Because of my love for Mexico, people have often asked me for help figuring out where to go in Mexico so I thought I’d address that here.
Basically, the 3 biggest tourist destinations are Cancun, Cabo, and Puerto Vallarta, so unless you’re looking for some off-the-beaten-path pueblo, it’s best to pick from those 3.
If you’re looking for the shortest travel time:
- Cancun is located on the Yucatan Peninsula so its geographical position makes it closer to those on the East Coast and those living in or close to Texas – you’ll have a better shot of getting a direct flight.
- Cabo and Puerto Vallarta are on the western side of Mexico so it’s easier to get to for those living out West (especially California!).
If you want all the comforts of being home (i.e., you want to feel like you’ve never left the U.S.):
- Cancun is definitely the most developed of the three although Cabo is very close behind. In the hotel corridor, the roads are newly paved and often lined with palm trees on either side (think: Newport Beach or Miami). Cancun also has some big malls and open-air shopping centers. La Isla Shopping Center, for one, with its river, shops, and themed restaurants reminds me of something I’d see in Vegas. And let’s not forget Luxury Avenue which is there in case your idea of a souvenir is a little more than just tequila and hot sauce.
- Puerto Vallarta used the be the most “authentic” of the 3, but it’s getting developed as we speak… which is a shame because I really liked that you actually felt like you were in Mexico when you’re in Puerto Vallarta. There’s a certain charm about the cobblestone streets, street vendors, and just seeing what Mexico really looks like (not the version of Mexico that’s been done up for tourists). The good news is that the modernization of Puerto Vallarta is only in progress and it’s probably still another 5-10 years away from being as done up as Cabo or Cancun.
If you want to hang out on the beach:
- All Cancun and Cabo hotels are on the beach. Being situated by the Golf of Mexico, Cancun is blessed with the turquoise water that so many associate with a beach vacation. Cancun hotels are also situated on a very long strip of beach so you can basically walk for miles with the hotel on one side and the beach on the other.
- Cabo resorts are also oceanfront but the water is usually rougher so you’re less likely to find the kind of water that is safe for swimming – unless you go specifically to Medina Beach (which could be an expensive cab ride if you’re staying on the hotel corridor).
- Puerto Vallarta lacks a beach because it’s on a bay (think of San Francisco) and if a hotel claims it’s on a beach, be ready for something closer to a tiny strip of sand. That said, there are beaches in Puerto Vallarta, but you’ll have to take a tour boat to get to them for the day.
If you just want some rest and relaxation:
- Cabo resorts are great if you’re not looking to leave the hotel. This is especially true if you stay on the hotel corridor or in the hotels in San Jose Del Cabo. This doesn’t mean you couldn’t find a hotel in the middle of the action, though. Hotels in Cabo San Lucas (FYI, Cabo San Lucas and San Jose Del Cabo are two different cities but both make up “Cabo”) are centrally located but will be more crowded and louder because most of the bars, clubs, and restaurants are in Cabo San Lucas.
- You could also get some R&R in Cancun but it will definitely have more of large “resortish” feel if you’re into that kind of thing.
- Again, you could get R&R in Puerto Vallarta, but wouldn’t it be better to get this R&R some place that is on a nice beach? Also, I think the appeal of Puerto Vallarta is the abundance of activities (sunset cruises, jungle horseback rides, ziplining, day trips to nearby beaches, cheap spas, etc.) in a city that feels more authentic – all of which you’d miss out on if you never left the hotel!
If price is a factor:
- Hands down, get ready to spend a pretty penny in Cancun and Cabo! In fact, in both cities, the prices are comparable to the prices you’d pay in a big city in the states. This is especially true if you eat in the hotel. Unlike Cancun, however, you have a better shot of finding cheaper eats in Cabo if you wanted to venture out (the best meal we had was from a street vendor’s taco stand. The taco was only $1!).
- Puerto Vallarta is still the most economical option. Hotels are cheaper, tours are cheaper, and food is cheaper. My personal fave are the massages. I got the best massage of my life in Puerto Vallarta for only $30/hr. Last time I went, I got a body scrub, used the steam room, and got an 80min massage for around $80. The best part was that the spa was way cuter and nicer than most of the spas back at home (kind of like winning the traveling lottery!).
And finally, in terms of activities, you can pretty much do all your typical “tropical” destination activities (parasailing, jetskiing, banana boats, snorkeling, horseback riding, etc.) in all 3 cities.
I think the best part of Cancun is its proximity to Chichen Itza and all the cenotes (a big sinkhole filled with freshwater and fish) that you can visit on the Yucatan. When I was there, I did a super fun ATV ride through the jungle, swam in a cenote, and then stopped by another where I got to jump into a big cenote.
The best part of Cabo is the beautiful desert landscape (it’s not humid like the other two cities) that is your background when you’re doing any “tropical” activity. If Cancun is like Los Angeles or Miami with its flash and proximity to other historical natural wonders, then Cabo is like Scottsdale with its desert, golfing, and spas.
And Puerto Vallarta? Well, it doesn’t have a comparable U.S. city. It’s the most lush of the 3, surrounded by mountain and jungle, with quaint shops, cobbled streets, street vendors, and honest to God, the most uh-mazingly friendly people I’ve ever met in all of my travels to-date. Life just moves at a slower pace there and you get the sense that people are just nice and trustworthy.
Whew, got all that? Basically, go to Cancun if you want to feel like you’re still in the U.S., you like big resorts, big beaches, and big malls. Go to Cabo if you want a place to get away for the weekend, if you don’t mind relaxing at the hotel, and are happy just sunbathing and snorkeling. Go to Puerto Vallarta if you’re looking for more authenticity, want a slower paced vibe, and are up for some adventure.
I hope that helps. If not, just pick one and then go to the other two next time. 🙂
Update 3/9/14: If you’re headed to Puerto Vallarta, check out my Puerto Vallarta travel tips. Also, as of the time I wrote this post, Puerto Vallarta has become even more developed and its boardwalk is now finished development. If you’re looking for more authenticity in Mexico, consider visiting Sayulita while you’re in Puerto Vallarta. Sayulita is what I imagine Puerto Vallarta used to be like 20 years ago.