There are so many great destinations in Mexico, and Cancun and Puerto Vallarta are two of the best. However, both offer very different vacations, so making the choice between Cancun and Puerto Vallarta is as important as it is difficult.

Thankfully we’re here to help! Below we pit Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta, letting you know what to expect in each, comparing the beaches, culture, and nightlife.

We then give you a run down of some of the best natural sights and things to do in each destination to help you decide which one is better for your holiday.

Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta 

Cancun or Puerto Vallarta

Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta: Which is the better choice?

Many people think these destinations will be quite similar as they’re both in Mexico. However there are notable differences.

We’ve found that Cancun has better beaches than Puerto Vallarta, as it has many white sand beaches with soft, ‘powdery’ sand. However, 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.

However, because Cancun is so tourist-orientated there’s also a very good shopping scene, lots of things to keep you entertained, and the nightlife is lively and loud with numerous bars and nightclubs. Although all of that has made the city quite ‘Americanized’ with chain restaurants and hotels.

Puerto Vallarta, on the other hand, is a quieter more relaxed place with many boutique hotels and a great variety of independent restaurants. There are some lovely beaches here too, plus the jungle and mountains surrounding the city and bay are spectacular, and a completely different landscape to Cancun.

Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta 

Cancun or Puerto Vallarta

We also feel that the vibe, character and culture feels far more authentic and Mexican in Puerto Vallarta than in Cancun. Another bonus, is that we’ve found Puerto Vallarta to be cheaper than Cancun when it comes to accommodation and eating out.

Subsequently, Puerto Vallarta is a destination that often attracts tourists that are looking for more than just sun, sea, sand and shopping. There are some bars and nightclubs so there are things to do in the evening as well. That said, the emphasis in Puerto Vallarta certainly isn’t on partying.

Puerto Vallarta is a safe destination for tourists too – as is Cancun – but as always you must be vigilant in regards to petty crime in both destinations, and be careful of leaving drinks unattended.

Below we look at what things you can see and do in Cancun and Puerto Vallarta in more detail, so you have an idea of what excursions are possible.

Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta 

Cancun or Puerto Vallarta

Cancun or Puerto Vallarta: Natural sights and things to do


Cancun has many gorgeous white sand beaches, and within the Hotel Zone we would say Playa Delfines is one of the best. The turquoise water here 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.

For something a bit different, become a pirate in the evening and join Captain Hook Cancun. For several hours you will be taken out to sea on huge replica pirate boats to enjoy a themed show & dinner. It’s fun and sums up Cancun well – there’s always something happening here.

Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta 

Cancun or Puerto Vallarta

There’s always shopping opportunities too! One of the best places to ‘shop till you drop’ is La Isla Cancun Shopping Village. This huge mall has a fascinating array of shops, from locals selling handicrafts to the world-renowned Prada. There’s even an aquarium.

You can find some incredible cultural excursions in the Hotel Zone too. We would recommend taking an excursion to the stunning Mayan ruins of El Rey, or if you venture outside of the Hotel Zone you can find the breathtaking ancient Mayan city of Coba. The three hour trip will let you see another side of Mexico, as well as part of this country’s fascinating history too. (Related: Spiders in Mexico – What You Need to Know).

After a busy day soaking up the sun, shopping and exploring, then the nightlife in Cancun beckons. 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.

Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta 

Cancun or Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta

While everything feels new in Cancun, Puerto Vallarta has that old Mexican feel thanks to the architecture and the cobblestone streets. With the mountains and jungle rolling down into the beaches and bays here, the landscape looks a lot more lush compared to Cancun and the Yucatan.

This is also a city which is begging to be explored and discovered, so if you’re looking for an all-inclusive resort holiday then Cancun may suit you better.

There are some nice beaches for relaxing and swimming in Puerto Vallarta, and Los Muertos is one of our favorites. This place is a lot of fun with many eateries, beach bars, and spectacular sunsets.

Puerto Vallarta is also a great place to snorkel, and you’ll find lots of different species compared to the Caribbean Sea. We recommend taking a boat trip to the Marietas Islands, which is a few kilometers away from the city, as these stunning uninhabited islands are one of the best places to swim with sea turtles and rays, and are a popular whale watching spot. A great underwater camera – like this one – is a must.

Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta 

Cancun or Puerto Vallarta

If you’ve always wanted to swim with dolphins you can do it in Puerto Vallarta with Wildlife Connection. They will take you to a dolphin pod that lives in the wild, so you’re swimming with them in their natural environment and not contributing to the capture of these beautiful creatures.

Want something a bit more adventurous – how about ziplining through the jungle? That can be done just outside the city with Vallarta Adventures!

After a day enjoying the sights and swimming, a few drinks in the evening is a must. Although Puerto Vallarta isn’t as nightlife centric as Cancun, there are several great evening spots.

Head to Roxy Rock House to see live bands, eat nachos and enjoy the atmosphere of this iconic city venue. For something a little fancier make your way to Bar Morelos Mezcaleria. This lounge-style club has great music, entertainment and friendly staff, although the drinks can sometimes be overpriced. (Recommended: A Local’s Guide to Puerto Vallarta Nightlife).

Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta 

Cancun or Puerto Vallarta

Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta: Which is the better holiday choice?

Both of these Mexican holiday vacations will provide unforgettable memories but for very different reasons.

Cancun is energetic, busy, loud and developed. The beaches and water here are gorgeous, and the shopping and nightlife scene is famous for a reason. So if you’re looking for a lively holiday that combines sunbathing with eating out, partying late, and lots of touristy things to do, then Cancun will be the better choice than Puerto Vallarta.

Puerto Vallarta, on the other hand, has some lovely beaches too, is less busy, more relaxed, and has an authentic feel compared to the more ‘Americanized’ Cancun. So if you’re looking for sun, sea and sand in a unique location and with a variety of independent restaurants and great excursions, then Puerto Vallarta will be the better choice than Cancun.

Recommended for your trip to Cancun or Puerto Vallarta

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