If you’re planning a trip to Mexico, chances are the first order of business is deciding on which coast you’ll be laying your beach towel. The rugged Pacific side boasts pretty in pink sunsets, plenty of watersports, and is home to ultra luxe, quiet outposts like Punta Mita. The Caribbean coast, on the other hand, has those signature white sandy beaches and turquoise waters, historic Mayan ruins, and a fun-loving vibe to boot.
If you have your eyes on the west coast of Mexico, chances are Puerto Vallarta is top of mind. Its Old Town has an alluring charm that’s reminiscent of a historic European city, while the Malecón boardwalk, lined with delicious restaurants and stores, brings you the best of beach-city living. What’s more, the mountains that surround Puerto Vallarta offer pinch-me vistas from everywhere. When you venture inland, you’ll find some of Mexico’s lushest tropical landscapes.
Cancun’s proximity to Playa del Carmen and trendy Tulum rightfully support its reputation as a Spring Breaker’s paradise, but there’s much more to experience in Cancun than packed parties. In fact, around Cancun you’ll discover mystical Mayan ruins, beautiful freshwater cenotes, and reasons aplenty to hop in the car and explore. Oh, and did we mention the beaches? If you’re having trouble deciding where to go, don’t fear: we’re here to help! Let’s break down the best of each area so you can finally start planning that trip to sunny Mexico.
Puerto Vallarta: Strolling around the old town is an activity in itself. Throw in the world-renowned markets and you’ll be more than content for an afternoon. Once you’ve had your fill, take a sunset cruise around the coastline. You can catch your Catamaran or yacht on the main beach along the Malecón, and when the golden rays drenches the buildings in Old Town as you’re sipping on bubbly you’ll be happy you hopped aboard.
For a thrilling way to experience the tropical forests nearby, head south to Los Veranos for a hair-raising morning on their zip line tour. If soaring through the trees isn’t your thing, make a point to visit to the Botanical Gardens of Vallarta, where thousands of wild flowers and interesting insect species await.
If you love to browse around different shops, take a trip to the small village of Bucerías, a quick 30-minute drive north from Puerto Vallarta. The cobblestoned streets are lined with stalls and jewelry stores, and there’s delicious taco stands around the town square. What’s more, of you’re seeking a quiet slice of sand, Bucerías beach is arguably the best in the area.
Where to stay in Puerto Vallarta
Cancun: In Cancun, your best companion will be your rental car. There’s so much to explore around the city that you have a different excuse to head out to do something every day. For history lovers, Chichen Itza – one of the most well-preserved Mayan ruins sites in Mexico – is a 2-hour drive from downtown. It’s best to visit in the morning when temperatures are still tolerable, and you can cool off afterwards in nearby Ik Kil cenote (right).
By boat, there’s the stunning Isla Mujeres – a scuba diver’s paradise complete with an underwater museum, and relatively quiet stretches of sand when you can happily stretch out with a book. You can reach Isla Mujeres in just 15 minutes on a ferry from the main port in Cancun.
And then, there’s Tulum. Tulum’s popularity has blown up in the past couple of years, but that’s not at the expense of its natural beauty. It’s an easy 1.5 hour, well-marked drive toward this hipster’s paradise. You’ll know you’ve found it when you see a stretched out beneath a perfect canopy of palm trees and small, handmade signs leading you to perfume stores, artisanal soap shops, cocktail lounges and restaurants. The beach here is immaculate, the only thing interrupting your ocean view is the odd piece of driftwood that fits perfectly with the au-naturel vibes.
The Verdict: If you love to get out and explore as much as you can, Cancun has endless opportunities for sightseeing and new experiences, with pretty beaches should you decide to take a rest. Puerto Vallarta may have fewer activities, but the town is very picturesque, and the boardwalk is a true wanderer’s delight.
Puerto Vallarta: Did someone request a room with a view? Puerto Vallarta’s hilly landscape means many villas dotted in the hillside, and pinch-me views around the clock. In particular, the homes in Mismaloya overlooking Banderas Bay, such as Los Arcos, mix the comforts of modern living in an unbeatable tropical environment. The famous arcs of Banderas Bay (hence the name) are visible from the villa’s infinity pool and terrace, and huge double doors that lead to terraces all around the home ensures the roar of the ocean is trickles through the home around the clock.
For a family getaway, one of our all-time favorites is Casa Septiembre. Eclectic furniture and bright colors on the wall give the home that classic Mexican Casa flair, and French doors leading to expansive terraces overlooking a private swath of sand makes the ideal backdrop for a vacation.
Want to really luxuriate? Papelillos at El Paredon is an incredible modern estate built into the hillside, with huge trees acting as decorative features around the illuminated infinity pool looking over the ocean. The home, like many in Puerto Vallarta, is fully staffed: that means you don’t have to far venture afield – let alone lift a finger – to tuck into delicious Mexican cuisine.
Cancun: If you don’t want to sacrifice the convenience of having resort amenities for having your own private villa, then there’s a place for you in Cancun. Our top choice to have the best of both worlds is Villa del Mar. The master residences have stunning views of the turquoise waters, and are furnished with cozy contemporary pieces. Resort amenities you can take advantage of include a world-class spa and fitness facilities, and many options to spend cocktail hour or go for dinner (our go-to spot is Davino.) The hammock on your private oceanfront terrace is the perfect place to ease into the morning, while moonlit cocktails are the perfect way to relax after a day out exploring.
For the environmentally-conscious, just a short drive away from central Cancun awaits the Sian Kaan Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here, Casa Yakunah is situated right on the beach, and nods to traditional Mexican heritage with antique wood finishes and a bamboo vaulted ceiling. The home is low impact, drawing its energy almost entirely from its surrounding environment. An ideal space for families who love nature, you can bird watch, kayak and scuba dive to your heart’s content here.
For a romantic getaway à deux, the Viceroy Riviera Maya has stunning private villas on the beach, complete with private pools, beachside daybeds and even bedside hammocks. Known for its exceptional service and luxe amenities, if you’re looking to hideout with your better half for a while, this is where you need to be.
The Verdict: If you love the privacy of your own space but you don’t want to give up those oh-so-convenient resort amenities, Cancun is your best bet. Otherwise, if views to die for, private chefs and classic Mexican décor is more your style – head to Puerto Vallarta.
Where to stay in Cancun
Puerto Vallarta: If you’re not having sunset cocktails aboard a catamaran, chances are you’re either poolside at your villa, or dining out at a restaurant, both of which are excellent ways to spend the evening. If you plan to spend a night out on the town, we recommend starting the festivities at the Vista Grill restaurant, where you have a view of the entire city at sunset.
When the night cools, head out to local hotspot Andales Bar for a fun night of dancing, a few cold Coronas, and fun-loving vibes. For something a little more tame, the Twisted Palms Rooftop Lounge has some of the best cocktails in the city, and and often shows movies right under the stars.
Cancun: In a city that’s synonymous with nightlife, it’s no surprise there are several options when you’re looking to dance the night (or day) away. One of our favorite spots in Cancun is The Beach Club at the ME Cancun that’s home to some of the best Saturday afternoon parties around. To enjoy a sunset cocktail after a day trip to Isla Mujeres, look out for the red daybeds along the sands on the spectacular North Beach – here you’ll find tapas, live music, and calm waters for swimming.
Now, for the big night out: Mandala Beach has a vibrant, fun-loving vibe, loud DJ music playing, and is located right in the heart of all of Cancun’s party action. It’s home to huge DJ events, and you can even throw private parties here. If you want to stop by, dance a little bit and people-watch, you can do so around the clock – Mandala Beach is open during the day, and the nearby evening club opens shortly afterwards to continue the party.
The Verdict: If quiet sunset cocktails with a view followed by a few drinks at the local bar is your idea of a good time, Puerto Vallarta is a no-brainer. But, if you like fun day parties followed by even more fun night parties, Cancun will not disappoint.