Last updated on May 29, 2023 by Wandering our World
Cabo and Cancun are among the top destinations for Americans looking to escape to Mexico for a sun-filled beach vacation. And no wonder too. Both Mexican destinations have remarkable tourist infrastructure and postcard worthy beaches— a league that you simply won’t find on the shores of the United States.
But that being said, Cabo and Cancun are situated on completely opposite sides of Mexico—not to mention on completely different bodies of water.
Amongst other things, that means the water in Cabo – which is the less ‘touristy’ destination – is not as warm or calm as the water in Cancun. Though Cancun itself is anything but calm, as its world-famous nightlife and party atmosphere can attest to.
And that’s just scratching the surface of just how different these destinations are.
Luckily we’re here to help! We know both places well, and below we provide you with an honest and in-depth comparison of Cabo and Cancun to help you decide which is the right fit for your dream Mexican beach vacation.
By the end of this article we are sure you will have made up your mind.
Let’s get started!
- A Quick Overview
- Which Has Better Beaches?
- Which Has Better Water Activities?
- Which Has Better Land Activities?
- What About Food & Culture?
- Which Has Better Nightlife?
- Accommodations & Travel
- Where You Should Stay According To Your Budget
- Cabo vs Cancun: Which Is The Better Choice?
A Quick Overview Of Cabo & Cancun
Cabo: An Overview
Cabo, also known as Cabo San Lucas, is a small resort city located at the southernmost tip of the Mexican Baja California peninsula—just south of the state of California and on the westernmost coast of Mexico.
Thanks to Cabo’s unique location—nestled between the Gulf of California and the expansive North Pacific Ocean—it has a vast variety of beaches. Visitors can find anything ranging from sleepy calm waters to coastlines filled with adrenaline inducing surf.
While the beaches are arguably not as good as the ones in Cancun (and explain more below), and the water not as calm, Cabo is probably the more authentic destination of the two. It’s also not yet completely overrun by tourists – unlike Cancun.
Cabo still does have chain restaurants and big hotel chains. But it also has boutique hotels and independent restaurants, and tends to be a better place than Cancun when it comes to exploring away from the beach and hotels – as we’ll explain more on later.
Related: 20+ Fun Reasons To Visit Cabo Now!
Cancun: An Overview
Cancun is a resort city located on the Yucatan Peninsula on the easternmost tip of Mexico where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea. This area is renowned for its fine white-sand tropical beaches, crystal clear water, and out-of-this-world marine life.
Situated on the Caribbean side of Mexico, the beaches in Cancun tend had finer sand and warmer water than those on the Pacific side, like Cabo.
There’s no surprise then that Cancun is arguably one of the most visited beach destinations in Mexico. It soared to popularity after a boom in hotel development that started in the 1970’s and outfitted the powdery sanded coast with an impressive array of budget and world-class upscale all-inclusive resorts—known as the Zona Hotelera or the Hotel Zone.
Today, Cancun boasts almost 50 years of bustling tourism and shows no signs of slowing down. That does mean Cancun has a more ‘Americanized’ vibe to it than any other Mexican destination, but if you want an easy holiday with recognizable shops, food outlets, and world-class resorts, Cancun can’t be beaten.
And because Cancun is such a famous destination, the gorgeous stretches of sand here tend to be highly developed and very busy. That means Cancun feels a bit like a concrete jungle at times, although the upside for tourists is that there are many hotel rooms with an ocean view.
In essence, Cancun is a place for sun, sea, sand and everything you’d want from a tourist-orientated holiday. On the other hand, Cabo may be better suited for holidaymakers who want to sunbathe and swim, but also explore the surrounding area and experience a more authentic Mexican side to their vacation.
Which Has Better Beaches?
Cabo: The Beaches
Cabo has no shortage of breathtaking beaches.
Playa el Médano is perhaps the most famous beach in Cabo. The uniquely crescent shaped bay offers 2,460 feet of uninterrupted golden shoreline and is conveniently located right in the middle of the bustling tourist epicenter with a dashing view of the iconic Cabo Arch (El Arco) rock formation.
Like Playa el Medano, most of the other swimmable beaches in Cabo are lined with resorts, restaurants, and bars— a genuine haven for the laid-back lazy beachgoer or fiesta seeking tourist on the hunt for a seaside cocktail.
On top of that, Cabo also offers a variety or off the beaten path beaches to explore. Beaches like Playa del Amor—Lover’s Beach in English— are undeveloped and only accessible by boat.
Lover’s Beach offers a secluded sandy retreat for those looking to escape the crowds and ruckus of Cabos main hotel strip beaches and showcases some of the most remarkable towering granite rock formations that Cabo has to offer. The water is clear and great for snorkelling, while the sand is soft and pristine.
Cancun: The Beaches
Most of the beach action in Cancun is situated on the 14-mile Hotel Zone—a lively strip of powdery white sand beaches surrounded by gorgeous turquoise water on one side and a vast assortment of all-inclusive hotels, restaurants, and bars on the other.
The massive stretch of beach in the Hotel Zone is often considered one of the most swimmable areas in the Cancun area as the water is warmer and void of sharp rocks.
Within the Hotel Zone we would say Playa Delfines is one of the best beaches. The turquoise water there is shallow and warm making it perfect for swimming. But another fun aspect of this beach are the iguanas that come to sunbathe here too. You can often spot dolphins from the beach as well!
Of course Cancun is a destination where adventure is always just around the corner, so why not head to Playa Ballenas where you can hire jet skis and go racing over the strong waves.
However depending on what season you visit Cancun, you may have to share the beach with rowdy Spring Break crowds.
For visitors after a quieter beach, Cancun’s Costa Mujeres—the new hotel zone—is located just a 30-minute drive from Cancun’s main Hotel Zone.
Like Cabo, there are unspoiled, off the beaten track beaches in Cancun too. Isla Blanca is perhaps the most well-known. It is a super narrow peninsula situated in Northern Cancun that has been spared from the widescale development of the main hotel zones. Think no high-rise resorts, no music pumping bars, and no noisy crowds.
Access to Isla Blanca can be a mission as there are only a few entry points. But the chance to spend the day on an untouched Caribbean beach is worth the trek.
Which Is Better For Beaches?
So, we have arrived at the age-old question—which one is better—the west coast beaches of Cabo or the east coast beaches of Cancun? Well, this depends on what you’re after.
Cancun—as is most of the eastern Caribbean shoreline of Mexico—is often referred to as the ‘better’ part of Mexico’s coastlines. This is because Cancun’s climate and surroundings are significantly more tropical than Cabo. (Recommended: Shark Attacks In Cancun).
Cancun embodies all the stunning trademarks of a quintessential Caribbean beach—that sparkling sand and turquoise water combination that we all drool over in travel magazines.
Cabo on the other hand, is a little rougher around the edges. Being situated near the Baja desert, it is drier than Cancun and in the winter the water is colder.
In terms of surroundings, the natural beaches in Cabo are more likely to be surrounded by granite rocks, succulents, and pine trees than lush green tropical flora. That being said, granite rocks, cacti, and dreamy desert hues do make a for breathtaking backdrop and landscape as well.
How Do The Water Activities Compare?
Cabo: The Water Activities
Due to Cabo’s convenient location on a peninsula, it has several well protected bays that border the calm waters of the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez). This makes for outstanding marine experiences including snorkeling, scuba diving, and whale watching.
The downside is that many top snorkeling and diving locations such as Cabo Pulmo Beach – a thriving reef in a national marine park about 60 miles from Cabo’s main tourist area – require a boat transfer or a guided tour to get there.
However at least many of the companies offer a snorkeling circuit that stops at 3 or 4 snorkeling hot spots to maximize your chances of spotting marine wildlife.
Cabo Pulmo National Park is also a great place for whale watching (November and December are the best times to see migrating Humpbacks) and snorkeling amongst reef fish and sea turtles at the northernmost coral reef in the eastern Pacific Ocean.
A great underwater camera – like this one – is a must. Keep an eye out for the sting rays that jump out of the water too!
Cancun: The Water Activities
Cancun is home to one of the largest reefs in the Americas—the Great Mayan Reef.
The Great Mayan Reef has hundreds of fish species, over 60 different species of colorful coral, whale sharks, sea turtles, and manatees—and this is by no means an exhaustive list. The best place to access the Great Mayan Reef is to do a day trip to spots like Isla Mujeres (an island just a 30-minute ferry ride from Cancun) and Punta Nizuc (just a 30-minute drive from downtown Cancun).
On top of traditional reef snorkeling, Cancun also offers unique underwater adventure experiences—the most popular being the MUSA or Cancun Underwater Sculpture Museum, Shipwreck snorkeling, and Cenote swimming.
You can also easily get to the gorgeous island of Cozumel which has some of the best snorkeling in the Caribbean.
MUSA is a captivating juxtaposition of haunting underwater statues tackling themes such as conservation, capitalism, spirituality submerged in the silent blue depths of the Caribbean reef. We love the opportunities for snorkeling and diving in Cancun so much that we’ve even written about it before!
There’s also Cancun’s famous Cenotes, which are natural water pools that form in the sinkholes of limestone rocks. There are thousands sprinkled all over the Yucatan Peninsula coast and many offer fascinating archeological glimpses into the life of ancient Mayans.
Travel time to Cenotes from Cancun range from 30 minutes to 3 hours depending on which one you visit, and entrance prices range from 30 pesos to 500 pesos ($1.50 to $25.00).
Which Is Better For Water Activities?
Both destinations offer standard water-based activities; these include motorized water sports, sunset catamaran cruises, booze cruises, diving, and snorkeling.
However in Cabo, you will most likely experience more rocks and choppy water than in Cancun. But if you stick to the calmer Sea of Cortez side—which is often referred to as ‘the aquarium’—you will no doubt have a snorkeling or diving experience worth writing home about.
Cancun on the other hand, is record breaking when it comes to underwater life! It has the largest barrier reef in the Western hemisphere, the largest population of whale sharks, and the largest population of manatees, just to name a few.
Furthermore, Cancun offers rare marine experiences like swimming in stalactite filled Cenotes and diving amongst underwater art galleries—these are not available in Cabo, or anywhere else in the world!
So if your main priority is exploring marine wildlife, then Cancun is likely the better option for you.
Which Has Better Land Activities?
Cabo: The Land Activities
Cabo is not your typical beach destination. It is situated by the Baja Desert and as a result the scenery is a lot more arid and mountainous compared to Cancun.
The weather is also a lot less erratic compared to Cancun which is humid and primarily tropical. Because of this, Cabo offers lots of fun to be had away from the beach, whether you are seeking adrenaline or you’re after a quiet afternoon in nature.
Among the popular activities is Xrail Buggy/ATV excursions through canyons, rivers, untouched beaches, and traditional villages, mountain and beach biking to scenic viewpoints, horseback riding, bungee jumping, and canyon ziplining.
Hiking in the Baja Desert canyons and Sierra de Laguna Mountain range – which is just a little bit inland from Cabo’s coastline – is also a popular activity.
Mountain hiking trails are not as well marked as they are in America, so it is best to pre-book transport and a guide. For less seasoned hikers, Cabo also offers easy access gentle trails closer to town such as the Estero San Jose trails which are situated in a tropical wetland’s nature reserve.
Cancun: The Land Activities
Cancun offers several land activities for visitors looking for a break from the beach. Visitors will find similar activities to Cabo—ATV excursions, ziplining, horseback riding, and more—the only difference is the terrain.
In Cancun, adventure activities take place in the lush Mayan jungle. There are various hiking trails that can be accessed with a tour company or using personal transport.
Popular guided hikes include The Cenotes Route which passes 8 different Cenotes. For beginner hikers, there are options like the Avenida Huayacan, a gentle road-biking and walking trail, or the Botanical Garden trail.
There are also Mayan ruins close to Cancun which are fantastic to explore – more on those later!
Which Is Better For Land Activities?
This is where Cabo excels. And if you want to supplement your beach holiday with adrenaline packed hikes, ATV tours, and adventure excursions, then Cabo is by far the better choice.
Because Cancun lies in a lowland valley, you just won’t get the same breathtaking mountain vistas and dramatic geologic backdrops like the canyons in Cabo.
If, however, you are keen to experience what a tropical jungle is like, Cancun is a fine choice. The nearby jungle in Cancun is stocked full of unrivaled diversity—exotic birds, river crocodiles, and extraordinary plants and flowers. We’ve even written about Cancun’s extraordinary wildlife in a previous article.
While Cabo has interesting indigenous flora and fauna as well, the environment is quite comparable to neighboring areas like California.
How Does The Food & Culture Compare?
Cabo: Food & Culture
Despite being a huge tourist destination, Cabo offers an exciting glimpse into Mexico’s vibrant culture and cuisine.
Cabo also attracts top chefs from all over the world, offering high-end culinary options that serve contemporary renditions of both Mexican and international fare. Some well-known examples include Cocina de Autor, an exclusive Michelin chef led restaurant that offers an eclectic 10 course tasting menu and La Frida, an exquisite blend of art, history, and cuisine inspired by the late artist, Frida Carlo.
In Cabo you’ll also find an abundance of authentic family-run restaurants where patrons can try signature Cabo dishes and delicacies such as Mexican chocolate clams, tacos de pescado (fish tacos), and Smoked Marlin tortillas. Seafood in Cabo is abundant and fresh too—after all Cabo used to be a fishing village in the past and sports fishing is still very much a popular in Cabo today.
For a unique glimpse into Cabo’s colonial past, the small town of San Jose del Cabo makes for a perfect day trip if staying in Cabo San Lucas or a perfect base for your entire trip if you prefer a more rustic vibe.
San Jose del Cabo features cobblestoned roads, quaint courtyards, and distinct Spanish colonial architecture.
Near San Jose del Cabo, visitors can also explore colorful street markets and shop for traditional artisan Mexican crafts, many of which are made and sold by descendants from indigenous tribes including Mayan, Aztec, and Huichol people.
And if you are really looking to slow down, there are several farm restaurants and farm-stay opportunities just north of San Jose del Cabo. Flora Farms, a 25-acre organic farm situated just beneath the towering Sierra de la Laguna mountains comes highly recommended.
Cancun: Food & Culture
Cancun is quite different than Cabo when it comes to food and culture.
Unlike Cabo, Cancun—and especially the tourist zones—were planned and built by developers specifically for tourism. There is no historic quarter, no neighboring villages, and no farmsteads like one can find in Cabo. Simply put, Cancun does lack the authentic Mexican charm that Cabo still retains.
Much of the main hotel zone area is dominated by all-inclusive resorts, many of which include breakfast, lunch, dinner, and an all-day open bar with both Mexican and international cuisines. As a result, Cancun does not offer the same variety of a la carte dining options that Cabo does.
If you are a major foodie and plan on staying at an all-inclusive resort, it is worth researching food reviews for specific resorts prior to choosing one.
But for visitors who have the option of dining out, there are a good amount of both high-end and more affordable options to choose from.
RosaNegra is a popular high-end ocean front option for Latin American cuisine, known for its succulent steaks and fresh seafood. Whilst Fantina, located in the Ritz-Carlton hotel, is a recipient of a prestigious culinary AAA Five Diamond Award.
Although it is difficult to find authentic Mexican cuisine or decade-old family-run restaurants in Cancun – unlike in Cabo – there are several contemporary options such as Julia Mia, a sister owned restaurant that serves up favorites like tostadas, tacos, quesadillas, and the likes.
While the main tourist area of Cancun itself is relatively new, Cancun is situated in the Yucatan Peninsula, an area that is rich with ancient Mayan history.
Because of its convenient location, Cancun is sometimes referred to as the ‘gateway to the Yucutan Peninsula’ and it is just a short trip away from several ancient Mayan ruins, offering amazing opportunities to learn about the customs, rituals, and spiritual folklore of the ancient Mayan people.
Chichen Itza, one of Mexico’s most iconic Mayan sites is just a 2 and half hour drive from Cancun. The Tulum ruins, a unique Mayan archeological site strikingly located on the edge of ocean cliffs, is just 2 hours from Cancun too. The closest Mayan pyramid, EL Meco, is just a 20-minute drive from Cancun.
Which Is Better For Food & Culture?
Evidently both Cabo and Cancun have strengths when it comes to food and culture.
But if a more authentic Mexican experience is important to you, Cabo may be the better choice as you can still experience the charm and antiquity of the old Los Cabos even today.
While you will not find locally run businesses that have been around for decades in Cancun, Cancun is probably the better choice if you have interest in learning about ancient civilizations and history due to how close the Mayan ruins are. Yet if you are a major foodie, you may be more satisfied in Cabo.
Which Has Better Nightlife?
There is plenty of fun to be had in both locations. But if you are after a younger, raunchier crowd, then Cancun is a better option. Cruises, wet T-shirt contests, and mega clubs are the order of the day in Cancun, especially during Spring Break season.
If you prefer more intimate party settings, then Cabo will be more your speed.
Cabo: The Nightlife
With a growing bar and restaurant scene, Cabo has emerged as a popular spring break, bachelorette, and bachelor party destination.
When the sun goes down, visitors can head to the heart of Cabo’s nightlife, a two-block stretch near Cabo’s marina.
The partying atmosphere is not consistent in Cabo year-round though. It is amplified around February to May, as spring breakers make their rounds.
For the less rowdy or older nightlife seeker, Cabo offers a myriad of restaurants, intimate drinking holes, and lounge like bars to wind down at.
Although we think the nightlife in Cancun is probably a bit more lively and brash than the nightlife in Cabo, there’s still lots of fun to be had here when the sun goes down if you want to party – like a sunset party cruise.
But one of our favorite spots is The Jungle Bar – expect good music, drinks, and friendly service. For something a little different, head to the cozy Two for the Road Cabo JAZZ Spot – this little jazz joint has great musicians and equally great drinks. An absolute must in Cabo.
Cancun: The Nightlife
Ask anybody what the top party destinations are in Mexico, and you can bet that their list will include Cancun.
At 30 kilometers long, Cancun’s main party strip is significantly longer than Cabo’s main strip and features a lot more mega nightclubs than you one will find in Cabo.
Therefore club hopping often requires a taxi or taking the public bus—slightly more effort than is required in Cabo where it is possible to walk between different bars once in the main marina area.
Because Cancun is also a popular destination for non-American party seekers, the nightlife is usually bustling year-round, not just during American tourist high seasons.
Cancun Mandala is one of the coolest spots for late night fun. This energetic nightclub is one of Cancun’s most popular party spots. Another is Congo Bar Cancun, a nightclub and bar with several levels, dancers, and entertainment.
Cabo vs Cancun: Accommodations & Travel
Cabo: Accommodations & Travel
Cabo offers an impressive variety of places to stay.
Options range from luxury all-inclusive five-star resorts such as the famous Montage Los Cabos where rooms start at $2,000 to self-catering beachside Airbnb’s, and no-frills backpackers’ hostels to budget friendly hotels. The further away you stay from main beaches, the cheaper the accommodation tends to be.
Cabo is just a short plane ride away from American states in the southwest like California, with airports like LAX offering over 28 non-stop flights a day.
Cancun: Accommodations & Travel
Cancun was specifically developed to become a beach vacation hotspot. As a result, it has a huge selection of accommodation to choose from.
Furthermore, because of Cancun’s unrivaled popularity as the party and Spring Break destination in Mexico, many hotels offer competitive deals and discounts, which gives Cancun a bit of a financial edge over Cabo.
The direct flight duration to Cancun from southeast hubs like Miami is less than 2 hours.
Which Is Better For Accommodations & Travel?
In terms of travel, Cabo may be a better choice if you are planning leaving from the west coast and want to be budget and time cautious.
However Cancun is great for travelers departing from the southeast coast of the United States.
In terms of costs of food and other daily expenditures, Cancun and Cabo are quite comparable though.
Where You Should Stay According To Your Budget
Shoestring: Finding a stylish place on a shoestring budget is hard in Cancun, but Nomads Enigmatic Hotel & Hostel (see photos and rates) is just that. This modern hostel in downtown Cancun has been created in an old Mexican style but comes complete with bar, outside swimming pool and wonderful shared garden. For the price, it’s a fantastic choice.
Budget: It’s even harder to find luxurious beachside accommodation in the city’s famous hotel zone without stratospheric prices attached to it. However Oleo Cancun Playa Boutique All Inclusive Resort (see photos and rates) offers an all-inclusive experience – and even rooms with sea views – at more than half the price of many neighboring hotels.
Luxury: Set in the heart of the action in Cancun’s hotel zone, and with every luxury imaginable including butler service, Turquoize at Hyatt Ziva Cancun (see photos and rates) with its unbelievable beachside views and infinity pool is as high end as you can get.
Shoestring: Set in the heart of Cabo within walking distance of the beach, restaurants and nightlife, Sofia Hostel Cabo (see photos and rates) is a friendly hostel with a lovely garden and activities.
Budget: Sirena del Mar (see photos and rates) is spectacularly located on top of a cliff, but still just three minutes walk to a beach, and 15 minutes drive to downtown Cabo. There you’ll get incredible seaside views, a private beach area, terraces to soak up the sun and an outdoor swimming pool.
Luxury: Esperanza, Auberge Resorts Collection (see photos and rates) has to be one of the top five-star hotels in the world. The exceptional service, landscaped grounds, beachfront infinity pool, spa, and even free yoga sessions – all set right beside the sea and beach – make this place an unbelievable Cabo getaway.
Cabo vs Cancun: Which Is The Better Choice?
Ultimately the decision between Cabo and Cancun comes down to your preferences. But as a rule of thumb, if you are after a rowdier, more tropical experience then Cancun is a good match.
However if you are looking to recharge, celebrate an intimate occasion, and want to experience more authentic Mexican culture, then we’d recommend Cabo.