Mexico is as popular a travel destination as ever (approximately 44.8 million visitors are expected to visit in 2019, a 5.6 percent increase from 2018). 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, nightlife, and safety. Check them out and make your pick.
Traveling to Cancun and Los Cabos
Los Cabos: 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 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: 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 in Los Cabos and Cancun
Cancun: 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.
Los Cabos: 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. For safe swimming conditions, check out our list of the best swimmable beaches in Cabo.
Activities in Cancun and Los Cabos
Like with any beach 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: Los Cabos has the benefit of land: the mountains of Sierra de la Laguna, Cabo Pulmo National Park, 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. For more itinerary inspiration, check out our list of the coolest things to do in Los Cabos.
Cancun: 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. For more itinerary inspiration, check out our list of the best Cancun excursions as well as the most unexpected day trips from Cancun.
Food in Cancun and Los Cabos
Los Cabos: 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 Los Tamarindos, a working, organic farm that grows lemongrass, artichokes, and other fruits and veggies (cooking classes are available).
Other notable restaurants include Pitahayas Restaurant, part of Hacienda Vacation Club, Seven Seas Seafood Grille at Cabo Surf Hotel, and Sunset MonaLisa, annually ranked as one of the most romantic restaurants in the world, popular for proposals and wedding ceremonies.
Cancun: 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.
Nightlife in Cancun and Los Cabos
Cancun: When most people think of Cancun, they picture yard beers, foam parties, and wet t-shirt contests — and rightly so 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. Check out our list of the best nightclubs and bars in Cancun, which include notable venues like Coco Bongo, Senor Frogs, Mandala, and even some on-property spots.
Los Cabos: 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.
Safety in Los Cabos and Cancun
Cancun: Recent news headlines might have you asking the question: Is Cancun safe? According to the U.S. State Department, Cancun (and Quintana Roo as a whole) has a Level 2 warning, which means travelers should exercise increased caution when visiting. The warning states that “While most of these homicides appeared to be targeted, criminal organization assassinations and turf battles between criminal groups have resulted in violent crime in areas frequented by U.S. citizens.” Other countries with a Level 2 warning include Italy and Germany. As with many other destinations, it’s wise to stick to popular areas and take property safety precautions. For more peace of mind, check out our story on how to stay safe while traveling in Mexico.
Los Cabos: According to the U.S. State Department website, there are currently no restrictions on travel for U.S. government employees in Baja California Sur, which includes tourist areas in Cabo San Lucas, San Jose del Cabo, and La Paz. Much like Cancun, Cabo has a Level 2 warning, so travelers should exercise caution. Tip: Stick to toll roads if you absolutely must drive and only do so during daylight hours. For a broader look at the region, check out our story on travel safety in Mexico.
One of Our Favorite Hotels in Cancun: Excellence Playa Mujeres
This luxury all-inclusive is set in the heart of a private resort community to the north of Cancun. Modern, luxurious rooms are huge and have big whirlpool tubs; all have balconies and some have ocean views. Certain categories have swim-up access or private plunge pools. All the features expected for this caliber of resort are here, including seven pools, nine restaurants, 11 bars, and a high-end spa.
Pricing for Excellence Playa Mujeres
One of Our Favorite Hotels in Cabo: Solmar Resort
As the oldest and most budget-friendly hotel in the Solmar Hotels & Resorts group, Solmar Resort All-Inclusive is a solid choice for travelers seeking affordable, beachfront lodging in Cabo San Lucas. The list of amenities is decent, including two pools, an alfresco restaurant with ocean views, a sushi bar, and beachfront spa cabanas.
Pricing for Solmar Resort
What to Pack for Mexico: Packable Hybrid Fedora Visor
With its easy-to-crush make, you can just throw this stylish hat in any carry-on or beach bag as a last minute bring along for your trip.
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