Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun: 19 Similarities & Differences

Puerto Vallarta and Cancun are among the most popular Mexican beach destinations. But aside from the geographical differences that you can deduce from a map, it might get you wondering whether Cancun or Puerto Vallarta is better.

Since “better” means different strokes for different folks, I’ll break down the similarities and differences between Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun so that you can decide for yourself.

And if you’re curious about my qualifications to do so, I’m far from an expert. Nevertheless, I’ve visited Puerto Vallarta several times and Cancun at least a dozen times, if that carries any weight.

A Quick Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun Run-down

The chart below will give you a glimpse of some of the topics I’ll be talking about in more detail here.

FeaturePuerto VallartaCancun
Great beachesNoYes
Body of waterPacific OceanCaribbean Sea
Natural beautyYesNo
Day trip optionsFewMany
Pedestrain-friendlyYesDepends
Good nightlifeYesYes

Exploring the Differences Between Cancun and Puerto Vallarta

Below are 12 significant differences between Puerto Vallarta and Cancun. After discussing these, I’ll cover their seven similarities.

1. Cancun Has Nicer Beaches

Clear water in the Hotel Zone of Cancun.

If you’re hoping to see water as blue and sand as white as the photo above, head to Cancun.

People can complain all they want about Cancun’s highrise skyline and party scene, but at the end of the day, there’s a reason developers invested so much money into building up this area.

As you can see in the photo above, that’s not to say that you’ll have a wave-free type of swimming experience. On the contrary, the waves in Cancun can get quite strong depending on the weather and beach.

Nevertheless, Cancun offers miles of uninterrupted sandy coastline compared to Puerto Vallarta, which has shorter stretches of beaches and bluish to murky water.

2. Puerto Vallarta Offers Sunsets…

Tables on the beach at sunset in Puerto Vallarta.

…and Cancun offers sunrises.

So, take your pick.

Since Puerto Vallarta is situated on the Pacific Coast, people flock to its beaches in the evening to watch the sunset. Many restaurants in Zona Romántica even set up tables in the sand so that you can dine as you watch the earth complete yet another 24-hour rotation (or 23 hours and 56 minutes, if you want to get technical).

On the other hand, early birds will love sinking their toes into Cancun’s sand as they watch the sunrise over the uncannily quiet beaches as party-goers sleep off their hangovers.

Cancun offers an enticing catch, though. By taking the 20-minute ferry ride to Isla Mujeres, you’ll be able to watch both the sunrise and sunset on its beaches. Try competing with that, Puerto Vallarta.

3. Cancun Has a Miami-Like Appearance

When comparing Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun, Cancun has more high-rise buildings and less authenticity.

One of the most notable differences when comparing Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta is that Cancun feels like a concrete beach-themed jungle. In fact, when glancing at its skyline, it’s easy for non-Miami residents to think they arrived in The Magic City.

Massive hotels and condos dominate the narrow strip of peninsula in the Hotel Zone, leaving little room for mom-and-pop shops, not to mention homes that are affordable for most locals.

This isn’t to say that Puerto Vallarta (PV) doesn’t have highrises, though.

However, PV’s highrises are smaller and the majority are residential condos instead of hotels. Furthermore, walking just a block or two back from the beach will present you with a variety of local restaurants, shops, and smaller apartments and homes.

4. Puerto Vallarta Has More Natural Beauty

The mountainous beach backdrop in Puerto Vallarta.

If you’re a nature lover, Puerto Vallarta is an excellent choice. Unlike Cancun, which offers the beach as its only (albeit beautiful) piece of nature, lush mountains create a stunning backdrop over Puerto Vallarta.

When comparing Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun in terms of hiking opportunities, Cancun offers none in its immediate vicinity. However, the Mirador La Cruz del Cerro is a popular small hike for people who don’t mind hiking in PV’s heat.

Alternatively, hiking up the roads that wind up into the mountains surrounding the Zona Romántica is another great option.

Of course, you don’t need to hike to appreciate Puerto Vallarta’s hills. They still take my breath away despite having visited multiple times.

5. Cancun Is Closer to Ruins

The famous Chichen Itza pyramid.
The Chichen Itza Ruins.

Are you a history buff? If so, you might be happier basing yourself in Cancun.

Of course, Cancun itself offers little history, given that it was founded in 1970. However, by using the city as your base, you’ll have access to several Mayan archeological sites.

Below are some ruins you can visit from Cancun on a day trip. I’ve included their one-way driving times for reference.

  • Chichen Itza Ruins (2 hours, 45 minutes)
  • Tulum Ruins (2 hours)
  • Coba Ruins (2 hours)
  • Muyil Ruins (2 hours)
  • Ek Balam Ruins (2.5 hours)

In contrast, you won’t have access to any nearby ruins in Puerto Vallarta. However, PV was formerly a small fishing village. So, its cobblestone streets will make you feel like you’re living in a more historical place than Cancun.

6. Puerto Vallarta Is a Retiree and LGBTQ+ Hub

Cancun has its fair share of retirees and an LGBTQ+ community. However, strolling just a few blocks of the tourist area of Puerto Vallarta will make you realize that it’s a favorite among these groups.

Better yet, if you identify as LGBTQ+ and you’re retired, you just may feel like you landed in heaven on earth.

Going along those lines, Puerto Vallarta has a much stronger community feel for expats of all identities compared to Cancun.

Most people go to Cancun to vacation or to stay at timeshares. Period.

On the other hand, Puerto Vallarta charms many tourists, turning enough of them into residents who buy a condo, apartment, or home. It’s palpable when you’re exploring its streets; the expat community vibe in Puerto Vallarta is unlike any I’ve experienced in other parts of Mexico.

7. Cancun Is Near Centoes

Suytun cenote, which is a day trip from Cancun.

If you’ve never heard of a cenote, you’re in for a treat. Cenotes are unique to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, with freshwater sitting in sinkholes or caves. Some of the sinkholes have an opening above ground while others, like the Suytun Cenote you see pictured here, are underground.

According to Wikipedia, the Yucatan is home to over 6,000 cenotes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, only a fraction of them are open for tourism. After all, that 6,000 count includes less than 1-meter cenotes formed by tree roots, while many others are on private property.

Nevertheless, if you base yourself in Cancun, you can take day trips to see and swim in cenotes such as:

  • Cenote Zacil Ha
  • Cenote Azul
  • Cenote Ik Kil
  • Gran Cenote

But if you stay in Puerto Vallarta, you’re out of luck; they don’t have cenotes.

8. Puerto Vallarta Is Pedestrian-Friendly

When comparing Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun, Puerto Vallarta has more pedestrian-friendly areas.

When comparing Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun, another undeniable difference is that Puerto Vallarta is a more pleasant place to stroll around as a pedestrian. Much of this is thanks to its 1.5-kilometer Malecón boardwalk.

The Malecón will take you through the heart of PV’s tourist center, including Rosita Beach, Playa Los Muertos Pier, and Zona Romántica.

You can then opt to head away from the coast and explore the streets behind the Malecón. I especially recommend doing this in the Zona Romántica area where adorable cobblestone streets, cafes, and shops will await you.

On the other hand, Cancun offers small sections of pedestrian-friendly areas that aren’t connected. Some of the best areas are around Gaviota Beach and La Isla Shopping Village. You can also walk around the Parque de las Palapas in downtown Cancun.

However, you’ll need a car to drive between these, and many other sites of interest in Cancun require transportation for getting there.

9. Cancun Is Better For Underwater Sports

Spotted fish with yellow tails.

If you’re hoping to scuba dive or snorkel, your choice between Cancun vs Puerto Vallarta is easy: Choose Cancun.

Cancun gets its marine claim to fame by being one of several Latin American countries that get to call the Mesoamerican Reef theirs. This nearly 700-mile-long reef brings in hundreds of species of marine life including colorful fish, sea turtles, and sharks.

To top it off, Cancun’s water is almost always clear, barring sargassum season and any storms that kick up debris.

There’s another distinction that makes Cancun great for snorkeling—the water is often warmer than in Puerto Vallarta.

But if the marine lover in you ends up visiting Puerto Vallarta, all hope isn’t lost. You can still snorkel and dive there, with Colomitos Beach being a popular spot. You just might not see as much wildlife diversity as in Cancun.

10. Puerto Vallarta Feels Safer

Fireworks over a beach in Puerto Vallarta.

Yes, I’m going against the travel blogger grain when it comes to being diplomatic about a destination’s safety. And I say this while recognizing that people have different opinions on which destination is the safest based on their personal experiences, so take what I say with a grain of salt if you wish.

As a solo female traveler, I felt safer in Puerto Vallarta than in Cancun. I’d take meandering around Puerto Vallarta at night any time over Cancun, though you should, of course, only ever do so in well-lit and populated streets in either destination.

I think a huge reason that I felt safer in Puerto Vallarta is that the tourist district is concentrated along the Malecón and Zona Romántica. Read: Lots of people, well-lit streets, shops and restaurants open late at night, and more police presence.

In contrast, the Hotel Zone in Cancun is so spread out that you often need to drive or take an Uber to get to many places. And if you try to go large stretches on foot in quieter areas, a higher likelihood of trouble could set in.

11. Cancun Offers More Attractive Day Trip Options

A view of round ruins from Isla Mujeres.
A view of the Cancun skyline in the distance from Isla Mujeres.

Here’s an interesting approach: Some people stay in Cancun not because they love the area but because they love the convenience it offers for seeing other parts of the Yucatan.

You already know you’ll be within close proximity to ruins and cenotes by being in Cancun—two items that Puerto Vallarta doesn’t offer. However, below are some other Cancun day trips you can take:

  • Isla Mujeres
  • Cozumel
  • Playa del Carmen
  • Tulum
  • Akumal
  • Isla Contoy

Isla Mujeres is the closest of these destinations, at only about a 20-minute ferry ride away.

That said, Puerto Vallarta also offers day trip options. Many require a boat ride to get to, although you can drive to some. Examples include:

  • Yelapa
  • Sayulita
  • Las Caletas
  • Islas Marietas

12. Puerto Vallarta Offers Whale-watching

Comparting Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun in terms of whales can get a little confusing, given that Cancun has whale sharks and Puerto Vallarta has the real-deal whales.

So, what’s the difference?

Whale sharks are fish. Massive fish, mind you—they’re the largest fish in the world, measuring over 40 feet long.

It just so happens you can sign up for a tour to swim with whale sharks in Cancun from around May – August. In contrast, you won’t find any tours in Puerto Vallarta touting the option to swim with Humpback whales.

However, you can sign up for a whale-watching tour in Puerto Vallarta. These boat tours run from around December – March.

If you’re trying to save some cash, you can try to do whale watching from the beach or your hotel balcony instead.

Similarities Between Puerto Vallarta and Cancun

So, you know the differences between Cancun and Puerto Vallarta. Now let’s explore how these destinations are similar.

1. Flying Is the Best Way to Travel Between the Two

When comparing Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun, flying is the best way to arrive between the two.

Have you decided that you’d like to visit both Cancun and Puerto Vallarta? If so, does a 30-hour drive appeal to you?

If not, it’s time to look up Cancun to Puerto Vallarta flights, for that’s the best way to travel between these destinations.

Unfortunately, there aren’t any direct flights from Puerto Vallarta to Cancun. I know—it seems absurd given the popularity of these destinations. Needless to say, you can count on having a layover, most likely in Mexico City.

The good news is that both Cancun and Puerto Vallarta have international airports. So, you should be able to easily book your international flight into one of them and out of the other.

2. Both Have Two Towns

A cobblestone side street in Puerto Vallarta.

When comparing Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun, each has two towns. Or, perhaps better put, two distinct parts of their city. Let’s start with Cancun.

Cancun is divided up into the touristy Hotel Zone and the more local downtown Cancun.

Most tourists only visit the Hotel Zone. For starters, it’s on the water. It’s also more modern, generally considered safer, and has more big-brand hotel and restaurant chains.

In contrast, the most touristy part of downtown Cancun, around Parque de las Palapas, is rather run-down. If you can look past that, it has excellent local restaurants and unbeatable prices on, well, everything compared to the Hotel Zone.

Personally, I usually stay at Selina in downtown Cancun when I pass through the area, given that it’s a stone’s throw away from the ADO bus station. But if the purpose of your Cancun vacay is to relax and beach it, I recommend sticking with the Hotel Zone.

Now, let’s talk about Puerto Vallarta’s two towns.

Puerto Vallarta is divided into Nuevo Vallarta to the north and downtown Puerto Vallarta to the south.

Downtown Puerto Vallarta is home to the Malecón and all things touristy. In contrast, Nuevo Vallarta feels more like city sprawl and doesn’t have downtown’s quaint cobblestone roads.

Nevertheless, Nuevo Vallarta offers longer stretches of beach than downtown Puerto Vallarta. You can also find more economical beachfront hotels in that area and there’s more of a local vibe. So, both options have their positives; it simply depends on the type of experience you’re looking to have.

3. Both Have Nightlife

When look at Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun both have a lot of bars and nightclubs.

Coco Bongo, Mandala, and Señor Frogs are some popular club and bar names that you’ll encounter in Puerto Vallarta and Cancun.

In both cases, the nightlife is primarily concentrated along a boulevard in their respective tourist areas. But of the two, I personally think that Puerto Vallarta’s nightlife scene is more pleasant, given that it sits along the pedestrian Malecón boardwalk facing the ocean.

On the other hand, much of Cancun’s club and bar scene faces the ocean on one side and the main street that runs through the Hotel Zone on the other.

Whereas Cancun is known for its rowdy nightlife scene, Puerto Vallarta is a relatively quieter place to party it up.

4. Rain Is Abundant

A beach in Cancun on a rainy day.

Don’t be fooled by Puerto Vallarta’s location on the Pacific Ocean beneath California—it has a tropical climate similar to Cancun.

That said, PV’s rainy season tends to be shorter than Cancun’s. The rainy seasons are as follows:

Puerto Vallarta: June – October

Cancun: May – October

Unlike the U.S., where hurricanes rarely hit the Pacific coast, Mexico’s Pacific coast can receive hurricanes. So, if you book your trip during hurricane season, know that there’s the possibility of one striking in Puerto Vallarta or Cancun.

5. Prices Are Comparable

A taco sign with prices in pesos.

You might be wondering—is Puerto Vallarta cheaper than Cancun?

Not really. Puerto Vallarta and Cancun have similar prices, with the cost of living exponentially higher along the coast than in the inland parts of these cities.

So, if you want to splurge on fine (or not so fine) dining by the coast, get ready to dig deep into your wallet.

The good news for budget seekers is that you can walk a few streets inland and encounter stands selling to-die-for tacos for around $1 each.

6. Lots of Shopping Options

The Malecon boardwalk in Puerto Vallarta.

If you’re a shopaholic comparing Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun, it’s hard to go wrong. Both destinations offer everything from flashy tourist shops to upscale malls.

Forum by the Sea is one of the most popular shopping centers in Cancun, given that it’s ideally situated in the most populous part of the Hotel Zone.

In contrast, you’ll likely need to hop in a taxi or bus to get to the malls in Puerto Vallarta, which sit near the coast but north of the tourist downtown center.

7. Local and International Cuisine

A plate of cactus tacos.

Since Puerto Vallarta and Cancun attract so many tourists, you can find just about any type of international food your heart desires.

And if your heart is desiring Mexican cuisine, you’ll be in great hands too.

Make sure to try nopal regardless of the destination you choose. Nopal is a type of cactus, and you can even buy entire tacos stuffed with it, as seen in the photo above.

So, Is Cancun or Puerto Vallarta Better?

Whether Cancun or Puerto Vallarta is better depends on personal preference.

I’m partial to Puerto Vallarta because I love its more laid-back vibe and mountainous scenery. But by now, I hope this Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun comparison has helped you decide which destination you’d prefer.

I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments section after you’ve visited one or both of these destinations. You’re also welcome to leave questions, and I’ll do my best to help.