Choosing between Puerto Vallarta and the Riviera Maya side of Mexico (where Cancun is located) for your vacation can be difficult. In my opinion, they’re completely different and it’s kind of like comparing apples to oranges.
Both the Caribbean and Pacific sides of Mexico each have their stunning features , so it really depends what style of vacation you’re after and what kind of vibe you’re looking for.
In general, I tend to prefer the Puerto Vallarta side over the Cancun (Riviera Maya) side, for several reasons.
In this post, we’re comparing all the major highlights to help you choose whether Puerto Vallarta or the Riviera Maya is better for you.
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Is Cancun or Puerto Vallarta Better? (quick comparison)
Let’s quickly compare how the Cancun/Riviera Maya side of Mexico stacks up against Puerto Vallarta and then we’ll go over everything in more detail.
The Cancun side of Mexico is better for a tropical all-inclusive vacation, whether you’re traveling as a family looking for kids activities and adventurous excursions or a couple on their honeymoon looking for an ultra luxurious retreat.
If you want to lounge by the pool, hit the swim up bars, walk along the beaches and not leave the resort for a week, you’ll love the Riviera Maya.
Puerto Vallarta is better for travelers who want to immerse themselves in a more authentic part of Mexico while having the option to stay at an all-inclusive resort or stay in the heart of town at a vacation rental or Airbnb.
All things considered though, you will find nice resorts and hotels with great pools on either side of Mexico.
Both Puerto Vallarta and the Riviera Maya are suitable for families, as they each have options for resorts and hotels that have kids clubs and waterparks onsite.
There’s also lots of options for adventures like snorkeling, whale watching, cenote swimming, ATVing and ziplining.
When it comes to prices, in general, the Puerto Vallarta area is going to be slightly cheaper than Cancun and the Riviera Maya.
If you’re more of an independent style of traveler, meaning you like to plan things yourself or find your own adventures as you go, Puerto Vallarta is going to be right up your alley.
If you prefer to choose a vacation package and have everything included and planned out for you, Cancun and the Riviera Maya side of Mexico is better suited for you.
On the Cancun side of Mexico, you’ll find turquoise waters, Mayan ruins, cenotes (which are underground freshwater pools and river systems), and some large eco-resort style parks, but these are akin to Disneyland-style natural outdoor parks.
The draw of Puerto Vallarta is the old town center, cobblestone streets, beach boardwalks lined with shops and restaurants and bars, jungle and mountain outdoor adventures and lots of smaller towns and villages.
Watch the full video to help you determine whether Cancun or Puerto Vallarta is better!
Areas to Stay in Puerto Vallarta or Riviera Maya
When planning a vacation to either the pacific or Caribbean side of Mexico, it’s important to note that you’ll also have to choose which area/community you’d like to stay in.
Places to Stay in Riviera Maya
This is where you’ll find the city of Cancun, and the most popular destination for vacationers.
You’ll find the resort zone, which is not in Cancun itself, but just outside, along a long stretch of beach.
This is densely populated with all-inclusive resorts and is a very busy area, of which young adults and ‘spring breakers’ usually choose.
However, there are still many great resorts to be found here, and this is the area closest to the airport.
Isla Mujeres is an island just north of Cancun and where you’ll find more luxury resorts and options for quieter resorts better suited for couples. The water that surrounds this island is also the perfect bright turquoise color. And you can rent golf carts to get around the island.
Puerto Morelos is not too far south of Cancun, and is a small Mexican port town with several big name resorts that lie just north of here.
Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen is another popular area to stay about 45 minutes to an hour south of Cancun. People like staying in this area because of the many resort choices and proximity to places like Cozumel, Xcaret eco park and cenotes.
Tulum is even further south and has become a popular town for digital nomads and health conscious travelers looking for a wellness holiday or something that feels like you’re in Bali.
Place to Stay Around Puerto Vallarta
There are many areas to choose from when considering a vacation on the Pacific coast of Mexico, specifically in the Puerto Vallarta area.
You can stay directly in the city of Puerto Vallarta itself, which is a popular option, and a fun one!
The ‘hotel zone’ is a popular choice for travelers who want to stay at an all-inclusive resort or large hotel, but still want the option to walk into the downtown areas of the city.
The romantic zone (zona romantica) is the second most popular option, and my favorite area to stay in. This is in the heart of the old downtown among the cobblestone streets and terracotta rooftops. Most accommodations here are small boutique hotels and condo vacation rentals.
Nuevo Vallarta (now called Nuevo Nayarit as of 2022) is just north of Puerto Vallarta and is home to many all-inclusive resorts and vacation rentals. Staying here is still quite close to the airport, but doesn’t feel like you’re in the city.
I’ve written a more detailed post that goes over the pros and cons of staying in each neighborhood of the Puerto Vallarta area.
Beaches and Water
You will find the tropical and exotic white sandy beaches complimented by turquoise blue water on the Riviera Maya and Caribbean side of Mexico.
If you want that picture perfect topical vacation, then this is the side you want to be on. Typically, most people find the water warmer on the Cancun side of Mexico compared to Puerto Vallarta.
That being said, the Caribbean side of Mexico is currently having issues with sargassum, a type of seaweed that washes up on shore and turns the water a light brown or beige color.
It’s worse during certain times a year, but there’s been an influx of it over the last few years.
This is one of the reasons I prefer the pacific side, this type of seaweed doesn’t happen over here.
The beaches on the Pacific side of Mexico are more golden in color and grainier in comparison to Cancun. However, you can still find pockets of softer and lighter colored sand throughout the area, you just have to know where to look.
The water in Puerto Vallarta is still warm enough to swim in, but a little chiller from January to March.
Also the beaches are very swimmable in Puerto Vallarta because of its location in Banderas Bay, which protects the area from huge swells.
One bonus item to consider, is that the sunsets are unbelievably breathtaking in the Puerto Vallarta area. This is something you don’t get on the other side of Mexico.
I wouldn’t book your trip based on this, but they’re magical over on this side.
This is why I loved staying at the Grand Palladium Vallarta. Since it’s about 40 minutes north of the airport, the beach and sand was super soft, light beige and the water was brilliant blue.
Weather and Climate
In the Cancun area, high season is typically January to April, with shoulder months on each side still being pleasant. You’ll find it’s more humid than Puerto Vallarta during these months.
In Puerto Vallarta, most tourists visit this area from December to March, where the weather is consistently pleasant but somewhat cool at night.
November and April are considered the shoulder season months and are also a nice time to visit because the weather is still great, but there are fewer tourists and prices can be a little cheaper.
Humidity decreases each month until about April and then increases as the rainy season begins.
May to July is very hot in Puerto Vallarta and this is when many local (Mexican nationals) vacation in the area.
On the Caribbean side of Mexico, you’ll mostly want to avoid visiting from September to November, as this is hurricane season.
You may not encounter a hurricane, but generally speaking it’s much more windy and rainy during these months.
On the Puerto Vallarta side of Mexico, rainy season runs from July to the end of October.
There is still potential for hurricanes on this side too, but not as often.
Activities, Excursions and Things to Do
On this side of Mexico, the must-visit attractions are the freshwater cenotes and the Mayan ruins. If you’ve never experienced either of these, I highly recommend you do at least once in your life.
Both cenotes and ruins are unique to this side of Mexico, and can also be found the more you go inland in the Yucatan state.
Here are 10 must-see cenotes in the Riviera Maya near Playa del Carmen and Tulum.
There’s also great snorkeling, especially if you take a tour which will take you to some hidden islands full of marine life.
If you’re up for a full day tour, I highly recommend going to see the Chichen Itza ruins.
This tour will also take you through Valladolid, a beautiful small city with a historic Spanish downtown center.
And there’s biospheres and nature reserves, especially if you do a daytrip (or longer) to Holbox Island, where you can swim with the whale sharks.
This is an island that’s only reachable by a small ferry, meaning there’s no cars here. It’s only 2 hours from Cancun and has a really fun beach town vibe.
Or you can go further south to Tulum where there are more ruins, and this resort area gives off a Bali retreat vibe.
One of the top ways to spend a day in Puerto Vallarta off the resort or hotel is to stroll the Malecon which is the boardwalk along the beach.
You can do this all day and into the evening as there’s lots to see and do. Another unique draw of this area is the Romantic Zone, which is the old downtown.
Wandering the streets might make you question whether you’re in Spain or Mexico.
There’s also an endless amount of day trips you can make to small fishing villages or surfer towns. Sayulita is a colorful beach town, or Yelapa is a small fishing village only accessible by boat.
This is one of the reasons the Pacific side of Mexico is my favorite.
The coastal mountains and jungle terrain also offer some fantastic hidden gem places to visit. Like the natural hot springs we visited.
Or because of the hilly terrain, there’s lots of great hiking too.
Whale watching season in Puerto Vallarta is from December through March. If you’ve never seen humpback whales breaching in the distance, it’s a pretty surreal and magical moment.
If you’re going to be visiting during these months, a whale watching tour is a must do.
But the cool thing about visiting this area is that sometimes you can even see the whales from the beach or the pool at your resort.
We saw them from the pool at the Grand Palladium Vallarta!
And tequila tours! Since tequila can only be produced in the Jalisco state of Mexico, you can go on authentic tequila farm and distillery tours, so much fun.
In addition to the above unique attractions, there’s still lots of opportunities for snorkeling, ziplining, ATVS tours and more.
Types of Hotels & Accommodations in Puerto Vallarta vs. Riviera Maya and Cancun
Accommodation Types in Cancun Riviera Maya
The Riviera Maya side of Mexico is mostly known for all-inclusive resorts that line the coast.
They’re mostly isolated from each other, meaning you won’t be able to walk from one resort to another – unless you stay in the Cancun hotel zone.
For the most part, this is the only type of accommodation you’ll find on this side of Mexico. You can choose from 2 star to luxury and high end 5 star resorts.
Now, if you choose to stay in Playa del Carmen, you can actually find some authentic smaller hotels and really great restaurants, provided you stay a few blocks away from 5th Avenue.
You can still find a good balance of a walkable city with a beach nearby.
Accommodation Types in Puerto Vallarta & Area
In the Puerto Vallarta area you’ll find high end luxury resorts, small boutique locally owned hotels, vacation rental condos and everything in between.
Luxury resorts where celebrities stay are in Punta Mita.
Big all-inclusive resorts can be found in Nuevo Vallarta, the hotel zone in Puerto Vallarta, and some on the south edge of the city.
In between, you’ll find many boutique hotels, smaller all-inclusive resorts and vacation rental condos.
I loved staying in the Romantic Zone at the Riviera del Rio Hotel, because it was walking distance to the beach, but in a neighborhood where there was a mix of both locals and tourists.
If you want to know more about this hotel, I’ve got a full video tour here.
Both the Riviera Maya and Puerto Vallarta areas are very safe for tourists.
If you’re going to stay on a resort on the Caribbean side, you will be completely safe with nothing to worry about.
Especially if you don’t leave the resort. To enter resort property, there’s a guarded gate and all persons entering must provide their name as they have an active list of guests on the property.
Puerto Vallarta is also very safe, but a little more situational awareness is always helpful. Since you’ll be walking around in a city, it’s good practice to keep your belongings secured and close to your body.
I’ve never encountered a problem with safety in Puerto Vallarta, but there are some scams tourists should be aware of before traveling there.
Prices & Cost
In general, Puerto Vallarta is cheaper than Cancun.
If you want to keep your budget low, you night want to consider opting out of the all inclusive type vacation and book your own hotel and eat out at local restaurants.
In Puerto Vallarta, you can find good, clean hotels for $30-40 per night (like Hotel Posada de Roger), and you can eat a full meal for $5 to $7.
That being said, it’s a little hard to compare, since you’ll likely be booking an all inclusive vacation if you’re staying in the Riviera Maya.
So it really comes down to flights and vacation packages and this depends on your departure city.
But, if you’re not going for the all inclusive route, you can do Puerto Vallarta on a low budget if you want, but you can also spend a lot of money too!
The nice thing about an all inclusive vacation is that everything is paid for in advance, so by the time you get there you already know what you’ve spent, to help you determine if you want to spend more on things like excursions.
Tipping is going to be the same in both Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Maya. It’s curious to tip your bartenders, serving staff, housekeeping staff and anyone else who helps make your stay special. I recommend tipping in the local currency, Mexican pesos.
And I’ve more information about currency and tipping in this Mexico travel tips post.
Comparing Culture, Vibe and Ambience
If you’re still torn between which side of Mexico is better suited for you, let’s compare the overall vibe in each place.
Puerto Vallarta Vibe
Puerto Vallarta (in the state of Jalisco) and Riviera Nayarit (just north of PV) are much more authentic, and feel like the heart and soul of Mexico when you visit.
The colonial charm is lovely.
You’ll run into the friendliest locals everywhere you go. There is so much flair and culture here – the music, the mariachi and the colors – everything is so vibrant.
Also, Puerto Vallarta is one of the most gay-friendly cities in the entire world.
Since Tequila is only produced in the state of Jalisco, there’s a strong connection to this wonderful local drink (I know some of you will disagree) and this just contributes to the upbeat and friendly vibe everywhere you go.
To compliment this, many Mexican travel into Puerto Vallarta for vacation too, so if you like being more among locals, this is something to consider.
Riviera Maya Vibe
On the other side, the natural beauty of the Mayan Riviera really can’t be beat.
The soft white sand, turquoise tropical water, cenotes and ruins are incredibly beautiful especially if you haven’t experienced them before.
The snorkeling, diving, eco reserves and natural water parks offer so many breathtaking experiences.
Why I Prefer Puerto Vallarta over Riviera Maya and Cancun
I think the difference for me, is that because of the people and the culture of Puerto Vallarta, it’s different every time I visit.
Whereas in Cancun, once you see two or three ruins, they’re kind of all the same, or you don’t really need to go see the same ruins twice. It’s somewhat similar with cenotes.
They’re all quite different from each other, but after swimming in about a dozen of them, they’re all very similar.
Another thing to consider is the reason for visiting. If you want to chill by the pool and walk along the sandy beach and play in the water, then the Cancun side might be for you.
If you’re looking for a place to move to or retire in, then Puerto Vallarta side might be a better option.