Last updated on January 23, 2023 by Wandering our World
There are so many great destinations in Mexico, and Cancun and Puerto Vallarta are two of the best. However, both offer very unique vacations. So making the choice between them is as important as it is difficult – especially as both are actually quite different.
For example Cancun is energetic, tourist-orientated and far more developed than Puerto Vallarta. It’s the king of Mexico when it comes to all-inclusive resort vacations and the beaches are unbeatable. 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 is perfect for a laid-back vacation with more of a Mexican feel, combined with ease of access to several tourist excursions.
However that’s just scratching the surface when it comes to the differences and similarities between these two exciting destinations.
Thankfully we’re here to help!
Below we pit Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta, letting you know what to expect in each by comparing the beaches, culture, nightlife and more.
We also give you a run down of some of the best natural sights and things to do in each destination so you can decide which is best suited to your interests. Let’s get started!
- A Quick Overview & Comparison
- Which Has The Better Beaches?
- Which Has Better Excursions & Things To Do?
- Which Is Better For History & Culture?
- Which Has Better Food?
- Which Is Cheaper?
- Where You Should Stay According To Your Budget
- Which Has Better Nightlife?
- Which Is Better For Honeymoons?
- Which Is Safer?
A Quick Overview: What To Expect
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 (more on their beaches below), as it has many white sand beaches with soft, ‘powdery’ sand – that’s because Cancun lies of Mexico’s Caribbean side. 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, and arguably more beautiful too.
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 accommodations 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 in PV too, so there are things to do in the evening as well. That said, the emphasis in Puerto Vallarta certainly isn’t on partying, and the nightlife is far less lively than in Cancun, which is actually a popular Spring Break destination.
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 so you have an idea of what excursions are possible. We also look at the beaches in-depth, show you how the nightlife compares, what hotels are best for your budget and even more. All so you can make the best decision for you!
Which Has The Better Beaches?
If your main priority is crystal clear water that’s warm for swimming, and soft white sand perfect for wiggling your toes into, then Cancun will be the better choice for you.
Cancun has some of the best beaches in the Caribbean, and that’s why it’s Mexico’s premier coastal destination.
But don’t discount Puerto Vallarta completely when it comes to a beach vacation. There’s plenty of great stretches of sand there too, and they sometimes feel far more ‘tropical’ than Cancun and are arguably more beautiful as well.
Below we show you what the best beaches in Cancun and Puerto Vallarta have to offer. Then you can see which may suit you best.
Cancun: The Beaches
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 fun 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.
In fact when it comes to water sports and overall beach activities, we think busier Cancun has slightly more options geared towards vacationers than Puerto Vallarta.
Playa Chac Mool is another great option if lying still in the sand is not your cup of tea. There are plenty of watersports going on at the beach, and the northern end blends into the party beach of Playa Gaviota Azul.
You can start your evening there with a sunset cocktail before venturing behind the beach to the mega clubs. That’s another thing that sets Cancun’s beaches apart from elsewhere – there’s often a party vibe on them and ones like Playa Gaviota Azul are close to plenty of evening fun.
Puerto Vallarta: The Beaches
There are some nice beaches for relaxing and swimming in Puerto Vallarta too, and Los Muertos is one of our favorites. This place is a lot of fun with many eateries, beach bars, and spectacular sunsets.
As this city is on Mexico’s Pacific coast, the water tends to be a little less calm and a bit more cold than Cancun, but it’s still a great sunbathing and swimming spot.
But we think this destination is more about exploring than sunbathing, and that extends to the sea too, as Puerto Vallarta is a great place to snorkel.
You’ll find many different species in PV compared to the Caribbean Sea, and we recommend taking a boat trip to the Marietas Islands, which is a few kilometers 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 ethically in Puerto Vallarta too. 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.
So if you’re looking for laid-back beaches fringed with palm trees, less crowds than Cancun, and some fun wildlife opportunities, then the beaches of Puerto Vallarta may be more your style.
Which Has Better Excursions & Things To Do?
Cancun: Excursions & Things To Do
Cancun was built and developed for tourists, so you’ll find all the usual tourist excursions there like catamaran trips, jet skis, aquariums, water parks, and plenty of resorts with dedicated kids clubs and activities. In many ways that makes it an easy destination for families that need options to keep kids busy and occupied.
There’s always shopping opportunities in Cancun 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.
Fancy a day-trip to a nearby island? From Cancun, you can jump on the ferry across to Isla Mujeres. It’s a peaceful paradise and a great escape if the hustle and bustle of Cancun is getting too much for you.
But two of the best day trips you can do from Cancun involve venturing outside of the Hotel Zone – visiting the nearby ancient Mayan ruins, and swimming in the gorgeous cenotes.
Cenotes are huge sinkholes that have filled with water and have now become stunning natural swimming pools.
You’ll find cenotes dotted around the Riviera Maya – the region that Cancun is part of – and not only are they wonderful places to cool down from the hot sun, but they’re also extremely photogenic thanks to the lush jungle that surrounds them – just see the photo below to see what we mean!
But one of the must-do day-trips from Cancun has to be visiting the breathtaking ruins of Chichen Itza.
This ancient city is dominated by a huge 1000-year old pyramid that was built by the Maya people. It’s spectacular and one of Mexico’s most important historical sights. Luckily it’s just a 2.5 hour drive from Cancun.
That’s the interesting (and wonderful) thing about Cancun. There’s many activities to keep you occupied in the Hotel Zone, but if you make the effort to leave the beach behind you will also come across some of Mexico’s most important cultural monuments, as well as some of its prettiest natural features.
Puerto Vallarta: Excursions & Things To Do
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 is a lot more lush compared to Cancun.
This is also a city which is begging to be explored and discovered and has many independent hotels. So if you’re looking for an all-inclusive resort holiday then Cancun will definitely suit you more.
Puerto Vallarta’s old city is worth exploring as you’ll get to enjoy local restaurants, bars, and gorgeous architecture. But it’s the proximity to the jungle that makes this city particularly special.
Because of that there’s plenty of hiking trails nearby. Or for something a little more adrenaline-pumping, why not ziplining above the jungle canopy? That can be done just outside the city.
On top of that there’s many wildlife spotting opportunities in and around Puerto Vallarta – as we’ve written about before – so if you’re a nature lover this city will likely suit you more than Cancun.
For example in the mountains, away from human interference, you can find the endangered margay, the ocelot, the armadillo, and other fantastic creatures. While during November and December you can spot migrating humpback whales off the coast.
Which Is Better For History & Culture?
Cancun: History & Culture
Just like we’ve mentioned above, Cancun has been developed for tourists. Naturally, this means that there’s little to see in the city in terms of historical sites.
However, there are still some out-of-this-world places in and around Cancun that are worth checking out.
For starters, the Museo Subacuático de Arte (MUSA) is an underwater museum in the waters surrounding Cancun and Isla Mujeres. There you can find over 500 life-size statues sitting on the sea bottom that have been placed there to help coral to grow.
Those who come to Cancun but also wish for a little bit of history can take excursions out of the city as we mentioned before. The magnificent Mayan ruins, Chichén Itzá, are just a 2-hour drive away.
If you’re not willing to travel that far away from your resort to see Mayan ruins, another option is El Rey Archaeological Zone which is actually located in Cancun. It is much smaller and not as awe-inspiring as Chichén Itzá, but it’s still worth the visit.
Puerto Vallarta: History & Culture
On the other hand, Puerto Vallarta is rich in history and culture. Puerto Vallarta’s old city or ‘Old Town’ will truly take you back in time with its cobbled streets and old-time architecture.
And when in the town center check out Plaza de Armas where you can find a statue of former governor Don Ignacio L. Vallarta. There you will definitely feel the city’s vibrant culture as locals go to the plaza on Sundays to dance!
And in the same area, stands the magnificent cathedral named The Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Take a walk to the iconic Zona Romantica that starts south of the Cuale River. There’s a small island there called Cuale Island, which is the home of traditional markets where you can buy all sorts of local handicrafts.
That is also where you can find the Cuale Cultural Center and Cuale Museum, where you can learn about the traditions and customs of migrant groups that settled in the area between 5000 and 2000 B.C.
Furthermore, the city is fantastic for art lovers. Puerto Vallarta has many year-round art galleries such as Galeria Corsica, where visitors can view modern Mexican artworks. And you can visit the museum of renowned painter Manuel Lepe, who was born in Puerto Vallarta, which is close to Zona Romantica.
As you can see, there’s no shortage of historical and cultural sites in Puerto Vallarta. That’s very different from Cancun which is mostly filled with tourist activities.
Which Has Better Food?
As the most popular city in Mexico for tourists, Cancun has a wide selection of food. From local dishes to international food to fine-dining restaurants, everything is present in this city.
However, Cancun still doesn’t really hold a candle to Puerto Vallarta’s gastronomy. In fact, Puerto Vallarta is known as one of the best destinations for foodies in the country, alongside cities of Puebla and Oaxaca.
Due to the ‘Americanization’ of Cancun to keep up with tourism demands you won’t get that true authentic taste of Mexican food there. At least, not in the same way that you would in Puerto Vallarta.
Puerto Vallarta, on the other hand, still remains a Mexican food haven where locals and tourists alike get to feel the local culture, especially the food.
In Puerto Vallarta, you’ll be able to find the best local restaurants, delectable street eats, and several traditional markets serving the best fresh Mexican dishes around. Definitely check out the Olas Altas Farmers Market, as one example.
At the same time, you will also find gourmet restaurants and international dishes in the city. There’s even a gourmet festival held annually in the city.
So when it comes to choosing between Cancun and Puerto Vallarta for a culinary trip, we have to give it to Puerto Vallarta. It offers a wide variety of dishes while still serving up the absolute best taste of Mexico’s food scene.
Let us just add one caution that’s a little off-topic – tap water isn’t drinkable in Mexico, so better stick to bottled water no matter where you are in the country.
Which Is Cheaper?
Overall, Cancun is more expensive than Puerto Vallarta. This is especially true for accommodation.
You will typically get a better hotel in Puerto Vallarta for the same amount of money as you would in Cancun. Tourist attractions also tend to be more expensive in Cancun than in Puerto Vallarta.
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 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. See photos and rates!
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. See photos and rates!
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. See photos and rates!
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. See photos and rates!
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. See photos and rates!
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. See photos and rates!
Which Has Better Nightlife?
Cancun: The Nightlife
If partying until the early hours is important to you, then Cancun will be the better choice. Whilst there are plenty of bars and clubs to enjoy in Puerto Vallarta, the huge nightclubs in Cancun (known as mega clubs) are bolder, brighter, larger, and the place to party hard.
Cancun is actually renowned for being a popular Spring Break destination, and the clubs and bars there are geared towards this party scene throughout the year.
The mega clubs can even hold up to 5,000 people, so when we say this is a party place we really do mean it!
As for where we recommend, after a busy day soaking up the sun, shopping and exploring in Cancun then head to Cancun Mandala. This is one of the coolest spots for late night fun and the energetic nightclub is always one of Cancun’s hottest party spots.
Another is Congo Bar Cancun, a nightclub and bar with several levels, dancers, and entertainment.
Puerto Vallarta: The Nightlife
Puerto Vallarta’s nightlife is a little bit more reserved and understated, and it tends to be centered around the bar scene rather than mega clubs like in Cancun.
There’s still plenty going on once the sun has set, but if you are looking to party every night, maybe Cancun will be the better option for you.
Yet whilst Playa del Carmen’s after-dark party scene is more laid back than Cancun’s, the one big advantage it has is the fact the bars, clubs, and shops are closer together and tend to be within walking distance of each other. In contrast moving from bar to bar or club to club in Cancun’s Hotel Zone takes a bit more time and effort, and taxis may be needed.
As for where to go in the city, head to Roxy Rock House to see live bands, eat nachos and enjoy the atmosphere of this iconic city venue.
But 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 (in fact they’re more like Cancun prices).
If you want to read more on Puerto Vallarta’s nightlife, check out our guide to the evening’s best spots including where to find happy hour deals in the city: A Local’s Guide To The Puerto Vallarta Nightlife Scene
Which Is Better For Honeymoons?
Cancun: For Honeymoons
With white powdery soft sand and clear turquoise waters, it’s no wonder that Cancun has been a favorite honeymoon destination for years.
And because it has been developed for tourists, there are countless resorts in Cancun complete with gorgeous sea views and beach access. Perfect for honeymoons!
The lively nightlife of Cancun is another plus for many newlyweds. You can spend the night chatting away at a local bar or dancing til sunrise in one of Cancun’s mega clubs. Who knows, you may never get to enjoy such an experience again if you decide to have children in the future.
Cancun really excels when it comes to all-inclusive resorts, where you can enjoy an easy honeymoon with fantastic service and luxury amenities.
One of the best is Live Aqua Beach Resort, which is an adults-only resort with impeccable service and delectable food. The hotel offers the ideal tropical honeymoon with great pool service and private beach access.
Puerto Vallarta: For Honeymoons
Puerto Vallarta has its own charms to lure in newlyweds. Its variety of landscapes and attractions, along with the rich local culture creates an interesting honeymoon destination for couples looking for something a bit more authentic.
The beaches and resorts may not be as renowned as the ones in Cancun, but you and your partner will get to experience both a lazy beach honeymoon and one involving adventures and local culture.
You can still find some great resorts for honeymoon though. Casa Velas is one of the best, and is an adults-only resort with a luxurious vibe, fantastic food and facilities.
Villa Premiere Boutique Hotel & Romantic Getaway is another brilliant choice, offering a smaller, more intimate stay with a great bar and spa, and countless romantic services to surprise your spouse with.
In the end, which will suit your honeymoon best will depend on your personal preferences. But if you’re looking for a classic honeymoon experience – gorgeous beaches, world-class resorts and pampering – then Cancun is going to beat Puerto Vallarta in that respect.
Which Is Safer?
When it comes to safety, both are safe destinations for tourists. Although Cancun has seen a slight increase in criminal activity in the past years.
Numbeo has even rated the city’s Crime Index to 56.92%, far higher than Puerto Vallarta which was rated 35.28% at the time of writing.
That being said, the risk of crime is actually far lower in resort areas, and crimes being committed are more amongst the local residents.
Practice regular safety measures such as keeping track of your belongings, avoiding walking alone at night especially in quiet or unlit areas, and never leave your drinks unattended.
Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta: Which Is The Better 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.