Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta: 13 Must-Know Differences

Did you know that Americans spend around 200 hours a year daydreaming about vacations? That’s the equivalent of 24 full work days. So, I’ll go out on a limb and assume you’ve spent some of that time thinking about Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta.

There are many differences between Cabo and Puerto Vallarta worth weighing.

Therefore, instead of answering the burning question, “Is Cabo or Puerto Vallarta better?” I’ll show you these destinations’ many angles with the hope it’ll help you choose your next vacay spot.

But first, let me set the scene: I spent one month in Cabo and have visited Puerto Vallarta several times.

I’m far from an expert. But I also have a better grasp of these destinations than people making a one-day cruise stop in Cabo and Puerto Vallarta.

Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase, we’ll receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

The Low-Down on Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta

If you found a killer deal on airfare and want to book your ticket to Cabo or Puerto Vallarta ASAP, the chart below will give you an overview of the highlights I’ll be discussing.

FeatureCaboPuerto Vallarta
BeachesMany options, dangerous waterSmaller beaches, better for swimming
AtmosphereLoud, party townQuieter, family-oriented
Types of touristsParty-oriented of all agesRetirees, LGBTQ+, expats
Day trip optionsFarther awayClose by
Cruise portYesYes

A Note on Cabo vs Los Cabos

You’re not alone if you’re confused about what to call the southernmost region of Baja California.

Los Cabos is the region that encompasses two towns—Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo.

In contrast, “Cabo” is a butchered word that English-speaking people use to refer to either the entire Los Cabos area or, most commonly, to the more touristy Cabo San Lucas.

Still confused?

I wrote articles on the intricacies of San Jose del Cabo vs Cabo San Lucas and Cabo San Lucas vs Los Cabos to help you out.

13 Differences Between Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta

Now, let’s explore the differences between Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta.

1. Cabo Has Better Beaches

Medano Beach in Cabo.
Medano beach is one of the few beaches safe for swimming in Cabo.

Let me start by qualifying this bold claim. If you’re looking for white sand, wide beaches, and seemingly endless miles of coast to walk along, Cabo is hands-down better than Puerto Vallarta.

Cabo’s picturesque beaches, where various shades of blue water lap (or smack), are undoubtedly the reason that celebs from Oprah Winfrey to Justin Timberlake choose it as their vacation spot.

However, while Cabo’s lengthy beaches and turquoise color are incomparable to what Puerto Vallarta (PV) offers, PV has notable beach perks. Namely, its water is warmer and safer to swim in compared to Los Cabos.

The reason for Puerto Vallarta’s safer swimming water boils down to geography.

Puerto Vallarta sits in Banderas Bay. This crescent-shaped bay protects the city from receiving the massive waves that often pummel Cabo’s shoreline, given that nearly all of Los Cabos (except the Marina) faces mostly open ocean.

Because of Cabo’s position along the Pacific Ocean, rip tides are ruthless in most areas, though it offers a few beaches where swimming is generally safe.

Add to this that the San Andreas fault line runs just a stone’s throw away from Cabo’s shoreline, plunging around 1,200 feet deep, and you’ve got yourself a mostly treacherous wave situation.

That said, plenty of people prefer Cabo’s beaches to Puerto Vallarta’s shorter beaches. PV’s beaches also often have murkier water and more natural debris.

2. Puerto Vallarta Is Quieter

A view of Puerto Vallarta's shore at dusk.

Ambiance is an important distinction when comparing Puerto Vallarta vs Cabo San Lucas. So, if you’re looking for a quieter getaway where you’ll be within walking distance of main attractions, Puerto Vallarta is your best bet.

Don’t get me wrong—Puerto Vallarta has its fair share of clubs and bars that line the touristy Malecón.

However, you can head just a few blocks away to get away from the nightlife. When you emerge on the Malecón the next morning, you’ll feel like the nightlife scene never happened.

In contrast, the Cabo San Lucas portion of Los Cabos has a non-stop party atmosphere.

Restaurants blare music.

Yachts blare music.

Intoxicated people walking down the street make their own music.

Needless to say, Cabo San Lucas is the ideal scene for spring breakers and anyone wanting to remain in party mode during their vacation.

But it isn’t all doom and gloom for vacation-goers looking for a quieter Cabo experience. If you’re among them, I recommend booking accommodation in San Jose del Cabo, between San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas, or in the hills above Cabo San Lucas.

3. Cabo Is in a Desert

A cactus at the top of Mt. Solmar.

You don’t need to have visited Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta to tell the difference between them in a photo—Cabo sits in a desert and Puerto Vallarta is surrounded by tropical foliage.

Both destinations have hills, although the hills in Cabo look more like Hershey Kisses sprinkled throughout the landscape. In contrast, a steep, continuous mountain range sets the backdrop of Puerto Vallarta.

Of course, the appearance of these hills and mountains goes beyond their shape. You’ll see stray cacti and other desert plants on the hills and roadsides in Los Cabos.

On the other hand, thick, lush tropical vegetation cascades down Puerto Vallarta’s mountains.

The natural beauty in both of these destinations invokes awe. So, it’s a matter of personal preference whether you’d prefer a more desert or tropical atmosphere during your vacation.

4. Puerto Vallarta Attracts a Different Kind of Expat

Tropical trees and a river in Puerto Vallarta.

When looking at Puerto Vallarta vs Cabo, both of these destinations draw in expats.

But because Los Cabos has a more touristy feel than Puerto Vallarta, the type of expats that land in these areas tends to differ.

From my experience, expats interested in immersing themselves in Mexican culture, dining at hole-in-the-wall taco shops, and befriending locals tend to choose Puerto Vallarta over Cabo.

In contrast, people looking for a more luxurious home outside of their country equipped with pretty much any amenity and wanting to remain within an expat social circle tend to choose Cabo.

I’m not claiming that Puerto Vallarta doesn’t have upper-class condos or that the expats don’t mingle.

On the contrary, both are true.

However, from my observation, different motivations for moving to Mexico tend to make the difference between expats choosing Cabo or Puerto Vallarta.

As a final note on expat life, Puerto Vallarta is an excellent place for retirees and people who identify as LGBTQ+ to find an extra-warm and inviting community.

Psst! Check out my guide on the best banks for expats to help keep more money in your wallet while abroad.

5. Cabo Feels Smaller

A view of the Marina in Cabo San Lucas.
The Marina in Cabo San Lucas (taken from the Mount Solmar hike).

It may sound counterintuitive to learn that Cabo feels smaller, given that it’s a rowdier place. However, the stats don’t lie: Los Cabos has a population of just over 200,000, whereas Puerto Vallarta’s population is over 220,000.

That’s not a massive difference.

Nevertheless, Cabo has an area of nearly 1,500 square miles, while Puerto Vallarta only has 502 square miles.

However, much of Cabo’s population lives within less than 19 square miles in Cabo San Lucas. So, the vast amounts of desert in most other parts of Los Cabos make the populated areas feel as small in area as they are.

If you’re trying to decide between Puerto Vallarta or Cabo in terms of size, both have walkable downtown centers. However, Cabo’s downtown Cabo San Lucas offers limited space for exploration, whereas Puerto Vallarta’s tourist area goes on for over a mile.

6. Puerto Vallarta Is Better for Independent Travelers

A bus that runs to Puerto Vallarta.

Cabo is notorious for all-inclusive resorts and cruise ships. As a result, it tends to attract people who are looking for a hands-off kind of vacation experience.

In contrast, Puerto Vallarta often draws people who enjoy a more independent travel style.

Because of this, it can be easier to meet up with fellow travelers staying in Puerto Vallarta for the longer term. You might also be able to get some killer advice on bus routes, which I could have used when I took the bus from Puerto Vallarta to Sayulita.

Nevertheless, when comparing Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta, both offer bus travel opportunities, which I’ll cover shortly.

7. Cabo Is Better for Underwater Sports

Tropical fish with yellow tails.

Puerto Vallarta’s water doesn’t always conjure up adjectives like “clean” and “blue.” Whereas Cabo has many Bandera Azul beaches with a stamp of approval for their cleanliness, Puerto Vallarta has more frequent issues with high bacteria in its water.

For this reason, divers and snorkelers tend to flock to Cabo.

Cabo Pulmo is a marine reserve that sits off Los Cabos’ coast and hosts over 220 species of marine wildlife. You could even have the chance to encounter five out of seven of the world’s endangered sea turtle species.

Another exciting opportunity for diving in Cabo is that you can watch the “underwater waterfall” effect of sand plunging into the depths of a massive crack in the San Andreas fault line.

If diving or snorkeling isn’t your thing, you can hop on a glass bottom boat instead. However, not all of these boats are equal in quality and design, so I recommend taking a look at my tips on taking the glass bottom boat tour in Cabo.

8. Puerto Vallarta Has Fewer Persistent Vendors

When comparing Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta, PV has fewer vendor harassment.

As a tourist meandering around town, one of the biggest differences you’ll notice between Los Cabos versus Puerto Vallarta is that there’s significantly more harassment from vendors in Los Cabos.

I say this while recognizing that tourism is how many locals make a living in this area and that one only knows what they’re taught. But as a tourist walking along the Marina in Cabo San Lucas, the persistence of vendors will put even the most patient person to the test.

And if you’re a female traveling alone, expect the situation to be worse.

During my one-month solo female trip to Cabo San Lucas, the vendors often started by using their standard tourist sales tactics. But when I said no (or worse, ignored them), that’s when the sexual harassment would often start.

As a result, I felt uncomfortable walking around Cabo alone.

But I never felt unsafe or had excessive amounts of harassment in Puerto Vallarta (I didn’t have any noteworthy incidences, actually, but it’s not a fair comparison since I didn’t spend as much time there).

The bottom line is that I would travel to Puerto Vallarta in a heartbeat again as a solo female traveler. But I’d only go back to Cabo if I were traveling with someone else.

And even then, the standard tourist harassment is offputting enough for it not to be on my list of destinations to return to.

9. Cabo Is An Exceptionally Big Party Town

One of the biggest differences between Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta is that Cabo is more of a party town.

I’ve already hinted at this point, but it deserves a whole category on its own. Los Cabos is a massive party destination for anyone looking to let loose, from spring breakers to retirees.

If you were to look at the list of clubs and bars in Los Cabos vs Puerto Vallarta, that might leave you scratching your head. After all, Puerto Vallarta is home to big-name clubs like Mandala, La Santa, and Strana.

But Cabo San Lucas’ condensed size is part of what contributes to its non-stop party vibe. You can watch people popping champagne from their yachts in the Marina as you sit feet away downing your own drink at an ocean-front bar.

And then there’s the street that wraps around behind the Marina, which is home to famous bars and nightclubs like El Squid Roe, La Vaquita, and Crush Nightspot.

Of course, you can visit Los Cabos while skipping the party scene by booking a hotel away from downtown Cabo San Lucas.

10. Puerto Vallarta Is Better for Families

A view of water lapping Puerto Vallarta's condo-filled shoreline.

It likely comes as no surprise that when comparing Puerto Vallarta vs Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta is more family-oriented.

As long as you’re not walking around with your kids in PV past 10:00 pm or so, you shouldn’t have to worry about them witnessing loads of drunks.

Even then, the inebriated club-goers tend to stick to the portion of the Malecón that contains the majority of the bars. In contrast, the coastal area of the Zona Romantica typically draws a more mature, older crowd, even at night.

That’s not to say that Los Cabos is a terrible place to bring kids, though.

But aside from Cabo’s bigger party scene, you’ll have to keep an extra careful eye on little ones at the beach. The waves can get massive and engulf previously untouched parts of the sand when you’re not expecting it.

11. Cabo Is Best Seen With a Vehicle

A colorful pink building in San Jose del Cabo.
A street in San Jose del Cabo.

Although there’s a lot happening in Cabo San Lucas, at the end of the day it’s a small town. And if you’re not staying in San Lucas, you’ll want some type of transportation to get around, given that you’ll likely, at the very least, want to see what it’s all about.

Plus, visiting the adorable, colorful town of San Jose del Cabo is a must-do when you’re ready to take a break from the beach.

The good news is that it’s easy (though expensive) to get around Cabo via a taxi or car rental.

You can also try hailing an Uber. However, from my experience, Uber drivers are scarce in Cabo.

If you’re on a budget, I recommend taking the Ruta del Desierto bus. This purple bus will take you along the scenic coastal route between Cabo San Lucas, San Jose del Cabo, and the airport for around a few dollars, depending on your destination.

On the other hand, if you don’t mind walking a couple of miles at a time, a vehicle isn’t as necessary for Puerto Vallarta.

Although Puerto Vallarta’s Malecón and surrounding tourist areas are far larger than the Marina area in Cabo San Lucas, they’re an easy and pleasant walk.

Nevertheless, you can always head behind the Malecón and hop on a bus if you’d like some help getting from one place to the other in PV. Puerto Vallarta also has better Uber availability than Cabo, though you may still have to wait at peak times.

12. Puerto Vallarta Has Closer Day Trips

Yelapa Beach.
A view of Yelapa Beach.

When comparing Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta, you likely won’t want to spend every minute in your destination of choice. Mexico has so much to offer.

So, it’s important to understand your day trip options.

You can take many day trips from Puerto Vallarta, which are often less than one hour from the city. However, some trips, like Sayulita, can take as long as 1.5 hours. Sometimes, the destinations are even only accessible by boat.

Examples of day trips from Puerto Vallarta include:

  • Yelapa
  • Sayulita
  • Majahuitas
  • Las Caletas
  • Islas Marietas

In contrast, Los Cabos offers fewer and often longer-distance day trips.

For starters, I recommend visiting either San Jose del Cabo or Cabo San Lucas, whichever area you’re not based in. After that, you can explore more of the Baja California peninsula with further destinations like:

  • La Paz
  • Los Barriles
  • Todos Santos

13. Cabo Is More Expensive

A taco stand with prices in pesos.

There’s no denying it—Cabo is a more expensive destination than Puerto Vallarta.

Cabo attracts luxury vacationers, celebrities, and people touring the Pacific on their yachts. As a result, the prices are akin to what you’d find at high-end destinations in the United States.

That said, if you’re willing to walk 4 – 5 blocks back from the Marina, you’ll encounter more local and relatively less expensive food. However, it’s often still more expensive than the street food you’ll find in Puerto Vallarta.

To clarify, Puerto Vallarta isn’t a cheap destination for Mexico.

If you’re looking for cheaper, I recommend destinations like Oaxaca, Mexico City, and Playa del Carmen.

However, you can pretty much count on saving money by visiting Puerto Vallarta compared to Los Cabos.

Cabo or Puerto Vallarta? Their 5 Similarities

Yes, Cabo and Puerto Vallarta have many differences. However, there are a few areas where these destinations overlap.

So, if you’re in a rift with your travel partners-to-be about which destination to visit, these similarities might help.

1. Pacific Coast

When comparing Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta, both share the Pacific Ocean.
A view of the Pacific Ocean from the Mount Solmar hike.

It’s an obvious but nonetheless important point. Puerto Vallarta and Los Cabos both share the Pacific Coast.

However, I don’t recommend driving between the two—that would take around 23 hours, including a ferry ride from La Paz in Baja California to mainland Mexico.

The water is cold in both Cabo and Puerto Vallarta, but you’ll feel the cold even more in Los Cabos. As mentioned earlier, Banderas Bay shelters Puerto Vallarta, so the water is typically calmer there.

2. Cruise Port

The cruise port in Puerto Vallarta.
Cruise port in Puerto Vallarta.

If you’re researching Los Cabos versus Puerto Vallarta for a cruise, here’s the good news: Both destinations have a cruise port.

So, you might be able to find a cruise route that visits both destinations.

However, Cabo’s cruise port is better located—you’ll get off at the far side of the Marina. In contrast, Puerto Vallarta’s cruise port sits north of the tourist area, requiring about a 20-minute drive to get there.

3. Hiking Opportunities

Dogs on a hike at the top of Mt. Solmar.
Hiking with dogs at the top of Mount Solmar.

If you’re trying to decide between Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta for active trips, you’ll be happy to know that both destinations offer hikes.

Personally, Los Cabos is my favorite because you can hike with dogs up Mount Solmar.

However, Puerto Vallarta has its fair share of hiking opportunities, both exploring the mountains around the city and taking day trips to nearby areas that offer hikes.

4. Coastal Road Trip

When comparing Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta, PV offers closer day trip options.
A view from the coastal drive outside of Puerto Vallarta.

Regardless of whether you visit Cabo or Puerto Vallarta, make it a point to take a coastal road trip. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but if I absolutely must, I’d say I enjoyed driving along Puerto Vallarta’s coast slightly more than Cabo’s.

You can rent a car, scooter, or take a taxi or bus in both of these destinations to view the coast from high above the cliffs.

5. Whale watching

If you’re in Puerto Vallarta or Cabo from mid-December to April, you’ll see lots of advertisements for whale-watching tours. Taking a whale-watching tour is an excellent way to have the chance to spot Humpback whales.

However, keep your eyes peeled along the coast. You might be able to spot whales right from the beach or your hotel room!

Traveling Between the Two

People boarding a plane in Los Cabos.

By now, I hope you have a better idea of whether Cabo or Puerto Vallarta is more your style. But if you decide that both are, let’s chat about traveling between the two.

As you know, it takes just under a 24-hour day to get from Los Cabos to Puerto Vallarta and vice versa. I think it’s safe to say that doing so isn’t feasible for most people.

Luckily, flying is an option.

But here’s the kicker—there aren’t any direct Puerto Vallarta to Cabo flights.

It seems hard to believe, I know. Most connecting flights between Cabo and Puerto Vallarta go through Mexico City, but the occasional flight passes through Tijuana or Monterrey.

FAQs: Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta

Do you still have questions about PV and Los Cabos? Read on for answers to some popular inquiries.

If I don’t answer your question here, leave it in the comments and I’ll be happy to get back to you.

Is Cabo or Puerto Vallarta better?

Cabo is better for people who want long stretches of pristine beaches and a more upscale vacation. Puerto Vallarta is better for people who have a smaller budget and enjoy a more tropical atmosphere.

Which is warmer: Cabo or Puerto Vallarta?

Puerto Vallarta is warmer than Cabo. Cabo sits significantly north of Puerto Vallarta, so the air and water temperatures are colder. That said, the swimming water is often cold in Puerto Vallarta, too, and both destinations get hot during the summer.

Which is cheaper: Cabo San Lucas or Puerto Vallarta?

Puerto Vallarta is cheaper than Cabo San Lucas. Accommodation, food, and tours all start at cheaper prices. In both destinations, the further you stay and eat from the beach, the cheaper the cost of hotels and restaurants becomes.

Why is Puerto Vallarta so popular?

Puerto Vallarta is popular because it’s a haven for expats in the LGBTQ+ community. It’s also a popular place for retirees, as it has many modern amenities for more affordable prices than in Western countries.

Why is Cabo so popular?

Cabo is popular because of its round-the-clock parties, stunning desert scenery, and pristine beaches. Many celebrities visit Cabo on vacation, and it’s a popular home for upper-class expats.

Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta: What’ll It Be?

So, is Puerto Vallarta or Cabo better?

It comes down to personal preference. Personally, I prefer Puerto Vallarta since it’s not as touristy and it’s more comfortable to walk around as a solo female traveler. However, Cabo has stunning desert beauty, and the dog hike was one of the highlights of my time in Mexico.

If you have questions about visiting Puerto Vallarta and Cabo, leave a comment, and I’ll be happy to help. I’d also love to hear about your personal experience and takeaways after you travel.

P.S.—If you’re still on the fence about where to visit, check out my guide on Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun and Cabo vs Tulum.

14 thoughts on “Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta: 13 Must-Know Differences”

  1. This was so helpful and really well done. You covered a lot of points that I have been pondering. I visited PV and loved it. I have not been to Cabo and have wondered whether I would like it as much. I think a repeat visit to PV would be better since it checks all of my boxes. Thank you for this great comparison!!

    1. You’re welcome, Cheryl! I’m so glad the article helped with your decision. Enjoy your second visit to Puerto Vallarta!

      1. Hi Laura,
        I’ve been enjoying your tracel articles. We are thinking about visiting PV this year vs Cabo. I personally don’t like big high rises and over the top resorts. Is there anything but high rises in PV. How bout a split between PV and Sayulita?
        Thank you so much!!

        1. Hi Laura,

          There are areas in Puerto Vallarta without lots of highrises, and Zona Romantica comes to mind. Small, older apartments and homes line the sidestreets in Zona Romantica. You’ll still be able to see modern highrises from a distance in the hills surrounding the Zona Romantica district, but you won’t be in the center of those areas.

          I haven’t been to a destination on Mexico’s Pacific coast that falls between Puerto Vallarta and Sayulita (of course, there very well could be some!). But if you’re willing to travel to the east coast, Tulum could be a good fit. I’ve written an article on Cabo vs Tulum so you can get a feel for their differences.

          Best of luck with your decision making!

  2. I’m a fit 75 and have been dreaming about whale watching for years and years. My husband and I are going to PV in Feb. What are some differences between companies and which ones are Eco observant.
    We plan on going to 3-4 trips while there as well as birding spots. I’d really appreciate any information.


    Andrea johnson

    1. Hi Andrea,

      How exciting that you and your husband will be visiting Puerto Vallarta and that you’ll be able to live out your dream of going whale watching.

      I appreciate you wanting to do your due diligence to find an eco-friendly whale-watching company. I recommend choosing a company that has gone through RABEN training. RABEN is a Mexican non-profit that follows the International Whaling Commission’s protocols for rescuing whales trapped in fishing equipment. They also provide training about best practices for whale-watching to companies operating tours in Puerto Vallarta.

      Vallarta Adventures is an example of a company that has undergone RABEN training.

      Since I haven’t taken whale-watching tours with different companies, I unfortunately don’t have advice on their differences. Perhaps one of our readers seeing this will have information to contribute. I’d also love to hear about your experience and comparisons between whale-watching companies after your time in PV. The more we can promote eco-friendly tourism, the better.

      Have a wonderful time in Puerto Vallarta!

  3. This article is very helpful. I am planning a fellas trip for April 2023, between PV and Cabo. We do plan to party often. So Cabo may be the best choice for us. Then I will bring my family PV since it is more family friendly than Cabo. Thank you again.

    1. Hi Mike,

      Unfortunately, I haven’t visited Mazatlan, but perhaps another reader will have some insight. In the meantime, I’ve put Mazatlan on my bucket list for the next time I’m in Mexico 🙂

  4. First, thank you so much for the information. The information was very helpful to get a good picture of Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta. We are looking to have a 100 person destination wedding in Cabo or Puerto Vallarta. This will be a child friendly event and we are probably looking to stay in the resort most of the time. What are you thoughts of these two cities as destination wedding locations?

    1. Hi ENam,

      Wow, a destination wedding of 100. How exciting, and congratulations on your engagement!

      I’ve never looked at Cabo and Puerto Vallarta through the lens of a destination wedding before, so take what I say with a grain of salt. My initial reaction is that Cabo might be a better option since you have such a large party and it seems like it would offer more resort options and a larger beach space. That said, I’m sure Puerto Vallarta has some nice beachside resorts outside of the main city center where a large party would also have room to sprawl out on the beach, and I’m sure there are myriad factors that I’m not even considering when it comes to choosing a wedding venue.

      Wishing you a memorable wedding wherever you end up choosing!

  5. I’m wondering which one has an easier public transportation system. I’m going with kids. Can you get shuttles from the airport to all hotels? And from hotels to downtown?

    1. Hi MC,

      In my opinion, Cabo has an easier public transportation system since they have the Ruta del Desierto city buses. You can take a Ruta del Desierto bus from the airport all the way to Cabo San Lucas and any destination in between. The Ruta del Desierto buses pass by the road entrance to many hotels, but keep in mind that depending on where you book you might have to walk quite a bit to arrive at the hotel itself.

      From my experience, Puerto Vallarta’s public transportation system is more chaotic than Cabo’s. Many smaller, usually non-air conditioned buses are plentiful in the city, but it’s helpful to speak Spanish to navigate the routes. Furthermore, you’d likely need to change buses when traveling from the airport to arrive at your hotel.

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