Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun – Which is the best travel destination?

Planning a beach holiday in Mexico? Struggling to choose Puerto Vallarta vs. Cancun? It’s only natural as they are two of the most popular destinations in Mexico, and they are simultaneously very different and very similar.

Here, we will explore everything you need to know to choose whether to visit Puerto Vallarta or Cancun. We will explore which is the best travel option and, more importantly, which fits you better.

Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta – Characteristics

Cancun

  • Great Beaches
  • All-inclusive resorts
  • Party Vibe
  • Great nightlife
  • Great shopping
  • Closer to Airport
  • Many day trips
  • Day trips to Mayan Ruins
  • Cenotes close by
  • Isla Mujeres
  • Not good for hiking
  • Ok for biking
  • No Surf
  • Sunrises

Puerto Vallarta

  • Average Beaches
  • Hotels and AirBnBs
  • Nice City Vibe
  • Good nightlife
  • Good shopping
  • Next to the Airport
  • Some day trips
  • No Pre-Colombian ruins
  • No Cenotes
  • Isla Marietas day trip
  • Pleasant urban and beach walking
  • Ok for cycling
  • Good for surfing nearby
  • Sunsets

We will compare them, exploring which country is better than the other in the following topics:

  • Location;
  • Size;
  • City Vibe;
  • Tours, attractions, and day trips;
  • Hotels and Resorts;
  • Beaches;
  • Nightlife;
  • Shopping;
  • Food scene;
  • Travel Infrastructure;
  • Travel safety;
  • Costs;
  • How Touristy;
Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun
Puerto Vallarta has several cool statues by the Seafront

Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta

Location

The first thing to note when comparing Cancun and Puerto Vallarta is that they are almost on opposite sides of Mexico.

Cancun is on the Yucatan Peninsula, in the Quintana Roo state, and the Caribbean Sea bathes it. In contrast, Puerto Vallarta is located in Banderas Bay, in the Jalisco State, on the Pacific Coast.

Both Cancun and Puerto Vallarta have airports close by, so it should be very easy to reach either of them. However, Cancun is closer to the East Coast of the US and Puerto Vallarta to the West Coast. For Europeans and anyone else, the difference probably won’t matter.

Curiously, both cities are surrounded by forests and lush vegetation. Cancun is in a completely flat area, and the Mayan Jungle surrounds it. Puerto Vallarta sits between the sea and the Sierra Madre Mountains, which are entirely covered with forest.

Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta
City of Puerto Vallarta in Mexico

City size and characteristics

These two beach resort cities are very different in terms of size. They are clearly some of Mexico’s most popular beach destinations, but the cities differ.

With almost 900,000 people, Cancun is clearly larger than Puerto Vallarta, which has only about 250,000 people. Although, we should note that the city size doesn’t make much difference if you are looking solely for a resort-like vacation.

Which is better- Cancun or Puerto Vallarta
Cancun’s “zona Hotelera” in Mexico | photo by jdross75 via Depositphotos

City vibe

One important thing is that Cancun was built and idealized as a tourist hub, while Puerto Vallarta grew from a small fishing village to a port town and then an important tourist destination.

These differences are apparent when visiting them. Cancun is modern and new (some will say that it lacks character), while Puerto Vallarta is older and more rustic, with cobblestone streets and a pinch of a colonial vibe.

In Puerto Vallarta, you will feel that you are in a real town with a past and history. Cancun is much blander, almost like a make-believe place, an adult amusement park, as we usually say. There is nothing wrong with that, just don’t expect to find much Mexican culture.

While you can see a bit of Mexico in Puerto Vallarta, we also need to advise that it is still a very touristy place, and there are much better towns to visit if you want to experience Mexico. We would suggest Oaxaca, Merida, Puebla, or Mexico City.

Best beaches Puerto Vallarta or Cancun
Puerto Vallarta’s historic center in Mexico

Tours, attractions, and day trips

You will have a variety of day trips and attractions in Cancun or Puerto Vallarta. They both have a few pleasant day trips and tours that can easily entertain you for one week or two.

That being said, we believe Cancun has a wider variety and diversity of attractions. There are so many landmarks and attractions relatively close to Cancun that it is almost impossible not to find fun things to do.

Some of the best Cancun excursions include:

  • Visit several Cenotes (unique and natural freshwater holes);
  • Go to Isla Mujeres;
  • Enjoy the Unique underwater Museum;
  • Day trip to Valladolid (a lovely colonial town);
  • Go to Chichen Itza, one of the new seven wonders;
  • Explore Playa del Carmen or Tulum for a day;
  • Visit the Xcaret park.
Whare should I go Cancun or Puerto Vallarta
Chichen Itza, one of the seven wonders of the World in Mexico near Cancun

Puerto Vallarta also has plenty of memorable day trips and tours. In fact, it is much above the average and better than most destinations worldwide, but unfortunately no ruins and no cenotes. Some of the best things to do around Puerto Vallarta include:

  • Visit the Islas Marietas and the world-famous hidden beach;
  • Explore the lovely beach towns of Sayulita and San Pancho;
  • Go on a hiking trip in the Sierra Madre;
  • Zip lining in the Sierra Madre range;
  • Take a boat to Playa Colomitos;
  • Discover the small fishing village of Yelapa;

So, in hindsight, Puerto Vallarta is great, it has some amazing day trips and tours, but Cancun and the Yucatan region are almost unbeatable in this regard.

Next travel destinations Puerto Vallarta or Cancun
The Playa Colomitos near Puerto Vallarta in Mexico

Hotels and Resorts

As expected, both Cancun and Puerto Vallarta have amazing hotels, all-inclusive resorts, and almost any kind of accommodation. Yet, they are somehow different.

Cancun has an incredible array of hotels and resorts, but most importantly, it has numerous all-inclusive resorts. If you are looking for adults only all inclusives in Mexico and are trying to choose between Cancun vs. Puerto Vallarta, then Cancun is the answer.

Yet, Puerto Vallarta has quite a few resorts, particularly in the northern part of the city and outside the city on the way south. From what we gathered, they are good but not as impressive and as diverse as in Cancun.

Puerto Vallarta also has many hotels and guest houses within the city. It has hotels for every price range, some right in front of the beach, which is excellent if you want to embrace beach and city life.

Furthermore, it also has many Airbnb and short-term rentals, which is excellent for families or groups on a budget. These options aren’t as good in Cancun. Cancun’s “zona Hotelera” was built for resorts and very high-end hotels.

Best beaches Puerto Vallarta vs Cancune
Resort Beach in Cancun, Mexico

Beaches – Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun

One of the main reasons people travel to Mexico for a vacation is to enjoy its paradisiac beaches. So when choosing to visit Cancun or Puerto Vallarta, it is central to compare the beaches. Here, we will mostly focus on the free, public beaches, as we haven’t really tried the resorts.

Both Puerto Vallarta and Cancun have plenty of beaches to choose from. Puerto Vallarta even has beaches within the city, but they aren’t as great as the best beaches in Cancun (or Tulum). On the other hand, they are very accessible and easy to reach.

In general, we believe Cancun’s beaches are better and prettier than in Puerto Vallarta, but we explain this better below.

Cancun Beaches

Crystal clear water, clear sand, warm water, and a few waves sometimes, but always safe and fun. This is the typical beach around Cancun. They are not perfect, but they are very close.

Yet, we must note that Cancun doesn’t have beaches in the city center because the city is well outside the zona hotelera and not by the sea. So you will have to take transportation to reach them.

This is not a significant problem if you are in one of the resorts, as you’ll have a private beach. However, to everyone else, it isn’t great. In fact, most beaches (particularly the best ones) are private or almost impossible to reach if you aren’t in a hotel/pay to enter.

Playa Delfines and Playa Langosta are possibly Cancun’s main public beaches. They are great and easy to reach by public transportation.

What to do in Puerta Vallarta vs Cancun
Public Beach in Cancun, Mexico

Puerto Vallarta beaches

Puerto Vallarta is the opposite of Cancun, as the city naturally developed by the sea to take advantage of the beaches. However, the beaches within Puerto Vallarta aren’t that great.

Honestly, they look much better in photos than they are. As the city is right there, and there are many people, it’s more of a party beach than a relaxing one. They aren’t also very clean, particularly the sand.

On the other hand, the beaches outside the city are pretty good! We particularly enjoy the beaches in Yelapa (boat day trip), Playa Colomitos (close to Boca de Tomatlan), Playa Patzcuarito (close to Sayulita), and the beach in San Pancho.

One important thing to note is that many of the beaches around Puerto Vallarta have strong currents and big/powerful waves. They are great for surfing, but sometimes not very good for swimming.

Best holiday Cancun or Puerto Vallarta
Los Muertos Beach in Puerto Vallarta Mexico

Nightlife

The whole of Mexico is known for having vibrant and fun nightlife. Whether you prefer Cancun or Puerto Vallarta will mostly depend on what you are looking for.

As the mega tourist hub that it is, Cancun has it all. Restaurants, bars, clubs, beach parties… everything, and usually many options within each kind of fun. You will find hundreds of international restaurants, famous bars, and global brand shops.

However, it’s the parties and clubs that make Cancun excel. Coco Bongo, Congo, and City Nightclub are some of Cancun’s most famous and popular.

Puerto Vallarta is also pretty vivacious, but it feels different from Cancun. As it is a proper town, people tend to enjoy more of it. Going to restaurants, shops, and bars, going to the beach at night, and taking night walks. The nightlife in Puerto Vallarta feels more local, Mexican, and natural. Touristy but smaller than Cancun.

However, it also has beach parties and clubs. Curiously Puerto Vallarta has a very active gay scene with lots of LGBT bars and clubs in Zona Romantica.

less expernsive Puerto Vallarta or Cancun
World-famous Coco Bongo in Cancun, Mexico | photo by czuber via Depositphotos

Shopping

We are not huge shopping fans, and we don’t travel to shop around, but even for us, the differences here are pretty obvious.

As with almost everything else, Cancun is over the top. It is bigger and has way more shopping options than Puerto Vallarta. In fact, it is impressive! In Cancun, you’ll find nearly anything you want from any brand you want. Even the most exclusive and luxurious ones.

If shopping while traveling is your thing, Cancun may be your best bet. Some of the places you need to visit include La Isla shopping village, Mercado 28, and the Marina.

Despite not being in the same league as Cancun in terms of size and variety, Puerto Vallarta also has plenty of shopping opportunities. It has extensive malls, and the city center has plenty of shops, mainly local art shops, which is great if you want to explore some of what Mexico offers.

Plus, it has the significant advantage of being walkable, even at night. You can easily walk to the shops, bars, and restaurants. The distances are relatively short, it is safe and fun, and it is lively.

Best nightlife Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta
Cool murals in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Food scene

The food scene in Puerto Vallarta and Cancun are very different. While Cancun has a huge diversity, it is mostly focused on international cuisine to cater to the millions of tourists. Puerto Vallarta also has international cuisine but is not even close to Cancun.

When it comes to trying local Mexican food, Puerto Vallarta is much better than Cancun. In fact, Puerto Vallarta has sometimes been put together with Puebla, Oaxaca, and Mexico City as the best places to eat in Mexico. While in our experience, it is slightly inferior to those cities, it still is one of the best in Mexico.

On the other hand, despite the variety and international food, Cancun is notoriously famous for not having a great Mexican food scene. It obviously has many options, but they aren’t usually typical and are exclusively aimed at tourists (especially Americans). So, there are many international fast-food restaurants.

To be fair, in Cancun, you can also find Mexican street food in Parque de las Palapas. It is OK, but not great. Cancun could be a great place to try Yucatecan (and Mayan) food, but the truth is that it isn’t. If you want to try typical Yucatecan food, Merida is the place to go.

All in all, if you want buffets and international food, Cancun has your back, anything else, Puerto Vallarta is much better.

Travel destination in Mexico- Puerto Vallarta or Mexico
Traditional Mexican food in Puerto Vallarta ate in a cantina

Travel Infrastructure

Cancun has a much larger travel infrastructure than Puerto Vallarta. As we said earlier, Cancun has everything and usually several options to choose from. Either shops, bars, clubs, hotels, beaches, all-inclusive resorts, or anything you can think of. If it’s a tourist-related service, Cancun has it.

Puerto Vallarta has fewer options and less diversity than Cancun, but it still has a pretty good infrastructure, and you probably won’t miss anything. And as everything is more in-town, sometimes it is easier to reach or to find.

An international airport serves both cities, but Cancun’s is bigger and have more flights. They are both close to the town, so you can enjoy your vacation right after arriving.

Which one is safer Cancun or Puerto Vallarta
Puerto Vallarta’s Beach in Mexico

Travel safety

Which is safer? Puerto Vallarta or Cancun? In all honestly, we didn’t find much of a difference in terms of overall safety.

People usually consider the Yucatan peninsula the safest area in Mexico, so you shouldn’t have any issues there, including in Cancun, mainly if you stay in tourist areas. Puerto Vallarta is on Jalisco, which may be seen as a bit riskier, but while we were there, we saw nothing that could suggest danger.

That being said, you still need to take the usual caution. Don’t leave your things unattended, don’t go to sketchy places, and don’t get completely wasted. Also, don’t be stupid and do illegal stuff (like drugs) in Mexico.

Finally, be more aware of places with many people, like bus stops, the airport, and busy streets.

These are all general safety tips for any city in the world. And we didn’t find Cancun or Puerto Vallarta to be to be different or particularly dangerous.

Best choice Puerto Vallarta or Cancun
Puerto Vallarta Malecon, a boardwalk along the coast in Puerto Vallarta

Costs

We found that prices were generally lower in Puerto Vallarta than in Cancun.

Restaurants, Groceries hotels, and private transportation were pricier in Cancun than in Puerto Vallarta. We also found tours to be very expensive or at least more than we expected in both destinations.

However, the costs of your trip will depend more on you than if you are visiting Puerto Vallarta or Cancun. For example, luxury hotels are similarly expensive, while hostel rooms are reasonably cheap and cost more a less the same wherever you stay.

So, if you are looking for an all-inclusive hotel, you’ll probably end up in Cancun, while if you want a short-term rental, you’ll be in Puerto Vallarta. Consequently, you will spend less in Vallarta. But that’s not because it’s less expensive, but because you chose an AirBnB and not an all-inclusive hotel.

That being said, if you are a budget traveler, we suggest Puerto Vallarta, particularly if you are traveling with family. Not only is it less expensive, but it will fit you better. You’ll have an easier time finding what you want and having better time. Thus, it will be a better value for money.

Cool stuff to do in Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun
Public beach in Cancun

How Touristy

We have already confirmed that Cancun is bigger than Puerto Vallarta, and by now, you already know it receives more tourists. But you should note that Puerto Vallarta is only second to Cancun in terms of tourist received, so it is a very touristy place!

So, while Cancun is Cancun, both are very touristy and live off tourism. They have a very different history and look very different, but they are similarly popular.

Vest Beach Puerto Vallarta or Cancun
Yelapa Beach, near Puerta Vallarta, is a beautiful and relaxing beach in Mexico

Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta – What’s the verdict?

Despite being Mexico’s two most popular beach destinations, Puerto Vallarta and Cancun are very different. Their origin, the way they are organized, the culture, what they offer, also the beaches and the people they attract.

So, in hindsight, you should go to Cancun if:

  • You want an all-inclusive resort and large luxurious hotels;
  • An adult playground;
  • Holiday bubble, with easy access to anything you want;
  • The best beaches;
  • Day trips to Cenotes and Mayan Ruins, including Chichen Itza;
  • Go partying and want massive clubs;
  • Shopping opportunities;
  • Ecstatic vibe;
  • Be closer to the USA’s East coast;
Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta - What's the verdict?
Cancun resorts in Mexico | photo by mariakray via Depositphotos

Puerto Vallarta is the best fit for:

  • Want more of a city experience;
  • Urban beaches;
  • Good beaches outside town;
  • Surfing (not in town);
  • Hotels and short-term rentals;
  • Delicious local Mexican food;
  • Family trip;
  • Good Nightlife and shopping but not as much as Cancun;
  • Stay close to the West Coast;
Why go to Puerto Vallarta instead of Cancun
Los Muertos Beach Pier in Puerto Vallarta

Can you visit Cancun and Puerto Vallarta?

As we said earlier, the cities are far from each other, so it isn’t the obvious choice. Technically it is possible if you lay over in Mexico city, but it wouldn’t be my first choice.

Anyway, our suggestion is to choose to visit either Puerto Vallarta or Cancun, and if you have more time in Mexico, explore Mexico City or Oaxaca instead.

This article focused on Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, but other options exist in the Riviera Maya, like Playa del Carmen and Tulum. We compared Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum here. So have a look to see if you may enjoy those destinations instead.

What's the best beach destination in Mexico cover
Beautiful beach in Tulum, Mexico

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