Puerto Vallarta vs Playa del Carmen: Two of Mexico’s premier vacation destinations, Puerto Vallarta and Playa del Carmen each have plenty to offer. Located on opposite sides of Mexico, the two cities have a lot in common, but also have some significant differences. Here are the factors you should take into account when considering Puerto Vallarta vs Playa del Carmen, and a detailed breakdown of the pros and cons of each city.
Background and History
The first thing to note when comparing Puerto Vallarta vs Playa del Carmen is the differences in the history of the two cities. Puerto Vallarta is a relatively old city by Mexican standards. There is evidence that the area was inhabited in ancient times, and in the 16th century it was the site of large battles between the Spanish and local indigenous peoples. By the 17th and 18th century, Puerto Vallarta’s remote location made it a hideout for pirate and smuggling operations.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that Puerto Vallarta really became established, transforming from a small village into a booming port town. It was also around this time that the city began to attract some tourism from towns further inland. It wasn’t until the 1960s, however, that Puerto Vallarta became a major tourist destination, attracting tourists from the United States and Canada, thanks to a series of investments by the federal government into the infrastructure of the city.
Today, Puerto Vallarta remains a major tourist destination, but still retains its authentic Mexican culture. Located in the Mexican state of Jalisco, the birthplace of Mariachi music and tequila, Puerto Vallarta is an excellent destination for travellers looking to visit a historical city and experience the real Mexico.
The history of Playa del Carmen, on the other hand, starts much more recently. Located on the Caribbean Sea in the state of Quintana Roo, the Playa del Carmen area was mostly uninhabited, containing just a few small fishing villages and a couple hundred residents, up until the 1970s. In the 1970s, the Mexican federal government invested significant funds into developing the coastline of the Yucatan Peninsula into the modern resort cities of Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Cozumel.
The cities in this area were built solely for attracting tourists, which means that they can feel much less authentic and more of a tourist “bubble” than cities on the west coast, like Puerto Vallarta. However, that does not necessarily mean that Puerto Vallarta is the better destination. Here are the other factors you should take into account before making a decision.
Attractions and Activities
The first thing you will notice when you fly into Puerto Vallarta are the long, yellow sandy beaches bordering the deep blue waters of Banderas Bay. Puerto Vallarta is famous for its beaches, which have calm waters that are perfect for swimming, sailing, scuba diving and snorkeling, fishing, and more. Surrounded by jungle, the beaches in Puerto Vallarta range from crowded with a lively atmosphere, to secluded and only accessible by boat. Some of the best beaches in the area include:
Los Muertos Beach: Probably the most famous beach in the city. Easily accessible from the hotels, and great for swimming and relaxing.
Mismaloya Beach: Famous as the setting of the 1964 film The Night of the Iguana. Great for scuba diving, swimming, and snorkeling. Plenty of nearby hotels and restaurants.
Camarones Beach: Located in downtown Puerto Vallarta. Less crowded than many of the other beaches.
Palmares Beach: 3 mile long beach in downtown Puerto Vallarta.
Las Gelmas Beach: 20 minutes outside of Puerto Vallarta. Mainly frequented by locals.
Aside from the beaches, popular attractions and activities in Puerto Vallarta include everything from hiking and backpacking through the jungle and the nearby Occidental Sierra Madre mountains, to whale watching tours, mountain biking trips, tequila and taco tours, shopping centers, nightlife, chocolate making classes, and more.
Playa del Carmen
Located 40 miles south of Cancun, Playa del Carmen is one of the most popular tourist destinations on Mexico’s Riviera Maya. Originally developed by the Mexican government as a minor tourist destination and mainly as a port city to launch ferries to the nearby island of Cozumel, Playa del Carmen has transformed into a major resort city in its own right.
The white sand, tropical beaches of Playa del Carmen and the turquoise Caribbean waters, make it one of the most beautiful beach destinations in the world. Some of the nicest beaches in Playa del Carmen include:
Playa Maroma: A spacious and tourist-friendly beach that also has easy access to some of Playa del Carmen’s best tours and adventures, including horseback rides on the beach, snorkeling and scuba diving, and swimming with dolphins.
Playa Mamitas: Perhaps the most popular beach in Playa del Carmen, Playa Mamitas is a vibrant, tourist-friendly beach with close access to hotels and restaurants.
Playacar Beach: A beach in a residential area, away from the crowds of tourists at the hotels and resorts. This beach is clean, quiet, and perfect for swimming.
Playa Akumal: A quiet, secluded beach to the south of Playa del Carmen that serves as a spring nesting ground for turtles.
Other popular activities and attractions in Playa del Carmen include day trips to the local Mayan ruins at Tulum, Chichen Itza, and El Rey; outdoor adventure tours on ATVs or buggies; watersports, including motorboating, jet skiing, parasailing, and more; tours to the local underwater caves, called cenotes, which have warm, swimmable waters; and cooking classes, shopping, food tours, and spas.
Accommodations in Puerto Vallarta vs Playa del Carmen are equally luxurious, with a variety of beachfront all-inclusive resorts, boutique hotels, international chains, hostels, and rental villas, estates, apartments, and condos.
Some of the best accommodations in Puerto Vallarta include:
Hotel Tropicana: Beautiful hotel on the cheaper side, with great pools, a private beach, and a restaurant
Hotel Mocali: Small hotel in downtown Puerto Vallarta, two blocks from the beach
Hotel Belmar: family owned hotel with 30 rooms.
Golden Crown Paradise Adults All-Inclusive and SPA: Adult only all-inclusive hotel with private balconies in the rooms overlooking the beach, great pools, fine dining, and easy access to the shops and marina of Puerto Vallarta
Dreams Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa: Luxury all-inclusive resort with private beach, several suites with private swimming pools, three main swimming pools, four restaurants, spas, and more.
Fiesta Americana Puerto Vallarta: Luxury resort with 300 rooms, 3 bars and restaurants, pools, a gym, a spa, a business center, and more.
Playa del Carmen
Hotel Bosque Caribe: Great, inexpensive hotel with a nice outdoor pool, a restaurant, and free breakfast.
Hostel 3B: Great, inexpensive party hostel. Good for young travelers on a budget.
Meliora by Bunik: Located in downtown Playa del Carmen, a 5 minute walk from the beach. Nice outdoor pool and spa.
Secrets Capri Riviera Cancun: An adults-only all-inclusive resort located on a 71-acre property. Beachfront access, luxury suites, spas, pools, and more.
Grand Velas All Suites & SPA Resort Riviera Maya: All-inclusive, family-friendly resort with direct beachfront access, extensive pools, spas, fine dining, tour groups, and more.
An important factor to take into account when considering Puerto Vallarta vs Playa del Carmen is accessibility. Nothing can sink an otherwise great vacation faster than long, stressful flights or spending all day in the airport waiting to connect. Fortunately, both Puerto Vallarta and Playa del Carmen receive frequent direct flights from many major cities in the US and Canada. One thing to note is that there is no airport in Playa del Carmen itself. The most convenient airport to fly into is Cancun International, which is about a 45 minute drive away from Playa del Carmen.
You should also note that since Puerto Vallarta is on Mexico’s west coast and Playa del Carmen is on the east coast, travelers flying from the west coast of the US or Canada will generally have a shorter, easier flight to Puerto Vallarta, and vice versa for travelers on the east coast.
Puerto Vallarta has a tropical wet and dry climate, with an average yearly temperature of 77.6 °F. The temperature rarely drops below the mid 60s in the winter, making it a great winter vacation destination. There is a mild rainy season between June and October, but severe weather and hurricanes are rare.
In Playa del Carmen, the average temperature annually is 78.4 °F, and the area has a tropical savannah climate, with a rainy season between June and November. Summers are very hot, and winter and autumn is warm.
Puerto Vallarta: The average cost per person per week in Puerto Vallarta is $1,073 USD, factoring in accommodations, entertainment, and food.
Playa del Carmen: The average cost per person per week in Playa del Carmen is $1,316 USD, factoring in accommodations, entertainment, and food.
The Bottom Line
When comparing Puerto Vallarta vs Playa del Carmen, the most important factors to consider are what you want to do and see, where you are located, and what your budget is. Overall, Puerto Vallarta is slightly less expensive than Playa del Carmen. The attractions in both cities have significant overlap, but if you are interested in staying in an authentic, historical Mexican city, experiencing the culture, while also enjoying the beaches and tours, Puerto Vallarta is probably the better destination for you.
On the other hand, if you are OK with staying in a resort town with less authentic culture, but great beaches, excursions, Mayan ruins nearby, and amazing tours, then Playa del Carmen is probably the right choice. Ultimately, it comes down to what you are most interested in.