Mexico is a wonderful country full of so many magical places. It’s also one of the most visited destinations on earth. So, if you’re planning to visit it soon, it can be quite tricky to decide where exactly you want to go for your Mexican vacation.
Well, to put it simply, there is no one answer to that. All of Mexico’s travel destinations are equally worth visiting and have something special to offer.
But since you can’t tour the whole country at one time, you can choose places based on what you are looking for. In this post, I’ll compare Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun, showing the main differences, and their highlights to help you decide which of the two destinations is best for your needs.
Both the places attract millions of visitors from all across the world, despite being hundreds of miles apart. If you’re confused between the two and can’t pick one for your vacation, let me guide you through what’s best in both, what’s different and unique about them, and hopefully help you decide on which is best for your trip.
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Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun
Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, despite both of them being great places for a beach vacation, they are also considerably different places. I’ve lived in both cities, so from my personal experience, I’ll be sharing with you a glimpse at the similarities and differences.
Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun – Ambiance
The ambiance in Cancun is exactly what you’d expect from an urban city designed for the purpose of being a tourist hub. Lots of high-rise buildings form the foreground for the deep jungle surrounding Cancun. The hotels are very luxurious and elegant in the hotel zone which is separated from the downtown.
Although in Cancun you can visit a couple of small Mayan ruins and a small Mayan museum, everything else is a modern and, let me say that, ugly city, with no historical charm. The beachside though is spectacular with white soft sand and turquoise water, most of the time swimmable.
The hotel zone, where the beach is, is a 20 km stretch of white sand lined with highrise hotels, most of them luxury and expensive, with a few exceptions.
There is no historical center with lanes to walk around. The only places where you can do that are the malls, scattered around the city.
Puerto Vallarta offers a more authentic experience of Mexican culture.
The downtown in Puerto Vallarta has all the charm of the colonial feel, with old buildings and cobblestone roads, art galleries and pretty shops.
The city overall is not only rich in culture and history but it also offers spectacular sceneries with the lush Sierra Madre mountain range as a backdrop contrasting the blue ocean washing the coastline of Banderas Bay. Top it off with amazing hotels for all budgets and kinds and Mexican hospitality and you have the perfect beach destination.
Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun – Location
Cancun is located on the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, right after the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean sea. It is probably this particular location that makes Cancun beaches some of the most amazing of the entire Mexican state of Quintana Roo.
The international airport is just 10 kilometers away from the Cancun beach zone and downtown, and there are plenty of other tourist hotspots such as Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Holbox, Isla Mujeres, Chichen Itza at an easy reach.
Even though Puerto Vallarta isn’t on the coast of the Caribbean, it’s still just as picturesque as Cancun.
The city overlooks the Pacific, the world’s largest ocean, and boasts golden-sand beaches and stunning beachfront hotels but also walkable areas, such as the famous Malecon (sea promenade) Puerto Vallarta Old town and the zona rosa, everything at a walking distance.
The airport for Puerto Vallarta is just 8 kilometers from the city center. There are also quaint beach towns like Sayulita and San Pancho and all the Riviera Nayarit to explore .
Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun – Best time to visit
Cancun is the perfect tourist destination all year round and although it’s a popular destination for spring-breakers, there are other times of the year that are much more enjoyable, depending on what you are looking for.
If you want to visit Cancun and want perfect weather and an overall enjoyable experience, December through April is the time for it.
The downsides are that the prices of accommodations are higher than usual and crowds are on the heavy side, but there’s a good reason for that; it’s absolutely amazing during this time of the year and everyone wants to enjoy the good life.
Read more on the best time to visit Cancun
The same is true for Puerto Vallarta as well. On top of all the things mentioned above, you also get to watch whales during your visit to Puerto Vallarta in the winter from December through March, which is whale watching season in Mexico but also the high season.
If you are looking for great deals, though, you should visit between April and June.
During this time of the year, you will be missing out on whale watching but you will find great lodging prices, hardly any rains, and fewer crowds.
Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun – Safety
Cancun is considered a safe place, overall. Despite a few drug-related accidents, tourists are pretty much safe unless they are looking for trouble.
But it goes without saying that all the rules of common sense apply here as well, just like anywhere else in the world. If you want to know about common safety tips in Cancun,check out my post about How to stay safe while traveling to Cancun.
Just like Cancun, Puerto Vallarta is also considered a safe place to travel. Just be wise and avoid peripherical areas and walking alone on narrow dark roads at night. Stay in the touristy area and avoid overdrinking, among other common-sense rules, especially if you are alone.
The fact that millions of tourists visit here and there is a big ex-pat community loving the life in Puerto Vallarta only goes to show how people consider it a safe place. Still, there are some instances of petty crimes here, so make sure to read some safety tips before your trip.
Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun – Beaches
Despite being on opposite coasts, and with very different characteristics, both Puerto Vallarta and Cancun are hugely popular for their beaches and incredible water-related activities.
In fact, both destinations are home to some of the best Mexico beaches.
Below is a look at what you can expect from the beaches of both places.
Located on the Caribbean coastline of Mexico, Cancun is famous for its picturesque white-sand beaches and turquoise water.
After all the Caribbean coast is unbeatable for the crystal clear waters and, sugary beaches lined with palm trees. There are plenty of luxurious hotels and beach resorts in Cancun, which makes it the top resort destination in all of Mexico.
There is also an abundance of water sports in Cancun such as paddleboarding, jet skiing, surfing, kayaking, snorkeling, diving, deep-sea fishing, and swimming with some of the most exotic aquatic creatures.
The long stretches of picture-perfect beaches in Cancun make for a wonderful stay for beach-lovers.
Not to mention the unique lagoon Nichupte’ where you can kayak and paddleboarding among mangroves and all sorts of bird species.
If Cancun’s beaches and water sports were impressive, you won’t be disappointed by Puerto Vallarta, either. It’s located on the Pacific Coast, which means golden-sand beaches and great marine life for snorkeling and diving activities.
Banderas Bay in Puerto Vallarta offers an incredible scenery for photography lovers and amazing boat tour adventures, and in winter it becomes a playground for whales and dolphins easily visible from the beach.
There’s no shortage of water sports activities here either, so don’t worry about missing out on anything you might have found in Cancun.
And last but not least, being on the western coast you will enjoy watching spectacular sunsets over the ocean.
Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun – Food and Nightlife
I can safely tell you that Cancun and Puerto Vallarta both have plenty to offer when it comes to nightlife and food. But Puerto Vallarta is more popular when it comes to those, so if your trip is centered around nightlife and partying, it’s your best bet.
There is plenty of variety on the menu when it comes to food in Cancun. You will find everything from Mexican cuisine to food from all across the globe. The all-inclusive resorts in Cancun offer non-stop food for a flat fee.
As a tourist, you won’t have to look hard for anything, no matter what your taste is. But for those who prefer to try out different culinary choices, there are plenty of restaurants in Cancun to choose from.
In the Spring Break months, Cancun comes to life with its wild party scene. In the hotel area places like Coco Bongo, Mandala, or similar will offer crazy nights out.
Most of the eateries in Puerto Vallarta are owned by locals and offer delicious Mexican and international food for every budget and palate. And if authentic Mexican cuisine is what you’re looking for, Puerto Vallarta is the best place for it after Mexico City itself.
The nightlife in Puerto Vallarta is mesmerizing. The destination event—Puerto Vallarta’s annual White Party—is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to its party scene.
The whole Zona Romantica is famous for its bars and clubs, many of which are vibrant with gay parties at night—after all, it’s one of Latin America’s largest gay-friendly neighborhoods. The vibrant nightlife is one of the reasons why Puerto Vallarta is walkable day and night, something you wouldn’t be able to do in Cancun unless you’re touring a mall.
Another important aspect to mention is there all the nightclub and bars in Puerto Vallarta are located in PV main zones, Zona Romantica, and Centro which is completely walkable, while in Cancun you will need to reach your party place by taxi from your hotel, as everything is so spread out.
Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun – Hotels
Considering Cancun was designed for tourists only, you would think it has an edge over Puerto Vallarta when it comes to lodgings. But Puerto Vallarta isn’t quite behind. Even though it was originally a fishing village, it’s now one of the top tourist destinations of Mexico, with all the luxuries and facilities you’d want readily available. Let’s take a look at the hotel scene in both these cities.
Cancun hotel zone was created just to build hotels. However here you will only find big all-inclusive resorts, and only a few boutique hotels if any. Although, it’s worth mentioning here that all of the hotels in the hotel zone are quite expensive, with mostly very modern architecture.
The resorts have bars, restaurants, and even arrange all-night parties; which makes Cancun your go-to resort destination.
The downtown, which is a little farther away from the coastline, has cheaper lodgings, including homes for rent and hostels available as well, but staying in the Cancun downtown area is not as charming as in Puerto Vallarta. And it wouldn’t really make much sense.
Puerto Vallarta is filled with boutique hotels, resorts, and Airbnb for every budget and style, and even hotels dedicated to gay travelers. In comparison with Cancun, the lodgings here are slightly cheaper, but most of all you can stay in the charming historical center and the vibrant zona romantica and yet being at a walking distance from the beach.
There is a hotel zone, where mostly all-inclusive hotels are located, at about 15 minutes bus (or Uber) from the city center as well, but that’s also close to malls and the fancy Marina.
Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun – Culture
In terms of cultures, Puerto Vallarta and Cancun have quite different things to offer. The former has a very authentic experience of local life in Mexico and its culture and activities. The latter is a gateway to ancient Mayan civilization and its history, at two hours from the colonial Yucatan and the Mayan ruins.
Even though Cancun itself is relatively new and doesn’t have much to offer when it comes to culture and history, it has enough places surrounding it to make your wishes come true.
You can take a drive to the nearby Chichen Itza, one of Mexico’s most famous Mayan ruins sites, which is exactly what the majority of tourists who come to Cancun do.
Tulum, coba, Valladolid, and the mystic cenotes are not far away as well. In fact, many tourists choose Cancun as a base to explore around.
Apart from the local life in Puerto Vallarta, you will notice that the city is brimming with art. There are so many art shops and galleries everywhere you go.
Remember my mention of Puerto Vallarta being explorer-friendly? You can take a walk around the artsy zona romantica, or along the Malecon, get lost along the cobbled alley of the historical center and check out the old colonial buildings, try the local street food and walk by the beach at sunset.
Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta Which one should you choose?
In summation, the whole difference between Puerto Vallarta and Cancun boils down to the kind of experience they offer. If you care more for the beaches and all-inclusive hotels and want to be close to the Mayan culture to explore, Cancun is your place.
Puerto Vallarta is more famous for its nightlife and cultural richness, so if you want to experience a more authentic Mexican atmosphere, you like charming historical towns and yet enjoy the beach, watersports, hikes and all sort of outdoors activities, Puerto Vallarta is where you will find them.
In terms of expenses, pretty much both of them are a tie. But if you know when to visit, you can save some big bucks both in Cancun and Puerto Vallarta.
Both are overall safe for tourists, and the prices are pretty much similar. So, with all the facts laid out in front of you, let me know which one you picked. Happy vacation!