Both Cancun and Puerto Vallarta attract millions of visitors worldwide each year. It’s unsurprising, given that both pack a punch when offering their visitors the thrill of their lives. Whether you’re a night owl or an early bird, both are 24-hour cities if you know where to look.
Unfortunately, you can’t tour the whole of Mexico at once. So depending on what you’re looking for right now, you can decide which to tick off your bucket list soon. This article tackles each city’s highlights to help you decide which one fits your needs best.
A destination that’s world-renowned for its energetic vibe and exciting offers, Cancun is a crowd favorite. It’s practically synonymous with spring break, nightlife, and all-inclusive stays, among others. And with its picturesque beaches and warm weather year-round, it’s hard to find a reason not to visit this beach town.
What Makes Cancun Unique?
Internationally Awarded Beaches
Cancun is famous for not only having the best beaches in Mexico but also in the world. While opinions may vary, the proof is in the pudding. Cancun is home to several Blue Flag beaches, a prestigious distinction that many covet.
The Blue Flag is only awarded to beaches, marinas, and boating operators that meet 32 stringent criteria. What this tells you is that a beach has high quality and environmental standards. So when you see a blue flag swaying by the beach, you’re on one of the best of the best beaches in the world.
Some Cancun beaches with this award are the famous Playa Chac Mool and Playa Delfines. Others on the list are the following:
- Playa Marlin
- Playa del Niño
- Playa Coral
- Playa Ballenas
- Las Perlas
Even if you don’t have time to visit all these, other beaches in the city are just as worthwhile. Cancun has 13 miles (21 km) of coastline, so sugary white sands and clear turquoise waters are always a stone’s throw away!
A Party Animal’s Paradise
This coastal city is a top destination for spring breakers, and it’s easy to see why. Cancun’s nightlife is some of the best in the country, especially during the Spring Break season (February to April). Keep the fun alive during this season with daily pool parties, world-known DJs, music festivals, and more!
But Cancun gets thousands of tourists across the globe during spring break. If you don’t want to get caught up in a sea of merrymakers, that’s okay. The city’s nightlife is as energetic and electrifying year-round!
No matter when you visit this beach town, head over to the Hotel Zone, the heart of Cancun’s nightlife. This area is densely packed with bars and nightclubs. So you can go bar-hopping here to your heart’s content.
Party hard at neon-lit nightclubs with famous DJs, sip some cocktails at chic bars, or enjoy a chilled beer at open-air bars with live music. There are plenty of choices for night owls here, so you’re bound to find a place that’s right up your alley.
For hard partying, head over to The City, Cancun’s largest club. It can accommodate over 5,000 people, which is awesome since this club is often star-studded. The City often holds performances by the likes of 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, and celebrity DJs.
If you want entertainment all night, the famous Coco Bongo is the place to be. This nightclub has acrobats, a Michael Jackson impersonator, Beetlejuice appearances, and more. Even the bartenders and staff join in on the fun on the stage and sing and dance to you
Cancun’s nightlife can also be as festive as you’d like. Conga lines, confetti, and balloons often grace the party scene at Senor Frog. They know how to have fun, and their lively staff works hard to keep the fun going.
For a laid-back nightlife, Sirenas Raw Bar is your pick. Sip on some booze and eat some Mexican cuisine as the ocean breeze flows through your hair. This open-air bar also has a live band to serenade you under the twinkling stars.
Glorious Mayan Landmarks
Away from the pristine beaches and night scene, Cancun can take you back to its distant past. The Yucatan Peninsula played a crucial role in commerce and religion back then. Well-preserved cultural sites and artifacts are here for you to know more about Cancun’s fascinating history.
The history and culture buff in you will find much to explore and see inland. And some of these are a stone’s throw away from the Hotel Zone.
From archeological sites to museums, the city offers various ways for you to get a glimpse of what it was once like.
El Rey is a pre-Columbian Mayan ruins site that’s only 7.3 miles (11.7 km) from the Hotel Zone. It served as an important ancient trade route and fishing site. It’s surrounded by lush greenery, with iguanas and birds to go with you.
It may be tempting to wander off by yourself, but a tour guide is worth it. They can provide you with more context than the plaques on the ruins. Thus, you get to appreciate El Rey more.
Nearer the Hotel Zone is the Mayan Museum of Cancun, only 4.7 miles (7.6 km) away. This museum has an engaging display of Mayan history and art. It also houses one of the peninsula’s most crucial collections of Mayan artifacts.
Two exhibition halls showcase over 3500 artifacts. One focuses on the archeological sites of Quintana Roo, while the second’s focal point is the ancient Maya world. The museum’s collection includes behemoth stelae, funerary masks, and beaded jewelry.
Behind the museum, you’ll find a long, winding jungle path that’ll lead you to San Miguelito. This was once the home to the Maya community. But what’s left of it now are stone temples and pyramids that serve as a reminder of who once dwelled here.
Vibrant Culinary Scene
If the way to a person’s heart is truly through their stomach, you’ll fall in love with Cancun. Mexican specialties are the star in this beach town. But Cancun has attracted chefs worldwide to set up shop here, bringing you fusion food and international cuisine.
No matter what you want to munch on, Cancun can cater to every taste.
A more obvious display of their foodie scene is the food stalls sprinkled around the city. You can grab the usual, such as tacos and quesadillas. But don’t forget to try some local favorites, such as tikin xic fish, Conchita pibil, and papadzules.
For serious foodies who want a taste of everything, Cancun Food Tours may tickle your fancy. Join one to get a 3.5- to 4.5-hour food tour around downtown Cancun for some eats! If you’re a vegetarian, this tour also offers alternative meals for you.
If you’d rather sit down for a delicious meal, the city has no shortage of exciting restaurants.
Since you’re in a coastal city, why not take advantage of their seafood? At Lorenzillo’s, you’ll get some of the best lobsters on the coast. They have their own lobster farm and serve it in any way you can imagine.
Some spots have a bad rap for being too touristy and losing their authenticity. But Porforio’s seems to be a tourist staple, offering visitors an experience they love. You can dine here and munch on Mexican staples such as tamales while getting entertained by mariachi bands.
On the other end of the spectrum, El Galeón del Caribe has a more authentic local flare. The star of their menu is their fish taco, served by friendly and casual staff. Though you’d want to order more than one of these for each person.
Water Sports Galore
Where there’s sun, sand, sea, and wind, there are thrilling escapades that await. You can enjoy a variety of water sports virtually anywhere on Cancun’s coastline. A few of these include paddle boarding, windsurfing, and kite surfing. You can even go on an exciting Mexican lagoon tour on a speedboat.
With some water sports though, Cancun takes it a step further. Here are some of the more thrilling water escapades in the city that’ll make your trip memorable.
Snorkeling and Scuba Diving
Almost any beach in Cancun is great for these, especially on the Blue Flag Beaches. But if you want the best underwater spot in the city, head over to Punta Nizuc.
Punta Nizuc’s coral reef is part of one of the world’s largest coral reefs, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. It’s home to over 500 fish species, which includes whale sharks, and 350 mollusk species. Only an estimated 10 percent of the species there have been discovered though. This makes it a great spot for divers who are eager to discover what lies within it.
Most tourist activities are bound to the day, such as snorkeling. But Cancun has magical bioluminescent beaches that you can plunge into at night. With only the glow to guide you, you can swim through the Great Mayan Reef with fishes, turtles, and more.
It’s not every day that you get to visit an underwater museum. Thus, touring the Museo Subacuatico de Arte (MUSA) is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Underwater, you have 500 art installations to discover and explore, with fish and turtles to swim with you.
Despite being one of Mexico’s well-known gems, Puerto Vallarta still holds strong to its authenticity. It’s tucked away between green-covered mountains and the deep blue ocean. In this charmingly scruffy playground, adventure and excitement hide in every corner.
What Makes Puerto Vallarta Unique?
Distinct Neighborhood Experiences
With the long list of things to do in Puerto Vallarta, a stroll may not be at the top of it. But wandering around the city is a delight, as each neighborhood has a vibe unique from the other zones.
Downtown Puerto Vallarta is the top bustling tourist hotspot. It’s dense with resorts and historic landmarks. And this is where you can find the famous boardwalk of Puerto Vallarta, Malecon.
Malecon is a must-see for tourists, as it’s lined with restaurants, shops, street performers, and bars. It’s the top place in the city for a view of the sunset. And every night, you can treat yourself to a fireworks show that happens between 9:15 to 9:30 PM.
Head over to the city’s northern end to the glitzy Marina Vallarta. This zone is the hub of yachts, boats, upscale restaurants, shops, and high-end condos. Giant iguanas are a common sight at the water’s edge here, but be careful as crocodiles also live here.
Near the Marina is Puerto Vallarta’s hotel zone, a strip of all-inclusive resorts. This area is home to a few spectacular beaches, so they’re within your reach from your accommodation. There are also fairly new shopping malls nearby and a food park for your convenience.
Arguably the liveliest neighborhood in the city is the Romantic Zone, also known as the Old Town. It’s well-known for a few things, such as being the best-preserved part of the city and being the LGBTQ+ district. It’s a juxtaposition of Puerto Vallarta’s historical roots and the modern, colorful nightlife.
Walk through the historic cobblestone streets and get a glimpse of old buildings. This district also has the most bars and restaurants in the city, a thrilling way to end your day of sightseeing.
You have two options if you prefer to visit a more relaxed part of Puerto Vallarta. The North Zone is a less-developed part of the city but offers a more traditional experience. The South Zone is a less crowded area with beautiful beaches, a zoo, and the famous Vallarta botanical garden.
Adventure and Leisure in Nature
Despite being a well-known beach city with miles of sandy coastline, Puerto Vallarta has a diverse landscape. The city boasts tropical jungles, mountainsides, flatlands, and rocky riverbeds. All these provide you with a diverse mix of activities in natural wonders.
So whether you want to relax by the shore or go on an adrenaline-pumping adventure, or both, Puerto Vallarta has your back. This sunny paradise will keep you entertained throughout your entire stay.
Nothing could be more thrilling in the city than Vallarta Adventure’s Extreme Adventure. Because Puerto Vallarta lies on the Bay of Banderas, it sits between the Sierra Madre Mountains and the ocean. With this, here are some of the many exciting activities of Extreme Adventure:
- ATV tours
- Pendulum swing
- Wind tunnel
- Dolphin and sea lion encounters
The star of the show is the company’s zip lines, and there are six of them to choose from. One of them is the longest zip line in Mexico, lasting over a minute long in superman style. There’s also the Avatar zip line, which is a lovechild of a rollercoaster and a zip line.
If you’re an avid hiker, you can take a boat to the secluded Colomitos beach and take a scenic hike on the shore back. Or you can hike on the Mirador Cerro De La Cruz to get a panoramic view of the city. The sunset is gorgeous at the top, but it can get pretty busy during this time.
For the water lover in you, snorkeling and scuba diving are two popular activities in Puerto Vallarta. The best place in the city for this is Islas Marietas. This set of protected uninhabited islands is home to rich exotic sea creatures.
Go paddle boarding or kayaking at Los Arcos for more exciting water sports. This natural wonder is a rock formation that forms a natural arc. You can scuba dive here too, but it’s more known for being a top paddle board or kayak destination.
Yoga retreats are also popular in the city, and some spots are only accessible by boat. Some of these remote resorts are Xinilani Retreat and El Grullo Naturista Hotel.
Vast Array of Stunning Beaches
Puerto Vallarta is a well-known beach destination. Sitting on the pacific coast of the country, there’s no shortage of pristine beaches for you to enjoy here. And the best part is that you can go on a beach getaway here anytime, as the weather is balmy year-round.
Puerto Vallarta is abundant with beaches. Thus, it’s impossible to explore everything in one trip.
Thanks to its diverse topography, some of the city’s beaches have lush jungles in the backdrop. Islas Marietas is a perfect example of this, as its natural beauty is being actively preserved. Las Caletas is another beach paradise, with emerald mountains in the background.
Other beaches are busier but are convenient for its tourists. Playa De Los Muertos has plenty of restaurants with shorefront tables. And it hosts several water sports such as parasailing.
A less crowded beach is Playa Las Gemalas. You don’t have to compete for a spot on the soft white shores here. But it’s still a convenient beach, as there are restaurants and vendors nearby.
Playa Del Caballo is a more secluded beach with a spectacular view. It offers a bit more privacy and is a perfect beach for a romantic getaway. Its palm-fringed shores and clear waters also have a few restaurants and bars nearby.
LGBTQ+ Friendly City
Puerto Vallarta is one of the most LGBTQ-friendly cities in the country. Many people even deem it the Gay Capital of Mexico.
The Romantic Zone, in particular, is the gay community’s haven here. This district is full of life, with the houses in the area splashed with the colors of the rainbow.
Puerto Vallarta has held this reputation for many years already, since 1980. Expats had bought lands and properties here in the distant past. They had turned these into gay-friendly establishments that had become the precursor of the gay scene today.
These businesses included spas, hotels, tours, beaches, and cabarets. But the main attractions were the many bars and nightclubs sprinkled around the city.
The gay community in Puerto Vallarta continues to grow. So since then, the city has increased its LGBT-friendly tourist attractions to meet the demand.
Over the last two decades, Playa de Los Muertos has been the beach for the community. Its success lies within the gay-friendly beachfront hotels surrounding it. This allows gay tourists worldwide to have fun by the shore without discrimination.
Gay bars and nightclubs are especially sought after in Puerto Vallarta.
Mr. Flamingo is one of the top spots for night-long parties with the LGBTQ+ community. Before 7:30 PM, it’s a laid-back, idyllic bar. But after that, it bursts into full-on party mode until 3 AM.
Puerto Vallarta’s gay night scene knows how to market to the community. Some bars even serve drinks like Gay Energy Drink and Gay Tequila. While others offer a Gay VIP Bars Tour.
The city’s gay community also hosts LGBTQ+ events, such as International LGBT Business Expos. Other events include fashion shows, music festivals, and beach parties, among others.
Exciting Food Scene
Mexican food is obviously the go-to eat in Puerto Vallarta. You can get tacos and quesadillas the size of your head here! But the city has loads of other international cuisine, so there’s bound to be something that tickles your fancy.
Almost on every corner, you’re going to run into street food. A stroll around Romantic Zone and Cinco de Diciembre will lead you to plenty of food trucks such as Tacos El Moreno and El Carboncito. Have the usual taco, but never forget to grab yourself a shrimp burger too!
For a hassle-free street food experience, many companies offer street food tours. Among them, the highest-rated one is Vallarta Food Tours, which has diverse tour offerings.
If you’d rather go to a restaurant, head over to the renowned Pancho’s Tacos. Loads of people line up here to get their hands on the quesadillas al pastor. So prepare yourself for the long wait, but it’ll be worth it!
Other restaurants with delectable Mexican eats are La Chula and Joe Jack’s. The latter is famous for its fish tacos.
For international food, make your way to the foodie capital of the city, Versalles. You’ll find Greek, Spanish, and Caribbean restaurants here, to name a few. Most of them are run by expats, so you’ll get an authentic taste of their cuisine.
Thriving Street Art Scene
Peppered throughout the city are stunning wall art that add to Puerto Vallarta’s already vibrant vibe. The wall arts are nothing short of extravagant, some even covering a whole building. You’d want to take out your phone and take pictures with them as your background to spruce up your social media!
Wild, Electrifying Nightlife
At night, Puerto Vallarta is pulsating with merrymakers making their way to lively nightclubs and bars. Live bands serenade night owls at various spots in the city, while DJs play beats that make anyone dance. Puerto Vallarta’s night scene is energetic, festive, and in some spots, wild.
If you’re planning to dance the night away, head over to El Solar and Barracuda Bar. Both have late-night DJs and offer delicious seafood. And you’ll be having fun until the crack of dawn with sand under your feet.
Mr. Flamingo is a cheerful open-air gay-friendly bar for party animals. Paco’s Ranch is a raunchy, neon-lit spot that holds fun drag shows. Equally electrifying spots for a night out are La Vaquita, Mandala, and Zoo Dance Bar.
What Is Better – Cancun or Puerto Vallarta?
To put it simply, there’s no winner between the two, as they are starkly different beach towns. The better city will boil down to what you want.
Do you want a more luxurious trip tailored to tourists? Or do you want an authentic Mexican vibe during your stay?
If you’re all for luxury, head over to Cancun. This concrete jungle’s purpose is to be a tourist hub, having everything you need on your trip.
But if you want the local feel, Puerto Vallarta is seemingly untouched by capitalism. It’s full of character, from rainbow-hued buildings, murals everywhere, and plenty of remnants of the old town it once was.
Another consideration is if you’re an outdoor enthusiast or not. In Cancun, your whole stay is pretty much beach- or resort-centric as it’s pretty much flat land. To most people, this is enough entertainment for their whole stay.
But if you’re looking for adventure, Puerto Vallarta is a better option. This rustic town is in the middle of the Sierra Madre Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. So there are tons of activities for you to do in this west coast town.
Going on a hike in the mountains and trekking through lush jungles are some of the things you can do inland. And if you want to get wet, pristine coasts are always within your reach for some snorkeling, paddle boarding, and more.
Is Cancun Safer Than Puerto Vallarta?
Cancun’s crime rates are quite low by both Mexican and American standards. But the same is true for Puerto Vallarta too. Neither city is safer than the other, as they are equal in this regard.
The fact that millions of tourists flock to each city each year speaks for how safe both are for visitors. You can’t find two Mexican cities that feel more secure than Cancun or Puerto Vallarta.
Still, no destination is a hundred percent safe, no matter where you are. So follow common-sense rules, especially if you’re traveling alone.
Petty crime also happens in Cancun and Puerto Vallarta. Always keep an eye on your belongings and don’t show off expensive items. Avoid walking on uncrowded and dark roads, overdrinking, and others.
In Cancun, though, there are a few drug-related accidents. So when you’re out drinking, never accept any shady offers. As long as you’re not looking for any trouble, you’re in the clear.
Cancun vs. Puerto Vallarta for Family Vacation
While both beach cities are great for a family vacation spot, most families lean toward Cancun. But of course, this will still depend on what your family loves to do.
Cancun is an all-around vacation destination, whether you have older or younger kids. Resorts here are more luxurious, with plenty of amenities that kids are familiar with.
Not to mention, these resorts focus on tourism and feel more Americanized. Thus, you won’t have to adjust too much in Cancun, especially with the language.
Cancun also offers an array of international cuisine. So if your kid’s a picky eater, there’s bound to be a meal that they will happily take.
Other than that, Cancun’s beaches are better as it’s on the Caribbean side. The waves are calm, the sand is white and soft, and there are amenities nearby if ever your family needs anything.
Puerto Vallarta may be more suited for you if you have older kids, as they can appreciate its rustic charm. Restaurants, hotels, and shopping malls here are more traditional.
Also, if you’re family loves the great outdoors, Puerto Vallarta is right up your alley. You can hike mountains, explore caves and coves, trek to waterfalls, and more.
Cancun vs. Puerto Vallarta for Honeymoon
While every couple is different, Puerto Vallarta is generally a better honeymoon spot. This western-coast beach town is more romantic all around. Its jungle-fringed beaches, idyllic coves, and serene vibe are perfect for an intimate getaway.
The character of the city also adds to the majestic feel of your couple’s trip. Buildings come in all shades and colors, greenery and flowers pop up everywhere, and murals further decorate the area. Take a stroll under the sun on cobblestone streets with Jacaranda blossoms arching over them.
And despite being a well-known gem of Mexico, Puerto Vallarta is pretty much quaint and calm. So not only will you get more privacy, but you can also enjoy your spouse’s company in peace.
Cancun is also a honeymoon spot if you know where to look. But often, you’ll get restricted to adult-only, all-inclusive resorts. This may be good news for you if you want a more luxurious honeymoon.
Other than that, Cancun is well-known for being a top-notch nightlife spot. So it can get rowdy there at night, especially during spring break. If you’re hell-bent on Cancun, you may want to avoid going there from March to May.
Which Beach Is Better – Cancun or Puerto Vallarta?
If beaches are the main priority on your trip, without a doubt, go for Cancun. Facing the Caribbean sea works well in Cancun’s favor as a world-class beach spot.
The beaches in Cancun are long and flat, with powdery white sand. Since the sand in Cancun is soft, they’re perfect for lounging on with only a towel. Not only that, they don’t get too hot for you to walk barefoot along the shore too.
Other than that, the waves in Cancun are smaller and gentler, and the water is warm and shallow. Thus, it’s more manageable, and you can take a dip as much as you’d like, even if you’re a novice swimmer. Relaxation and leisure are a joy on Cancun’s coastline.
Puerto Vallarta’s beaches are also beautiful. But the sands are not as white or as soft as Cancun’s. And because the city faces the Pacific Ocean, the waves are much stronger and larger, making it harder to swim in.
It’s also harder to walk barefoot on Puerto Vallarta’s shore as the sand gets scorching hot.
But boy, Puerto Vallarta’s beaches are much more scenic. Its golden shores are delightfully lined with lush jungles and rocky outcroppings.
Which Is Cheaper – Cancun or Puerto Vallarta?
Puerto Vallarta is the better option for a budget-friendly Mexican trip. It’s not only cheaper than Cancun but also more inexpensive than nearly every other city in the country.
Most of your money will go into accommodation, so here’s a quick comparison between the two cities.
A stay in Puerto Vallarta can easily go for under 40 USD per person for a night. And if you want to splurge on a more luxurious all-inclusive stay, it’ll cost you about 200 USD per person for a night.
Meanwhile, the high demand dictates Cancun’s accommodation prices. Some cheaper deals are around the 60 USD range per person a night. But a lot of hotels will charge you over 250 USD or more a night.
The best part of accommodations in Puerto Vallarta is that you can stay at the gorgeous Romantic Zone on a budget. Not only can you soak up the vibrant culture there, but you’re also within walking distance of the beaches!
In Cancun, the close you are to the shore, the more expensive your stay is going to be. You can always stay in the downtown area, a little further away from the beach. But this area of the city is not as pretty, and you’ll be away from the main draw.
Cancun vs. Puerto Vallarta – Weather
To put it simply, there is no winner between the two on the weather. As both are tropical cities, both have average temperatures well above room temperature. Cancun and Puerto Vallarta’s weather is balmy, humid, and full of warmth year-round.
But keep in mind that each of them also has unfavorable seasons that you may want to avoid.
Cancun has a hurricane season that lasts from June to November. But August to October is the season in the city.
So if you want to visit Cancun, do so between December to April. The average temperature during this season is around 82 degrees F (27.8 degrees C). Although, this is also the peak season, which means you have a ton of competition with other tourists.
Meanwhile, Puerto Vallarta doesn’t have a hurricane season. This western-coast town gets protection from the shape of its bay to keep out the hurricane.
The best time to visit Puerto Vallarta is from December to March so you won’t experience the rainy season. The average temperature in Puerto Vallarta is around 80 degrees F (26.7 degrees C).