The land of tacos and tequila promises to be a dreamy vacation choice, no matter where you go. Winter sun is always a good idea, but the area of the country you pick can make all the difference.
Cabo San Lucas, often shortened to Cabo, sits on the southernmost tip of the Baja Peninsula. The resort town is known for its beaches and party atmosphere and is a popular vacation spot for Californians. The area is ‘Americanized’, but the tourist-oriented scene means there’s great shopping, activities, and nightlife to indulge in. Like Cabo, Puerto Vallarta is on Mexico’s west coast. Tucked away in the Bay of Banderas, Puerto Vallarta is bigger but quieter than Cabo and has a totally different landscape. But which is better?
From the beaches to the hotels and the best time to go, our guide runs through all the points of comparison between Cabo and Puerto Vallarta so you can make the right choice for your next Mexican getaway. So which will it be? Let’s find out.
Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta: The Vibe
Regardless of which area you pick, you’ll find genuine Mexican hospitality and tropical weather in both Cabo and Puerto Vallarta, but the general vibes are very different. Once a fishing village, Puerto Vallarta has boomed on the digital nomad and surf scenes in recent years. It has become somewhat of a thriving resort destination, but it remains trendy and laidback, with the same authentic Mexican charm the small town always had.
In the Jalisco State on the Pacific Coast, set to the backdrop of the Sierra Madre Mountains, Puerto Vallarta’s wild jungle landscape make the crystal-clear waters even more alluring. The modern condos and resorts are tastefully blended with the colonial architecture, and the quaint Old Town with its cobblestone streets, hidden eateries, and traditional houses remain unspoiled.
Cabo has also come leaps and bounds in the last few years. Popular with American tourists, just a stone’s throw from the Californian border, it’s a semi-annual vacation destination or home-away-from-home for many. Cabo is also a hotspot on the Spring Break scene, coming alive once a year with American undergrads in hunt of sun and cheap alcohol.
The scenery in Cabo is vastly different from Puerto Vallarta. Nestled between the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez, you’ll find cacti-strewn deserts and barren stretches of white sand, a far cry from Puerto Vallarta’s dense jungle landscape. Cabo is also well-known for its party scene and stands out from Puerto Vallarta with its fast-paced young crowds.
Cabo is flashy and lively. Swanky resorts line the beachfront, and there’s no shortage of souvenir shops, day clubs, beach entertainment, and dance bars. Still, Puerto Vallarta has a bit of everything from vibrant street culture and nightlife, to slow-paced beach living, with a varied vibe to suit all crowds.
Winner: Puerto Vallarta
Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta: The Beaches
Although Cabo is the busier resort hotspot, Puerto Vallarta has the best beaches for swimming. Steep ocean drop-offs create strong undercurrents and rip tides making many of Cabo’s beaches unsafe for taking a dip. This doesn’t deter the crowds, with these luscious golden shores lined with beach clubs and sunbeds. But many are marked with red flags to warn swimmers away.
Cradled by the Bay of Banderas, Puerto Vallarta is sheltered from tropical storms, and its shores are fringed with lush palms. The bays and beaches are perfect for swimmers, with warm, calmer waters than the Pacific Ocean. Puerto Vallarta is also popular for scuba diving, snorkeling, and kayaking, and in winter, it even offers some good surf. But in the summers, the waves calm down, and clearer water makes the beaches more magical.
Medano Beach, Palmilla Beach, and Chileno Beach in Cabo are known to be swimmable and are home to some diverse marine life. Marine explorer Jacque Cousteau once called the Sea of Cortez the “world’s aquarium,” so it’s no surprise that Cabo is popular among divers. Sharks and rays can be seen almost everywhere in the Cabo San Lucas marine park, especially in the spring months. This might deter some holidaymakers, but it draws marine lovers to the warm waters from April to June.
Las Gemalas, Los Muertos, and Yelapa are highlights of Puerto Vallarta’s beach scene. Yelapa especially, only reachable by boat, is entirely secluded and inhabited by a small community of welcoming long-time residents. The sleepy bay is barely touched by tourism, and the crystal-clear waters and sugary white sands are paradisical.
Winner: Puerto Vallarta
Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta: Nightlife
Where Mexican tradition meets world-class hospitality, it won’t come as a surprise that Puerto Vallarta’s nightlife caters to everyone. From budget backpackers looking to slow it down at the beachfront bars to more sophisticated club hoppers looking for all-day parties, when the sun sets, the city comes alive.
Puerto Vallarta might be slightly more varied in evening entertainment, with culture and performance for families, too. But Cabo is far better-equipped for crowds of seasoned party animals, and the nightlife is one of the main pull factors to the area.
At certain times of the year, namely Spring Break and the summer months, Cabo is a 24-hour party hotspot with which Puerto Vallarta can’t compete. Cabo still has a less artificial-feeling nightlife than the huge tourist zones of Cancun and Tulum, but with seven-odd large clubs and dozens of small, lively bars, it has some of the best nightlife in Mexico.
From day to night, summer through winter, the party never ends in Cabo. Jungle Bar, Nowhere Bar, and Cabo Wabo Cantina are some of the most loved spots for Spring Breakers and backpackers alike. Puerto Vallarta’s party scene comes out pale in comparison.
Winner: Cabo San Lucas
Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta: The Things to Do
Lots of the activities on offer in Cabo and Puerto Vallarta are centered around the sea, with most visitors prioritizing the fantastic beaches on their Mexican getaway. But the vastly different landscapes are not to be ignored either.
Cabo is in reaching distance of the Santa Rita Hot Springs, just 90 minutes from the center in Sierra de La Laguna. Surrounded by desert fauna, the tranquil oasis is perfect for bathing and reveling in the small waterfalls and white rock piles. Or check out Cabo Pulmo National Park for snorkeling with manta arrays and sea turtles, and try your luck at catching a glimpse of a whale shark. Cabo is also great for hiking, with Mount Solmar just a stone’s throw from the white sands. The summit offers breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and an exhilarating climb.
The old Mexican feel of Puerto Vallarta seeps into the daytime activities in the city, and it’s easy to spend hours wandering the cobbled streets and dipping in and out of the quaint craft stores as you get lost in the laidback beach vibes. But watersports are popular in the calm seas, and Puerto Vallarta is a great place to snorkel. We recommend taking a trip to the Marietas Islands, just a few kilometers by boat from the city. Here you can swim with turtles and rays and snap some great underwater pictures if you have your Go-Pro handy.
Puerto Vallarta is also typographically unique. The rugged mountains and lush jungles rolling down to the beaches stand out from other parts of the Yucatan. From ziplining through the jungle to rappelling down and waterfall and driving quad bikes through the Sierra Madre, Puerto Vallarta is as suited to the adrenaline junky as it is to a young family or honeymooning couple.
Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta: The Weather
Mexico benefits from a year-round tropical climate, with west coast Vallarta and the Baja Peninsula’s Cabo sharing more than 200 sunny days a year. Temperatures remain around the mid-80s in the two destinations, but both fall victim to Mexico’s temperamental hurricane season.
Heavy rain, strong winds, and wild waves can put a dampener on your holiday, but Mexico’s two defining seasons make the weather relatively easy to predict. The rainy season runs from May to mid-October in both Pacific coast hotspots, with most storms occurring in September and early summer typically remaining pleasant. Winter in the northern hemisphere is the driest time in Cabo and Puerto Vallarta and a great time to visit, although there are some distinct differences in their climates.
Puerto Vallarta remains more consistently dry than Cabo, and November through till April guarantees little rain and dreamy blue skies. At the same time, Cabo’s desert climate makes it less humid than Puerto Vallarta. Although it doesn’t benefit from the shelter the Bay of Banderas affords, hurricanes usually dilute to tropical storms by the time they reach Baja.
December to March is a great time to visit Cabo, just like Puerto Vallarta. But the shoulder season from April to June in Puerto Vallarta is when high season prices start to come down, although hurricane season hasn’t officially begun. The same goes for November when the humidity drops, but winter tourists haven’t arrived. In comparison, Cabo doesn’t quite benefit from the same low-season discounts. Spring Breakers appear in their thousands in March and April, and the crowds fail to cease until late May.
Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta: The Accomodation
You won’t struggle to find world-class luxury and amenities in Cabo and Puerto Vallarta. The resort towns are lined with boutique hotels, family-friendly complexes, and welcoming guest houses. The significant difference between the areas is that Cabo tailors toward low-effort escapes, whether that is five-star luxury or all-inclusive party resorts.
Puerto Vallarta offers more diverse and authentic Mexican living. There’s no shortage of swanky hotels, but there are also charming haciendas, boutique apart-hotels, and budget backpacker lodgings along the seafront promenades. Puerto Vallarta better caters to the budget traveler, while Cabo is posh resort-heavy.
Check out these great places to stay in Puerto Vallarta:
Hotel Mousai ($$$) – Hotel Mousai is the first and only AAA Five Diamond rated hotel in Puerto Vallarta. The adult-only resort is a luxury and romantic hideaway, complete with outstanding spa facilities and a private stretch of beach.
Hotel Rosita ($) – The three-star hotel has everything you need for a humble beach getaway. You can do budget in style from the self-contained studios to the large outdoor pool and palm tree-laden golden sands right on your doorstep.
Oasis Hotel ($) – The best place for young and fun crowds in Puerto Vallerta, Oasis is a proper party hostel, well-equipped for backpackers. What better than a free breakfast for those rough mornings after?
And if you’re thinking about taking a trip to the Baja Peninsula, check out these top Cabo hotels:
One & Only Palmilla ($$$) – With colonial-style architecture set in a lush tropical garden, you get a taste of Mexican charm intermingled with a luxury Cabo escape.
Hotel Tesoro Los Cabos ($$)- Within the downtown Marina area, Tesoro has an Ocean Beach Ibiza vibe with a swim-up bar, two hot tubs, and a party atmosphere. The full-service spa is also worth visiting on your days off from Spring Break madness.
Hotel Los Milagros ($$) Located just 700m from the beach in the center of Cabo, Hotel Los Milagros puts you in the heart of the action without losing the boutique charm of this small hotel’s extensive terraces and gardens, complete with an outdoor pool.
Cabo vs Puerto Vallarta: The Verdict
There’s no doubt that Cabo and Puerto Vallarta both deserve a visit, but for very different reasons. If you’re a seasoned partyer or lover of luxury, Cabo is the undoubted choice with its glam resorts, a diverse nightlife, and world-famous reputation. But for a taste of authentic Mexico, Puerto Vallarta is an undeniable winner. You could spend hours getting lost in the charming cobblestoned town, strolling the Malécon, and still party the night away at the end of it all.
Puerto Vallarta is more authentic, with art everywhere and the stunning backdrop of lush jungle hillside. However, it is unfair that Cabo’s reputation has conformed to the region. If you’re still undecided on your next Mexican adventure, consider heading 20 miles northeast of Cabo San Lucas to San José del Cabo. The perfect mix of Vallarta’s Mexican charm and colonial architecture with Cabo’s breathtaking marine diversity and sophisticated accommodation. There’s a lot more to Los Cabos than partying, and San José del Cabo makes a case for it. Which region will get your vote?