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.

So let’s get started!

CONTENTS

  1. A Quick Overview Of Which Is The Better Choice
  2. Which Has Better Natural Sights & Things To Do
  3. Where You Should Stay According To Your Budget
  4. Which Should You Choose

A Quick Overview Of 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. Puerto Vallarta’s beaches are fantastic too, but as it lies on Mexico’s Pacific coast the water is not as calm as Cancun, and the sand not as white.

However, because Cancun is such a famous destination, the gorgeous stretches of sand there 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.

But it’s because Cancun is so tourist-orientated that 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. However, 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 there too, plus the jungle and mountains surrounding the city and bay are spectacular. It’s a completely different landscape to Cancun.

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.

Which Has Better Natural Sights and Things To Do?

Cancun

Iconic Cancun has many gorgeous white sand beaches, and within the Hotel Zone Playa Delfines is one of the best. 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 there 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.

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 recommend taking an excursion to the stunning Mayan ruins of El Rey.

Or if you venture outside of the Hotel Zone you can do a tour of the breathtaking ancient Mayan city of Chichén Itzá. After that you will get the chance to swim in cenotes – huge sinkholes that have filled with water and are now gorgeous natural swimming pools. A trip like this 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.

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, 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 many 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. 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.

If you’ve always wanted to swim with dolphins you can do it in Puerto Vallarta. There you will be taken 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 to do something even more adventurous than that? Well how about hiking in the wilderness and then ziplining through the jungle? That can be done just outside the city.

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

Where You Should Stay According To Your Budget

Cancun

Shoestring: Finding a stylish place on a shoestring budget is hard in Cancun, but Nomads Enigmatic Hotel & Hostel 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 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 with its unbelievable beachside views and infinity pool is as high end as you can get. 

Puerto Vallarta

Shoestring: For what you get for the price, Hotel Luxury Patio Azul is a steal. Tastefully decorated rooms with ocean views, an outside swimming pool and bar that looks out on the ocean, and just a ten minute walk to the beach. This may just be the cheapest five-star hotel we’ve come across in Mexico.

Budget: Set in downtown close to all the action, BellView Hotel Boutique is a little different – you’ll be staying in a room with one of the best city views imaginable – just look at that view of the bell tower from the private terrace! The decor is stylish, and despite being in town this hotel is still only 200m from the beach. 

Luxury: The adults-only Hotel Mousai is the first-ever five diamond resort in Puerto Vallarta, so when we say this place is luxurious you know we aren’t lying! Just a couple of minutes walk to the beach, this hotel has everything you’d want and expect for the price. But the real show-stealer is the roof-top infinity pool.

Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta: Which Should You Choose?

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.