take a boat tour to see humpback whales in Banderas Bay. You can visit the hippie town of Sayulita for some surfing or stroll along the iconic malecon (boardwalk) to catch street performances and vendors selling local crafts.
Cancun Vs. Puerto Vallarta: Nightlife
Cancun Nightlife is some of the most famous in the world. From beach clubs to nightclubs, there is something for everyone here.
The Hotel Zone is where most of the action happens, with a variety of bars and clubs that cater to different music preferences. The famous Coco Bongo show is also a must-see in Cancun, featuring live performances, acrobats, and an open bar.
Puerto Vallarta’s nightlife is more low-key and laid-back compared to Cancun. It offers a mix of sports bars, craft beer spots, cocktail bars, and beachfront restaurants. The Romantic Zone is the main hub for nightlife and one of the best neighborhoods in Puerto Vallarta, with a variety of options for late-night entertainment.
Puerto Vallarta is the friendliest LGBTQ+ destination in the country and is home to a lively LGBTQ+ community, making it a top choice for travelers.
If you’re just looking for one night out while you’re on vacation, then either city will be a good choice, but if you’re looking for an unforgettable party experience, then Cancun is the place to be. As long as you’re happy to stump up the cost for cover charges all night.
Whether dancing on tables at Coco Bongo or sipping cocktails on the beach at Mandala Beach Club, Cancun offers non-stop fun and energy.
Puerto Vallarta Vs. Cancun: Hotels
Staying in the right hotel can make or break a vacation, and both cities have a range of options to choose from.
Cancun is known for its all-inclusive resorts, offering everything you need in one convenient place. Many of these resorts are also adults-only, making them perfect for couples or groups of friends looking to party without any interruptions.
In contrast, Puerto Vallarta has more boutique hotels and charming bed and breakfasts scattered throughout the city. This gives you more of an authentic and intimate experience, you’ll be able to immerse yourself in the local culture. However, there are also larger resorts available for those who prefer that type of accommodation.
If you’re someone who is looking to get out of the hotel and explore, then Puerto Vallarta may be the better choice for you. The city has a rich history and culture, with plenty of art galleries, local markets, and museums to visit. While in Cancun, it’s so easy to get sucked into the luxuriously lazy beach lifestyle that you may never want to leave your resort! But hey, that doesn’t sound too bad either.
Cancun Vs. Puerto Vallarta: Water Sports
If you’re traveling with kids to Puerto Vallarta or Cancun, you’ll be happy to know that both destinations offer plenty of water sports and activities for all ages.
On both beaches, you’ll be able to rent jet skis, go on banana boat rides, and take part in parasailing. However, Cancun is the winner in scuba diving and snorkeling.
Cancun’s crystal-clear waters make for some of the best underwater adventures you’ll ever have. With a variety of colorful tropical fish and even the chance to swim with whale sharks depending on the season, Cancun is a haven for scuba divers and snorkelers.
But, if you’re looking to catch some waves for a day or two, then Puerto Vallarta is the better choice. You can head down to Sayulita Beach, about 30 minutes away, and try your hand at surfing. The waves are perfect for beginners, and there are plenty of surf schools to choose from.
If you want to go deep sea fishing, Puerto Vallarta has a bit more variety when it comes to fishing options.
Ultimately, both Cancun and Puerto Vallarta have something to offer for water sports enthusiasts. It just comes down to personal preference and what type of activities you’re looking to do during your vacation.
Puerto Vallarta Vs. Cancun: Shopping
Both Cancun and Puerto Vallarta have plenty of options to satisfy your shopping needs.
Cancun will have everything from tacky tourist shops to high-end designer stores, giving you a wide range of options. You can find items such as hand-crafted souvenirs, traditional Mexican clothing and accessories, or even luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci.
Puerto Vallarta has a more laid-back shopping scene compared to Cancun, with plenty of local markets and boutiques scattered throughout the city. You can find unique items such as hand-made jewelry, woven baskets, and local artwork. Plus, the prices are usually more affordable than in Cancun.
Cancun Vs. Puerto Vallarta: Day Trips
If you’re anything like me, you want to see the absolute most while traveling to a destination. So, you’re thinking, should I go to Cancun or Puerto Vallarta to get the most out of my vacation?
And that’s where day trips come in, and let me tell you, you are in for a treat with both of these destinations.
In Cancun, you are at the helm of the Riviera Maya, where you can take day trips to ancient Mayan ruins such as Chichen Itza or Tulum. You can also take a ferry over to Isla Mujeres and explore the island’s beautiful beaches and charming town.
It doesn’t stop there. You can head over to Cozumel and explore the island’s underwater world through snorkeling or scuba diving. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, take a day trip to Xcaret Park, where you can experience various activities such as ziplining, swimming with dolphins, and even a Mexican cultural show.
Or, if you’re up for a bit of an adventure, take a boat ride to the hidden Marietas Islands where you can explore secret beaches and caves. Another fun day trip from Puerto Vallarta is to visit San Sebastian del Oeste, a Pueblo Mágico in Jalisco nestled in the Sierra Madre Mountains with beautiful architecture and coffee plantations.
The Verdict: Puerto Vallarta or Cancun?
Personally, I’ve fallen in love with the Pacific side of Mexico, so I lean towards Puerto Vallarta. But on the other hand, the turquoise waters and white sand of the Caribbean often calls to me. I always stay a few nights before heading to other places like Playa del Carmen or Bacalar.
If I had to choose, I would say Puerto Vallarta wins for me personally due to the smaller size and authentic feel. For me, Cancun can often feel like the Vegas of Mexico and don’t get me wrong, I love Cancun for what it is, but Puerto Vallarta just has a special charm to it.
Perhaps you want the Caribbean, but aren’t sold on Cancun? Consider our other comparisons like Cancun vs Tulum or Tulum vs Playa del Carmen to see if either of those towns sounds better for your Mexican beach vacation.
Both Puerto Vallarta and Cancun offer endless opportunities for adventure and relaxation, making them both fantastic destinations for any type of traveler. So, I guess you just have to go to Mexico twice to decide which is better, Puerto Vallarta or Cancun.
Whether you prefer the Pacific or Caribbean coast, Mexico truly has something for everyone. So, pack your bags and get ready to experience all that this beautiful country has to offer!