Cancún, Cabo or Puerto Vallarta: Which Mexico resort is best for you?

by Сашка

A comparison of the country’s most popular beach towns

No other country welcomes more American tourists than Mexico. Vacationers go for sun-soaked beaches, warmer temperatures and low costs that feel far away from the cold reality of everyday life. More than 12 million American tourists took a flight into Mexico last year, according to statistics from the country’s secretary of tourism.

The vast majority head for one of three beach zones: Cancún, Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta, which represented three of the top four airports for international tourist arrivals last year, including Mexico City.

While you can’t go wrong with any of these three resort areas — they’re famous for a reason — there are noticeable nuances that can tip the scales when you’re picking one over the others. Over the past 10 years, I’ve visited all three on several occasions: Cancún half a dozen times, Vallarta twice, and, most recently Los Cabos. In terms of visitor appeal and natural beauty, they rival some of the world’s most remarkable and serene beaches.

We asked the travel platform Hopper to pull average spring break prices — covering March, April and May — to show how the costs break down. Here’s the case for each destination, depending on your budget and travel style.

Cancún: All-inclusives, nightclubs, beautiful beaches

Located on the edge of the Caribbean Sea, Cancún is the most popular of the three Mexican getaways by a sizable margin. It is also the most “touristy” in terms of spoken English, Americanized cuisine and the volume of resorts and daily flights from North America and Europe.

In my experience, it’s been the most expensive of the resort hubs in this comparison, although Hopper’s data shows it has the lowest average “good deal” airfare this spring ($330), and the average nightly hotel rate is higher in Los Cabos. In Cancún, you’ll get a lot in return for your money: tranquil, teal and warm waters and white sandy beaches (when the seaweed isn’t bad). There is also the most nightlife and the best snorkeling and scuba diving. The Cancún area and surrounding Mayan Riviera are full of all-inclusive resorts with options ranging from adults-only to kid-friendly.

Cancún is only a couple hours drive (and now train) from world-class Mayan ruins such as Chichen Itza and Tulum. There’s also swimmable, flooded sinkholes called cenotes that are a wonder on their own.

Good deal airfare: $330

Average nightly hotel rate: $251

Best for: Clubgoers, families, adventure seekers, history buffs

Los Cabos: Desert romance, deep-sea fishing, wedding backdrops

The area we call “Cabo” is actually two beach towns in one, hence its other nickname, “Los Cabos.”

Separated by 20 miles and on opposite sides of the tip of Baja California, San Jose del Cabo (where the airport is) is the older town located on the Gulf of California. Just around the corner lies Cabo San Lucas, the newer and fast-growing town at the confluence of the Pacific and the gulf.

To get an idea of Cabo’s romantic scenery, imagine if Arizona, Southern California and the Mediterranean had a baby. Dramatic deserts, rugged coastline, deep blue ocean and a famous sea arch (a.k.a. “El Arco”) are flanked by endemic elephant trees, desert sand, and gorgeous cactuses.

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As the second-most popular beach retreat on this list, Cabo has an abundance of wildlife and biggest beaches, as well as high-end resorts, spas, golf courses and restaurants.

Travel adviser Sebastian Garrido recommends deep-sea fishing — or just enjoying the products of Pacific waters. Cabo blends coastal Mexican cuisine with resort fare, catering to both locals and tourists alike.

“You can find some of the best seafood around the world down here,” he said.

In my experience, swimming on the Pacific is often forbidden by lifeguards, given the dangerous undertow. But the gulf side is tranquil and family friendly.

A popular place for weddings, Cabo is probably the most dreamy landscape of the three destinations.

Good deal airfare: $447

Average nightly hotel rate: $475

Best for: Pacific views, sport fishing, weddings, culture that caters to locals and tourists, sunsets and scenery.

Puerto Vallarta: Fewer Americans, sleepy beaches, birria tacos

Nestled down the Pacific coast in Jalisco state, Puerto Vallarta is a classic, cozy beach town. It is surrounded by mountains and tropical jungles and often caters more to Mexican tourists than Americans.

In terms of culture, cuisine, number of restaurants, boardwalk shopping, cobblestone streets, and affordability, Vallarta is the most “Mexican” of the bunch, which is endearing.

Vallarta’s narrower beaches are admittedly more confined than Cancun’s or Cabo’s. But they’re still beautiful. Among the Pacific views, you can spot humpback whale breaches early in the year. While there are dozens of large luxury resorts and all-inclusives here, you’ll also find a lot of small hotels that are locally owned and operated.

Jalisco is the home of birria, a complex braise of goat, lamb or beef served with a rich, spicy broth. I’ve also had chilaquiles and tacos al pastor here that trumped the versions I tried in Cancún and Cabo.

“Puerto Vallarta offers an authentic Mexican experience as it was not created as a tourism destination,” says Gustavo Rivas-Solis, a travel publicist who represents the area. “It grew into one as people took notice and fell in love with Bay of Banderas and its surroundings.”

Good deal airfare: $412

Average nightly hotel rate: $192

Best for: Ocean views, sunbathing, fewer tourists, colonial architecture, jungle hikes, street shopping

Blake Snow is a writer from Provo, Utah.

Where to go

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