Despite safety concerns below the border, Mexico is as popular a travel destination as ever. While beach towns like Sayulita, Tulum, and Playa Espiritu are coming into their own, Cancun and Los Cabos are still major draws for tourists.
The two destinations emerged in the 60s and 70s, respectively, when the Mexican government discovered their potential in a search for tourism development. Today, both offer ample hotels, beaches, activities, spas, and nightlife options -- yet they each have their own unique strengths. So which one is right for you? In order to compare, we matched the two destinations off in the following categories: getting there and around, beaches, activities, dining, and nightlife. Check them out and make your pick.
Getting There and Around
Los Cabos (nicknamed Lands End) is on the southernmost tip of the Baja Peninsula on the western coast of Mexico, making it easier to get to for those living on the west coast. The name, which means "Two Capes," combines the towns of Cabo San Lucas Cabo and San Jose del Cabo, about 35 minutes apart by car -- with several beaches in between. There are taxis and a local bus system, but many choose to explore the region with a car. Don't be alarmed if the car rental company explains where the spare tire and tools are -- roads in certain parts of Baja can be rough, but they are safe for tourists ,with plenty of police presence and several security checkpoints.
Cancun, for its part, is located on the eastern part of Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula, which faces the Caribbean Sea, so its geographical position makes it an easy jaunt for those who live in the Midwest and East Coast. The actual city of Cancun -- 12.5 miles from the center of the Hotel Zone -- is part of the ancient Mayan civilization and is considered the gateway to El Mundo Maya (the Mayan World), so there are plenty of day-trip options that can be arranged with tour groups. The Yucatan also has a local bus system for adventurous types, and -- like Los Cabos -- some choose to rent a car so they can have the freedom to explore.
Beaches and Scenery
Both locations will not disappoint in terms of beaches and views. Situated at Yucatan's corner where the Caribbean Sea meets the Gulf of Mexico, Cancun boasts warm, clear, turquoise water -- the kind that people tend to fantasize about when planning a tropical vacation. The Hotel Zone (with over 100 hotels, it's where most people stay) is a lengthy 14-mile strip of fine white sand shaped like a number 7, allowing for water sports, sunbathing, swimming, and long walks along the shore.
While Cancun is flat, Los Cabos is surprisingly mountainous with a rugged desert landscape and rock formations, especially photogenic El Arco, visible from many hotels near Cabo San Lucas. Though Cancun has turquoise water, no one will balk at the deep blue tone of the sparkling Sea of Cortez, especially from a higher altitude where mountainous roads allow for some gorgeous views. Cabo is also sunnier and drier (and less humid) than Cancun, with less than 10 inches of rain per year (much of it in September and early October). There are not as many swimming beaches in Cabo due to powerful undertows that make them too dangerous, but locals know plenty of safe spots for water sports, and even some that are ideal for surfing.
Like with any beach-y destination, typical resort activities can be expected at both destinations in the way of championship golf resorts, spa treatments, water sports, and tourist excursions -- but what sets these two locations apart from each other?
Los Cabos has the benefit of land: the mountains of Sierra Laguna, Cabo Pulmo National Park, el Cañon de la Zorra (Fox Canyon), ATV trails through the desert, hiking Mount Solmar, and exploring the charming and historic town center of San Jose del Cabo (far less touristy than Cabo San Lucas). The area also has one of the largest marlin fishing tournament in the world, and in winter, blue whales bear their calves in the warm waters of the Gulf of California after completing their migration from Alaska (keep the camera close and listen for the ringing of the bell during whale sightings).
The area also offers unique dive sites like Sand Falls, an underwater waterfall of cascades leading to a 1,200-foot canyon below. Snorkelers for their part can drive up to Baja's capital, La Paz, and swim with whale sharks -- gentle giants that can get as big as 40 feet.
Meanwhile Cancun has better shopping with upscale malls like La Isla and Luxury Avenue. Popular day-trips include Isla Mujeres, located eight miles off the coast, Cozumel, and Chichen Itza, once the capital city of the Mayan civilization -- two hours west of Cancun. There’s also a small set of Mayan buildings right downtown in Cancun. Two hours south of Cancun is the trendy town of Tulum, where centuries-old temples are built right along the shore. The Caribbean Sea offers coral reefs for snorkeling and scuba diving, including the island of Cozumel, and Cenotes, a big sinkhole filled with freshwater and fish. Kids can play with spider monkeys at The Jungle Place sanctuary.
Mainstream travelers can find plenty of touristy spots in downtown Cabo San Lucas, while those seeking authenticity should head for San Jose del Cabo. Either way, with a car, it leaves a lot more freedom to explore. A few examples worth the drive include Flora's Field Kitchen -- part of a gorgeous 10-acre organic farm in the foothills of the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains (and definitely worth the rough roads to get here). Also within driving distance is Las Tamarindos, a working, organic farm that grows lemongrass, artichokes, and other fruits and veggies (cooking classes are available).
Other notable restaurants include Pitayahas Restaurant, part of Hacienda Vacation Club, Seven Seas Seafood Grille at Cabo Surf Hotel, and Sunset de Mona Lisa, annually ranked as one of the most romantic restaurants in the world, popular for proposals and wedding ceremonies.
Cancun, for its part, tends to offer more all-inclusive environments, and most resorts include breakfast and lunch buffets at least. Due to this, most local restaurants open for lunch around 2 p.m. and stay open until midnight. For those who like to venture out, several types of cuisine can be found in and around the Hotel Zone, but there are only a few oceanfront restaurants; instead, those who want views can dine at the waterfront restaurants facing Nichupte Lagoon for beautiful sunsets. As for downtown Cancun (a taxi ride away), there are a range of Mexican restaurants, as well as fresh seafood and international cuisine types.
When most people think of Cancun, they picture yard beers, foam parties, and wet t-shirt contests -- and rightly s,o since this has been a spring break destination for over 20 years. Perhaps this is place to avoid during March and April if crowds of partiers make you cringe. The partying does tame down after April, but Cancun will always be associated with nightlife and the hot spots get steady crowds all year long -- pulling in ages from 18 (legal drinking age in Mexico) to mid-50s and up.
Nightclubs tend to sell open-bar bracelets, which allows everyone to pay one price to enter the club and drink all night, while bottle service, for an extra fee, is encouraged. Cancun also offers bar hopping tours, which bring visitors to several nightclubs in one night. Cabo San Lucas is also known for a spring break crowd and the tourist hub suffers no shortage of people walking around with beer, late-night dance clubs, biker bars, and rock music venues.
Those looking to escape the rowdiness can head to peaceful San Jose del Cabo, which offers the look and vibe of an authentic Mexican town; picture cobblestone streets and beautiful colonial architecture in the main square. Tucked on narrow streets are cozy wineries, rooftop bars, and Spanish guitarists playing acoustic shows. Another romantic spot is the champagne lounge set on a cliff: El Farallón at the Resort at Pedregal.