Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun: Which Destination is Better?

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The two most popular destinations for travelers looking to explore Mexico’s many charms and culture without breaking the bank are Cancun and Puerto Vallarta.

While Cancun’s world-famous resorts, nightlife, and shopping are nice, it’s not the only game in town.

Puerto Vallarta is another great choice for an idyllic Mexican vacation.

This city is located just two hours south of Cancun, and it has so much to offer: beautiful beaches and lugged landscape, mouthwatering food, and charming culture.

It’s no wonder the country is a magnet for visitors from all over the world!

Read on for a detailed comparison of Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun and find out which destination is best for your next getaway.

Which is Better?

What is Puerto Vallarta Known For?

If all you hoped for is a serene holiday surrounded by verdant mountains and dramatic sprays of sea foam, Puerto Vallarta is your destination.

The relaxed bubble over the entire area promises slow living.

Meander between indie eateries and through the charming, colonial downtown; set up your luggage in a boutique hotel before hitting up Banderas Bay.

Art galleries are as numerous as Puerto Vallarta’s beaches, combining ‘seaside getaway’ with ‘cultural escape’.

Families, in particular, would love the wide range of attractions and interest-based activities.

Cancun beach
relaxing beach in cancun

What is Cancun Known For?

Chain restaurants and all-inclusive hotels are geared towards tourists – Cancun has long become a tourist hotspot.

Despite its Mayan ruins and proximity to historical sites, Cancun shed its ancient roots for a more indulgent lifestyle.

Expect high-rises and luxury resorts riding right up to the Caribbean Sea, where music and foam parties are at full blast from morning to night.

Lively nightlife, shopping zones and all-you-can-do beach time makes Cancun the designated holiday spot for young adults.

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Beaches

Cancun and Puerto Vallarta may be on opposite coasts, but they’re both hugely popular with incredible water-related activities.

Lush green backdrops, swaying palm trees, and tons of sunshine year-round; does Cancun or Puerto Vallarta have the best beaches?

Let’s dive deeper.

Beaches in Cancun

Of the two Mexican destinations, Cancun beaches are more frequently plastered across magazines, glossy HQ photos screaming “soft, white, powdery”.

Facing the Caribbean, the turquoise waters and classic “beach” aesthetic lure in plenty of social media-driven crowds.

Hotels and beach resorts line these sugary beaches, making it a top holiday destination in Mexico.

You’ll find that the best beaches are connected in a long strip, where tourists enjoy a host of water activities: paddleboard, jet ski, surf, snorkel, deep-sea fishing, swimming, and more.

Definitely drop by Playa Norte, Playa Delfines and Costa Mujeres for Cancun’s most loved beaches; Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve and Playa Paraiso are also two popular spots.

Puerto Vallarta Beach
beach in puerto vallarta

Beaches in Puerto Vallarta

In contrast to Cancun, Puerto Vallarta endures the rougher, more drama-prone waters of Mexico’s Pacific coast.

The beaches are golden and grainy, but equally loved by sun loungers.

What really draws in visitors however are the snorkeling and diving opportunities, thanks to Puerto Vallarta’s diverse marine life.

Additionally, Banderas Bay is by far the best for photos and boat tours, especially after transforming into a playground for whales and dolphins in winter.

Don’t miss out on Mexico’s spectacular sunsets!

If you’re stuck on which beaches to visit, start with Playa Los Muertos, Playa Palmares and Playa Las Glorias.

Playa de Los Muertos, Playa Camarones and the nearby Marietas Islands are also perfect for swimming and snorkeling.

Does Cancun or Puerto Vallarta Have Better Beaches?

Cancun takes the spotlight with its astounding stretch of beaches. There's simply so much of it.

While you may encounter more tourists and a rowdier reputation, you’ll always be able to find a space to claim.

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Things to Do: Activities & Excursions

The debate ramps up when it’s Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun on activities and excursions.

Both places have plenty of outdoor things to do, but veers in slightly different directions.

Activities in Puerto Vallarta

Mountains and jungles meld into the bays and beaches, turning Puerto Vallarta into an adventurer’s dream.

Picture beaches with rolling waves; the Pacific roars into Banderas Bay to offer prime surfing conditions.

While swimmers dot the shores of Playa de Los Muertos, other beaches play base for extreme sports like kitesurfing and parasailing.

Sunset romance is ripe at the beach bars.

When it comes to water activities, Puerto Vallarta is an established name on snorkeling and diving destination lists.

Compared to Cancun’s Caribbean selection, marine life is a lot more varied here.

Take a boat trip to the uninhabited Marietas Islands which is home to sea turtles and rays.

Wildlife Connection also offers swimming with wild dolphin pods, while certain seasons entertain thousands of migrating whales.

But it’s not all water. Excursions take you out into the lush jungle so you can zipline and swing like Tarzan, hike into the thickets, and rappel down a waterfall.

For a tamer experience, visit Vallarta Botanical Gardens or one of the 9 golf courses (like Pacifico Golf Course).

And when evening falls, Puerto Vallarta’s favorite activities include hanging around lounge bars, listening to live bands, and strolling down the 335-feet long Los Muertos Pier.

Cancun Jet Skiing
jet skiing in cancun

Activities in Cancun

Cancun is all about partying and pampering. It’s a young adults’ haven for a reason, the plethora of bars and nightclubs giving it an infamous reputation.

Other modern activities include shopping to the excess; La Isla Cancun Shopping Village has both an aquarium and handicraft stores alongside world-renowned brands.

Of course, we can’t forget the obvious thing to do in Cancun: beach, beach, and more beaches!

From sunbathing to water activities like jet skiing, you’ll most likely be spending your hours under the sun.

Take it a step further and enjoy themed dinner shows on replica pirate boats.

Isla Mujeres is also a quick ferry trip away, offering an exceptional diving spot plus private beach time.

If you want to leave the sand behind, round up your golfing buddies for a day of putting.

Otherwise, uncoil those muscles at various spa facilities.

Not keen on staying stationary? Your hotel most likely offers excursions into Riviera Maya – like the Underwater Museum of Art.

Just imagine 500 underwater sculptures crowded with marine life.

Is Puerto Vallarta or Cancun Better for Activities?

The sheer abundance and variety of things to do in Puerto Vallarta would win anyone over.

Its varied landscape simply offers a wider range of activities so that you're not solely pruning in the ocean.

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Things to Do: Culture & History

Neither Puerto Vallarta nor Cancun lacks history, but most of the focus is put on sweat-inducing activities instead of cultural dives.

Still, there are cultural tidbits if you know where to look.

Cultural & Historic Activities in Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta, for instance, embodies “Old Mexico”.

The dusty blush roofing and colorful facades match well with cobblestone paths to reflect its fishing village roots.

Head up to the Mirador el Cerro de la Cruz for a stunning panoramic viewing, and try to spot iconic landmarks.

The church of Parroquia de Nuestra Senor de Guadalupe and its crowned tower is a beautiful building.

A small cultural museum and cultural center can be found at Isla Cuale, a narrow island that boasts art galleries and restaurants.

Walk through rotating art exhibits at Galleria Dante, or experience local living at the Olas Altas Saturday Market.

You can also learn more about Puerto Vallarta’s naval history at the Naval Museum, or bask in its inclusive culture at various LGBTQ+ events.

Chichen Itza
chichen itza

Cultural & Historic Activities in Cancun

Cancun boasts a much deeper historical wealth as it was once home to the Mayan civilization.

Within the Hotel Zone are two throwback haunts: the Mayan Museum of Cancun and San Miguelito archaeological site.

But you’ll find that Cancun acts as a gateway to the Yucatan Peninsula and its Mayan roots, rather than being the actual host.

Historians can never turn down tours to the stunning Mayan ruins of El Ray, or the ancient Mayan city of Caoba.

If you’re driving or have extra hours to spare, the ancient site of Chichen Itza is two hours away.

Freshwater cenotes, Mayan spas and other jungle-trekking adventures throughout the Riviera Maya are also hands-on cultural experiences you don’t want to miss.

Which City Has More Cultural Things to Do?

Who would turn down the remnants of an ancient civilization? 

Cancun ekes out just the right amount of intrigue and historical allure, especially for a place associated with wild parties.

Do sign up for these Mayan-themed excursions; your hotels would be happy to organize these day trips for you.

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Nightlife

Nightlife in Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta isn’t exactly the wildest card within Mexico’s party scene, but offers a comfortable array of bars and clubs so you don’t turn in too early.

Centered on the main zones of Zona Romantica, Centro, and along the Malecon boardwalk, nightlife in Puerto Vallarta is completely walkable.

Expect live bands as the BGM of your nights out, whether that’s chill drinks or a spin around the dance floor.

What makes Puerto Vallarta’s nightlife famous, however, is the country’s largest concentration of venues that cater to the LGBTQ+ community.

10/10 for inclusivity!

Coco Bongo
photo by Abir Anwar

Nightlife in Cancun

Cancun, on the other hand, is absolutely the wild child of the family.

Through the months of March and April, Spring Break-ers take over the hotel zone and downtown with YOLO as their motto.

Luxury resorts come with their own bars and lounges; some with several-storied nightclubs.

With them are themed parties, foam parties, beer bongs, and all-you-can-drink deals.

If you plan to throw sleep out the window, start with the popular Congo Bar, Mandala, and Coco Bongo.

Their raves last from night to day.

Need more inspiration? Check out our guide on the top things to do in Cancun at night.

Is Puerto Vallarta or Cancun Better for Nightlife?

Cancun! The sheer volume of things to do in Cancun at night and its level of revelry is pretty unbeatable, especially during Spring Break.

But for those who are looking for inclusivity, Puerto Vallarta will have you partying in comfort.

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Dining: Food & Drinks

Dining in Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta does not prioritize international taste buds but all the better for those wanting a taste of authentic Mexican flavors!

Because the local palate reigns first, you’ll mostly find independent restaurants and generational eateries.

That’s not to say that you only get to eat traditional dishes.

While meat-filled poblano peppers and fresh seafood can be enjoyed throughout town, you also get Mexican plates with a twist.

For fusion bites, try Tintoque; Café des Artistes offer a classier, innovative high-end dining.

Mediterranean tapas are hot on the menu too – especially at Barcelona Tapas.

tintoque puerto vallarta
photo by tintoque

Dining in Cancun

Cancun tilts to the other side of the spectrum as it mostly caters to the holidaying crew.

Downtown and hotel restaurants alike feature a mix of Mexican and international chain restaurants to appease tourists’ tongues.

The price range varies largely, from budget locales to all-inclusive packages at beachside resorts.

Likewise, bars and lounges come in either cheap hole-in-the-wall or classy packaging, and booze quality can go from paint-stripping to hundreds per bottle.

There’s certainly variety in cuisine but if you’re looking for more authentic Mexican food, steer away from touristy areas like the hotel zone.

Hotel restaurants with a view tend to be more expensive as well, so consider eating downtown instead.

Is Puerto Vallarta or Cancun Better for Food?

It's a tie between Puerto Vallarta and Cancun when it comes to dining.

The former is made for foodies, geared up with traditional fare.

The latter, however, offers a much wider range of options when it comes to both cuisine and price point.

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Accommodations

Both Cancun and Puerto Vallarta have a designated hotel zone for higher-end hotels, but overall, expect Cancun accommodation costs to be higher.

Staying in Puerto Vallarta

Clustered within the historical center, accommodation in Puerto Vallarta is extremely accessible for both city and beach-dwellers.

They run the gamut from boutique hotels to Airbnb rentals, even hotels dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community.

For all-inclusive hotels, take a 15-minute bus ride from the city center to the Puerto Vallarta hotel zone.

That’s where the malls and fancy Marina are based too.

Because there are more charming, independent places to stay, Puerto Vallarta is more forgiving on the wallet.

Hostel beds run from $10 a night while hotels average around $300 per night.

Vacation rentals depend on your mood and budget, netting anything between $120 and a number closer to a thousand.

le blanc resorts
photo by le blanc resort cancun

Staying in Cancun

The hotel zone in Cancun is a huge factor in its fame – for good reason!

Not only are these huge, all-inclusive resorts sitting right on the beach, they cater with on-site bars, restaurants, and entertainment teams.

You honestly never have to leave; the party comes to you.

Of course, expect any rare boutique hotel find along the string to be more expensive as well.

For cheaper lodging, hunt downtown.

These range from homes for rent to hostels, but the nightlife scene just… isn’t so hot compared to Puerto Vallarta’s vibrant downtown.

Still, paying $25 per night for a hostel sure beats shelling out $500+ per night for a luxury resort.

Keep in mind that all-inclusive packages may look a lot more expensive too, thanks to the perks.

Vacation rentals average $450 in Cancun.

Resorts: Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun

When it comes to accommodations, go with your preference!

For more unique and characterful abodes, Puerto Vallarta is the way to go.

Tight budgets also appreciate its boutique hotel collection more, as you get comfortable options without overspending.

Cancun is best if you prefer to holiday without venturing too far, as the all-inclusive packages keep everything within arm's reach.

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Cost & Budget

Between $20 hostel rooms and $500 beach resort suites, you’ve already got a huge difference in budget.

Remember that your trip is what you make it!

But if you’re wondering what an average budget for two looks like, here’s a breakdown of costs over 7 days in Mexico.

Puerto Vallarta aerial view
puerto vallarta aerial

Average Budget for 1 Week in Puerto Vallarta

The average one-week Puerto Vallarta trip budget for two is approximately $2,500.

Here’s a breakdown of the cost:

Flight cost – Depending on departure location and time of the year, economy round-trip costs an average of $175-$300 per person.

Note that international flights (not from the States) may cost a lot more.

Accommodation – Hostel stays start from $10 per person while mid-range hotels are priced around $300 per night. That’s anywhere from $140 to $2100 a week.

Food – Food is cheap in Mexico, with budget meals averaging $3 and heftier meals averaging $13. The average weekly food costs for two amounts to $420.

Activities – You can easily budget by doing self-guided tours or spending time on the beach!

Larger tours tend to be cheaper, costing anywhere between $20 and $40 whereas private ones are double the cost.

If you’re doing at least two major tours, expect to spend around $100 for two.

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Average Budget for 1 Week in Cancun

The average one-week Cancun trip budget for two is approximately $3200.

Here’s a breakdown of the cost:

Flight cost – Depending on departure location and time of the year, economy round-trip costs around $150-350 per person.

International flights flying outside of North America may cost a lot more.

Accommodation – Hostels are slightly more expensive in Cancun, with an average of $25 per person a night.

Hotels cast a wide net of numbers depending on whether you’re buying an all-inclusive deal or not.

Expect to pay around $400 on average for a standard room, making it $2800 a week.

Food – Food is cheap in Mexico, with budget meals averaging $3 and heftier meals averaging $13. The average weekly food costs for two amounts to $420.

Activities – If you’re doing an all-inclusive stay at a hotel, a lot of your activities will be covered.

Spare some cash for night outs as cover charges average $30; extreme tours like ATV adventures and day outs to Chichen Itza can be quite pricey too, priced at $60 up.

If you’re doing at least two major tours, expect to spend around $300 for two.

Is Puerto Vallarta or Cancun Cheaper to Visit?

Puerto Vallarta is definitely the cheaper option once we factor in accommodation costs plus fewer tourist crowds.

Because Cancun is designed for tourism, prices are bound to be higher in all aspects.

Keep in mind that flight and accommodation prices fluctuate a lot between peak and non-peak seasons!

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