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Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta: Which Mexico vacation is best?

We adore Mexico. Just look at how much we’ve written about it!

There are so many things to do in Mexico that we know how hard it is to decide where to go.

But don’t fret. We’ve written about Cabo vs Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta in various posts on this blog to help you choose your next holiday.

Two of our most popular Mexico posts are the Puerto Vallarta vs Cabo showdown and the Cabo vs Cancun stand-off. So, it’s only fitting for us to now write a Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta post.

Okay, let’s find out which is better, Cancun or Puerto Vallarta?

Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta: Two white beach chairs looking out to turquoise waters
Wouldn’t you like to be on holiday in Cancun or Puerto Vallarta?

Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta

Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta

Where is Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun?

Both Cancun and Puerto Vallarta are famous beach destinations that conjure up idyllic postcard images, and rightfully so. But they’re on opposite coasts of Mexico.

Where is Cancun?

White sand beaches, beautiful resorts and a plethora of activities draw visitors to Cancun.
White sand beaches, beautiful resorts and a plethora of activities draw visitors to Cancun

Cancun is on the northeast coast along the cerulean waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.

In the state of Quintana Roo, it’s the gateway to the Mayan Riviera area, a 100-mile stretch of stunning coastline that includes Playa del Carmen and Tulum.

Where is Puerto Vallarta?

View of Puerto Vallarta's red-roofed buildings by the sea
On Mexico’s west coast, PV was a thriving Mexican fishing village before it became an international resort destination

Puerto Vallarta (or PV for short) is in the state of Jalisco on the west or Pacific coast of Mexico. It’s hugged by the azure Banderas Bay and backed by the lush Sierra Madre mountains. 

Just north of Puerto Vallarta is Nuevo Vallarta (New Vallarta). In the state of Nayarit, it’s also a renowned beach destination.

The beautiful white-sand Nuevo Vallarta Beach, lapped by gentle waves
Nuevo Vallarta Beach is beautiful, clean and safe for swimming (Credit: Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit)

Getting to Cancun and Puerto Vallarta

Getting to Cancun:

There’s an international airport in Cancun (the Cancun International Airport or CUN).

Non-stop flights to Cancun depart from most major and minor cities in the United States, starting from as low as $100. From Canada, direct flights take off for Cancun from Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver. 

In particular, Cancun is the ideal getaway for anyone from the east coast or Midwest wanting a quick escape. 

The flying time from New York City to Cancun is a little over 4 hours. (By contrast, it would take you more than 5 hours to reach Puerto Vallarta). From Chicago, it takes about 3 hours and 45 minutes to reach Cancun.

Once on the ground in Mexico, the Cancun airport is 30 minutes from downtown, so taking public transportation, like a bus, is certainly easy.

Otherwise, Uber and taxis are everywhere. And many resorts offer airport transfers.

Getting to Puerto Vallarta:

Puerto Vallarta also has an international airport, the Licenciado Gustavo Díaz Ordaz International Airport (PVR).

There are dozens of direct flights to PV from major and minor cities across the US and Canada.

But PV is closer for you than Cancun if you live on the west coast.

For example, the flying time from L.A. is just over 3 hours. (By contrast, it would take you 4 hours and 35 minutes to fly to Cancun.)

The Puerto Vallarta airport is about 20 minutes from town, so hop a bus, taxi or Uber to get to town (or take a resort-offered transfer).

Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta weather

Cancun weather:

Cancun is tropical, balmy, humid and full of warm sultry nights.

Hurricane season is from June to November. And the worst months are August through October. So, keep that in mind when planning.

The best time to visit Cancun is from December to April, which is also the high season (so you should book your accommodations in advance).

The temperature in Cancun this time of year is around 82 F in the daytime (though it can get hotter).

Puerto Vallarta weather:

Puerto Vallarta, on the other hand, doesn’t have a hurricane season per se. The shape of the bay protects the area from hurricanes – but there are tropical storms.

The best time to go to Puerto Vallarta is from December to March, after the rainy season is over.

Average daytime highs are in the low 80s F in the winter months. Skies are mainly clear and the sun shines most of the time.

And just like in Cancun, it’s also high season. So of course, PV will be busier with tourists this time of year.

The summer months are not very comfortable weather-wise. From June to October, Puerto Vallarta becomes a steamy humid hotbox. 

Bottom line: Which has better weather, Cancun or Puerto Vallarta?

There’s no winner.

If you want a hot tropical climate, head to Cancun.

If not, make Puerto Vallarta your holiday haven. We’ve found PV in winter to be less humid than Cancun, so it feels milder. (Cancun feels hotter in winter.)

Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta: Scenery and vibe

What’s Cancun (and the Riviera Maya) like?

Cancun and the Mayan Riviera area are tropical paradises, with lush jungle colliding with the turquoise water.

The soft white-sand beaches, lined with palm trees, are what dreams are made of. 

As well, the series of underground caves, rivers and sinkholes (or cenotes) that pepper the landscape make the area unique.

A snorkeler descends head-first down into a cenote
A snorkeler descends head-first down into a cenote

Some cenotes have crystal clear water with stalagmites and stalactites, making for an underground lunarscape.

It’s definitely worth taking some time to explore a few of the Riviera Maya (and Cancun) cenotes!

Some of the best include Cenote Azul (a cenote that looks like a lovely lagoon, perfect for swimming and jumping), Cenote Dos Ojos (for scuba diving and snorkeling) and Gran Cenote (a large and popular cenote near Tulum).

Cancun itself is more touristy than Puerto Vallarta though.

It’s a bit like Las Vegas, where everything is big and beautiful. The hotels have hundreds, sometimes thousands of rooms, and you can find anything you want 24/7.

It’s a party haven, but it’s easy to ignore all the touristy mayhem and find your perfect slice of quiet solitude or romance.

Basically, you can have it all in Cancun and the Riviera Maya.

What’s Puerto Vallarta like?

The stone Arches on the Malecon (seaside promenade) are an iconic PV landmark.
These stone Arches on the Malecon (seaside promenade) are an iconic PV landmark

Not to be outdone in the scenery department, Puerto Vallarta is blessed to be sandwiched between the mountains and the brilliant azure waters of Bahia Bay (Banderas Bay).

Pretty much any direction you look, you’ll see something picture-worthy.

Then there’s Nuevo Vallarta.

About a 20-minute drive north of PV, this master-planned resort community is famed for its golf courses, marina and long uninterrupted sandy beaches. Comparatively, Puerto Vallarta has more coves and slightly deeper water.

Puerto Vallarta has been on the scene longer than Cancun.

Once a small fishing village, PV achieved worldwide recognition in 1964 when the steamy movie Night of the Iguana, starring Ava Gardner and Richard Burton, was filmed there.  

The red-brick Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the top attractions in PV.
The Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the top attractions in PV

In some ways, Puerto Vallarta still has that same traditional vibe even though it’s a prime holiday destination today.

It’s quite laid back and chill, especially in the Zona Romantica or Old Town neighborhood.

You feel like you’re stepping back into old Mexico as soon as you see the cobblestone streets. It’s full of charm and Mexican culture. 

Blue wrought iron railings line a staircase up to a house in PV's Zona Romantica.
Colorful houses with wrought iron accents are found in the Zona Romantica

But beyond its traditional vibe, PV is a trendy electric city. It’s known as the LGBTQ capital of the country, which adds to the welcoming atmosphere.

Nuevo Vallarta, on the other hand, is newer than PV. After Cancun, it has the second highest number of hotels and resorts in Mexico.   

The major difference between Nuevo Vallarta vs Puerto Vallarta is that, being older, PV retains its charm. Its northern neighbor is newly built up, more developed and more modern.

Winner?

When comparing the vibe of Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, we give the “vibe winner” award to PV because of its traditional feel and inclusivity for people from all walks of life and love.

But when it comes to the landscape and scenery – solely because of the truly unique cenotes – Cancun and the Riviera Maya edge out PV.

Puerto Vallarta beaches vs Cancun beaches

Beaches in Cancun:

Woman wearing a white sunhat gazes at the sand and azure sea in Cancun
Cancun’s white sand beaches are legendary

Imagine warm Caribbean-blue water with soft powdery sand underfoot. That’s Cancun.

Beaches in Cancun are postcard-perfect… Usually.

Unfortunately, the entire Riviera Maya region has been plagued by thick masses of seaweed (known as sargassum), washing ashore in the past few years. It blankets the sand, and as the sun heats it, the seaweed rots, emitting a stinky rotten egg scent.

Not so pleasant on your beach vacation.

Nets have recently been added to catch the seaweed before it reaches the shore, but there is no 100% fix for this natural phenomenon.

Beaches in Puerto Vallarta:

The beautiful beaches along the west coast of Mexico haven’t suffered the same seaweed problem.

They’re broad, with soft golden sand flowing into deep-indigo water packed with aquatic life.

It may not be that Caribbean-blue water, but no one ever thinks Puerto Vallarta beaches are anything less than stunning.

Thatch palapaps line a beach in Puerto Vallarta
Puerto Vallarta’s beaches are perfect for swimming, snorkeling, kayaking and other water sports

Playa de los Muertos

Playa de los Muertos (Los Muertos Beach) is the main and most popular beach in PV. For people watching, it can’t be beat!

It’s lined with many beach bars, beach clubs and restaurants, so it’s easy to find a beach chair under an umbrella. (If you buy lunch or drinks, you usually don’t have to pay – and you can hang out for a while.)

Our favorite beach club is La Palapa. It’s one of the classiest on Los Muertos; at night, it’s a great toes-in-the-sand seafood restaurant.

Playa Flamingos

Another one of the best beaches in the PV area is Playa Flamingos, which stretches for eight miles along the coast of Nuevo Vallarta.

Its calm waters are perfect for swimming and stand-up paddleboarding.

Bottom line? Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun beaches

In the showdown between beaches in Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun beaches, PV wins by virtue of its accessibility.

Cancun’s beaches are prettier – but the seaweed means it’s unpleasant sometimes to swim in the ocean water. So Cancun’s beaches lose this battle.

Which is best for activities?

Riviera Maya and Cancun activities:

There are a zillion awesome things to do in the Riviera Maya (and Cancun). But here are a few highlights.

There is every water activity you could think of – parasailing, cruises, stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, you name it.

Don’t miss snorkeling at the Underwater Museum of Art (MUSA), where 500 life-sized sculptures attract all sorts of colorful marine life.

Underwater sculptures of men sitting cross-legged on the ocean floor at MUSA
With over 500 permanent sculptures created by Jaon deCaires Taylor, MUSA is one of the largest underwater art installations in the world

Cancun is also the gateway to all things Mayan.

The Mayan Museum of Cancun (Museo Maya de Cancun) showcases one of the largest archeological collections of Mayan artifacts in the country, from painted pottery to a 12,000-year-old female skeleton found in a cenote near Tulum.

To top that off, Cancun is a shopper’s paradise.

Head to La Isla and Luxury Avenue and get your credit cards ready! If you’re looking for Mexican souvenirs and silver jewelry, the local markets are where it’s at.

Puerto Vallarta activities:

So, what about Puerto Vallarta?

Start with a walking tour of the boardwalk or Malecon. The Puerto Vallarta Malecon (and its sculptures) is one of the best attractions in PV.

Keep walking towards Los Muertos Beach, and you’ll end up on the iconic 335-foot Los Muertos Pier, which looks like a sail and is illuminated every night.

You can’t miss the long Los Muertos Pier jutting out into the sea!
You can’t miss the Los Muertos Pier jutting out into the sea!

Like Cancun, PV offers an abundance of water sports too.

But what Puerto Vallarta has over Cancun are the mountains. So things like hiking, ziplining and rappelling down a waterfall are easily found. (See, for example, this ziplining tour in PV.)

Also, Puerto Vallarta has a booming art scene, and galleries will ship your purchased art back home.

For wildlife lovers, there’s a baby turtle release program through an environmental conservation organization (donations are welcomed).

If you’re there in the winter, thousands of humpback whales migrate through Banderas Bay. Different whale watching tours are offered so you can see them in their natural environment.

And let’s not forget the nine golf courses that Puerto Vallarta boasts.

One of the best is the Pacifico Golf Course in Punta Mita, a luxury resort community north of PV.

Designed by Jack Nicklaus, the Pacifico course features the signature “Tail of the Whale” hole – a spectacular green on an island, accessed by an amphibious golf cart.

Bottom line: Is Puerto Vallarta or Cancun better for activities?

It really depends on what you’re into.

However, if we must choose, PV wins by a nose because of its sheer variety of activities.

Day trips from Puerto Vallarta and Cancun

Cancun day trips:

If you’re into archeology and history, the entire Cancun and Riviera Maya region is full of Mayan ruins.

We’ve even dedicated a post to the most beautiful Mayan ruins near Cancun.

The UNESCO site, Chichen Itza, is the most well-known and legendary ruin – it’s 2 hours away from Cancun.

The pyramidal-shaped Temple of Kukulcan (or El Castillo) is the main temple in Chichen Itza.
Built between the 8th and 12th centuries AD, The Temple of Kukulcan (or El Castillo) is the main temple in Chichen Itza

And you can’t miss the Mayan ruins of Tulum.

Or how about snorkeling with sea turtles at Akumal?

Or swimming with whale sharks at Holbox Island?

You can also take a ferry from Playa del Carmen to the island of Cozumel for the day. Its epic scuba diving is one reason to visit – if comparing Cancun and Cozumel, Cozumel’s diving is better.

And let’s not forget Isla Mujeres. Hop on a ferry from Cancun for the 15-minute ride to this lovely sleepy island.

On Isla Mujeres, rent a golf cart to explore. Visit Punta Sur for its scenic rocky coastline, laze about on Playa Norte (North Beach) and enjoy a delicious seafood lunch.

A golf cart parked on a cobbled street beside the beach in Isla Mujeres
The tiny island of Isla Mujeres is fun to explore by golf cart

Puerto Vallarta day trips:

Now on to Puerto Vallarta day trips.

Take a water taxi for the 35-minute ride to Playa Mismaloya, one of our favorite areas. Simple restaurants with thatch palapa roofs line the palm-fringed beach.

Picturesque Yelapa is another tiny town and beach on the Bay of Banderas, south of PV. It’s reached by taking the bus to Boca de Tomatlan, followed by a 20- to 25-minute boat ride.

Backed by lush jungle, Yelapa Beach is blissful, with more great seafood restaurants and a “pie lady” who strolls the beach selling slices of the most heavenly coconut cream pie, still warm from the oven.

Here’s a fun day tour to Yelapa – it includes a short optional hike to a waterfall and snorkeling at Majahuitas Cove (another delightful beach).

And you must visit the Vallarta Botanical Gardens.

With cacao and coffee trees, orchids, cacti and hiking trails past vanilla vines to a river (bring your swimsuit to cool off!), we think it’s one of the most beautiful gardens in the world. Its restaurant serves up totally yummy lunches too.

Also head north to Punta Mita. Check out the luxury hotels and resorts and get pampered at their spas.

Into nature? Then don’t miss the the Marietas Islands National Park, sometimes referred to as the Galapagos of Mexico.

The islands are known for their abundant bird and marine life and are protected by the Mexican government. See frigate birds, egrets and comical-looking blue-footed boobies – they’re some of the 90 species of birds that live or migrate there.

For something totally unique, put a tequila tasting tour on your itinerary. Most tours will pick you up from your hotel and take you to the heart of Tequila and various tequila distilleries.

Two shots of tequila and a bowl of lime slices
Tequila tasting in Tequila, Mexico

Day trip award winner:

The best day trip award goes to… it’s a tie.

There can be no losers when the day trips from both Cancun and Puerto Vallarta are this incredible.

Resorts in Cancun and the Riviera Maya vs Puerto Vallarta

Cancun and Riviera Maya resorts:

Cancun strip with beach hotels, sandwiched between the blue Caribbean sea on one side and the lagoon on the other
Cancun’s Hotel Zone is a 14-mile stretch of beach shaped like a Number 7, with a large lagoon on the inside and the Caribbean Sea on the outside

The Cancun strip has hundreds of hotels and resorts. Many of them are massive all-inclusives catering to your every whim.

The entire Riviera Maya region is packed with over 6,000 hotels, from all-inclusive resorts to small boutique types.

One of our favourite, most luxurious all-inclusive hotels is the Grand Velas Riviera Maya. It’s only an hour away from Cancun’s Hotel Zone but feels like a world away. And the food is to die for.

In Cancun itself, the all-inclusive Secrets The Vine Cancun is a deluxe sanctuary for adults only. It recently won the award for “Mexico’s Leading Luxury Beach Resort” (2021) from the World Travel Awards.

Right in Cancun’s Hotel Zone, The Ritz-Carlton Cancun is an AAA Five Diamond winner and 5-star retreat.

Eco-chic Tulum has many lovely boutique hotels.

Check out The Beach Tulum. For adults only, the stylish digs feature a pool and complimentary yoga classes.

A deluxe room with private plunge pool and hammock at The Beach Tulum
A deluxe room with private pool (Credit: The Beach Tulum)

Also recommended in Tulum: La Valise, with thatched beach bungalows housing 9 romantic rooms with open-air showers.

Puerto Vallarta resorts:

PV has some large deluxe hotels like the Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita (in Punta Mita) and the Garza Blanca Preserve Resort & Spa, with 165 elegant rooms, three pools and a great snorkeling cove.

But in Puerto Vallarta proper, you find smaller and more budget-friendly hotels and not nearly as many all-inclusives.

We wrote a post about the top boutique Puerto Vallarta hotels, but we’re adding one more to the mix – Hotel Mousai. It’s the first and only adults-only, AAA Five Diamond-rated hotel in PV.

Rooftop infinity pool lined by double day beds at Houtel Mousai, Puerto Vallarta
This rooftop infinity pool is one reason to stay at this boutique PV hotel! (Credit: Hotel Mousai)

So, is Cancun or Puerto Vallarta better for resorts?

Choosing the accommodation winner between Puerto Vallarta vs Riviera Maya (and Cancun) is challenging because it really depends on your travel style.

Cancun is the way to go if you like big hotels, all-inclusives and plenty of luxury options. (Tulum has the boutiquey places.)

PV is your spot if you like smaller boutique hotels or have a tighter budget. (Punta Mita has more deluxe resorts.)

Dining and nightlife   

Cancun’s scene:

Cancun has incredible dining options, but its nightlife outshines its restaurants.

There are zillions of luxurious hotels with restaurants to match, along with chain restaurants. Therefore, most of the food tends to be touristy.

Still, that’s not to say there aren’t good restaurants – because there are!

PV’s scene:

Romantic outdoor seaside restaurant in PV with tables draped in red tablecloths
Ooh la la! How romantic is this restaurant in PV!

In Puerto Vallarta, however, the restaurants are more independently owned and less tourist-driven, meaning authentic flavors and world-class food.

And it’s not just Mexican food.

There’s a huge variety of restaurants – excellent Puerto Vallarta restaurants pleasing every palate and budget.

Chiles en Nogada, smothered with a creamy white walnut sauce and sprinkled with bright cranberry-colored pomegranate seeds
Chiles en nogada are meat-filled poblano peppers, smothered with walnut cream sauce and pomegranate seeds – it’s the national dish of Mexico

Some of the best places to eat?

As for nightlife, Cancun has a lot more options. But the Puerto Vallarta Romantic Zone holds its own with the largest LGBTQ-friendly clubs in the country.

Winner?

The prize for the best dining scene goes to Puerto Vallarta.

However, the nightlife award goes to Cancun. If you want to shake it to live music and party for days, Cancun has you covered.

Safety: Is Puerto Vallarta or Cancun safer?

Is Cancun safe? Quick answer, yes.

Is Puerto Vallarta safe? Also yes.

Regardless of what the media leads us to believe, the crime rates in Cancun and PV are lower than in most big cities in the US. We’ve never felt unsafe in either town, and we’ve been going for years.

If you stick to the touristy resort areas, you’ll be fine.

No matter where you go, though, use common sense.

Don’t wander the streets at night, dripping in diamonds. That’s just silly. And you probably wouldn’t do that at home either. Unfortunately, petty crime does occur, as in any tourist area.

Is Puerto Vallarta or Cancun safer?

One isn’t safer than the other.

Last words: Cancun or Puerto Vallarta, which is better?

So, is Puerto Vallarta better than Cancun? Or is Cancun better than PV?

It’s impossible to say. They are so different in every way. Both are popular destinations for a winter getaway for North Americans, especially, and for sun-starved Europeans.

Deciding between them is a decision no one wants to make. So you might as well give in and visit both!

If you’ve already visited Cancun, make your next trip PV. And vice-versa. Then you can decide – and you can let us know your preferred Mexico hot spot in the Comments below!

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Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun

About the authors:

Janice and George Mucalov

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, luxury hotel reviews, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, cruise reviews and information, insanely useful travel tips and more!