You initially thought you’d go to either Cabo or Puerto Vallarta. But you’ve since swapped out PV and narrowed your choices down to Cabo or Cancun.
Now you have to decide between these two crazy gorgeous hot spots. Which is better: Cancun or Cabo?
We’ve traveled frequently to both areas – and the Cabo vs Cancun question is a tough one.
Cabo vs Cancun
Both Cabo and Cancun have glorious beaches to wash away your winter blues, 5-star resorts (and luxury all-inclusives), delicious Mexican food and holiday activities vastly different from the 9-to-5 routine of home. (Hello whale sharks! We’ll tell you about swimming with them in a jiff…)
But Cabo and Cancun are also very different.
The right choice for you will depend on several factors. Like the time of year, whether you’re a beach bum or a golf fanatic, even your tolerance for icky seaweed!
Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of the Cabo San Lucas vs Cancun debate now.
Useful to know: Discover how to bargain in Mexico like a pro!
Los Cabos is the resort area at the tip of the Baja Peninsula on Mexico’s west coast.
It includes two main towns, Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, located 20-miles apart (about a 35-minute drive).
Cabo San Lucas has lots of clubs and is more party-oriented; San Jose del Cabo oozes a colonial Mexican feel. An area called the Corridor – with beaches and resorts – stretches between the two towns.
“Cabo” is the nickname for both the town of Cabo San Lucas and the general Los Cabos area.
The international airport is near San Jose del Cabo (SJD), and it’s serviced by many direct flights from San Francisco, L.A., Vancouver (Canada), Calgary, Houston, Toronto, Chicago and many other North American cities.
Flying time from L.A. is just under 2½ hours. (From Chicago, the flight time is about 5 hours.)
Cabo is so conveniently close for the flocks of Californians who fly down that it has a somewhat “Americanized” feeling (many resorts are condos with full kitchens and you can feel “at home” shopping at Costco and Walmart).
Practical tip: Check out the cheapest and best Cabo airport transportation services!
Cancun, on the other hand, is on the Yucatan Peninsula on Mexico’s east coast.
The Cancun holiday area is the glitzy hotel zone, a beach strip 13+ miles long, lined with deluxe hotels, restaurants, clubs and shops.
The Cancun International Airport (CUN) is also the gateway for the nearby Riviera Maya.
Just south of Cancun, the Riviera Maya is the 100-mile stretch of coastline hugging the turquoise Caribbean Sea that extends to hippie-chic Tulum. The cosmopolitan beach town of Playa del Carmen is about half-way between Cancun and Tulum.
Cancun and the Riviera Maya are easy jaunts for mid-westerners and east coasters.
Non-stop flights from Houston take 2 hours and 15 minutes. From Chicago, flights are under 4 hours and from New York, flights are just over 4 hours. If you live in Atlanta, you can get there in 2 hours and 40 minutes (compared to a 4½-hour flight to Cabo).
Weather: Cancun vs Cabo
The weather in Cabo is desert-like much of the year.
From December to May, the climate is sunny and dry, with virtually no rain.
In the high winter season (December to March), you mostly see bluebird skies and warm-to-hot temps. It’s bathing suit weather, most of the time. (But under the shade of an umbrella on the beach, the air can feel cool.)
Temps drop at night and evenings are cool, especially between December and February.
You’d be wise to bring long pants and a sweater or jacket for dining outside in the evenings, in case there’s a cold spell. There have been times in January where we’ve bundled up in jeans, boots and fleece jackets at night.
Early mornings are also crisp and cool until 9:00 am or so in winter (very pleasant for jogging).
So if you visit Cabo in winter, don’t expect super hot weather. It’s perfect for golfing and hiking, as well as for lazing about in the sun. But when the sun sets, it’s definitely cooler than Cancun in winter.
From June to November, however, Cabo is humid. August and September are particularly hot and sticky months.
The shoulder season months – April to June and October to November – are some of the best times to visit Cabo for warm weather (and fewer crowds). Cabo’s weather is more pleasant than Cancun’s during these months.
Cancun is much more tropical than Cabo. Think Caribbean weather.
It’s more humid than Cabo. (Ladies, that means frizzy hair!) And it feels hotter than Cabo in winter.
Nights are warmer and balmier. You don’t need a shawl or jacket in the evening.
The best time to go to Cancun is December to April, when the weather is the most pleasant (sunny and hot).
But this is also the high season, so accommodation rates are higher and crowds are heavier.
Being more tropical, though, you should be prepared for more drizzle and grey skies in Cancun than in Cabo. The Cancun weather in winter is usually very good, however.
Scenery and landscape
Where the desert collides with the sea – that’s Cabo.
Endless cactus-studded desert dunes are coupled with clear azure waters, set against a backdrop of rugged mountain peaks.
Unique rock formations catch the eye. Like the Arch and Land’s End.
Cancun and the Riviera Maya, on the other hand, are flat, lush and jungly.
Picture a tropical holiday destination – that’s what the Riviera Maya looks like.
One very cool feature of the topography?
Sinkholes or cenotes, along with underground river networks, riddle the land, beckoning you to swim and snorkel in them. Some cenotes are even filled with wondrous stalagmites and stalactites.
Cabo vs Cancun: Beaches
Cabo’s gold sand beaches and deep blue waters are the main reason you’re thinking of Los Cabos, right?
But many vacationers are surprised to discover that only some of its beaches are swimmable.
With serious waves and a strong undertow, beaches on the Pacific side of the Baja Peninsula around Los Cabos are unsafe for swimming. They’re gorgeous to look at, though!
Swimmable beaches are found on the other side of the Baja Peninsula.
Offering stupendous views of El Arco, the 2-mile stretch of Medano Beach is the most famous of these. Santa Maria Beach is great for swimming and snorkeling.
See our post on the best beaches in Cabo to find out which ones are safe for swimming (and which are best for walking and views only).
You should also know that the water in Cabo is not exactly warm for swimming in winter. In fact, we sometimes find it cool.
October and November, however, are another story – the sea is blissfully warm then.
The white sand beaches of Cancun are fabled.
The water is warm (warmer than in Cabo) and the color a mesmerizing shade of turquoise. Waves are generally tame – and the Caribbean Sea is safe for swimming at most beaches.
Paradise isn’t perfect, however.
For the past few years, Cancun, the Riviera Maya and Tulum have been plagued by unusually large amounts of Sargassum seaweed.
Thick carpets of this scratchy brown seaweed float on the surface of the water and wash up on the beaches.
The seaweed is uncomfortable to swim through and unsightly to look at on the beaches. When it decomposes in the sun, it smells like rotten eggs.
Nets and barriers are now placed out in the water to help prevent the seaweed from rolling in, and many larger resorts do a good job raking their beaches and keeping them clean.
But you should still expect to encounter some seaweed. (For this reason, it’s a good idea to stay at a hotel with a pool, so if the beach isn’t great, you can swim in the pool.)
For current seaweed conditions in Cancun, see the reports and updates from the Red de Monitoreo del Sargazo Cancun, a non-profit environmental organization which monitors the seaweed blooms and publishes maps of areas affected.
Cabo or Cancun: Which is better for activities?
You’ll find an epic variety of things to do in Los Cabos.
Whale watching in Cabo is popular between December and April, when thousands of humpback and other whales migrate down from Alaska.
Sunset cruises in the Cabo San Lucas Bay are quite magical too.
And if you’re after heart-pounding fishing action, Cabo offers legendary marlin sportfishing along with opps to catch dorado, tuna and roosterfish.
In October, Cabo hosts the annual Bisbee Black & Blue, the world’s richest billfish tournament.
On land, Cabo is catnip for golfers. More than a dozen championship courses lure players who tee off beside rugged seaside cliffs.
Thrill-seekers can go ziplining too.
Culturally, strolling San Jose del Cabo’s historic art district on a free Art Walk is a delightful way to spend an evening.
Art Walk takes place every Thursday evening between November and June.
And for a night on the town?
There are plenty of bars and clubs in Cabo San Lucas to keep you hopping, night after night. (Don’t miss El Squid Roe.)
In Cancun proper, exercising those credit cards at La Isla and Luxury Avenue shopping malls is fun for shopaholics.
For snorkelers and scuba divers, the Underwater Museum of Art (MUSA) is a must.
Check out some 500 life-size underwater sculptures of VW Beetles, men sitting around a table and other art creations. They’re covered with corals and serve as artificial reefs.
Cancun’s nightlife is also unparalleled. Rocking nightclubs like Coco Bongo Cancun (featuring a Cirque du Soleil-style show) reel in the party crowd.
Ziplining and sunset cruises round out the array of non-beachy things to do in Cancun.
Day trips and surrounding places to visit
Now to Cancun or Cabo: Which is better for exploring and doing day trips?
You can get out and explore the surrounding Baja Peninsula area on several great day trips from Cabo San Lucas.
Remember those whale sharks we mentioned earlier?
A once-in-a-lifetime experience is to swim with the whale sharks in La Paz. (La Paz is a 2-hour drive from Cabo San Lucas).
The season for seeing whale sharks in La Paz is between October and February.
A less intense day trip is to visit the charmingly bohemian town of Todos Santos (an easy 1-hour drive from Cabo San Lucas).
Many ex-pat artists have set up shop here – you can while away several pleasant hours browsing the art galleries and enjoying a fine lunch.
We’ve also enjoyed hanging out in Los Barriles, scuba diving in Cabo Pulmo and hiking to waterfalls and soaking in natural hot springs in the Sierra de la Laguna Biosphere Reserve.
There are oodles of things to do in the Riviera Maya area, just south of Cancun.
For history and archaeology, you’ll want to explore some of the amazing Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula around Cancun.
Dating back thousands of years, the Mayan civilization was at its peak from about 250 to 900 AD.
Don’t miss the UNESCO site of Chichen Itza (a great day trip from Cancun). Or the Insta-worthy Tulum ruins, built overlooking the sea (about a 2-hour drive from Cancun).
And you haven’t forgotten the cenotes we mentioned earlier, have you?
See our post on the 10 best and most beautiful Riviera Maya cenotes for swimming, snorkeling, diving and cliff jumping.
You can also snorkel with turtles at Akumal, get your thrills ziplining at the Xplor adventure park, spend the day at the Xcaret eco-theme park, float down a lazy river at the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve – and even take the ferry to Cozumel island for a day.
(Speaking of Cozumel, find out if you’d prefer to base yourself in Cozumel or Cancun.)
Then there’s Isla Mujeres, a very chilled little island just a short ferry ride away from Cancun. Rent a golf cart there for a fun day trip – relax on white sand beaches, eye the colorful Crayola House and walk the scenic Punta Sur coastal path.
To top it off, you can swim with whale sharks too – at Isla Holbox, a teeny island north of Cancun.
Cabo vs Cancun: Resorts
Cabo is a high-end resort getaway, considered the most expensive resort destination in Mexico.
You won’t find too many budget accommodations. They do exist, though.
We’ve checked out Hotel Los Milagros. It’s a quiet sweet little oasis right in Cabo San Lucas town – very clean and with a small pool too.
It’s the nicest of the cheapest hotels in Cabo we’ve seen. (But it’s not beachfront.)
Casa Bella is another small boutique hotel in the heart of Cabo that we’ve inspected. With loads of colonial Mexican style, it’s charming and also affordable.
At the other end of the scale, book the One & Only Palmilla for exclusive luxury.
It fronts a lovely swimming beach, offers a 27-course Nicklaus-designed golf course and assigns a butler to your room or suite (he’ll unpack your bags if you desire).
For that home-away-from-home feeling (i.e., a place with a kitchen), we like the Pueblo Bonito Blanco, Rose and Sunset Beach. See our post on which Pueblo Bonito resort in Cabo is best to choose the right one for you.
We’ve actually stayed at or inspected dozens of hotels – we’ve reviewed a curated collection of boutique and 5-star properties in our post on the best hotels in Los Cabos.
The Cancun strip alone has over 100 hotels and resorts. More than 300 other hotels are found in the Riviera Maya.
We’re talking a huge array of hotels and resorts in Cancun and surrounds!
One of the most luxurious all-inclusive resorts in the Riviera Maya is the Grand Velas Riviera Maya. Many rooms have private plunge pools.
At the Grand Velas, we were wowed by the foodie-worthy restaurants (especially the 9-course menu’s molecular cuisine at Cocina de Autour).
Tulum doesn’t go for the big sprawling resorts. Smaller, more boutiquey hotels are Tulum’s style.
We love the barefoot-luxury Sanara Tulum.
Think a jungle setting with a private beach and beachside yoga studio. Uber cool rooms with concrete floors and outdoor bathrooms. And a superb restaurant focusing on healthy food.
For a luxurious, away-from-the-crowds stay in Cancun, NIZUC Resort and Spa pampers you with a dreamy white sand beach, top-rated spa and exceptional suites boasting private pools and outdoor showers.
Safety: Is Cabo safer than Cancun?
You’ve read a lot of press about how certain areas of Mexico are unsafe.
So of course you want to know if Cabo and Cancun are safe. And is one safer than the other?
The U.S. State Advisory on Mexico recommends you “exercise increased caution due to crime” in the state of Baja California Sur (which includes Los Cabos and day trip sites in the Baja Peninsula).
We, however, have always felt safe in Los Cabos during the countless times we’ve visited over the years. Mind you, we stick to the touristy areas when we go, and we don’t stay out late until the wee hours.
We’re usually more concerned about traffic accidents.
Driving the Corridor between Cabo and San Jose del Cabo is safe at night, but you should stay off the highways elsewhere in the Baja because of the cow hazard. Yes, cows wandering on the roads can prove dangerous.
You also have to be mindful of drunk drivers late at night.
The U.S. State Advisory on Mexico has the same warning for the state of Quintana Roo (which includes Cancun, Tulum and the Riviera Maya) as it does for Cabo and the Baja state, i.e., be more cautious because of criminal activities.
Again, we’ve always felt safe in the Riviera Maya.
Cabo vs Cancun: Last words
Both Los Cabos and Cancun (along with the Riviera Maya) are wonderful Mexican holiday destinations.
If leaning towards Cancun, personally we’d prefer to stay on the Riviera Maya, perhaps near Playa del Carmen or in Tulum. Or you could split your stay between a few days in Cancun and a few days in Tulum.
Frankly, once you’ve drilled down on certain points – whether you’re a water baby or golf addict, ease of getting there, weather at different times of the year, etc. – and you know what to expect, then you’ll have a fabulous time, no matter your choice!
What do you think? Do you prefer Cabo or Cancun? Why? (You can share your views in the Comments section below.)
More Cabo and Cancun travel information
See these Fodor’s, DK Eyewitness and other Cancun travel guides on Amazon.
And here’s the Amazon link for travel guides on Los Cabos.
Pin this Cabo vs Cancun post!
Photo credits: 22 One & Only Palmilla | 23 Grand Velas Riviera Maya | 24 NIZUC