Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta: 13 Must-Know Differences
Americans spend around 200 hours a year daydreaming about vacations, the equivalent of 24 full work days. So, I’ll go out on a limb and assume you’ve spent a portion 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 their 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.
So, 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.
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.
|Beaches||Many options, dangerous water||Smaller beaches, better for swimming|
|Atmosphere||Loud, party town||Quieter, family-oriented|
|Types of tourists||Party-oriented of all ages||Retirees, LGBTQ+, expats|
|Day trip options||Farther away||Close by|
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.
13 Differences Between Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta
Now, let’s explore the differences between Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta.
1. Cabo Has Better Beaches
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 the better choice.
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 that often have murkier water and more natural debris.
2. Puerto Vallarta Is Quieter
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.
However, it isn’t all doom and gloom for those 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
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 tropics.
Both 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
When looking at Puerto Vallarta vs Cabo, both of these destinations draw in expats. However, because Los Cabos has a more touristy feel than Puerto Vallarta, the type of expats that land in these areas tend 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, it’s the interest and motivation that tends to differentiate between expats choosing Cabo or Puerto Vallarta.
As a final note on #expatlife, Puerto Vallarta is an excellent place for retirees and people who identify as LGBTQ+ to find an extra-warm and inviting community.
5. Cabo Feels Smaller
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.
Okay, it’s not a massive difference, but still.
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 is condensed to 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 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 goes for over a mile.
6. Puerto Vallarta Is Better for Independent Travelers
Cabo is a notorious hub 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
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
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
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
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 when 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
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.
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
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:
- 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
There’s no denying it—Cabo is a more expensive destination than Puerto Vallarta.
Cabo is known for attracting 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
It’s an obvious but nonetheless important one. 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
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
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
Regardless of whether you visit Cabo or Puerto Vallarta, make it a point to take a little coastal road trip. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but if I absolutely must, I’d say I like 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. These are 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
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, then let’s chat about traveling between the two.
As you now 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.
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.
Laura has been wandering the globe for over a decade. She’s an early bird and backpacker at heart and can often be spotted with a dog or ten that she’s befriended along the way. Much of the content Laura writes on A Piece of Travel includes details on wheelchair accessibility, with the support of her brother-in-law and sister. You can learn about their accessibility endeavors here.