Puerto Vallarta Or Cancun: Between Mexico’s Big Resorts

Puerto Vallarta or Cancun
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis
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If it’s a flip of the proverbial peso coin between Puerto Vallarta or Cancun, then you certainly have a lot to think about! These two booming resorts are at opposite ends of the country, with one spilling into the turquoise Caribbean Sea and the other bashed by the never-ceasing waves of the Pacific Ocean.

But the distance can be quite misleading because PV (as Puerto Vallarta is known to its loyal following of returnee travelers) and Cancun are actually quite similar. They both draw in big crowds of spring break partiers during the US college breaks. Each have wild nightlife offerings, gorgeous tropical beaches, and more pool-fronted hotels than you can shake a fish taco at.

That’s where this guide comes in. The aim? To pinpoint which destination, Puerto Vallarta or Cancun, is best for you this year, all by homing in on several key aspects of both towns to reveal where’s better for budget seekers, which is the one for couples, and what part of Mexico is easier to get to. Let’s get started…

Puerto Vallarta or Cancun for ease of travel

Travel to Cancun
Photo by Reiseuhu/Unsplash

It’s easy to get to Cancun. How do we know? Well…15 million people manage to make the trip down to it sun-splashed bays and tequila-soaked bars every year. The vast majority of them opt to hop straight over to Cancun International Airport. It’s the second-largest airport in Mexico and it’s linked to the US, the UK, and loads of spots in South America and Europe by direct flights. You should be able to find bargain tickets with low-cost fliers to take you there, especially in the low season. There are also regional bus services that link Cancun to the Riviera Maya run by Autobuses de Oriente.

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Puerto Vallarta is on the far western side of Mexico. It’s got an airport, the Gustavo Diaz Ordaz International Airport, which has direct links to Mexico City and oodles of destinations across North America. Okay, so there might not be the same number of long-haul links to Europe and whatnot going there, but PV is easier to reach overland from the capital and the USA, because it’s right on the main coastal highway and the east-west road in from Guadalajara.

Winner: Draw. Cancun has the bigger airport, but Puerto Vallarta is better for travelers who are already in Mexico and going overland.

Puerto Vallarta or Cancun for beaches

A beach in Puerto Vallarta
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

It’s tempting to crown Cancun the winner from the outset here. Sugar-soft Caribbean strands tick all the boxes in these parts. They run all the way around the 7-shaped Hotel Zone, going from the sunbed-spattered beach of Playa Tortugas in the north to the longer, wave-washed runs of Playa Delfines in the south. On top of that, you get access to the Riviera Maya and the reef-ringed coves of the Isla Mujeres. Basically, there’s never going to be a shortage of beaches in Cancun.

But there’s also some lyrical waxing to be done for Puerto Vallarta. The beaches that stretch south of the city along the southern edge of the Bahia de Banderas are particularly awesome. From Colomitos Beach to Yelapa (which is only accessible by boat or a jungle hiking path), they roll out in one long string of green-blue waters and golden sand fringed by bird-rich jungles. North of PV and you get to explore surf beaches like Sayulita and San Pancho. And the city has its fair share of stunning sunset beaches like Los Muertos. It’s a close-run thing.

Winner: Cancun, but by the width of a single grain of Caribbean sand because Puerto Vallarta’s beaches are downright lovely too.

Puerto Vallarta or Cancun for hotels

A hotel in Cancun
Photo by Cory Bjork/Unsplash

Hotels are EVERYWHERE in both these towns. Cancun, though, almost certainly has the edge on the hotel front. In fact, its main tourist area is called the Hotel Zone. That runs for a whopping 12 miles from north to south and is made up almost entirely of places to stay. We’d say the main type of establishment are midrange to upscale resort hotels, most of them offering big grounds and access to the beaches, their own pools, and multiple on-site restaurants. You can also get some more budget-friendly options by going over to Cancun Centro. Here are some top picks:

  • Riu Palace Peninsula ($$$) – A huge, five-star hotel that sums up the all-inclusive vibe of the Hotel Zone in Cancun.
  • Dreams Sands Cancun Resort & Spa ($$-$$$) – A resort hotel with nice restaurants (yep, nine!) and its own onsite spa.
  • Nizuc Resort & Spa ($$$) – Calling all honeymooners, this resort on the south side of the Hotel Zone is in one of the quietest parts of Cancun.

Where Puerto Vallarta excels when it comes to accommodation is in smaller boutique hotels. Yes, this city also has a dedicated Zona Hotelera on its northern side. However, that’s not where we’d recommend looking right away. We much prefer the moody, atmospheric streets of the Zona Romantica at the south end of the Malecon. There, you’ll find stays with 5-15 rooms, cobbled courtyards, and stylish interiors that are curated through and through. Tempted? Check out…

  • Garlands Del Rio ($$) – A colorful stay with Latin-styled rooms and an arty outdoor garden area.
  • Hacienda Escondida Puerto Vallarta ($$) – A relaxing hotel away from the buzz of the city with a small splash pool in the courtyard.
  • Villa Lola ($$$) – Grab yourself a room in a private villa overlooking Los Muertos Beach. It’s luxury to the T!

Winner: Cancun. It’s got about double the hotel choices as PV.

Puerto Vallarta or Cancun for things to do

Hiking in Puerto Vallarta
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Cancun is a hive of activity, which might be a touch surprising for a place that forged its reputation on R&R. If you can peel yourself away from the sparkling sands, then there’s all sorts on the menu. Some might be drawn to the scuba mecca of Isla Cozumel, which has resplendent coral reefs that are accessible to all levels. Others might go inland to scour the Yucatan jungles and see the ancient ruins of Chichen Itza. Others still might prefer the Riviera towns to the south, where you can swim in cenotes and see the Mayan temples of Tulum.

Puerto Vallarta is actually even more active than that. Set in the deep Bahia de Banderas, it’s a haven for watersports. Boating outings to places like Yelapa combine with deep-sea fishing trips to make it a doozy for those who like getting on the H2O. Plus, there’s surfing – some of the best in Mex, in fact. That comes courtesy of San Pancho and La Lancha a little north of town. Puerto Vallarta is also a proper cityscape, with fewer tourists than Cancun and more of an authentic vibe. You can taste tequila, sit in cafes, and watch the world go by. Lovely.

Winner: Puerto Vallarta steals this one.

Puerto Vallarta or Cancun for nightlife

Cancun nightlife
Photo by Victor Hughes/Unsplash

Now this is a tricky one. Truth be told, both Cancun and Puerto Vallarta have a rep for being pretty darn wild. Cancun is the spring break mecca of Mexico (sorry, Cabo). It’s the place of choice for 18-25 young un’s on a college break looking to hit the tequila hard and party until sunup. Sold? You’ll want to stay close to Punta Cancun, which is where legendary venues like Coco Bongo, the Congo Bar, and Mandala all make their home. On top of that, you can hit the Riviera Maya, which hosts towns like Tulum and Puerto del Carmen, which both offer their own nightlife scenes.

Puerto Vallarta matches that with the long and winding Malecon promenade. It snakes along the side of the Pacific Ocean in one continuous stretch of bars, some of them legendary – think Señor Frog’s! Come spring break time the whole area gets wild, but it’s actually a party zone all year round. PV can also offer more chilled surfer towns like Sayulita, where you don’t rock all night but do get cool tequila shacks and beer outlets with live music and sunset views.

Winner: Cancun. It has to be. It’s the nightlife hub of Mexico.

Puerto Vallarta or Cancun for price

Mexican market
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Cancun is actually one of the most expensive places to travel in Mexico. But that doesn’t mean it’s uber-pricy, like some sort of Switzerland on the Caribbean. Nope: Price collator Numbeo reveals that the cost of a meal in a midrange restaurant is about $19 per person in Cancun, a cappuccino in a café is about $2, and a Mexican-brewed beer like Modelo will set you back around the same as that. Hotels vary HUGELY in Cancun. You can spend $10 a night on a hostel or fork out $300 a night for a plush resort. That’s likely to be the thing that effects the total the most.

Over in Puerto Vallarta we generally find that things are a little cheaper than on the Mexican Caribbean. You’re looking at a smidgen under $2 for a beer and less than $15 a head for a meal in one of the charming eateries that await in the backstreets of the Romantic Zone. Mainly, though, it’s the cost of the hotels that will make going west cheaper than going east. The fine stays on the south side of PV tend to go for $50-120 a night, and they include pools and pretty slick rooms within walking distance of the beach.

Winner: Puerto Vallarta.

Puerto Vallarta or Cancun for couples

Sunset in Puerto Vallarta
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

We’re going to go out on a limb here and just say it: Puerto Vallarta is the better option for couples. That’s not to knock Cancun when it comes to romantic holidays. They are definitely possible in these parts – just check out the adult’s only hotels that sit at the south end of the Hotel Zone and you can start looking forward to spa trips and whatnot. However, Cancun is very much a planned tourist resort. It attracts a very varied crowd of families and spring breakers and isn’t the place we’d head to for that authentic hit of Latin American charm.

Puerto Vallarta, on the other hand, is a big, bustling city on the Pacific Coast. It’s not just a tourist center. You’ll see that the moment you step onto the cobbled lanes of the lovely Zona Romantica (see, there’s even a dedicated romantic neighborhood!). A bustling quarter on the south side of town, it’s filled with charming street cafés, international kitchens, and LGBTQ+ bars. On top of that, PV makes it easy to escape to secret little beaches on the Riviera Nayarit where you can watch blazing sunsets over the ocean while sharing a margarita. It’s the winner here.

Winner: Puerto Vallarta.

Puerto Vallarta or Cancun – a conclusion

Puerto Vallarta and Cancun might sit more than 1,180 miles away from each other at polar opposite ends of Mexico, but they’re actually not all that different. They both cater to crowds of spring break partiers and have nightlife to match, both have spectacular beaches, and both come with oodles of hotel choices. We don’t think you can go wrong whichever you choose. That said, we’d say that PV is the place for more adventurous types and couples, while Cancun is more of a resort-style destination that does well for families and those who like all-inclusive hotels.

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.