Cancun vs. Cabo: 27 Key Similarities & Differences

So, Mexico’s beaches are calling your attention. You’re not alone—51 million people make Mexico their vacation destination each year. And if you’re like many tourists, you’re trying to figure out the similarities and differences between Cancun vs. Cabo. 

A destination’s beach vibes, the weather, and activity offerings are some of the many factors you should consider when choosing between the Mexican east and west coasts. 

After visiting Cancun countless times I finally made my way to Los Cabos. Needless to say, during my one-month stay I couldn’t help but compile a list of comparisons.

I’ll share my findings here with the hope that they’ll help you choose the best destination for your travel style. 

A Quick Overview of Cancun vs. Cabo

If you don’t have time to read about 27 similarities and differences between Cancun and Cabo, I’ve narrowed down their most important features in the chart below.

FeatureCancunLos Cabos
SizeOne large cityTwo small towns
WeatherHumid & tropicalDry & desert climate
ExpensesBudget options possibleVery expensive
TerrainFlatHilly
OceanWarm, shallower, calmer seasCold, deep, rough waves
ActivitiesRuins, cenotes, day tripsHiking, whale watching, golfing

7 Similarities Between Los Cabos and Cancun

Cabo and Cancun sit on opposite sides of Mexico, making it challenging for people with limited vacation time to visit both. At the end of this article, I’ll cover the hoops you’ll have to jump through to visit both Cancun and Cabo on the same trip. 

But for now, let’s start with the similarities when comparing Cancun vs. Cabo.

1. Both Have International Airports

A plane wing.

Here’s a spoiler you might have seen coming: There isn’t an easy way to travel between Cancun and Los Cabos. However, both of these destinations offer international airports, with Cancun being an especially massive international hub for Mexico.

You can fly directly to Cabo or Cancun from destinations such as:

  • Denver
  • New York
  • Vancouver

Furthermore, Cancun offers direct international flights to destinations including:

  • Columbus
  • London
  • Paris

2. You Can Get Around By Bus or Car Rental

An ADO bus station at the Cancun airport.
An ADO bus station at the Cancun airport.

Once you arrive in Cancun or Cabo, getting around is a breeze. Public buses operate from both airports, with ADO serving the Yucatan region in Cancun and Ruta del Desierto running between San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas.

Furthermore, once you arrive at your accommodation in Cancun or Cabo, both destinations offer combis (vans) or school buses-turned-public-transportation to take you shorter distances.

When comparing Los Cabos vs. Cancun, public transportation is equally accessible in both places. However, the prices in Cabo are significantly higher.

During my April 2022 trip to Los Cabos, the minimum rate for public buses was 13.50 pesos. You read that right—there’s a 0.50 after the number 13. At the time of this writing, that’s equivalent to about one-fortieth of a U.S. dollar.

To put that into perspective, never in my years of travel in Mexico have I seen any store, bus, or service charging half a peso except at chain supermarkets. They’re really trying to milk customers of every penny.

If busing it isn’t your thing, no worries. There are many car rental facilities in both Cancun and Cabo.

3. Waves Happen in Both Places

When comparing Cancun vs. Cabo, the waves seen here are typical for Los Cabos.
Waves in Cabo’s Hotel Zone.

It may not come as a surprise that there are a lot of waves in Los Cabos, especially if you’ve spent time in southern California. However, when you think of the Caribbean Sea, images of still, glass-like water might come to mind.

There are undoubtedly parts of Cancun where you can find this, weather permitting.

And overall, Cancun offers gentler waves than Cabo.

However, the reality is that both Cabo and Cancun’s coasts primarily face the open ocean. So, in the areas where there’s not a lot of curvature in the land to create a protective bay, the waves can be fierce.

In fact, it’s common to see red flags at the beaches in Los Cabos and yellow or red flags at the beaches in Cancun. Red means don’t swim; yellow means swim with caution. 

That said, of the two, Cabo’s beaches are more dangerous for swimming than Cancun’s. Both also have beaches that are almost always safe to swim in. Hold on to your surfboards because I’ll talk more about this soon.

4. Swimming With Whale Sharks

A sculpture of a whale shark.

Here’s a piece of trivia for you: Are whale sharks a shark or a whale? 

If you answered “shark,” you’re spot on. 

Whale sharks are both the largest sharks and the biggest fish in the world. Luckily, they’re harmless to humans since they’re filter feeders, consuming plankton.

It just so happens that whale sharks grace both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. So, if you travel during the right time of year, you can sign up for a tour to swim with these gentle giants.

Whale shark season is as follows:

Los Cabos: October – February (with sharks sometimes sticking around until March or April)

Cancun: June – September

Admittedly, seeing whale sharks isn’t usually the make-or-break activity that helps people decide between Cancun vs. Cabo. But if anyone in your group has their heart set on swimming with these fish, you might be able to sway them into visiting the destination of your preference.

5. Excellent Snorkeling and Diving

Tropical fish with yellow tails.

The snorkeling and diving opportunities in Cancun and Cabo are some of Mexico’s best. 

Cancun has the MUSA Underwater Museum of Art, where you can snorkel or dive among a display of 500 sunken sculptures. It also attracts an array of tropical fish thanks to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.

In contrast, Cabo is an excellent destination for snorkelers and deep divers alike. In fact, since the San Andrea’s Fault runs through it, the water plunges to around 1,200 feet in depth, hosting an array of marine life.

In both destinations, you can enjoy seeing colorful fish from shore when walking by protected areas like the Marina in Cabo San Lucas and the ferry dock in Cancun.

6. Similar Safety

A lifeguard station in Cancun.

If you’re interested in comparing Cabo vs. Cancun in regards to safety, both offer similar experiences. 

As long as you stay in the main tourist areas, the most common threat you’ll face is petty theft. So, leave your fancy jewelry at home and be mindful of when you take out your phone for photos.

Like most destinations, walking down dark, desolate streets at night could wind you up in trouble. 

So, instead of braving it on foot from that nightclub to your hotel, arrange a taxi instead (Uber works in both Cabo and Cancun).

Never take taxis off the street in Cancun or Cabo. Pirate taxis that pose as the real deal are all too common.

You’ll feel a police presence in both destinations. However, I saw a bigger police presence in Cancun. And most notably, the National Guard, equipped with military personnel bearing rifles across their chests, comb the streets of Cancun.

In contrast, I only ever saw local municipal police in Los Cabos.

7. English Is Widely spoken

A sign that reads, "Love is the only language I speak fluently."

If you’re nervous about traveling to Mexico because you don’t speak Spanish, this will put your mind at ease—both Cancun and Los Cabos are packed with locals fluent in English.

In fact, as you walk down the tourist centers of both destinations, you might end up feeling that too many locals speak English as they pester you to sign up for their tours.

Needless to say, Los Cabos and Cancun aren’t great destinations to visit if you want to practice Spanish. Even if you start speaking to them in decent Spanish, the slightest hint of a foreign accent will spark most of them to switch to English.

Cancun or Cabo? Exploring their 20 Differences

Despite there being a handful of similarities between Cabo and Cancun, these destinations have many more divergences. So, top off your coffee cup, and let’s explore them.

1. Cancun Is Larger

A crowded beach in Cancun.

Cancun is a large city, home to nearly one million people.

In contrast, Los Cabos looks like a dot on the west coast, situated on the tip of the Baja California peninsula. Its difference in population speaks volumes, too.

According to Data Mexico, Los Cabos has a population of just over 350,000.

So, when comparing Cancun vs. Cabo, Cancun feels similar to Miami in terms of having lots of people, buildings, and around-the-clock activity. In contrast, Cabo has a small town (but hardcore party) vibe. 

Hiking is something you can do in San Lucas when comparing Cancun vs. Cabo.
A view of Cabo San Lucas from the Mt. Solmar hike.

Although both have high rises, the high rises in Cabo are in the form of beachfront hotels and condos.

In contrast, Cancun has a more metropolitan feel, with many more highrises both along the beach and inland.

2. Cabo Has Two Towns

Colorful street decorations in San Jose del Cabo.
The artsy downtown of San Jose del Cabo.

You’ve likely noticed me referring to our Baja California star of the show as both “Cabo” and “Los Cabos.” This isn’t a typo. Instead, it’s the lingo people use to describe this region. 

The term “Los Cabos” encompasses two towns that make up the bottom of Baja California: San Jose del Cabo to the north and Cabo San Lucas at the very end of the tip.

So, when in-the-know people say “Los Cabos” they’re referring to San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas collectively. 

In contrast, “Cabo” most commonly refers to Cabo San Lucas. 

However, people who aren’t in-the-know (aka many tourists) often use the word “Cabo” to describe Cabo San Lucas, San Jose del Cabo, and a combination of the two.

So, now that you know we’re technically comparing Los Cabos vs. Cancun, you might be wondering how “Cabo” differs from Cancun.

Like any large city, Cancun has districts. However, they’re continuous, one next to the other, forming a single city. 

In contrast, the towns of San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas sit a 30+ minute drive apart with essentially nothing but desert, a scattering of hotels, and stunning ocean views between them.

3. More Rain Falls in Cancun

A cloudy day at the beach in Cancun.

If you’re heading to Cancun, packing an umbrella is a must. Although the heaviest rain falls from September to November, its tropical climate means that rain occurs year-round.

On the other hand, rain is essentially a non-existent issue in Los Cabos from February to June. Small amounts of rain fall from July – January, with September receiving the most rain. 

Baja California enjoys a desert climate with sunny weather nearly all the time. As a result, it has dry heat except for periods when it receives some rain. 

On the other hand, Cancun will wrap you in its humidity year-round.

So, if you’re trying to choose between Cancun or Cabo in terms of weather, you’ll have a lot more guaranteed outdoor time in Los Cabos. Nevertheless, Cabo follows a desert-like weather pattern, leaving some heat-seeking vacationers feeling chilly once the sun goes down.

4. Cabo Has Hillier Terrain

Steep cliffs in Cabo.

One of the most notable differences when looking at Cabo vs. Cancun is the terrain. 

Cabo’s landscape looks like a backdrop of endless Hershey kisses with hills boasting wide bases and narrow tops. The hills have a sprinkling of cacti and are what give Los Cabos its character.

Best of all, you’ll get to enjoy this scenery whether you stay in San Jose or San Lucas. And when you travel between the two (a requirement if you’re heading to San Lucas), all I can say is make sure you have your camera ready.

On the other hand, Cancun is flat. The largest hills you’ll encounter are some dirt pushed around as ants make their underground home. 

Furthermore, you’ll be hard-pressed to encounter naturally growing cacti in Cancun. Instead, lush tropical vegetation grows anywhere people let it. 

5. Cancun Is Better for Budget Travelers

A public bus to the beach in Cancun.

Mexico is a cheap destination for people traveling from the U.S., Canada, and other countries, right?

While this blanket statement is true for much of the country, it’s not the case in Los Cabos. And even the amount you spend in Cancun depends on how mindful you are with your money.

The good news is that you can visit Cancun on a lower budget than Cabo. That’s because hotels run the gamut from budget to five-star luxury. The most affordable accomodation and food in Cancun are located in downtown, which is a 10 – 15 minute ride from the beachfront Hotel Zone.

In contrast, a “budget” version of Los Cabos will run you around what you’d expect to pay in the U.S. for a beach vacation. And that’s without any bells and whistles.

A boat named "Bee Rich" in Los Cabos.
A boat named “Bee Rich” in Los Cabos, which is what you have to be to afford this destination.

Given Cabo’s small size, there are far fewer options for cheap accommodation, and while you can snag relatively affordable prices by walking to restaurants four or five blocks behind the Marina, it’s nothing compared to the cheap accommodation and food you’ll encounter in downtown Cancun.

Although downtown Cancun isn’t very touristy and you have to be well aware of your surroundings, the good news is that for around 50 U.S. cents you can hop on a bus and quickly arrive at the Hotel Zone where you can spend the day.

So, if you’re comparing Cancun and Cabo budget-wise, Cancun is undoubtedly the better option for travelers looking to save pesos.

6. Cabo Attracts a Classier Crowd

When comparing Cancun vs. Cabo, Cabo has many more yachts like those seen here.
The Marina in Cabo San Lucas.

Classiness goes hand in hand with the point above—because Cabo is designed for ultra-wealthy vacationers, it tends to draw a more upper class, classier crowd.

I have to put this disclaimer in here, though—this is compared to Cancun.

The reality is that both destinations draw college student spring breakers and adults who act as if they were that young. They also both attract the wealthy, as you can find high-priced luxurious resorts in either destination.

But the dozens of yachts lining the Marina in Cabo San Lucas alone will convince you that you’ll encounter a more upper-class crowd when comparing Cancun vs. Cabo. 

So, there’s undoubtedly classier partying in Cabo as well as classier ways to pass the time.

7. Cancun Has More Day Trip Options

The Chichen Itza pyramid.
Chichen Itza, which you can visit as a day trip from Cancun.

Cancun is the gateway to the Yucatan. As such, it’s easy to join a tour or hop on an ADO bus and travel to a number of destinations as a day trip. 

Some of the most popular trips from Cancun include:

  • Isla Mujeres (20-minute ferry ride)
  • Chichen Itza (3 hours)
  • Playa del Carmen (1.5 hours)
  • Tulum (2.5 hours)
  • Cozumel (1.5-hour bus & 30-minute ferry)

You can also visit one of several theme parks as a day trip from Cancun, including Xcaret.

That’s not to say that Cabo is devoid of day trip options, though. By basing yourself there, you can visit destinations like:

  • Todos Santos
  • La Paz
  • Los Cerritos

The driving time to these destinations will depend on where you’re staying in Los Cabos.

Of course, depending on which town in Los Cabos you stay in (or if you stay at a resort between them) visiting the other town as a day trip is also a must-do activity.

8. There’s Better Hiking in Cabo

A view of Cabo from Mt. Solmar.
The view from the top of Mt. Solmar.

When comparing Los Cabos vs. Cancun in terms of hiking, Cabo is the clear winner. That likely comes as little surprise, given those Hershey Kisses hills I talked about.

I recommend checking out AllTrails if you’re interested in off-the-beaten-path self-guided hikes.

However, the must-do hike is Mount Solmar. In fact, if you look up this hike on Google, it doesn’t list it as “Mt. Solmar” but as “The Hike.” 

Best of all for animal lovers, a dog trainer leads the hike, so a dozen or more dogs will join you on your climb to get the best views in Los Cabos.

While we’re on the topic of animals, I encourage you to do what I did and stop by Los Cabos Humane Society to volunteer cuddling with cats and walking dogs.

The Mt. Solmar hike is entirely tip-based. Make sure to bring plenty of water, sneakers, and a moderate fitness level at a minimum—it requires steep climbing over uneven terrain in the blazing sun.

As for Cancun, hiking isn’t a thing unless you’re walking through flat jungle trying to get to a cenote (more on that soon).

9. Cancun Has Warmer Water

Clear water in Cancun.

If you’re trying to decide between Cancun or Cabo and love to swim in the ocean, you might be better off going with Cancun.

Cancun has an average water temperature of 82°F, typical for a Caribbean destination.

On the other hand, currents from the Artic bring water through Los Cabos, making it have a chillier temperature of around 76°F year-round, with the winter months dipping down to 70°F.

That said, it’s not impossible to swim in the ocean in Los Cabos—you’ll even see a few brave people in the water when scanning the coast during the wintertime. But for the most part, people prefer to bask in Cabo’s sun before dipping their feet ankle-deep into the ocean to cool off.

10. The Water Is Deeper in Cabo

A glass bottom boat heading for the arch in Los Cabos.

It’s easy to stand in the sand and appreciate the beautiful blue water that both Cancun and Cabo offer. But what lies beneath it is vastly different.

The San Andreas Fault runs along Los Cabos, sinking 1,200 feet just a stone’s throw away from the shore. This is what makes it such a popular spot among divers and glass bottom boat riders alike as they make the trip to see Cabo’s famous arch. 

However, it means that finding a safe place to swim is extra challenging in Cabo, given that its sandy shore drops down into deep underwater gorges a short distance away. Divers even describe this as a waterfall effect, watching sand plunge into San Andrea’s deep canyon.

So, if you’re comparing Cancun vs. Cabo for kids or people who aren’t strong swimmers, Cancun is the better option. It has shallower water and beaches that offer a slow, gradual incline into deeper territory.

11. Hurricanes Are a Bigger Threat in Cancun

A palm tree-lined street in Cancun.

If you’re debating visiting Los Cabos or Cancun during hurricane season, your trip will have fewer chances of hurricane-related interruptions by choosing Cabo.

Although Cabo isn’t immune to hurricanes, Cancun’s warm water is the perfect environment for them to form.

In fact, hurricanes along Cancun’s coast have significant impacts on inland Yucatan destinations too. 

For example, the Cenote Suytun in Valladolid, located an approximately 2 hour, 20 minute drive from Cancun, flooded so strongly from hurricane effects in 2020 that it drowned the cenote’s famous walkway for months.

12. There Are Fewer Safe Swimming Spots in Cabo

When comparing Cancun vs. Cabo, swimming safety is more challenging in Cabo.

You’ve undoubtedly gathered that Cabo isn’t as pleasant or safe for swimming compared to Cancun. That’s because of its cold water, steep drop-offs, and strong waves. 

Nevertheless, below are some beaches that are relatively safe for swimming in Cabo.

  • Medano Beach
  • Chileno Beach
  • Lover’s Beach

In contrast, Cancun offers safer swimming spots (though the water can still get rough, depending on the weather). Some of the best swimming beaches in Cancun are:

  • Caracol Beach
  • Chac Mool Beach
  • North Beach (on Isla Mujeres)

Of course, you should always check the flags on the beach before entering the water in either of these destinations. A green flag is ideal, as it means the chances of an undertow are next-to-none.

13. Cancun Has More Upscale Shopping

The entrance to Forum by the Sea.

If you’re looking at Los Cabos vs. Cancun in terms of shopping, you’ll have many more options in Cancun. Furthermore, there are more upscale shops.

I know what you’re thinking—but Laura, you just told us that Cabo is where the ultra-wealthy go!

And while that’s true, both Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo are smaller, so there’s not as much space to fit malls and boutique stores.

Some of the most popular shopping centers in Cancun include:

  • Forum by the Sea
  • La Isla Shopping Village
  • Marina Puerto Cancun

But if you’re in Los Cabos, you can also find Plaza Puerto Paraiso. Furthermore, both destinations have plenty of touristy souvenir shops.

14. You Can Go Whale Watching in Cabo

A boat out on the water in Cabo.

Yes, that’s right! Although comparing Cancun vs. Cabo in terms of whale sharks is the same, Los Cabos is home to real-deal whales.

Humpback and Gray Whales, in fact.

These incredible mammals arrive in Cabo from northern destinations like Alaska between December 15th and April 15th.

There is no shortage of whale tours you can sign up for during those months. But you might not have to shell out any money to see them—simply keep an eye on the ocean.

If you get lucky, you’ll get to watch some frolicking in Cabo’s plankton-rich water. And while you’re passing the time waiting for them, sea lions might entertain you.

As for Cancun, whales don’t ever pass through its warm waters, nor is it home to sea lions.

15. There Are More Ruins Near Cancun

Tulum ruins, which you can take as a day trip from Cancun.
One of many buildings that make up the Tulum Ruins.

If your idea of a Mexican beach vacation isn’t complete without exploring Mayan ruins, the choice between Cancun and Los Cabos is easy—head to Cancun.

Chichen Itza is the most famous ruins in the area. In fact, it’s one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.

However, my personal favorite ruins in the Yucatan are the Tulum Ruins, which you can visit as a day trip from Cancun.

You can also explore smaller, lesser-known ruins such as those in Vallodolid (on the way to Chichen Itza, although group tours won’t give you enough time to visit them, so you should drive).

On the other hand, you won’t encounter ruins near Los Cabos.

16. Cabo Is a Golf Lover’s Paradise

Whether you want to try your hand at golf or have been playing all your life, Cabo is an ideal destination for golfers. It has numerous golf courses, many of which sit on top of cliffs overlooking the ocean.

Some of the most popular golf courses in Cabo include:

  • Cabo del Sol
  • Cabo Real
  • Palmilla

Although Los Cabo wins when comparing Cancun vs. Cabo on the golf front, you can encounter some golf courses in the Yucatan too. El Tinto and Riviera Cancun Golf Club are some great choices in Cancun.

17. You Can Explore Cenotes in Cancun

A semi-underground cenote.

I mentioned centoes earlier, so let me explain if you’re not already familiar with this Spanish word. Cenotes are sinkholes that become filled with freshwater. 

They range from being completely underground to forming a picturesque hole above ground.

Cenote exploration is one of the most unique things to do during your vacay in Cancun. There are over 6,000 cenotes in the Yucatan, so not all are designed for tourism. 

However, some of the many cenotes you can choose to visit in Cancun include:

  • Cenote Dos Ojos
  • Cenote Azul
  • Cenote Jardin del Eden

Los Cabos has a whopping zero cenotes. Therefore, if you’re hoping to do a fun nature activity away from the beach and are waffling bewteen visiting Cancun or Los Cabos, this just might help you make up your mind.

18. There’s Better Surfing in Cabo

Surfboard artwork.

Yes, the larger presence of strong waves in Cabo makes it a better spot for surfing…

But only if you’re an experienced surfer.

The truth is that when comes to comparing Los Cabos vs. Cancun in terms of surfing, neither are ideal options. 

Instead, I recommend making your way down the Pacific coast to small town surfing hubs like Sayulita and Puerto Escondido.

However, if you have experience and want to give surfing in Cabo a go, head to the East Cape region in San Jose.

In contrast, Cancun’s relatively smaller waves with often less undertow make them a fine place to take a beginner surfing class.

19. People Don’t Stop For Pedestrians in Cancun

A crosswalk in Cabo.

This may sound like an odd one, given that stopping for pedestrians at crosswalks isn’t a big part of Mexican culture. 

However, it seems that this habit has trickled down Baja California from the U.S., landing in Los Cabos where many drivers go out of their way to stop for pedestrians.

I’m not about to tell you that all vehicles will stop for you at a crosswalk in Cabo—definitely look both ways before crossing. 

But compared to Cancun (and the 10+ other destinations I’ve visited in Mexico), drivers appear more on the lookout for pedestrians and stop accordingly.  

20. Hotels in Cabo Are More Spread Out

A view of a hotel from atop Mount Solmar.

If you hop on Google Maps and compare the skyline of Cancun and Los Cabos, one of the first things you’ll notice is how hotel after hotel line Cancun’s shore.

In contrast, Los Cabos has areas where the hotels are grouped together, such as around San Lucas and San Jose. But there are also several loner hotels (read: even more expensive) that sit among gaps of desert between these destinations.

So, if you’re comparing a Cancun vs. Cabo spring break trip, you’ll likely want to base yourself in Cancun or one of the more congregated areas in Los Cabos (the Marina in San Lucas is best).

Otherwise, if you’re looking for a more private, quieter hotel experience, you’ll have more options in Los Cabos.

Visiting Both Destinations

If after reading through these similarities and differences you’re thinking that you’d like to visit both Cancun and Los Cabos, your first question is likely, “How far is Cancun from Cabo?”

Cancun and Cabo are over 2,100 miles apart, spanning two different oceans.

Sadly, there currently aren’t any direct Cancun to Cabo flights. Trust me, I’m as mind-boggled as you are given the popularity of these destinations.

Nevertheless, flying from Cabo to Cancun or vice versa is the best option if you want to visit both of them. You’ll have a layover, often in Mexico City, so this could be a great opportunity to build in a third destination during your vacation.

While it’s possible to take a bus between Cabo and Cancun, the trip would take well over 48 hours and would include bus station layovers.

Cancun vs. Cabo: What’ll It Be?

So, is Cancun or Cabo better? 

I’ll let you be the judge. 

I hope this article has helped you better understand what Los Cabos and Cancun do—and don’t—offer. 

If you still have questions, don’t hesitate to pick my brain by leaving a comment. And if you have anything to add after visiting either of these destinations, please stop by and share your thoughts. Future readers will surely appreciate your insight.

P.S.—If you’re still on the fence about where to travel, check out my article on Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta.

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