Puerto Vallarta vs. Cancun: Which Mexico Vacation is Right for You?

See recent posts by Krystin Arneson

Mexico's Puerto Vallarta and Cancun are located on opposite coasts, but they're both famous beach destinations that cater to sun-and-sand seeking tourists. Because both spots are so popular for all-inclusive resorts, water activities, and Mexican vibes, trying to decide between the two can be a little tricky. Never fear. We broke down Puerto Vallarta and Cancun, so you can decide which Mexico vacation is right for you.

Read our 11 tips that every traveler should know before they visit Cancun. 

Traveling to Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun

Traveling to Mexico from the U.S. or Canada doesn’t require a separate visa for stays of less than 180 days, but visitors arriving from those countries will need a valid passport and a filled-out FMM form (these are usually handed out on the plane). Keep the section of the tourist card that you’re handed safe; you’ll need to turn it in upon leaving Mexico.

Cancun lies on the northeastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, on the Caribbean Sea, making it a short hop — or for Midwesterners, a rare direct flight — away for those in the Great Plains and Eastern seaboard. There are plenty of flights that fly direct to Cancun from major U.S. cities across the continental 48 states, making it a popular choice for long weekends and spring breakers. Once you’re in Cancun, taxis are plentiful and generally offer a fixed fare around downtown (though always clarify the fare with the driver). Local buses are also frequent and the most common way of getting around cheaply.

Airlines like Southwest, Alaskan Airlines, and United all fly nonstop to Puerto Vallarta (PV as Americans call it) from U.S. cities. Direct flights to Puerto Vallarta’s Licenciado Gustavo Diaz Ordaz International Airport, located on Mexico’s Pacific coast, are more common from the Midwest and West than the Eastern parts of the U.S. The airport, on the edge of PV, is shared with tourists heading next door to Riviera Nayarit. Once you’re in town, there’s a dependable public bus system that can take you around town for a cheap flat rate. Puerto Vallarta also has Uber, which makes getting around easy with an iPhone.

Beaches in Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun

The beaches of Cancun have long drawn American tourists, who flock south for the area’s stretches of white sand drifting into the turquoise Caribbean Sea. It’s picture-postcard worthy, and the waves are crystal-clear and warm, contributing to its current title as Mexico’s most popular resort area, with more than 3 million annual visitors. Chances are you’ll be spending most of your time on the beach here, so it might be worth paying a bit more for a beachfront hotel. Most tourists tend to keep to their resort, but beaches like Chac Mool and Playa Delfines are fun to explore if you want to get off the property.

While Cancun is famous for its white-sand beaches, it’s the golden stretches of sand set on the Bay of Banderas that have drawn beach-lovers to Puerto Vallarta for decades. Surfers love taking their boards out into Puerto Vallarta’s Pacific waves as much as the tourists love splashing around in them, and it’s one of the country’s top spots for diving (you can rent gear from one of the shops along the beach). The bay is also a popular spot from December to March for whale-watching and from May to October for sea turtles looking for a spot to nest.

Culture and Activities in Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun

Cancun, once home to the Mayan civilization, is a gateway to the ancient peoples’ history, with plenty of tours and excursions available for those wanting to learn more about the Mayans. There are also plenty of opportunities to do so in town at the Maya Museum and San Miguelito archaeological site, both of which are in the Hotel Zone. If you plan to break away from the beach but don’t want to be part of a tour group, you’ll want to have a rental car to make the most of your time here: Chichen Itza is a two-hour drive away and there are some gorgeous freshwater cenotes to admire. Of course, Cancun is also known for being a party spot, especially during spring break season. If you want to escape the crowds, hop on the ferry from downtown for the 20-minute trip to Isla Mujeres, where there’s great diving and a blissfully quiet beach. Or take one of these unexpected Cancun day trips for some truly unique vacation memories.

Puerto Vallarta is a little more laid back, thanks to a colorful, charming Old Town, excellent markets and galleries with beautiful art and great boardwalks, which you’ll be able to spend a couple happy afternoons strolling. It’s also known for being the LGBTQ capital of Mexico, with many hotels and activities geared toward the community. Plus, for those who love mountains, the port has a stunningly rugged background, and a day trip to the Vallarta Botanical Gardens high in the mountains is well worth the 12-mile drive from town. There’s also an abundance of outdoor sports like kitesurfing, parasailing, ziplining, and sailing. For more, check out our list of the best things to do in Puerto Vallarta.

Dining and Nightlife in Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta

Thanks to its roots as a fishing village, versus Cancun’s purpose-built destiny as a resort town, Puerto Vallarta’s food offerings tend to be a bit less designed for tourist palettes. As in, you’ll find taco joints and seafood from independently owned restaurants instead of a plethora of chain options. Nightlife in PV definitely exists, with most of it centered along the Malecon boardwalk, and there are a few areas to go out in the city center, too, including in the Zona Romantica. It’s also a very LGBTQ-friendly area, with clubs and activities catering to the community.

Tourists dining outside of their resorts in Cancun — many tend to go for all-inclusive packages — will find later meal times than normal at local restaurants. It’s easy to get to downtown by taxi, and tourists will find a variety of Mexican and international restaurant chains there. Cancun’s known for its wild party scene, especially in the spring-break months of March and April, and if that’s what you’re coming for, it doesn’t disappoint: Clubs offer all you can drink for a flat fee, and there are plenty of bar- and club-hopping tours — as well as foam parties and beer bongs. Coco Bongo Cancun is a tourist favorite.

Safety in Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta

Currently, the U.S. State Department has a level-two advisory for travel to Mexico, which directs travelers to “exercise increased caution in Mexico due to crime and kidnapping.” While it specifically calls out Jalisco, Puerto Vallarta’s home state, as an area for which to “reconsider travel,” it specifies further that there is no restriction on travel for U.S. government employees to certain parts of the state, including Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Nayarit.

Quintana Roo, where Cancun is located, also has a level-two warning due to crime; however, there are no restrictions on travel for U.S. government employees to tourist areas in the area, including Cancun. As a reference, lots of other countries also share a level two-warning for a variety of reasons, including France, Italy, Costa Rica, and the Bahamas.

Is It Safe to Travel to Mexico? Check our our guide. 

History and Hotels in Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta was once a picturesque fishing village, but the arrival of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton put it in the spotlight as a vacation destination for Americans. Most of the large resort hotels are located in the marina area north of downtown (think a swank, golfer vibe), with plenty of them offering all-inclusive packages — such as Casa Velas. You’ll need transit to get to the Marina area from downtown, as you will if you stay in the Hotel Zone. The Hotel Zone in the North is a mix of luxurious properties and smaller mid-range hotels, and there’s plenty of dining and shopping nearby, but beaches aren’t quite as good as they are elsewhere in town. The South Hotel Zone is also a bit far out of town and dotted with resorts and hotels for those who prefer staying put to going into town (though if you do want to explore, there’s transit available). Downtown offers a good mix of everything, from beaches to dining. The Old Town (Zona Romantica) is newer than downtown and has a beach at its doorstep, along with cafes, restaurants, and clubs. However, it’s not as charming architecturally.

Cancun’s history extends back to its past as home of the Maya people, and a trip here should include time spent learning about their history at museums and archaeological parks, such as Chichen Itza. More recent years saw Cancun’s mid-20th-century boom as a town developed by the national government for tourists. To this end, Cancun’s Hotel Zone has over 100 properties and is generally where the tourists stay. Expect all-inclusive options from chain names as well as both ultra-luxe and cheap options. While there are plenty of properties that don’t cater as much to the spring break crowd, like the luxe Hyatt Zilara Cancun or Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancun, there are also plenty of ones that do, so do your research before you book your stay to make sure you’re set up for the vacation vibe you want.

Our Top Pick for a Cancun Hotel: Hyatt Zilara Cancun

Travelers heading to Cancun tend to go for all-inclusive stays located right on the beach — not having to think about costs or making daily decisions about where to eat is great for disconnecting, after all. One of the best places to stay is the Hyatt Zilara Cancun, where you can catch some sun from the sparkling white-sand beach, chill out at the free-form infinity pool, try the cocktails at the hotel’s five bars — or splash out on a swim-out room. Plus, with six restaurants offering international dishes, you’ll have plenty of options for your meals.

Our Top Pick for a Puerto Vallarta Hotel: Secrets Vallarta Bay Puerto Vallarta

Located on Puerto Vallarta’s Las Glorias Beach in the South Hotel Zone, Secrets Vallarta Bay Puerto Vallarta is a luxe adults-only hotel that’s the perfect getaway for grown-ups looking for a chic beach fix. It does the best of an all-inclusive stay right: free (and unlimited) premium booze, a couples-treatment-focused spa, and a sandy strip of sand right outside the door. If you’d rather hang out at the pool, there are three palm-lined ones that face the ocean. Looking for nightlife? Take a cab to the Malecon, or head to Secrets on-site nightclub, Desires.

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