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Should Your Next Mexico Vacation Be In Cancun, Cabo, or Puerto Vallarta?

(Medina Beach in Cabo San Lucas)

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.

(The Cancun hotel zone is full of 4-5 star hotels that all face the gorgeous turquoise waters.)

(The marina in Cabo San Lucas is modern with plenty of shops and restaurants.)

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.
(The surrounding rocky landscape gives this beach in Cabo San Lucas a very desert feel.)

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!

(Your biggest decision when it comes to R&R in Cancun is, “Do you want to relax under a beach palapa or by the hotel pool?”)

(This resort in Puerto Vallarta has plenty of pools to make up for the shortage of a sandy beach front, which made it a great place to come back to after a day of excursions!)

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.

(Chichen Itza, one of the largest Mayan cities)

(I jumped into this cenote on the Yucatan Peninsula. This is a must-do if you go to Cancun and are game for exploring outside of the hotel strip.)

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.

(The dry Cabo landscape is a great alternative to the humidity typical in Cancun and Puerto Vallarta.)

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.

(Side streets by the Puerto Vallarta Malecon)

(The Puerto Vallarta marina is surrounded lush jungles in the background)

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.

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Ankita Sinha - March 3, 2012 - 10:23 am

Love your blog template.Appreciate the hard work that might have gone in for those pictures and articles.Keep up the gud work 😉 and keep travelling.

Just Wanderlust - March 3, 2012 - 8:41 pm

Thanks, Ankita!

julie - March 5, 2012 - 2:27 pm

I really liked reading your overview of Mexico and it’s been helpful in narrowing down my options. i have two questions:

which is the best place to go during the month of June?

And, do I need a car to get around in Cabo?

I am trying to decide between Cancun and Cabo for a trip I am planning with my two daughters, 13 and 10. We are traveling alone and don’t want to rent a car in Mexico.

Just Wanderlust - March 5, 2012 - 8:55 pm

Hi Julie! I’m glad you found it helpful! I think in both cities, you can avoid car rental — if you’re in Cabo, just make sure you stay at a hotel in Cabo San Lucas and not the hotel corridor. Hotel corridor resorts are farther and therefore, require an expensive ($20-$25) cab ride each way — this is fine, though, if you plan spend most of your time at the resort. If you’re in Cancun, there is a bus you can take that runs from the hotel strip into town and stops at some of the shopping centers along the way.

Both places are safe so I wouldn’t worry if you’re alone with 2 kids — just make sure you stick to the tourist areas.

Hmm… not sure if it helps, but Cancun does have tours to (an archeological/water/show park) which seems like something kids might enjoy. Otherwise, both cities have tropical destination activities like parasailing, horseback rides, swimming with dolphins, banana boats, ATV’s, ziplining, and wave runners.

Finally, people in Cabo are slightly “friendlier” and a bit more laid back than those in Cancun if that matters at all to you!

Hope that helps! Let me know if you have any other questions!

Just Wanderlust - March 5, 2012 - 8:57 pm

Also – June should be fine for both places but it will be hot in Cabo and hot/humid in Cancun.

Paula - March 21, 2012 - 2:01 pm

I enjoyed reading your review! Here is my problem. I have been going to Cabo with family and friends for the past 5 years. We go in December. We decided to try Cancun this time.We have a place booked and now I’m second guessing. Is Cancun safe? People keep telling me they know someone who knows someone that was kidnapped or something.LOL
People have said simular things about Cabo and I tell them crime is everywhere and we have never had any problems when we go.
I know what I’m getting when I go to Cabo and we love it so much! I dont know anything about Cancun other than what I read and see in pictures. I’m not sure if we should try out Cancun or stick with lovely Cabo? I know Cabo has some American restaurants and such. Which we do not go to. I just dont want to be in Cancun and feel like I’m in the US.What are your thoughts having been to both? Try new or go back??
Thanks!
Paula

Paula - March 21, 2012 - 2:05 pm

BTW..we are 45 and enjoy relaxing by the pool..dining out. Finding off the beaten path bars to have drinks..shopping…thanks again!
Paula

Just Wanderlust - March 21, 2012 - 8:14 pm

Hi Paula! Thanks for stopping by! If there’s one thing I wouldn’t worry about it’s safety in Cancun (and Cabo). Both places are totally safe as long as you stay in the tourist areas. All of the scary crime is around the border areas so I definitely wouldn’t drive from the US to Cancun/Cabo, but if you fly in, you’ll be totally fine.

So with the safety concern out of the way, Cancun definitely has more of a “big resort” feel and is just a tad less intimate feeling than Cabo. If you’re staying on the hotel strip, it’ll also be hard to just walk somewhere to find an off the beaten path bar (you’ll have to take a bus into town for some random bars but the area kind of reminds me of where I’d go if I were in college and on spring break). Alternatively, you could go here: http://www.laislacancun.com.mx/content/index to find eateries, but it will have the feel of a very new outdoor shopping area.

If I were you, I’d keep the reservations and just try out Cancun since you’ve already booked it. You’ll still get to hang by the pool, the locals are still friendly, the hotels are big, the beach is nicer (and bigger), etc. You can also drive down to Playa del Carmen from Cancun, too, if you’re yearning for a day or two of more “authenticity”. So basically, I don’t think you’ll hate it if you go to Cancun — you just might not love it as much as Cabo but at least you’re trying something new! Hope that helps! Let me know if you have any other questions.

[…] lot of visitors find this blog when they are looking for advice on choosing among Cancun, Cabo, or Puerto Vallarta for their next Mexico vacation.  Some find this blog when they are trying to figure out if Mexico […]

RuthieR - November 3, 2013 - 2:01 pm

I just want to say thank you. You have just answered all of my queries… And now I am decided on where to visit in Mexico! You rock!! Thanks

Louise - January 23, 2014 - 8:54 am

Is PV safe for two women travellers. And which area of Puerto Vallarta for a hotel? We love food, wine so is PV or Cancun or other beach city better. We are flying from Toronto, Canada

JustWanderlust - January 23, 2014 - 4:39 pm

Yes, PV is safe for two women. In fact, every time I’ve gone, it’s just been me and one other girl. There are hotels in the older part of town but I like staying at the nicer hotels which are farther away (last time I stayed at the Westin which was totally fine); the taxis are cheap so it doesn’t really matter if you’re farther. I suggest checking for hotel ratings on tripadvisor to get a sense of what type of hotel you like. To be candid, however, if you’re into food and wine (as I am!), I wouldn’t really go to Mexico for either (although, if I had to pick between PV or Cancun for food/wine, I’d pick Cancun just because it’s got more upscale options… PV will have more “local” food). I’m racking my brain to see if there’s been any good “beachy” destinations for that and I am coming up short. It’s probably best to pick between a “beach” vacation or a “food & wine” vacation. If the latter wins, then head to places like Napa Valley, San Francisco, or New York. Of all the places I’ve been, Napa Valley has some of the best food in such a concentrated area – plus, you can go wine tasting and get spa treatments!

Ione - February 11, 2014 - 5:57 pm

Hi Justwanderlust,
Think my next trip will be in PV – having done Cancun, I think I’d like to go for a more authentic feel this time around 🙂
What are your thoughts on All-Inclusive packages? We will be on somewhat of a budget, but don’t want that to detract from the authenticity of our trip.
I see you’ve stayed at the Westin which doesn’t appear to have any rooms available in late December – Jan 2015. Wondering if you fancy any other hotels in PV for me to look into.
Thanks for a great blog 🙂

IONE - February 11, 2014 - 7:04 pm

I should also mention that we are a couple travelling in our early thirties. Kids don’t bother us but adults only would be preferred.
THanks again 🙂

JustWanderlust - February 11, 2014 - 9:35 pm

Hi Ione! I actually am in PV (well, close to it anyway!) right now. We stayed at the Marriott this time and it was horrible (overcrowded and everyone was like twice our age, haha)! I would recommend the Westin over the Marriott. They may not show availability but chances are, people will cancel and you’ll be able to get a reservation if you just keep checking back. This past weekend, they had rates for $135USD which is pretty standard for the Westin there. I don’t know much about the other hotels in the area so maybe check TripAdvisor? If you stay at a hotel in the Marina Vallarta (which is where those two hotels are), it is about a 80 peso taxi ride to get to downtown, where their boardwalk is. If you venture a few blocks past the boardwalk, you can find cheaper eats. You can also find cheaper eats if you eat in the Marina Vallarta instead of at the hotel… so as far as “all inclusive” packages go, I’ve never done one because: 1) I think I may get bored eating at the hotel all the time, and 2) I think I can find cheaper food options outside the hotel. That said, it all depends on your food preferences, how much you think you normally eat, and how much you think you’d spend on food elsewhere vs how much extra you’re paying for an all-inclusive package. If you don’t plan to venture outside the hotel much, then perhaps an all-inclusive is a good option.

Also, if you want to find more “authenticity” consider renting a car and driving to Sayulita one day. I just visited that surfing town and felt like it had WAYYY more authenticity than PV and is probably what PV was like back in the day. At this point, PV is getting pretty developed. In fact, their boardwalk was just finished a couple of months ago!

I will be posting some tips about PV and Sayulita in the next month or so so stay tuned for more info! Hope this helps!

Silvia - June 18, 2014 - 10:39 am

Beautiful pictures of Mexico! I went in April and booked my tour of Chichen Itza with Musement it was very convenient and interesting. I hope to make it back next year!

Trishia Jacobs - July 15, 2014 - 8:19 am

Diane,
I’ve been to Puerto Vallarta and Cozumel. I was wondering if you have been to the Mexican Riviera and have any recommendations there?

JustWanderlust - July 15, 2014 - 2:35 pm

Along the riviera, I’ve only been to La Paz, Cabo, Puerto Vallarta (and Sayulita). If you’ve been to PV, you can check out Cabo next. I did a 2 day, 1 night trip where I drove from Cabo to La Paz and stopped at Hotel California (you know, the one that inspired the song!). By La Paz, you can visit the Espiritu Santo Islands and the beaches nearby where the water is so shallow you can walk out pretty far and it is only waist deep (or less!). The city of La Paz was OK, but probably not enough to merit longer than an afternoon, but when combined with the road stops along the way and the islands, it’s a nice quick side trip for someone already in Cabo.

Agave Villas Mexico - August 1, 2014 - 2:18 pm

Some great comparison of three fantastic towns in Mexico. Thanks for the article…love the blog!

Anitha - January 12, 2015 - 12:24 pm

Hey, this blog is really helpful. Thank you.
I am planning to visit either Cabo/Cancun in April and I am not sure what do I do with a 1.5 yr toddler with us. We are planning to stay in all-inclusive beach resort – but have no idea what they would offer. Wanted to know if you have any suhhestions about how the beach resorts would be for the kids? My kid will not stay with someone new – so, leaving him with the childcare is not an option for us. Any suggestion would be very helpful.

JustWanderlust - January 19, 2015 - 4:58 pm

Hi Anitha – my baby is just 8 months so I have just started learning the ropes to traveling with a little one so, unfortunately, this is an area I’m not yet comfortable giving a recommendation. My friends, who have traveled with babies, seem to have done well finding resorts that have babysitting or are all inclusive. It just makes it easier. Usually, all-inclusives cover all your food/beverages but it may differ by hotel and the plan you sign up for. It’d be best to check with the resort you’re interested in.

mary - February 17, 2015 - 10:02 am

Hi, I am so glad I stumbled across you blog; Its great! I am trying to plan a first trip to Cancun. It is so overwhelming! Is there a All Inclusive resort you can recommend that is fabulous but doesn’t break the bank??

Thanks for any help!
Mary

Doreen - March 5, 2015 - 12:52 pm

Hi! I’m so happy I found your blog and all of the great information you provide. I’d like to plan a 4 night vacation for my teen daughter and I to Mexico. I’ve never researched, planned or travelled anywhere other than the U.S. East Coast so This is new and a little overwhelming for me. We just want sun, beach, pool and relaxation and would go in late May. I’ve been seeing a lot of all inclusive packages for Riviera Maya. Is this a good place to stay and do you have any nice hotel recommendations? That’s my biggest fear…what appears to look nice in photos but ends up not as expected. Thank you so much!

JustWanderlust - March 5, 2015 - 4:24 pm

Hi Doreen – thanks for dropping by! A 4 night trip to the Riviera Maya sounds great. I haven’t done any all-inclusives before (although the number of questions I’ve received on them make me think I should!) but I wouldn’t worry about the resorts that much. Mexico resorts in tourist areas are usually quite nice… and many are nicer than the ones in the U.S. when you compare what you’re getting for the price. I’d recommend checking out reviews on TripAdvisor for the resorts and looking at Oyster.com to see actual photos of the resorts. Lastly, if you go to Cancun, I’ve checked out the Westin, the Marriott Casamagna, and the Le Meridien — all were the quality you’d expect of them at home so I’d be surprised if any hotel along that big hotel strip in Cancun wasn’t up to par.

Catherine - May 30, 2015 - 8:58 am

Hi!
I am glad I found your blog here!
I have been searching a trip to escape my busy life in Toronto.
I have been to Cancun 3 years ago and I am planning to go somewhere like it for 5-7 days in mid-June.
I will be traveling alone this time, so I want to find a place which is safe and nice hotel/resort.
Probably I will stay in hotel/resort all the time but might go out for a walk during day time.
Could you please recommend either Cabo or PV?

Thanks a lot!
Catherine

JustWanderlust - May 30, 2015 - 1:37 pm

Hi Catherine – I’d pick a resort in Cabo San Lucas so that you can walk around the Marina if you choose to leave the resort.

Elena - July 3, 2015 - 9:54 pm

Hi!
We plan a short vacation at the end of July. Are ocean wave heights in Cancun comparable to Puerta Vallarta?
Thank you

Elena

JustWanderlust - July 7, 2015 - 8:13 am

Hi Elena – I haven’t been to both cities in July so don’t have a comparison. But from what I’ve seen, the waves in Cancun could be a little higher/rougher than the ones in PV. Try calling an oceanfront hotel in each city and asking for their opinions of the current waves.

Anastasia - January 27, 2016 - 12:19 pm

Hi, I am wondering if you know which would be better, cancun or riviera maya? I read somewhere riviera Maya has great beaches and we want beaches mostly then night life and fun like horseback riding or snorkeling. And in cancun where is a good place to stay that’s nice but not too expensive that’s all inclusive? Thanks a bunch!

Sharon - April 29, 2016 - 3:01 pm

I have been to both, when we were on the Maya side our hotel had NO beach, it was a drag, my husband loves the beach, on the Cancun side there isn’t a hotel or resort that doesn’t have beach, that iam aware of. I did like the Cancun side, have done them both.

Steve - July 13, 2016 - 11:56 am

Just coming upon this post now, but I must say it’s a great comparison of these three destinations. Personally, I’m going to have to go with Cabo as it has the best snorkeling in my opinion.

trung - July 31, 2016 - 10:27 pm

thank you for the post. very helpful. we are deciding between the three for this december. what is a good resort for puerto vallarta. the one you show the picture looks nice.

thank you

JustWanderlust - August 7, 2016 - 8:21 pm

Hi Trung – The photo for PV was from the Westin. It is a decent hotel, however, I went back almost a year ago and stayed at the Westin and felt it was kind of run down now – it’s time has passed. There are so many new resorts popping up in Puerto Vallarta that I would check out one of those now instead. The value you get for resorts in PV are so good that you can get an upscale type of resort for less than or around $200/night (a similar hotel elsewhere would be at least $250-$300/night) just depending on what time of year you go.

julie - November 4, 2016 - 9:25 am

Would you recommend Islands of Loreta at all?

JustWanderlust - November 7, 2016 - 12:31 pm

Hi Julie- I’ve never been to the islands so can’t make a recommendation.

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