Cancun vs Cabo is about deciding between two of Mexico’s best-loved beach resorts. One – Cabo – is perched at the very tip of the Baja California out west, between epic surf breaks and whale-rich waters. The other – Cancun – threads along the side of the Yucatan Peninsula with perfectly white beaches and turquoise seas. Both are pretty tempting prospects…
Yep, whichever one of these famous vacay spots you plump for, you can rest assured you’ll enjoy oodles of Mexican sun, sand, and sea. Both are well-known for their picture-perfect coastline, and come with shores laden with luxury hotels right by the waves. On top of that, both Cabo and Cancun bring the energy of a bona fide resort, with tequila bars and clubs that rock on until morning.
They aren’t all the same, though. Cabo is on the Pacific Ocean for starters, so the shores are more rugged and wild than over in the Caribbean. What’s more, Cancun offers dollops of Mayan history that you won’t find out west. This guide will weigh up all the similarities and differences of the two Mexicana chart toppers so you can decide which one’s best for you this year…
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Cancun vs Cabo: The vibe
Before we get stuck into the specifics of the beaches and the hotels in Cabo and Cancun, let’s take some time to appreciate the unique atmosphere of both these places…
Cancun is very much a resort town. In fact, it pretty much sprouted from nothing in the early 1970s, when the Mexican government financed the first few hotels on the Caribbean coast. Fast forward to today and there are more resorts and resort pools than you can shake a taco at. They draw in millions of visitors each year from all around the globe, most of whom come for that usual cocktail of R&R, sun, sand, sea, and partying. You can find some pockets of authentic Mexican life, but you will need to break away from the Hotel Zone to places like Centro or towns like Valladolid further inland.
Cabo is also an out-and-out tourist town, so don’t expect a visit here to be much more culturally rich than a visit to Cancun. However, there is an historic side to Cabo, since it’s not a purpose-built resort but a old Mexican fishing village that actually dates way back to the 1700s! Instead of large-scale resorts, you can find thatched-roof cantinas here, along with chilled beach bars serving cocktails. It’s a bit more low-key; some say a little like Cancun 20 years back.
Winner: Cabo because it’s more chilled overall.
Cancun vs Cabo: Ease of travel
Before you start lazing on the white-sand beaches or partying the night away in the tequila bars, you’re going to have to get over to Cabo or Cancun. The good news is that shouldn’t be too hard at all. Both of these are up there with the most popular destinations in the whole land of tacos and sombreros, with thousands of folks heading their way every day.
Cabo has an airport in the nearby town of San Jose del Cabo. It’s called the Los Cabos International Airport and is about 30 minutes up the coastal highway from the heart of the resort. There’s been a huge increase in demand for landing slots there in the last 10 years or so, with more and more airlines wanting to jet in. Today, the terminals handle between three and five million passengers annually, with connections to Mexico City and Vancouver, but also LOADS from the United States, from St Paul to Denver to Las Vegas to LA. You can also drive to Cabo from the US. It takes 27 hours and whisks you along the dramatic desert coast. You will have to be careful though – only drive in daylight and stick to the Transpeninsular Highway.
There’s only really one way to get to Cancun: Flying. Thankfully, the region is served by the Cancun International Airport, which is now officially the second largest in the whole of Mexico and the third largest in the whole of Latin America besides! More than 12 million people pass through the terminals there each year, coming off flights that link to stacks of cities in the USA, but also to Canada, European hubs like London and Vienna, and loads of spots in South America, from Brazil to Peru.
Winner: Cancun. It’s got the larger airport and is served by way more connections than Cabo.
Cancun vs Cabo: Hotels
Hotels are not in short supply in either of these places. You’ll have thousands of options to consider when you come to book, not to mention places to suit all budgets, from luxury stays on the Mexican coast to simple guesthouses run by local families…
The Zona Hotelera (the Hotel Zone) leads the way in Cancun. It’s a long stretch of shoreline that arches in a single zigzag south from the main town. As the name implies, there are oodles of accommodation choices in the zone – there were over 100 individual establishments last time we checked. Some of them really stand out from the crowd, like the The Ritz-Carlton, a a five-star palace with private beaches and massage booths. For all-inclusive, there’s The Fiesta Americana, home to several restaurants and big tropical gardens on the Nichupte Lagoon. Also consider the Le Blanc Spa and Resort for an adult’s only stay close to major nightlife venues like Coco Bongo. Budget travelers in Cabo can look to El Centro (the downtown area) instead. There, hotels like the Los Caracoles Bed & Breakfast should cost way less than those out by the beaches.
Cabo San Lucas is the proper name for the town of Cabo, though the resort stretches some miles up the coast to neighboring San José del Cabo. The land between them is known as the The Corridor, and it’s really an endless run of golf resorts and all-inclusive hotels, though nowhere near as built-up as Cancun’s Hotel Zone. Options in The Corridor tend to be plush, multi-star establishments like the Mar del Cabo By Velas Resorts or the La Pacifica Los Cabos by Hilton Grand Vacations, both of which come with the bonus of being right on the beaches, having private pools, and on-site spas. Closer to the center and Playa El Médano offers somewhere to stay in the thick of the action (it’s better for partiers looking to hit Cabo’s tequila cantinas) – check out The Cabo Inn there for a budget choice. Then you have the headland to the west, where wild Pacific beaches abound and the cliffs are topped by grand resorts like Hard Rock Hotel.
The truth is there are far too many hotels in both Cabo and Cancun to describe in a single article. Both these resorts are bursting at the seams with luxury lodgings, but also come with plenty for budget seekers. You won’t be short on choices. That said, if we had to pick one destination based on its hotels, we’d probably go with Cabo, simply because the Cancun Hotel Zone can sometimes feel overly touristic and lacks a touch of authentic Mexicana charm.
Winner: Cabo, but not because Cancun lacks choice.
Cancun vs Cabo: Price
Prices in Cancun match its status as one of Mexico’s major tourist destinations. Yep, everything from hotels to food in this buzzy Caribbean resort city is likely to be higher than elsewhere in the country. Even other options in the same region, like Tulum or Playa del Carmen down the Riviera Maya, cost a touch less than this. In fact, we’d say that the average price of a beer in a bar, for example, is much more in line with places like Miami or Los Angeles! Here are some average costs you can expect when holidaying in Cancun:
- 99 MXN/$5 – A beer in a bar (although they’re cheaper at happy hour).
- 590 MXN/$30 – Entry to one of the larger clubs in the Hotel Zone nightlife area.
- 330 MXN/$17 – Average cost of a meal in a midrange restaurant.
In Los Cabos, the story is a little different. Whilst there are many resorts, there is also a larger variety of areas and options, and a very lived-in feel that’s helped to stop rates from skyrocketing. In addition, you’ll find that the seasonal price hikes that come around Christmas and spring break aren’t quite as bad in Cabo as they are in Cancun. Here are some average prices you can expect in the Pacific town:
- 60 MXN/$3 – A beer in a bar.
- 250 MXN/$13 – A meal out in a midrange restaurant.
- 80 MXN/$4 – Average taxi fare for a ride around town.
Remember that it’s possible to both these destinations on the cheap. Bargain hostels await in the El Centro of Cancun, while cheaper B&Bs are in San Jose del Cabo and surrounding towns. Oh, and street food in Mexico will never break the bank – we’re talking under $1 for a taco!
Winner: Cabo. Whilst Cancun’s travelers will keep coming back and back again, especially to the Hotel Zone, Cabo’s prices are a lot more budget-friendly.
Cancun vs Cabo: Food
Let’s put it simply: Wherever you go in Mexico you can rest assured that the food will be pretty fantastic! But it’s not all tacos from coast to coast. These two towns at different ends of the country do offer something unique…
Take Cabo. It sits on a narrow peninsula jutting out into the Pacific Ocean. The location means that there’s oodles of seafood. The chocolate clams of the Sea of Cortez are particularly sought-after, eaten uber-fresh and raw with just a squeeze of lime. The region is also known for its prawn tacos and the delicious fish stew called comida de pobres, made with seafood stock, Mexican beans, and rice. On top of that, you’ll taste tamales with chicken and loads of fruit native to the Baja, while oodles of inner-city eateries serve all sorts of international cuisine, from Japanese to Italian.
Cancun offers up the traditional cooking of the Yucatan. Look forward to a tumult of pastry and breaded dishes, combined with sweet flavours and the meaty staples of pork and chicken. The most iconic dishes are the panuchos (a refried-tortilla topped with spice-packed pulled chicken or turkey meat and shredded cabbage) and salbutes (masa dough tortillas with zesty tomato salad and marinated turkey). Ancient Mayan fare is still on offer, too, in the form of the sikil pak dip made from pumpkin seeds or habanero salsas in the taco houses. Balancing all that out is Cancun’s overload of international eateries, which serve pizzas, burgers, hotdogs, fries – you name it.
Winner: Cancun, but probably Cabo for the mega seafood lovers.
Cancun vs Cabo: Beaches
Cancun has some pretty stellar beaches – it spills into the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea, after all! What’s more, the iconic Riviera Maya runs to the south, while islands like Cozumel and Mujeres are within striking distance, offering everything from pristine coral reefs to chalk-white sands without the hotels. The main area for beach lovers in Cancun is the Hotel Zone. It clocks up more than 13 miles of white-sand beachfront and hosts all sorts of bays. Generally speaking, the places on the north shore of the Hotel Zone are better for swimming. Those further south have bigger waves but tend to be quieter. Our favorites are:
- Playa Tortugas – Talcum powder sands and calm waters make Tortugas one of the best-loved beaches in the Hotel Zone. Just don’t expect to be alone.
- Playa Delfines – The southern Hotel Zone’s best beach, with smaller crowds and wilder waves.
- Playa Chac Mool – Fronting the main nightlife part of Cancun, Playa Chac Mool is a R&R mecca with sunbeds and bars aplenty.
In Cabo, and the whole of Baja California Sur for that matter, you will find an entirely different terrain from the flat lands of Cancun. Here, the dusty deserts drop straight into the Pacific, showcasing high bluffs and craggy cliffs that occasionally open into wide sweeps of sand, sometimes dipping into wild coves. Many of beaches are deemed not safe to swim, due to the strong undercurrents. However, there are several options with blue flags that are simply gorgeous. The best in the area include:
- El Medano – The main beach of Cabo where most people go to sizzle off the hangover. Busy but lively.
- Lovers Beach – Only accessible by boat, this one hides under the Land’s End headland and has simply divine sunset views.
- Chileno Bay – Gorgeous bay up the coast from Cabo with fantastic snorkeling.
Winner: Draw. The beaches aren’t better in either destination, but they are different. Wild Pacific bays beckon out west, while pristine tropical sands await in Cancun.
Cancun vs Cabo: Attractions
There’s a true adventure on both land and in the sea on offer from Cancun. Check out the Underwater Museum of Art, where you can dive down to see strange statues submerged in the reefs between the Mexican mainland and the Isla Mujeres. Or, head across to Mujeres itself. There are regular ferries and the island is located right at the top of the Mesoamerican Reef – the scuba and snorkelling is second to none. Back inland on the Yucatan and there are wild jungles that hide all sorts. The piece de resistance has to be Chichen Itza (an ancient Maya UNESCO site), but the region also boasts incredible underground rivers and sinkholes known as cenotes. All that can be done on a day trip. And when you return? Cancun’s epic nightlife can take over (but more on that later).
Then…Cabo. Where to begin? Water sports abound. You could go kayaking, snorkelling, scuba diving and perhaps even fly-boarding in Santa Maria Bay if you’re looking to crank up the adrenaline. Talking of adrenaline, there’s cliff-jumping at Pelican Rock, ATV tours in the desert, and surfing on one of the many south- or west-facing bays that string between the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez. There are also several rock formations of note, such as the El Arco de Cabo, best seen on sunset boat cruises. Oh, and that’s not even mentioning the whale and dolphin watching, for which Cabo and the whole Baja is uber-famous.
Winner: Probably Cancun, but only just. It’s that cocktail of Mayan history and reef-filled waters that does it.
Cancun vs Cabo: Nightlife
And finally – nightlife! In the great Cancun vs Cabo showdown, this has to be one of the hardest-fought things…
In Cancun there’s only really one area to mention. While there are some local bars and restaurants in El Centro, the real draw for tourists is the Punta Cancun part of the Hotel Zone. Sitting on the dogleg of Cancun’s shoreline, you have the pick of some seriously crazy spots here. Coco Bongo is probably the wildest of the lot. Not only do you get a free bar with your entry fee, but an amazing stage show, often with live acrobatics happening overhead. The entertainment is themed, and there are several areas to party in, with a main floor and a surrounding balcony. You also have the option of a VIP area. Other places where the parties are off the hook include Senior Frogs, Dady’O for the cheese music, and Grand Cafe Mambo. Cancun should come with a disclaimer, though: Spring break gets OTT here and prices soar, so think twice if you don’t fancy partying with the college goers in February and March.
In Cabo, the atmosphere is a little more serene on the surface. But, don’t worry, its cobblestone streets hide all manner of nightlife. More high-profile clubs like Pink Kitty host the all-night parties, with many big-name DJs hitting the stages throughout the year. Squid Roe is also a great option for those who like a late night under the laser lights and loud music. Fans of alternative music will go crazy for Cabo Wabo, Jungle Tavern, and Rockstone Tavern. Cabo also offers booze cruises and beach bars, with a vibe that’s probably a touch more A-lister than spring breaker.
Winner: Draw. Both of these places are mega party towns and you won’t be bored once the sun’s gone down!
Cancun vs Cabo: Day trips
Cancun is a fantastic base for exploring the whole of the Yucatan Peninsula and the rest of Quintana Roo state. That should be music to the ears of day trippers, because it means that everything from city breaks to jungle outings is on the menu. A lot of travelers will choose to stick to the coast, rent their own car, and explore the 100-mile-long stretch of resorts that runs southwards. It’s known as the Riviera Maya and it hosts the famous towns of Tulum and Playa del Carmen, both of which warrant 24 hours of exploration in their own right. But you can also venture to:
- Cozumel – The island of Cozumel is a major scuba diving destination and a fine place to escape the buzz of the Cancun hotel zone.
- Valladolid – A beautiful city with colonial ruins a little inland from the Caribbean coast.
- Cenotes – The day-long cenotes tour is one of the most popular in Cancun, taking you through amazing flooded cave systems in the forests.
- Chichen Itza – We’ve already mentioned this iconic city. It’s a day-trip from Cancun and is a must for all firs-time travelers here.
Cabo is a touch more isolated out on the Baja than Cancun is at the top of the Riviera Maya. That means that day trips there tend to be more about nature and less about seeing historic sights or other towns. They are still pretty awesome, though, including some seriously bucket-list pursuits that you won’t forget in a hurry. Check out…
- Todos Santos – Venture north to Todos Santos to sample some of the best beginner-to-intermediate surf in the region.
- Whale watching – Cabo is a mecca for whale watching. You can hop on a boat and look for grey whales and humpbacks in the main season between December and April.
- Diving – The whole of Cabo’s surrounding peninsula is a scuba haven. You can hit the Gordo Banks to dive with hammerhead sharks, or venture east to the Cabo Pulmo National Park to see the famous sealions.
Winner: Cancun – day trips here tend to be easier to organize and things are a little closer together.
Cancun vs Cabo: Romance and honeymoons
There’s no doubt in our minds that you’ll have a fantastic honeymoon whichever of these top-drawer resorts you go for. Both are pretty well acquainted with the luxury end of holidaying, and both are well-trodden by the just-married crew.
When it comes to Cabo, your best bet is to look to The Corridor, a long run of the most opulent hotels in the region that strings out between the town proper and San Jose del Cabo further west. The places there might take a little further from the bumping nightlife strips but they usually have private access to fine beaches and their own pools and spas.
In Cancun, the Hotel Zone is the stomping ground of honeymooners as well as spring breakers. However, we’d recommend ditching the party mecca of Punta Cancun and going south to the area around Punta Nizuc. That has some of the more secluded and luxurious resorts in the area and there tends to be less of a family vibe. In Cancun, you can also break away to the rest of the Riviera Maya to stay in small, quaint Mexicana beach towns like Puerto Morelos.Winner: Draw. Both are great for honeymoons.
Cancun vs Cabo: Climate and seasons
You’re sure to notice a big difference between the climates in these two places. While both are on the ocean, they sit at varying latitudes: Cancun further south in the Mexican tropical zone, Cabo further north in the desert zone on the end of the dry and dusty Baja. The upshot? Cancun is generally more humid, while Cabo has dry air and lots of sunshine.
The peak season in the Yucatan and Quintana Roo – the home of Cancun – is roughly in line with winter in the northern hemisphere. That’s December through to April, when daytime temps hit 82 F (28 C) and the seas are at their clearest. You’ll need to watch out for the boom in crowds that happens in February with spring break, but that’s true of Cabo too. Summers here run the risk of hurricanes coming in the from the Atlantic belt, but also bring the so-called seaweed season to the Riviera Maya – that can ruin the beach experience.
Cabo’s peak season also runs from December to the end of April, when temperatures hover around the 80 F mark and there’s loads of sunshine. However, Cabo is overall a better choice in the summer months because it’s not at risk of hurricanes as much as its east-coast compadre. The summer months are also better for surfing (May-October is the wave season), while November is peak for watching humpback whales.
Winner: Draw. Different times of year are better in different places.
Beach lovers and those on the hunt for luxury hotels will find what their after in both Cancun and Cabo. However, there are some key differences between these two ever-popular Mexican party towns. The main one is the coastlines on which they sit. Cabo is Pacific, so expect a much more rugged shoreline of coves and caves. Cancun has the picture-perfect sands of the Caribbean, although the idyll is tarnished a touch by just how many hotels there are on the shoreline these days.
You’ll also find loads that’s similar. Both towns have a pumping nightlife scene, although Cabo is probably a little more upmarket and less college-goer than Cancun. There’s world-class diving and snorkeling in each place. And, of course, there’s a fantastic range of hotels in both locations.
Overall, we’d say this decision should really come down to what region of Mexico you’d like to see the most. If you’ve got your eye on the UNESCO sites of the Yucatan and want cotton-white tropical beaches, Cancun is for you. But if it’s surf breaks, whale watching, and an adventure in the Mexican desert that’s stoked the wanderlust, consider Cabo instead.