Sayulita vs. Puerto Vallarta: 14 Must-Know Differences

So, you’ve decided to visit Mexico’s west coast. Congrats! You’re in for a treat—sandy beaches, delicious food, and beautiful hills await you.

However, choosing where to stay on the west coast can have a huge impact on the quality of your trip. So, if you’re wondering, Is it better to stay in Sayulita or Puerto Vallarta? I’ve got your back.

I spent one month in Sayulita, during which I visited Puerto Vallarta three times.

I’ll help you understand the differences between Sayulita vs. Puerto Vallarta so that you can (coconut) milk the most out of your vacation.

Accessibility Note: Puerto Vallarta offers better wheelchair accessibility than Sayulita. You can read about its accessible features in our guide on wheelchair accessibility in Puerto Vallarta.

A Quick Run-Down of Sayulita vs. Puerto Vallarta

If you don’t have the luxury of time to read through a post on Sayulita and Puerto Vallarta (I’m looking at you, reader who’s waiting in line at customs), the chart below gives an overview of what this article is all about.

FeatureSayulitaPuerto Vallarta
SizeSmallMedium
Types of peopleHippies & backpackersRetirees & LGBTQ+
Beach optionsFewMany
Dog friendlinessExcellentModerate
High-rise condosNoYes
Bank availabilityPoorExcellent
Acceptance of credit cardsPoorExcellent
Bus terminal locationExcellentPoor
Number of activitiesFewMany
Exploration methodFoot or golf cartFoot, taxi, Uber, or scooter
Party styleSmall barsLarge nightclubs
SurfingExcellentPoor
ShoppingSmall boutique storesUpscale shopping malls

Distance From Sayulita to Puerto Vallarta

The distance from Sayulita to Puerto Vallarta depends on where in Puerto Vallarta you’ll be heading (Nuevo Vallarta is closer to Sayulita than Puerto Vallarta).

But I’ll follow Google’s recommendation on this one and tell you that Sayulita is 42 kilometers from Puerto Vallarta.

So, what does that equate to in driving time?

If you rent a car or hail a taxi, you can expect the drive to take you a little over one hour.

Should buses be up your travel style alley (raising my hand here!), it’ll take you between 80 – 90 minutes. Granted, this timing is for getting off in Nuevo Vallarta. From there you’ll need to hop on a bus or in a cab for another 20 – 30 minute drive to get to the famous Malecón boardwalk.

Arriving at the Airport

Regardless of whether you choose to visit Puerto Vallarta or Sayulita, you’ll need to arrive at the Puerto Vallarta airport (assuming that you’re going by plane).

The good news for Sayulita goers?

You’ll be on the Nuevo Vallarta side of Puerto Vallarta. So, it shortens how long you have to battle traffic compared to traveling from downtown Puerto Vallarta.

Sayulita vs. Puerto Vallarta: 14 Differences

Now that we’ve got the basics out of the way, let’s explore the differences between Puerto Vallarta and Sayulita.

1. Sayulita Is a Small Town

Chocobanana restaurant in Sayulita.

One of the first questions on your mind when comparing Sayulita vs. Puerto Vallarta is likely their sizes. According to Data Mexico, in 2020, the populations of these destinations were as follows.

  • Sayulita: 2,262
  • Puerto Vallarta: 291,839

What a difference!

And you can feel that difference when visiting them. Sayulita has two main roads that run parallel to the ocean; about four blocks of those roads make up the touristy downtown center.

In contrast, the Malecón alone in Puerto Vallarta is one-mile long. On top of that, you can head north to Nuevo Vallarta for more beaches and upscale shopping, or behind the Malecón for cute cafes and bars. Furthermore, you can travel down Highway 200 for more beaches and stunning ocean views.

2. Puerto Vallarta Is Ideal for Retirees and the LGBTQ+ Community

A view of a river in Puerto Vallarta.

If you’re a retiree or member of the LGBTQ+ community and want to meet others with these identities, Puerto Vallarta is the place to go.

That’s not to say you can’t find such people in Sayulita, of course. And of the two, based on my personal observation, the LGBTQ+ community has a stronger presence in Sayulita than retirees.

However, if your goal is to connect with retirees and people that identify as LGBTQ+ and you’re on the fence about whether to visit Puerto Vallarta or Sayulita, the solution is easy—book your accommodation in Puerto Vallarta.

3. Backpackers and Hippies Are in Sayulita

Corn artwork with a third eye in Sayulita.

Let me start with this—Sayulita is expensive. Nevertheless, it attracts more backpackers and hippies than Puerto Vallarta, thanks to its bohemian vibe.

Whereas the art on the streets of Puerto Vallarta (especially the Malecón) is organized and showcases some famous artists, the art in Sayulita is colorful and earthy.

It’s hard to meander around Sayulita without catching a whiff of marijuana, and even harder to pass a street without someone walking around barefoot, their sea salt-soaked hair drying in the sun and surfboard in hand.

So, when comparing Puerto Vallarta vs. Sayulita, if you’re looking to be around a greater number of laid-back hippies, Sayulita is your place.

4. Puerto Vallarta Offers More Beaches

When comparing Sayulita vs. Puerto Vallarta, Puerto Vallarta has more beaches.

If you love beach hopping, Puerto Vallarta offers more opportunities for time in new sand than Sayulita. Much of this has to do with how much more coastal space encompasses Puerto Vallarta.

Some of Puerto Vallarta’s most popular beaches include:

  • Playa Los Muertos
  • Playa Conchas Chinas
  • Playa Las Gemelas
  • Playa Yelapa

Admittedly, Playa Los Muertos is the only beach on this list that’s in the main tourist area of Puerto Vallarta (Zona Romántica, to be exact).

So, you’ll need a car or scooter to get to Playa Conchas Chinas and Las Gemelas. As for Playa Yelapa, the best way to get there is by boat.

Yelapa Beach on the outskirts of Puerto Vallarta.
Yelapa Beach.

However, there are a lot more beaches than those on this list, including ones in the tourist center.

In contrast, Sayulita has one main beach, aptly named Playa Sayulita, which they framed the touristy part of town around. You can also visit the smaller but almost equally crowded Playa De Los Muertos.

Should you be up for a hike, I recommend crossing to Playa Carricitos on the opposite side of the peninsula. Here, you’ll have a pristine beach almost entirely to yourself.

These three beaches are about as many beach choices as you’ll have in Sayulita, though.

5. Sayulita Is a Dog Lover’s Paradise

A dog playing at the beach in Sayulita.

Animals may not be the first thing you think of when comparing Sayulita vs. Puerto Vallarta, but if you visit Sayulita, you’ll know what I mean—it has a big dog culture.

This is in huge thanks to SayulitAnimals, an organization founded in 2009 that runs a donation-based spay and neuter clinic. They also support dog and cat rescues, matching these animals with a foster family in Sayulita, the U.S., or Canada.

Many people—especially remote workers—spend the winters, if not the whole year, in Sayulita. Some bring their dogs with them, some foster through SayulitAnimals, and others simply love-on the street dogs there.

Should you be in Sayulita with a dog, you can assume they’ll be welcome in just about any restaurant or shop.

During my one-month stay in Sayulita, I never encountered a sick or hungry dog. It was heartwarming to see and a testament to the impact a single organization can have.

In contrast, I saw far fewer dogs in Puerto Vallarta, both with and without homes. However, if you’re staying there and want to harness your animal-loving ways, reach out to SPCA Puerto Vallarta to see how you can help.

6. Puerto Vallarta Has High-Rise Condos

A line of condos in front of the beach in Zona Romantica, Puerto Vallarta.

If you’re trying to judge from a photo whether you’re looking at Puerto Vallarta or Sayulita, you can tell from the skyline.

Dozens of high-rise condos line Puerto Vallarta’s shores and hillsides. These condos are shiny, modern, and with a price to match the outstanding views they offer.

In contrast, Sayulita has zero high-rise buildings—a tall building there typically stands no more than three or four stories high.

7. Sayulita Has One Bank

If you have a less-than-ideal history of having troubles with your debit card when abroad, Sayulita’s banking situation will make you squirm.

Sayulita has one bank—Intercam Banco—which sits on the outskirts of town on the road leading to the bus station.

The good news is that you don’t have to walk all the way to the bank to take out money—there are three or four ATMs in town, all of which sit outside shops and restaurants.

They look a little sketchy, but I never had an issue with them. Furthermore, I was able to avoid the $5 ATM fee since I have a Schwab bank card.

Nevertheless, when comparing Puerto Vallarta vs. Sayulita in terms of banks, Puerto Vallarta takes the cake. You can find countless banks in Puerto Vallarta for all your banking needs.

And, yes, that means you’ll get to go inside a bank to withdraw money from an ATM.

8. Credit Cards Are More Widely Accepted in Puerto Vallarta

Here’s another reason why a working debit card is so important in Sayulita—many, if not most, restaurants and shops only accept cash.

Of the handful of places that do accept credit cards, they often only accept Visa or MasterCard. Needless to say, I recommend keeping some emergency pesos set aside in case you get into a bind with having issues withdrawing money from an ATM.

In contrast, you can expect most restaurants and shops in Puerto Vallarta to accept credit card payments.

So, unless you eat at a street taco stand (which I highly recommend) or buy a souvenir from a local stand on the street (I also recommend), you can expect to have the option to pay for most things in Puerto Vallarta with a credit card.

Travel Tip: Watch out for additional charges when using a credit card in Mexico. Some companies charge a 5% fee to cover the cost the credit card company charges them. They should tell you this upfront, but it’s always best to ask before handing over your plastic.

9. Sayulita’s Bus Terminal Is Well-Located

A Compostela bus that runs between Sayulita and Puerto Vallarta.

When comparing Sayulita vs. Puerto Vallarta, there’s a big difference in their bus terminal locations.

Thanks to Sayulita’s small size, it will take you less than ten minutes to walk from the tourist center to the bus terminal located on the road out of town.

Therefore, if you’re arriving or departing Sayulita by bus, there’s little need to hail a cab if you’ll be staying in town and can carry your luggage without assistance. However, taxis are available if you’ll be staying in the hills above the center of town.

On the other hand, getting to Puerto Vallarta’s bus terminal will require either a taxi or bus if you want to get to the Malecón and Zona Romántica.

However, if you’ll be traveling to Sayulita from Puerto Vallarta, don’t go to the bus station. Instead, catch a taxi or bus and have them drop you off at the bus stop in front of Walmart. That’s the primary spot where the route to Sayulita begins.

10. Puerto Vallarta Offers More Activities

A view of boats in Boca de Tomatlan.
Boca de Tomatlan, a town on the outskirts of Puerto Vallarta that you can arrive at from Highway 200.

If your ideal vacation is packing in as many activities as possible, the choice between Puerto Vallarta and Sayulita is easy—choose Puerto Vallarta.

For starters, there’s a lot you can explore in Puerto Vallarta by foot, with the Malecón and Zona Romántica being the most popular activities.

Other activities you can do in and around Puerto Vallarta include:

  • Visit Islas Marietas (limited number of tickets per day)
  • Hike to Mirador de Cruz
  • Take a whale watching tour (December – March)
  • Drive south along Highway 200 for stunning ocean views

Furthermore, if you want an off-the-beaten-path Puerto Vallarta experience, rent a scooter and head up into the hills to gawk at the fancy condos and get breathtaking views.

In contrast, the main draws of Sayulita are surfing, hanging out on the beach, and eating yourself silly at all the cute cafes and restaurants.

Of course, if you’re itching to get out of such a small town, you can take a day trip to Puerto Vallarta or head to a nearby beach town like San Pancho.

11. Sayulita Is Best Explored By Foot or Golf Cart

A cobblestone street with vendors in Sayulita.

I’ve already established that Sayulita is small. It’s so small, in fact, that many people who wish to get around on wheels opt for a golf cart instead of a vehicle.

However, unless you’re living super high up a hill outside of downtown, you’ll likely be able to get along just fine by foot. Alternatively, you can rent a golf cart for the day for kicks and giggles (and so you can more comfortably explore the steep streets behind the main town.

Needless to say, a huge difference between Puerto Vallarta vs. Sayulita is that you can’t get away with never using a vehicle during your trip. At the very least, you’ll need a taxi, Uber, or bus to get you from the airport, bus station, or cruise terminal into Puerto Vallarta’s tourist center.

However, I highly recommend taking the scenic trip south on Highway 200 from Puerto Vallarta to Boca de Tomatlan. You can get there via bus, taxi, Uber, or scooter.

12. Puerto Vallarta Is Where the Fancy Parties Are At

A view of the Zona Romantica coastline at night in Puerto Vallarta.

Sayulita and Puerto Vallarta are both party towns but with their own style.

If your idea of partying is going to massive clubs with dancefloors, head to Puerto Vallarta. In fact, there’s even a famed Mandala Club there.

Many night clubs in Puerto Vallarta line the Malecón, making it easy to club hop. Parties go on well into the early hours of the morning.

In contrast, Sayulita has a bar and beach party scene. It’s more laid-back and informal than much of Puerto Vallarta’s parties, where people often dress to the nines.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that the parties end early—whether you visit Sayulita or Puerto Vallarta, you can expect parties every day, sometimes even until sunrise.

13. Surfing is Better in Sayulita

A view of the waves at Sayulita Beach.

If you’re a surfer comparing Sayulita vs. Puerto Vallarta for the best waves, Sayulita is hands-down the better option.

That said, Sayulita’s waves likely won’t impress an experienced surfer. Although you can count on Sayulita having waves year-round, they’re ideal for beginner and intermediate surfers.

There’s no shortage of people offering lessons in Sayulita and surf boards you can rent.

And if you’re just getting started, heading to the south end is your best bet. This is where the majority of surfers congregate, but it’s because the waves are ideal for newbies.

In contrast, you might be able to catch some relatively larger waves at the center and north ends of Sayulita beach.

As for surfing in Puerto Vallarta, forget it.

Puerto Vallarta sits in a large, curved bay, and there usually isn’t a large enough surf to make it worth it.

14. You’ll Have More Shopping Options in Puerto Vallarta

The Malecon in Puerto Vallarta.

Puerto Vallarta is packed with high-end shops at malls like La Isla and Galerias. There, you’ll have access to an array of globally-recognized clothing stores.

If shopping for souveniors is more your style, the street along and behind the Malecón offer these options (you might need cash at those places).

In contrast, people staying in Sayulita long-term who want to change up their wardrobe often take a trip to Puerto Vallarta to do their clothes shopping; Sayulita only has a few local boutique clothing shops.

However, like in Puerto Vallarta, you can find a good amount of local souvenir shops in Sayulita.

As you may have guessed, when comparing Puerto Vallarta or Sayulita in terms of restaurants after you do all your shopping, Puerto Vallarta offers far more options. But I assure you that the restaurants and cafes Sayulita has are mouthwatering.

Similarities Between Puerto Vallarta and Sayulita

Now that we covered the differences between Sayulita vs. Puerto Vallarta, let’s look at the similarities that these destinations share.

1. They Get Crowded

Despite Puerto Vallarta having more beaches, you can feel the crowds almost everywhere. And because of Sayulita’s limited beach space, there really are crowds everywhere.

The winter months are the most crowded in both Puerto Vallarta and Sayulita (December – mid-April).

2. You’ll Need to Withdraw Extra Pesos

Both Sayulita and Puerto Vallarta are expensive destinations. Hotels, Airbnbs, food, and tours cost significantly more than many other parts of Mexico.

So, when comparing Puerto Vallarta or Sayulita in terms of where you can save the most money, there’s little difference.

3. Hilly Landscapes

Beautiful hills frame both Sayulita and Puerto Vallarta’s beaches. Even better, the vegetation becomes lush and tropical once rainfall starts during the summer.

Although the hills in both of these destinations are beautiful, my absolute favorite spot is admiring this landscape looking south from the beach in Zona Romántica, Puerto Vallarta.

4. You Can Take Day Trips From Both Destinations

A view of Boca de Tomatlan from Highway 200.
A view of Boca de Tomatlan from Highway 200.

Although there’s more to do in Puerto Vallarta without having to leave it, I recommend taking at least one day trip—that journey down Highway 200 to Boca de Tomatlan.

Nevertheless, when comparing Puerto Vallarta vs. Sayulita in terms of day trips, the truth is that because of the proximity of these destinations to one another, you can pretty much take the same day trips.

Examples include:

  • San Pancho Beach
  • Islas Marietas
  • Yelapa
  • Bucerias
  • Punta de Mita
  • Tequila town, home of the tequila drink

5. Safety

Sayulita and Puerto Vallarta both offer outstanding safety.

As a solo female traveler, I felt safe meandering around the tourist center of these destinations both day and night. In fact, I felt they’re among the safest places I’ve visited in Mexico (with Oaxaca City and Merida being of similar safety, from my experience).

So, as long as you’re practicing basic safety practices that you should anywhere, like avoiding dark streets at night and not flashing fancy jewelry, you should be fine.

6. Tourists-Turned-Residents Plop in Both Spots

Puerto Vallarta and Sayulita are both such charming destinations that it’s common for visitors to become residents.

Of course, given Puerto Vallarta’s size and its popularity as a retirement destination, you’ll find a greater number of expats living in Puerto Vallarta.

However, I met lots of expats who call Sayulita home for a portion or all of the year—especially those who love surfing.

Can’t Decide? Take a Day Trip!

I intended this comparison of Sayulita vs. Puerto Vallarta to help you choose your home base. But I wholeheartedly believe that if you have the time, you should visit whatever destination you end up not staying in.

Since taking a day trip to Sayulita from Puerto Vallarta and vice versa involves a maximum 1.5-hour drive each way, it’s easy to explore both places.

FAQs About Sayulita and Puerto Vallarta

Beach dining at sunset in Puerto Vallarta.
Beach dining in Puerto Vallarta.

Do you still have questions about traveling to Sayulita or Puerto Vallarta? The answers below might help.

When is high season in Sayulita and Puerto Vallarta?

The high season in Sayulita and Puerto Vallarta is during the winter when temperatures are cooler and rain and clouds are nearly non-existent.

So, you can expect to encounter the greatest number of tourists from December – mid-April. Summer is the low season in these destinations, should you want to avoid the crowds.

Is Puerto Vallarta or Sayulita better for families?

Puerto Vallarta is better than Sayulita for families. The city has more amenities for kids, large pedestrian paths where you don’t have to worry about your child getting hit by a car on Sayulita’s narrow streets, and (during the daytime) a relatively more family-friendly crowd.

That’s not to say that Sayulita is a bad place for kids, but they’ll likely get bored there faster compared to Puerto Vallarta.

Are Sayulita and Puerto Vallarta loud?

Pink fireworks over the ocean in Puerto Vallarta.

During the daytime Sayulita and Puerto Vallarta have average to medium noise volume for a tourist destination. But at night, both destinations become louder as bars and clubs welcome customers.

Fireworks also go off between 8:00 – 9:00 pm every night in Puerto Vallarta.

However, if you stay in the hills in both Sayulita and Puerto Vallarta, you can expect a mostly quiet experience (with the exception of some roosters crowing) compared to staying in the tourist center.

Is there an airport in Sayulita?

No, there isn’t an airport in Sayulita. The closest airport to Sayulita is the Puerto Vallarta International Airport.

Sayulita vs. Puerto Vallarta: Which Will You Choose?

Palm trees and the sun.

Puerto Vallarta and Sayulita are both destinations that deserve a visit. However, they’re different enough where most people have an affinity to one destination over the other.

So, what’ll it be—Sayulita or Puerto Vallarta?

If you still have questions about these destinations, leave a comment and I’ll do my best to help. I’d also love to hear from you after your trip—your experience and takeaways will surely help future readers with their decision.