Hola! Are you hankering for your next vacation?
Mexico is always a good idea in our books – especially in winter for soaking up some sun. We’ve traveled extensively throughout the country and certainly written a lot about Mexico!
Two fave hot spots are Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas (including Los Cabos, or Cabo for short).
But just as Cabo and Cancun are different, so too are Cabo and Puerto Vallarta. Sure, they’re both in Mexico, but they’re as unalike as tacos and tequila.
We’ve pulled from our experiences to create this guide to help you decide between Puerto Vallarta vs. Cabo.
Puerto Vallarta vs. Cabo
Where is Puerto Vallarta?
Puerto Vallarta is located on the Pacific Coast of Mexico in the state of Jalisco, nestled in beautiful Banderas Bay.
Jalisco shares the bay with the state of Nayarit. Both states hug the Pacific Ocean, against a backdrop of the majestic Sierra Madre mountain range.
Where is Los Cabos, Mexico?
The town of Cabo San Lucas sits at the very southernmost tip of the Baja Peninsula, located in Baja California Sur state. Like PV, it’s on Mexico’s west coast side.
Los Cabos (aka “Cabo”) is the larger geographical area that includes the town of San Jose del Cabo and the beach Corridor running between the two towns.
The body of water that lies between mainland Mexico and the Baja Peninsula is known locally as the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California). Marine explorer Jacques Cousteau called it the “world’s aquarium” because of its immense diversity of sea life.
Getting to Puerto Vallarta
Puerto Vallarta has an international airport (PVR) about 30 minutes from the city center.
Pre-pandemic, there were many direct flights from most major cities in the United States and Canada. Airlines are thankfully putting these flights back into their schedules.
Flight times of about 5 hours from Vancouver (Canada), 4 hours from Chicago, 3 hours from LA and 5½ hours from Toronto will have you in Puerto Vallarta, where you’ll be sipping Mexican margaritas on the beach in no time.
Getting to Cabo San Lucas
Cabo San Lucas also has an international airport (SJD), located about 40 minutes from Cabo town.
Flight times are approximately 4½ hours from Vancouver and Chicago, a little over 2 hours from LA and 5 hours from Toronto.
Which has better weather: Cabo or Puerto Vallarta?
Mexico has a hurricane season, when heavy rains and strong winds can definitely put a crimp in your holiday (and cause headaches for locals). But thankfully the weather in most parts of Mexico is also very predictable.
On the Pacific Coast, where Puerto Vallarta and Cabo are found, the hurricane season “officially” runs from mid-May to November.
However, most storms occur in September.
(It’s rare to experience hurricanes or heavy rains in early summer or in late October and November.)
Winter is the dry season – when it hardly ever rains.
However, there are some distinct weather differences between Puerto Vallarta and Cabo.
Puerto Vallarta weather
The best time of year to visit Puerto Vallarta is from December to March, when the rainy season and the hurricane season are over.
Average daytime highs are in the low 80s F and skies are mostly clear. (January and February are the coolest months, though still warm.)
Humidity is low in winter, but it still feels somewhat tropical.
Winter is also the high season.
You can expect to pay more for hotels and resorts than during the off-season. But you won’t get caught in a rainstorm or experience heavy thunder and lightning!
During the summer months from June to October, the temperature and humidity can be quite overwhelming.
Cabo San Lucas weather
Cabo has a desert climate, and it tends to be drier than Puerto Vallarta during the rainy season.
Hurricanes also usually die down to tropical storms by the time they reach the Baja Peninsula.
Like PV, good times to go to Los Cabos are between December and March.
This is also the high season in Cabo, when many vacationers flock to the area to get away from the cold up north. Average daytime highs can hit 80 F, but many days are in the 70s.
Most days in January, it’s hot enough to lie out in the sun (but you won’t break a sweat like you would in the Caribbean).
The air feels crisp and dry, especially in the cool mornings and evenings, which can be quite nippy. Be sure to pack a sweater or two!
Scenery and vibe
Cabo and Puerto Vallarta both have that true Mexican hospitality (super friendly people!) but they have very different vibes.
About Puerto Vallarta
Once a small fishing village, Puerto Vallarta has blossomed over the past 40 years to become a thriving international resort destination.
Today, it’s a fun and trendy escape for a winter sun-and-sand vacation.
Locals call it Vallarta, while most foreigners affectionately call it PV.
The city is safely cradled in the Bahia de Banderas (Bay of Banderas), which means “bay of the flags.”
(The bay provides some shelter from the tropical storms and hurricanes that sometimes make their way in from the Pacific Ocean during hurricane season.)
The tropical jungle that surrounds the city is lush with palm trees, flowing rivers and colorful singing birds.
The 1964 movie The Night of the Iguana (directed by John Huston and starring Ava Gardner and Richard Burton) was filmed in the bay about 30 minutes from Puerto Vallarta.
The film – or perhaps more accurately, the passionate affair Burton had with Elizabeth Taylor at the time – put Puerto Vallarta on the map.
Despite its rapid growth, Puerto Vallarta has managed to retain a Mexican ambience. Modern condo buildings and hotels are tastefully mingled in with the old colonial-style architecture.
In particular, Puerto Vallarta’s Zona Romantica (Romantic Zone) or Old Town is a charming area with cobblestone streets, colorful traditional homes and hidden restaurants. There are lots of stairs too!
The Romantic Zone is also known for its exciting and fun nightlife. You can find live shows there every night of the week.
The Malecon in Puerto Vallarta is a visitor favorite.
We always make a point of walking the 12 or so blocks to take in the ocean views and admire the attention-grabbing sculptures that line the beachfront walkway.
About Cabo San Lucas and Los Cabos
Like PV, Cabo has also grown by leaps and bounds over the years.
American tourists now often make it their yearly or semi-annual vacation spot or even their home-away-from-home.
One big difference between Cabo and Puerto Vallarta, though, is the scenery. Sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez, Cabo’s cacti-strewn desert is in stark contrast to PV’s lush and jungly landscape.
At the very tip of the Baja Peninsula, El Arco (The Arch) is a dramatic natural limestone monument rising up from the sea. You’ve probably seen it on a postcard or Insta-shot of Cabo?
Land’s End (as the area is called) is home to barking sea lions and hundreds of frigate birds and shearwaters that roam the skies above and nest in the rocks.
The town of Cabo San Lucas winds around the Cabo Marina, which is filled with high-end fishing boats and yachts. It’s also known for its party scene.
A 20-mile (30-minute) drive from Cabo San Lucas, the town of San Jose del Cabo has retained more of an old-school Mexican feeling.
Stretching between the two towns is the long Corridor of ultra-luxury resorts and timeshare properties.
Cabo vs. Puerto Vallarta beaches
What’s the difference between the beaches of Puerto Vallarta vs. Cabo beaches?
We’d have to say Puerto Vallarta has better beaches if you want to swim in the ocean. Many of the beaches in Cabo are unsafe for swimming because of strong currents and rip tides.
But both have numerous beautiful beaches to walk along or to spend a lazy chillax day, feeling blessed you’re on holiday in Mexico.
Beaches of Puerto Vallarta
Playa de Los Muertos
This is the most popular and most visited beach in Puerto Vallarta.
Los Muerto Beach flirts with part of the Malecon and is lined with hotels, resorts and restaurants. You’ll also find the beautiful Los Muertos Pier with its iconic sail structure here.
Playa Boca de Tomates
More remote and less visited than Los Muertos Beach, Playa Boca de Tomates is where you go for a true Mexican beach experience without hordes of tourists – to sit under a palapa and dine on fresh seafood.
There’s also a turtle release camp on Playa Boca de Tomates that does evening baby turtle releases. See Campamento Tortuguero Boca de Tomates (Saving Sea Turtles in Puerto Vallarta).
Playa las Gemelas
Playa las Gemelas is a short drive south from Puerto Vallarta. This beach has fine sand and turquoise waters perfect for swimming.
A few condo buildings stand in the background, but the beach doesn’t get overly crowded.
Beaches of Cabo San Lucas
Remember we mentioned that most beaches in Cabo are unsafe for swimming? Well, you can swim at the following three beaches.
Playa Medano (Medano Beach) is by far the most popular beach in Cabo, partly because it’s the safest for swimming.
It also has the most action. Toes-in-the-sand restaurants, bars, stores, luxury resorts, kayak and SUP board rentals – it’s all here.
You need to jump into a water taxi or glass-bottom boat to reach Lover’s Beach (Playa del Amor) at Land’s End. This in itself is a fun experience!
Flanked on both sides by towering rock formations, Lover’s Beach is a stunning beach, with clear aquamarine water that’s also great for snorkeling.
Another inviting swimming and snorkeling beach is Playa Chileno (Chileno Beach). It’s a beautifully maintained beach that’s Blue Flag designated.
It’s not as crowded as other beaches in the area, but it also doesn’t have concession stands or vendors – so be sure to bring your own snacks and water.
Is Cabo or Puerto Vallarta better for activities?
You won’t get bored in either Los Cabos or Puerto Vallarta. So this one’s a toss-up!
It’s like trying to choose between mango margaritas or lime margaritas. (We want both.)
Things to do in Puerto Vallarta
PV is thriving with local artisans and international artists who’ve created a unique art scene.
Browse art galleries like Galleria Dante (PV’s largest fine art gallery), Galeria Corsica (showcasing contemporary Mexican paintings and sculptures) and The Loft Galeria (displaying sculptures, abstract oil paintings and other art works by modern artists of the Americas).
Some will ship your art purchase back home.
Every winter, thousands of humpback whales migrate south into Banderas Bay. They put on spectacular shows of breaches, tail flaps and songs.
From late October you can start spotting the few early arrivals, and by January, the bay is alive with hundreds of whales.
The whale watching season in Puerto Vallarta runs through to March and early April (though you might still spot a few in May).
Another special activity is swimming with wild Bottlenose dolphins in their natural habitat.
There’s no guarantee the dolphins will allow you to swim with them.
But chances are good if babies and juvenile dolphins are in the pod. Like most young creatures, they like to play!
You can also enjoy other water sports in the area, such as snorkeling, diving, SUP and kayaking.
Things to do in Cabo
In winter, kick off your vacay with whale watching. As in PV, humpback whales show up to mate and give birth in the surrounding warm waters.
We also recommend you head out on a Thursday night to the San Jose del Cabo Art Walk. Stroll through art galleries, admire some eye-popping art and have a chat with the artists.
Another must-do is to visit Flora Farms and eat at this delightful farm-to-table restaurant.
Dining and nightlife in Puerto Vallarta and Cabo
As top tourist destinations, both Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas boast an excellent restaurant and nightlife scene.
Puerto Vallarta restaurants
A few of our top PV resto picks:
Acclaimed as one of the best restaurants in Mexico, Tintoque serves up seafood as well as a “creative menu” that changes daily.
Dishes range from heirloom corn, cheese and truffle to the catch-of-the-day in a chili-and-Mexican-peanut curry sauce.
Dine by candlelight on the elegant riverfront patio overlooking the Rio Cuale.
Want a romantic dinner on the beach with your sweetie?
One of the oldest beachfront restaurants in Puerto Vallarta, La Palapa is the place to spend an evening wining-and-dining as you listen to the sound of the waves.
Barcelona Tapas is an elegant restaurant with a Mediterranean-inspired menu. Tapas and paellas are the specialties here.
So you’re craving Belgian waffles heaped with strawberries and cream, or Eggs Benedict bathed in hollandaise sauce… Fredy’s Tucan is the best breakfast place in Puerto Vallarta.
They have a delicious varied menu with hefty-size portions – you won’t leave hungry!
Nightlife in Puerto Vallarta
Want to show off your dance moves? Or catch a live show? Puerto Vallarta’s got your number.
These are just a few of our favorite restaurants in Cabo:
For a steakhouse piano bar, La Casona is a top-rated restaurant in Los Cabos with a great ambience and exceptional service.
Los Deseos Restaurante
Are your tastebuds crying “gimme authentic Mexican food”?
Los Deseos Restaurante serves delicious traditional local dishes.
Sure, it’s a splurge. But dining on the freshest seafood while watching the ocean waves rage at the rock wall around you is worth it for a special occasion dinner.
Nightlife in Cabo
When the sun goes down, Cabo’s bars, dance clubs and lounges come alive.
Hit Cabo Wabo (founded by Van Halen rock star Sammy Hagar) later at night for live hard rock.
The Jungle Bar is always a fun place to hang out, with cold beer and popular bands playing live music.
And you can party and dance like there’s no tomorrow at El Squid Roe.
Day trips from Puerto Vallarta and Cabo
We recommend planning a few day trips to explore the small beach towns outside of Puerto Vallarta or Cabo when you go.
Puerto Vallarta day trips
Punta Mita (or Punta de Mita) is a small peninsula with several sprawling luxury resorts where you can spend a day and pamper yourself silly.
The Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita offers day passes for lounging by the pool. While you’re indulging, book an exquisite massage at the spa too.
Yelapa is a small village in the southern part of Banderas Bay that’s only accessible by water, horse or ATV. Wander the small car-free streets, or sit at one of the many restaurants on the beach.
You can find water taxis for Yelapa at the Pier on Playa Los Muertos in PV. The boat ride is about 45 minutes.
Sayulita is a trendy hot spot where surfers go to catch the waves.
Not a surfer? Then simply hang out on the beach and watch the surfers, while you sip on a cool cocktail and surrender to some people-watching.
A small but burgeoning beach town about 30 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta, Bucerias is popular with foreigners who live part-time or year-round in the area.
Walk the long beach. Or go horseback riding with one of the local Mexican cowboys who offer rides on Playa Bucerias.
Vallarta Botanical Gardens
We also love the Vallarta Botanical Gardens.
With orchids, walking trails through magical Avatar-like grounds and a hacienda-style restaurant with views of flitting hummingbirds, we think it’s actually one of the most beautiful gardens in the world!
The state of Jalisco is home to some of the best tequila in the country. And over 80% of tequila comes from the town of Tequila, about a 4-hour drive from PV.
If you’re up for a full day’s outing, a tequila tasting tour is another popular Puerto Vallarta day trip.
Cabo San Lucas day trips
According to urban legend, the local Hotel California inspired the Eagles rock band to write the song that bears the hotel’s name. Despite such infamy, Todos Santos has maintained its cultural integrity.
La Paz is a relaxed beach town about 2 hours north of Cabos. It has a newly built 3-mile-long Malecon, edged with cafes, shops and restaurants.
And for an OMG experience, you must snorkel with whale sharks in La Paz! It’s totally safe, as these gentle creatures aren’t sharks – they’re actually the world’s biggest fish (growing up to 60 feet long).
The whale shark season is October to February.
Cabo Pulmo is the place to go to experience the desert, the sea and nature at its best!
Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015.
Cabo vs. Puerto Vallarta: Resorts
You won’t have any difficulty finding fabulous places to stay in Puerto Vallarta or Cabo San Lucas (and Cabo in general).
Okay, but is Puerto Vallarta or Cabo better? Quick answer: PV has more budget-friendly options than Cabo, which is a heavyweight in the posh resort department.
Puerto Vallarta accommodations
Check out these luxury options in PV…
Hacienda San Angel
The elegant and stylish Hotel Mousai is the first and only AAA Five Diamond-rated, adult-only resort in Puerto Vallarta. This is a perfect design lover’s vacation bolthole.
Garza Blanca Preserve Resort & Spa
This exclusive spa resort – Garza Blanca Preserve – is nestled in a tropical jungle setting south of Puerto Vallarta. The studio, 1- and- 2-bedroom suites overlook a white sand beach with beautiful clear waters.
Cabo doesn’t lack luxury accommodations – it’s probably the most expensive Mexican resort destination.
We’ve stayed at some of the best hotels in Cabo; here are a few of our favorites.
Grand Velas Los Cabos
Featuring spacious rooms and gourmet restaurants, the Grand Velas Los Cabos is one of the best all-inclusive resorts in Cabo (if not the best).
It was recently nominated as one of the best AAA Five-Diamond resorts in the world.
One & Only Palmilla
The One & Only Palmilla is a beautiful luxury hotel with colonial-style architecture, set in an oasis of luscious gardens.
The Cape, a Thompson Hotel
The Cape is the first Mexican venture for Thompson Hotels and a relative newcomer to Los Cabos, having opened in 2015.
The 5-star hotel offers a stay in modern and contemporary property with a fantastic view of El Arco.
Puerto Vallarta vs. Cabo: Safety and health
We know, we hear the reports about crime in Mexico, and we also read the travel advisories cautioning travelers about the risks of visiting Mexico.
See the U.S. Advisory on Mexico.
And see the Canadian Advisory on Mexico too.
But unless you’re heading to areas where drug cartels are operating (like the state of Chihuahua, home to notorious Ciudad Juarez), Mexico just isn’t all that dangerous.
In all the years – and all the trips we’ve taken to PV and Cabo – we haven’t run into a single problem (apart from maybe sunburn).
Petty crime and pickpocketing are the most common crimes in tourist regions.
You can stay safe by exercising the same cautions you’d employ when traveling anywhere in the world – like avoiding dodgy areas and not wearing flashy jewelry if touring local off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods.
As for health precautions, take the recommended vaccines and follow the CDC health tips for Mexico.
Is Puerto Vallarta safe?
Yes, Puerto Vallarta is safe.
The crime rates are actually much lower than in big U.S. cities like New Orleans and Miami. Violent crime is not something you’re likely to encounter if you use common sense.
But you should always be aware of your surroundings. And don’t roam dark empty streets at night that are outside of the tourist areas.
Is Cabo safe?
Cabo is also a safe place to vacation.
But as is the case with PV, keep to the tourist areas and don’t walk the dark streets late at night. Cabs and Ubers are always available.
Which is better: Cabo or Puerto Vallarta? Last words…
We love both Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas for different reasons.
A luxury holiday spot, Cabo is more glam than PV. It’s full of sunshine and light, and we could happily spend the rest of our days checking in and out of all the exclusive celebrity-worthy digs here.
But because it’s such a popular tourist destination for Americans, it has a more “Americanized” feel.
Puerto Vallarta is the place to go if you want a truly traditional Mexican beach vacation – to experience the local culture and people. It’s more authentic.
One thing’s for sure, though.
Now that you know what to expect, you’ll have a good time in Puerto Vallarta or Cabo – no matter which place you choose!
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Photo credits: 9 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase