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Puerto Vallarta vs Cabo San Lucas: Which Mexico hot spot is better?

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

Puerto Vallarta vs Cabo: Which is better?
Puerto Vallarta and Cabo are both great, but they’re also quite different

Geography

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. 

Cabo San Lucas (on the Baja Peninsula) and Puerto Vallarta are both on Mexico's Pacific Coast.
Cabo San Lucas (on the Baja Peninsula) and Puerto Vallarta are both on Mexico’s Pacific Coast

Getting there

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 5-½ 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 4-½ 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. But 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.

It rarely rains in winter in Puerto Vallarta (shown here) or Cabo, and you should enjoy a blue-bird sky vacay!
It rarely rains in winter in Puerto Vallarta (shown here) or Cabo, and you should enjoy a blue-bird sky vacay!

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.

Pro tip:

The shoulder season from April to June is also a good time to visit Puerto Vallarta. Prices start to go down come April, and the hurricane season hasn’t officially begun. But, remember, it definitely starts to get hot and humid.

We also love November in Puerto Vallarta, when the humidity drops but the winter tourists haven’t yet arrived.

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). And 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!

Pro tip:

For warmer beach weather – and fewer crowds – Cabo in early summer (May and June) and late October to November is also a lovely time to visit.

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 sun-and-sand winter vacation.

Top attractions in Puerto Vallarta's include the Playa Los Muertos Pier.
Puerto Vallarta’s top attractions include the Malecon (with its sculptures and Arches monument), along with the Playa Los Muertos Pier

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.

The Church of our Lady of Guadalupe is an iconic Puerto Vallarta landmark.
The Church of our Lady of Guadalupe is an iconic Puerto Vallarta landmark

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. 

Strolling PV's Malecon is always fun (and pleasant exercise too).
Strolling PV’s Malecon is always fun (and pleasant exercise too)

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. 

Stroll around the Cabo San Lucas Marina and you'll see eye-popping luxury yachts!
Stroll around the Cabo San Lucas Marina and you’ll see eye-popping luxury yachts!

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

A pelican enjoys a quiet Puerto Vallarta beach
A pelican enjoys this quiet Puerto Vallarta beach

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 Muertos is the most happening beach in Puerto Vallarta.
Los Muertos is the most happening 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

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.

Lover’s Beach

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. 

You have to take a boat ride (or kayak or SUP) to Lover's Beach in Cabo.
You have to take a boat ride (or kayak or SUP) to Lover’s Beach

Playa Chileno

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.

Good to know:

Legally, all beaches in Mexico are public. It sometimes doesn’t look like it though because of the resorts and condo buildings staked out by the sand. The locals normally know all the public accesses to the beaches.

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.

A colorful portrait by Mexican artist, Diego Luz, on display at Galeria Corsica
A colorful portrait by Mexican artist, Diego Luz, on display in PV (Credit: Galeria Corsica)

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:

Cabo offers tons of fun adventures too – from snorkeling and scuba diving to ziplining.

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.

Humpback whale watching is awesome in both Cabo and Puerto Vallarta.
Humpback whale watching is awesome in Cabo, just as it is in Puerto Vallarta

We also recommend you head to San Jose del Cabo on a Thursday night to enjoy the Art Walk. Stroll through the 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:

Puerto Vallarta, in particular, is renowned for its culinary specialties and variety of top-notch restaurants. The city hosts an International Gourmet Festival every year in mid-November. 

A few of our top PV resto picks:

Tintoque

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.

You can always count on Tintoque to serve deliciously creative food, like roasted quail with beet puree.
You can always count on Tintoque to serve deliciously creative food, like roasted quail with beet puree (Credit: Tintoque)

Dine by candlelight on the elegant riverfront patio overlooking the Rio Cuale.

La Palapa

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

Barcelona Tapas is an elegant restaurant with a Mediterranean-inspired menu. Tapas and paellas are the specialties here. 

Fredy’s Tucan

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.

From artisanal cocktails on the beach at Bar La Playa to exciting cabaret shows at Act2PV in the Zona Romantica, there’s something for everyone.  

Cabo restaurants:

These are just a few of our favorite restaurants in Cabo:

La Dolce

Cabo has a lot of great Italian restaurants, and La Dolce is one of them. Home-made pastas and thin-crust pizzas baked in a wood-burning brick oven make La Dolce a go-to when you’re craving Italian goodness. 

La Casona

For a steakhouse piano bar, La Casona is a top-rated restaurant in Los Cabos with a great ambiance and exceptional service.

Los Deseos Restaurante

Are your tastebuds crying “gimme authentic Mexican food”?

Los Deseos Restaurante serves delicious traditional local dishes. 

El Farallon

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.

Lobster, shrimp and the catch of the day at El Farallon restaurant in Cabo San Lucas
Lobster, shrimp and the catch of the day (Credit: El Farallon)

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.

Los Cabos vs Puerto Vallarta for food, drinks and nightlife:

While you won’t be disappointed with the dining scene in Cabo, if we had to pick, we’d say PV takes the culinary prize. It’s a foodie hot spot – and just thinking about its array of tantalizing restaurants makes us drool.

On the other hand, Cabo beats PV for nightlife. Its bars and nightclubs are infamous.

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

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

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. 

Yelapa is a pretty-as-a postcard village only accessible by boat.
Yelapa is a pretty-as-a postcard village only accessible by boat

Sayulita

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. 

Bucerias

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!

Tequila

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:

Todos Santos

An easy 1-hour drive from Cabo, Todos Santos is a designated Pueblo Magico (magical town). Visiting the artsy town and its galleries is one of the most popular Los Cabos 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

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.

If you're lucky, you may have Balandra Bay in La Paz all to yourself.
If you’re lucky, you may have Balandra Bay in La Paz all to yourself

Cabo Pulmo

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.

Puerto Vallarta vs Cabo San Lucas day trip winner?

PV nudges out Cabo when it comes to exploring beyond the immediate area. There’s simply a wider range of places to go and activities to enjoy.

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 

Easily one of the most romantic boutique hotels in Puerto Vallarta, Hacienda San Angel is found in the heart of the Old Town. Three swimming pools, ornate sculptures, fountains and 20 gorgeous antique-filled suites add up to a uniquely luxurious urban hideaway.

Hotel Mousai

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 accommodations:

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.

The Grand Velas Los Cabos is not your ordinary all-inclusive resort.
No, it’s not your ordinary all-inclusive resort! (Credit: Grand Velas Los Cabos)

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…

Cabo or Puerto Vallarta? Both are good choices.
Cabo or Puerto Vallarta? Hmmm…

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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Which is better: Puerto Vallarta or Cabo?

Photo credits: 9 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase 


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!