Mexico has all the components for an unforgettable, tropical getaway: gorgeous beaches, perfect balmy weather, excellent cuisine and lively nightlife. But before you book your dream trip, you need to first “insert self” to decide which coastline—Caribbean or Pacific—calls to you most.
While both the Caribbean coast (ie: Cancun and Riviera Maya in the Yucatan Peninsula) and Pacific coast (primarily Punta Mita and Puerto Vallarta in Riviera Nayarit and Los Cabos in the Baja Peninsula) are equally stunning, they’re essentially two unique destinations with completely different vibes. Our guide will help determine which coast suits you best and, soon enough, you’ll have your feet in the sand with a margarita in hand. Ole!
Caribbean: The sugary-white sand and glimmering, turquoise waters of the Caribbean’s Yucatan Peninsula make destinations like Cancun, Riviera Maya, and Tulum all about the beaches. In fact, it’s the allure of the Caribbean Sea on the east coast that drives most vacationers south of the border. The sand is so heavenly white, you’ll need sunglasses. Postcard perfect, the coast stretches for hundreds of miles against the second longest reef system in the world—meaning it’s teeming with marine life—so snorkeling and diving is exceptional here.
Pacific: The Pacific Coast beaches are a little more rugged with darker sand but unarguably breathtaking. The beauty of this region is that, rather than one long stretch, the beaches are scattered throughout the coast, and no two are alike. Puerto Vallarta’s main beach, Playa Los Muertos, is a magnet for all types of travelers, lined with al fresco restaurants and bars. A short boat ride away is Yelapa, an unspoiled hideaway with retro allure. Up north, Punta Mita is less crowded and more glam, while Sayulita is a surfer’s paradise. In Los Cabos, the tides are strong (which creates the wonderful crashing waves its known for), though many beaches are swimmable, like Medano Beach, the center of all the action, as well as high-end Chileno Bay.
The Verdict: The picturesque Caribbean beaches feel more exotic, but Pacific beaches have more personality. Furthermore, on the Pacific side, cafes, bars, restaurants and, in some cases, thatch-roof beach shacks, are right on the sand, like at the wonderful boardwalk with its sightseeing and activity in Puerto Vallarta. In Cabo, the beaches make the perfect backdrop for long strolls, and there is a handful of amazing spots where you can swim in the water.
Caribbean: Local Mayan culture is woven through everyday life on this side of the country. It’s why the coast is known for traditional Mayan blessings, healing, and ceremonies (particularly around the full moon), and you’ll find pampering, Mayan-themed treatments at spas like the glam Rosewood Mayakoba. For even more spirituality-based vacations, head to Tulum, a magnet for yoga and meditation retreats. Ancient attractions abound, and you can trek to famous Mayan ruins in Tulum, as well as Chichen Itza, one of the ancient wonders of the world.
Thanks to excellent ferry service in the Caribbean, it’s easy to get to gorgeous islands like Isla Mujeres and even hop on a boat to navigate the pristine mangroves at Mayakoba. Unique to the Caribbean, cenotes (natural, underwater sinkholes) are popular swimming spots. Because the entire Caribbean region was built for tourism, there’s nothing you can’t do here, from shopping and water sports to spas and adventure parks.
Pacific: With its close proximity to Hollywood, Los Cabos sets high standards for the throngs of celebrities that fly in on private jets, so you automatically feel A-list here. In addition to remarkable snorkeling and pristine beaches, Cabo is chockfull of gourmet restaurants with celebrity chefs (like Jean George Vongerichten, Enrique Olvera, and Brian Malarkey), award-winning spas and high-end shopping. There are wine cellars and champagne terraces, yachts, and steakhouses. If you like to splurge and get pampered, Cabo is your getaway.
Ever since Elizabeth Taylor bought a home in Puerto Vallarta in the 1960s, and The Love Boat docked here not much later, the beach town has been graced with a touch of glam like Cabo—though embracing a more authentic, colonial vibe. Lined with cobblestoned streets and well preserved for decades, historic Old Town is chockfull of art galleries and outdoor cafes. Puerto Vallarta is hugged by mountains and jungles, so it’s perfectly set up for hikes to cascading waterfalls and hidden beach gems along the way. Unlike the Caribbean, the Pacific Coast is a hot spot for surfing, especially in Sayulita, and whale watching is popular too.
The Verdict: With ancient ruins and Mayan culture merging with modern attractions, the Caribbean coast has major allure for all types of travelers (from history buffs to jet-setters). Island hopping is even an option if you want to explore outside the coast. A short flight from Hollywood, the Pacific has been luring celebrities for decades, so you can expect activities and amenities that are fit for A-listers who like to splurge and experience the finer things in life, especially in Cabo, Punta Mita, and Puerto Vallarta.
Caribbean: With its history as a spring-break stomping ground, Cancun has all the wild tourist bars and clubs you can imagine (from Señor Swanky to Coco Bongo), but there’s plenty of upscale places with all-night party vibes like Rose Bar and The Beach Club at ME Cancun, which offers bottle service. The mother of all nightlife is in Playa Del Carmen, home to excellent al fresco bars and lounges along Fifth Avenue, including Catch, the rooftop bar at Thompson Playa Del Carmen (pictured below), which flies in international DJs on the weekends.
Pacific: Cabo’s nightlife scene is going through a renaissance, recently reimagined with the opening of Hakkasan Group’s OMNIA Day Club (Las Vegas and San Diego) and L.A.’s famous SHOREbar now open at Vidanta Los Cabos. ME Cabo continues to host parties on its pool deck with live DJs. Over in Puerto Vallarta, nightlife is thriving and unarguably part of the culture. Old Town is crawling with late-night revelers who hop among beach bars, nightclubs, jazz lounges and a lively gay scene, the largest in Mexico’s coast with more than a dozen spots to have a nightcap.
The Verdict: You can’t go wrong with nightlife on either coast. Cancun feels very touristy but you can find local nightlife gems, and it’s wild over in Playa Del Carmen. Los Cabos has quickly become the Vegas of Mexico beach towns, and Puerto Vallarta has an old-school vibe and strong local scene with something for everyone.
Caribbean: It’s all about beachfront real estate here, where most villas are set up right along the sandy shores. If you want a highbrow and intimate experience, Casa Clara in the upscale Playacar resort area in Playa del Carmen exceeds expectations. Located on one of the most spectacular beaches, the contemporary, 6-bedroom villa features an infinity pool, outdoor kitchen with wood-fired oven, a rooftop palapa and a convenient location near Fifth Avenue, the main pulse of activity. If you’re seeking a more exotic experience, Viceroy Riviera Maya (pictured below), a haven for couples, straddles both jungle and beach in a self-contained, tropical oasis. The romantic property features luxurious, rustic villas (each equipped with an outdoor pool), a stunning al fresco spa, gourmet restaurant and all the resort amenities you could ask for. Guests appreciate the level of privacy.
Pacific: There’s no shortage of dramatic villa settings in Puerto Vallarta, from tropical jungle to pristine beachfront, and most villas come with private staff. We love Casa Septiembre, an intimate, 10-bedroom property set on a secluded beach. Equipped with an infinity pool and spacious, artful rooms, the villa is a convenient walking distance to the main beach and Old town. Villa Mandarinas, about 30 minutes from Old Town, is an architectural masterpiece. The 11-room villa is nestled along the cliffside with a cascading tier design, so all rooms and public spaces have unobstructed, coastal views. There are two infinity pools, gourmet meals prepared by a dedicated, private chef and a massive, thatch-roof yoga pavilion for a downward dog during sunset.
The Verdict: If you seek more location options than beachside, consider the Pacific Coast. Villas are perched on hills, immersed in the jungle or nestled against cliffs, and they’re typically equipped with private staff. On the Caribbean coast, most villas are set along white-sand beaches, and they offer plenty of privacy.