Any coastal Mexican vacation is going to give you the essential beach getaway basics: fresh seafood, Mexican culture, and all-inclusive resorts. Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas are no exception. There are key differences though. Here are seven things to think about when comparing Puerto Vallarta vs Cabo San Lucas.
Climate and Geography
Both Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas have warm temperatures in the 70s to 80s the majority of the year. They have distinct geographic features that add nuance to the scenery as well as to the weather in both locations.
Puerto Vallarta is nestled in Banderas Bay along Mexico’s west coast. The narrow coastline quickly melts into tropical jungles and the river dotted Sierra Madre Mountains. It is easy to spend your time in multiple terrains on a trip to Puerto Vallarta because the shift between the topographies is quick and drastic.
Puerto Vallarta is in its own idyllic world. The mountain range blocks Puerto Vallarta off from mainland Mexico and the bay softens the water that washes in from the tumultuous Pacific Ocean.
In contrast to Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas is at the southernmost tip of the Baja California Peninsula. The greater area surrounding the city of Cabo San Lucas is called Los Cabos. The entire Los Cabos area has destinations for tourists, though most often you will just hear references to the bustling small city of Cabo.
Don’t let the beautiful beaches and turquoise water of the coastline fool you, Los Cabos is largely a desert. You don’t have to venture far from the pristine Pacific Ocean to see a dry, but beautiful desert landscape. The drastic change from ocean to desert creates a diverse area for travel that will open up multiple opportunities for activities beyond the beaches.
The differing geography of each location directly impacts the climates of each of these destinations.
Puerto Vallarta is in a tropical climate band. The Sierra Madres block the dry climate of central Mexico and creates a tropical pocket. This means temperatures are warm and the air is humid for the majority of the year. There is a brief dry spell during the winter months. From December to April temperatures are lower and the wind tends to blow more often.
The wet season is from June to September. This time period is also considered hurricane season. You will run the risk of tropical storms crashing your vacation if you travel during the wet season.
Cabo San Lucas is a tropical desert. This means there is rarely rain and often hot temperatures. While the temperatures drop slightly in the winter months, they still remain well above freezing and are comfortable enough to spend any day of the year in the ocean.
Puerto Vallarta vs Cabo San Lucas: Geography and Climate Final Decision
If you plan on sticking to just your resort during your trip, then either location will work perfectly. If you want to venture beyond the city, you’ll need to decide if the desert or rainforest is more your vibe. The Baja Peninsula has a lot to offer, but personally, I don’t find the desert of Cabo to be as interesting or as picturesque as the mountainous rainforests of Puerto Vallarta.
The weather can be beautiful in both locations. If you can only travel during the summer or winter months you will risk stormier or colder weather in Puerto Vallarta than in Cabo depending on the season. Cabo has less climate variation throughout the year and will typically always be warm and sunny.
If you have more flexibility or just plan to travel outside of the tropical storm season or the dry winter months, then you have a fairly even match for comfortable beach weather.
If the climate and topography are your make-it-or-break-it deciding factors, the strongest contender is Puerto Vallarta during the fall or spring. If your trip will take place in the summer or winter, you are better off heading to Cabo San Lucas.
The highlight of most coastal vacations are the beaches. Both Cabo and Puerto Vallarta have miles of sand to relax and play on, as well as snorkeling, scuba diving, and boat rental options. Deciding which location has the best beaches depends on what your go-to beach activities are.
If you’re looking for wide and smooth beaches, Cabo San Lucas has better beaches. The miles of smooth sand along the Pacific Coast are great for activities, strolling, and taking a nap. Cabo’s beaches are wide and border stunningly clear ocean water.
If you don’t intend on doing more than dipping your toes in the water, any of Los Cabos’ beaches will exceed your expectations. If you’re hoping to swim, you will have a harder time because many of Cabo’s beaches are too dangerous for swimming. Riptides, strong currents, and drastic drop-offs are common.
Swimming is possible at a handful of top-tier Cabo beaches though. Medano Beach is one of the most popular tourist destinations on Los Cabos. This beach is along the harbor, making it a popular beach for cruise day-trippers and those who want to wander the town center. Medano Beach has vendors, a lot of activity, and Mexican charm. This beach is typically safe to swim at and is calmer than some of the more treacherous areas along the coast.
Lover’s Beach is another popular beach for swimming and snorkeling. This beach is only reachable by water. Water taxis are available for transportation and paddle boarding and kayaking are options too.
If you want a safe swimming beach in a less populated area, Santa Maria Beach is a perfect place to spend a day. It is secluded but isn’t lacking in amenities. Lifeguards patrol this Blue Flag beach and there are a few portable bathrooms. Vendors are on the beach, but there aren’t as many as on Medano Beach if you want a calmer atmosphere.
A few other safe swimming beaches in the Los Cabos area are Chileno Beach, Playa Bledito, and Cerritos Beach. All of them are clean, enjoyable places to safely swim with less risk of injury.
Though they aren’t safe to swim at, Divorce Beach (the aptly named counterpart to Lover’s Beach), Playa Solmar, and Hotel Beach are fun beaches to visit to relax and view the scenery and watch local surfers.
The water temperatures at Los Cabos beaches are lower than those in Puerto Vallarta. The cool currents of the Pacific Ocean crash right onto the Baja California peninsula. The air temperature is warm enough that an ocean dip in Cabo is usually refreshing despite the lower water temperature.
Puerto Vallarta Beaches
Puerto Vallarta beaches are smaller than those in Los Cabos. What the beaches lose in size they make up for in beauty. Mountains and rainforests are the backdrops to many of Puerto Vallarta’s most popular beaches.
Puerto Vallarta is a spectacular beach vacation destination because the water is warm. Banderas Bay creates a pocket of warm water uncharacteristic of Mexico’s Pacific Ocean.
As is the case in any large bay, there are weaker currents and riptides, making Puerto Vallarta a safe place to swim. The downside of Banderas Bay is sometimes the water is murkier due to less movement. The water is still beautiful in multiple locations, but don’t expect there to always be pristine water.
The easiest beaches to get to are Playa Los Muertos, Palmeras Beach, Playa de Oro, Camarones Beach, and Mismaloya Beach. All of these beaches provide proximity to the city, beach clubs or luxury resorts, and a genuinely good time. Multiple of these beaches are also Blue Flag certified which means they’re clean and the highest graded beaches in Mexico.
There are numerous beaches that are harder to get to, but will make it worth your while if you get to them. Some of the most stunning beaches in Puerto Vallarta are only accessible by boat or a hike. A handful of these beaches are former small fishing villages with quaint charm. You will not regret a trip to Caballo Beach, Garza Blanca Beach, Yelapa Beach, or Las Caletas Beach.
Las Gemelas Beach is not hard to get to, but it is a 20-minute drive from the heart of Puerto Vallarta. It is a favorite of locals, which gives credence to this beach. Another beach that isn’t necessarily difficult to get to, but is easiest to get to by car, is Conchas Chinas Beach.
Puerto Vallarta vs Cabo San Lucas: Beaches Final Decision
Both Puerto Vallarta and Cabo have beautiful beaches with activities. It is worth mentioning though that trained divers typically say that scuba diving is better in Cabo because of the clearer water than in Puerto Vallarta. If scuba diving is the point of your trip, then visit Cabo.
If you are traveling without children and don’t intend on doing a lot of swimming, then the luxury accommodations and beaches of Cabo San Lucas are a good bet.
If you will have kids in tow, like I typically do, I would recommend Puerto Vallarta because the water is safer. Most beaches will have enough to entertain children and adults alike, even though they are smaller.
Vacation is not a time that you want to be stressing about extra things. When comparing Puerto Vallarta to Cabo San Lucas it is important to recognize that Puerto Vallarta is synonymous with less stress when it comes to beach safety.
Hands down, Cabo San Lucas has more nightlife options if your definition of nightlife is partying. That isn’t to say that Puerto Vallarta doesn’t offer clubs and beach bars, it is just more prevalent in Cabo. Cabo San Lucas has a reputation as a party town and as such it is hard to throw a rock and not find a place to dance the night away.
Puerto Vallarta offers a thriving nightlife if you’re looking for a sit down restaurant or more mild entertainment. The options for high class dining in Cabo are significantly less than in Puerto Vallarta. The overall ambience and atmosphere is calmer and less tourist oriented in Puerto Vallarta and the difference in the nightlife options reflect that.
Puerto Vallarta vs Cabo San Lucas: Nightlife Final Decision
If you want a spring break party vibe, then Cabo San Lucas is where you will want to go. If you want a decent surf ‘n turf meal and a show in the evening, then I would visit Puerto Vallarta.
If your stay is long enough that you want to leave the resort town you’re staying in, both Puerto Vallarta and Cabo have day trips that will add value to your vacation.
Puerto Vallarta has multiple day trip options outside of the city beaches and popular Zona Romantica. There are multiple hikes, authentic Mexican vibe villages and towns, the bustling capital of Guadalajara, and so much more. And these trips are relatively close.
Cabo has a few intriguing day trip options, but most of them are further up the Baja Peninsula. If you have the time and find transportation there are beautiful beaches, such as La Paz, hot springs, and San Jose del Cabo.
Puerto Vallarta vs Cabo San Lucas: Day Trips Final Decision
Los Cabos has fewer day trip destinations and those they do have are harder to get to with less transportation options. Puerto Vallarta on the other hand has more day trip options that someone could feasible fit into an average length vacation. I would select Puerto Vallarta if day trips are important to you.
Cabo San Lucas is a town rife with opportunities for young, childless travelers. If you are looking for an adult only resort with a few friends or your partner, Cabo San Lucas is a good bet. Cabo San Lucas is also an excellent choice if you will be traveling alone. The city is full of tourists and chances are high you will find a friend or two to spend time with.
I am a firm believer that kids can go on vacation almost anywhere that adults can. That being said, Puerto Vallarta has more to offer families than Cabo does. While Cabo San Lucas would definitely still be enjoyable with children, Puerto Vallarta is likely to be more enjoyable.
Puerto Vallarta is also said to have a thriving and exciting LGBT scene. I wouldn’t say that Cabo is unwelcoming to anyone under the LGBT umbrella, they just don’t have as many dedicated bars, activities, and amenities for LGBT travelers. The Zona Romantica is a hot spot for LGBT travelers.
Puerto Vallarta vs Cabo San Lucas: Travel Companions Final Decision
Puerto Vallarta is a stronger choice if you are looking for a more family friendly vacation. Puerto Vallarta is also a great destination for LGBT travelers. Single or childless pairs and friend groups might find Cabo to be a more exciting destination.
Puerto Vallarta has an extensive and cheap public bus system. They also have many taxis and Ubers. They also have quite a few more dedicated tourist bus lines and boat options to ferry you to different beaches and tourist locations.
Because Cabo is smaller, much can be reached by foot. If you are hoping to get to a location that is not within walking distance it is more difficult to find transportation. Shuttles are available for airport transfers, but it can be hard to get to day trip destinations or places off the beaten path if you don’t have a rental car.
Puerto Vallarta vs Cabo San Lucas: Transportation Options Final Decision
Puerto Vallarta has more to do outside of the city limits and they have the transportation options to support that. Los Cabos is a larger land area, but has less tourist attractions outside of the city. This naturally lends itself to less transportation options if you want to leave the city. Puerto Vallarta is my choice for better transportation options.
Cabo is more expensive than Puerto Vallarta because it is more of a tourist destination and there is some price inflation due to that. Puerto Vallarta might end up being more expensive in the long run because there are more places to go, so overall expenses might add up quicker if you will do more than basic beach activities.
Puerto Vallarta vs Cabo San Lucas: Cost Final Decision
This is a hard call. In the end Cabo is more expensive, but both can be expensive with their high end luxury resorts and both can also be done on a budget. In the end if cost is your biggest factor, Puerto Vallarta is cheaper than Cabo San Lucas.
So Which is Better?
If you want nothing more than to lounge on a beautiful beach and enjoy a luxury holiday spot, Cabo San Lucas is the Mexican destination for you. If you’re hoping for swimming and want a quieter stay, then Puerto Vallarta is the winner.