Puerto Vallarta vs. Cancún: They’re two of Mexico’s most famous beach cities and most popular tourist destinations. Both cities have incredibly beautiful beaches, delectable gastronomy and mixology, vibrant local cultures, and posh resorts. But if you don’t have the time to visit both this year, you’re going to have to choose one of these beach towns.
Which is better: Cancún or Puerto Vallarta? Which town should you choose? We can’t make your mind up for you, but we can give you some valuable information on Cancún and Puerto Vallarta to help you plan your best Mexican beach trip.
Situated along Mexico’s Caribbean Coast and on the Yucatán Peninsula in the southeastern corner of the country, Cancún has an abundance of white sand beaches, turquoise blue sea water, and warm weather year-round. There are multiple ancient Mayan archaeological sites nearby, including the El Rey settlement site that’s situated in the heart of the hotel zone.
There’s much more for you to do in Cancún, including scuba diving for close encounters with the local aquatic wildlife, enjoying an open-air concert and some street food at Palapas Park, exploring the local dining scene and hunt for artisan souvenirs at Mercado 28, and (literally!) diving into perhaps the wildest contemporary art experience ever at the Underwater Museum of Art (MUSA). If you still want to experience more, Cancún functions as a convenient gateway to the Riviera Maya where you can discover the wonders of Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and plenty of towns off the beaten path where you’ll find smaller tourist crowds and bigger adventures. Or if you prefer to stay on the beach, you’ll be very happy with the beaches of Cancún.
Nestled along Mexico’s scenic Pacific Coast and about 332 kilometers (or 206 miles) west of the bustling metropolis of Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta is a fabulous coastal destination for nature lovers, culture vultures, laid back surfers, and dedicated foodies. In the more immediate vicinity, you’ll discover beaches like Los Muertos, Conchas Chinas, Amapas, and Camarones where you can enjoy the natural beauty of the coastline and soak up the local culture by exploring the nearby tiendas, restaurants, and art galleries. If you venture farther, you can explore hidden gems like Garza Blanca, Boca de Tomatlán, and Quimixto. Out here, you can discover white sand beaches that feel almost private, gorgeous waterfalls, fishermen working tirelessly to secure the fresh catch of the day, and authentic “Small Town Mexican” culture that continues to persist in this region. If you enjoy surfing, the Puerto Vallarta area is a surfer’s paradise with legendary waves that you can ride in Bucerias, Sayulita, and Punta de Mita (or Punta Mita).
If you have a passionate love affair with tequila, you will love how close Puerto Vallarta is to the epicenter of the tequila world. If you opt to stay in town, you can sample some of the region’s best tequilas, taste the best of Puerto Vallarta’s emerging mixology scene, enjoy the restaurants that serve the best margaritas and Palomas alongside the freshest seafood, and even tour local craft beer breweries. If you opt for the four to five-hour road trip (or the much faster charter plane ride) to the town of Tequila, you will be rewarded with the prime opportunity to lose yourself in a charmingly historic village, and you can check out some of the farms and distilleries where the beloved liquor elixir is made.
Before we conclude, let’s address the elephant in the room: public safety. Though we absolutely don’t want to minimize the pain and suffering of the people who are caught in the middle of the ongoing criminal cartel violence, it’s nonetheless important to put this into proper perspective. Neither Jalisco (the state Puerto Vallarta is in) nor Quintana Roo (the state Cancún is in) is on the U.S. State Department’s “Do Not Travel” list in their Mexico travel advisory (as of April 2023). When we break it down some more, we can see that there’s much more to Mexico beyond the headlines most U.S. media outlets run. As long as you take some simple steps to protect yourself, you probably won’t have to worry about getting a “starring role” in the next big Netflix true crime documentary.
Ultimately, both beach cities have a lot to offer, yet each beach city has its own unique offerings. As you plan your next Mexican vacation, keep in mind what you want to do and where you want to go. If you and your group are history buffs who want to tour ancient Mayan ruins, you probably want to book a trip to Cancún. If you and your crew are hard-core foodies who like pub crawls and tasting menus, you probably want to check out Puerto Vallarta. If you’re looking for more Caribbean-style beaches to dive into the water and frolic on the sand, you may want to give Cancún a try. If you’re looking for the best waves to surf, you may want to check out the legendary surfing beaches in and around Puerto Vallarta.
You’ll likely find plenty to experience and enjoy in Cancún and Puerto Vallarta. But if you can’t visit both cities during your next trip to Mexico, take the time to see what’s available in each locale and compare it with your own bucket list of things you want to do as you decide where to go.
The cover photo was taken by Thomas Hawk, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Flickr.
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