Note: This article was reviewed and updated Jan, 2017
When it comes to Mexico there is no shortage of great beach destinations. Two of our personal favorites were also the People’s Choice on Tripadvisor when Playa del Carmen and Puerto Vallarta took first and second for Top 10 Destinations in Mexico.
Both of these Mexican hot spots offer great beaches, warm weather, plenty of activities and delicious food, so how do you decide which one is for you? Puerto Vallarta or Playa del Carmen?
We spent three months in each of these top beach destinations in Mexico which gave us the chance to compare and consider the things we loved about each one. In the end, we concluded that although they do have a lot of similar qualities, there are enough differences to make each place unique.
For example, both Playa del Carmen and Puerto Vallarta have beautiful beaches, but one is on the calm turquoise waters of the Caribbean while the other is on the surfer favorite Pacific.
Both offer delicious Mexican cuisine but there are small differences in the style of the street food, restaurants and markets.
They are both well-developed resort towns offering lots of night life and activities, but they do vary culturally and historically.
Put all of these subtleties together along with your own personal preferences and priorities and it should be easier to choose between the two.
We have already created a “Best Of Puerto Vallarta” list so we thought we would go one step further and have a battle of Puerto Vallarta vs Playa del Carmen based on our personal experiences and opinions. Feel free to challenge us or add your own “Best” to the list!
Best for Scenic Beaches is Playa Del Carmen
Probably no surprise or argument here since Playa is on the Caribbean sea. It’s pretty tough to beat the turquoise water and powder soft white sand. Xpu-Ha is one of our favorites.
Best for Selection of Restaurants is a Tie
It’s really impossible to choose between Playa Del Carmen and Puerto Vallarta for restaurant selection as they both offer a wonderful array of varied restaurants from taco stands to world class cuisine. However, as you’ll read further on there are some differences in other restaurant related categories.
Best for Character & Charm is Puerto Vallarta
Definitely Puerto Vallarta hands down for its charming old town with cobblestone streets and quaint buildings. Playa del Carmen didn’t stand much of a chance in this category as it is more of a planned tourist destination with very little old world character.
Best for Street Food is Puerto Vallarta
Although Playa Del Carmen has its share of taco stands we found that Puerto Vallarta offers a lot more options for consistently good street food.
Best for Nightlife is Playa Del Carmen
In some ways we preferred Puerto Vallarta for its more laid back nightlife along the Malecon and Old Town, however, if high energy and dancing all night is what you’re looking for then Playa is your place. With its blocks of nightclubs and bars around 5th Avenue plus the Vegas style Coco Bongo it’s really hard to beat.
Best for Public Transportation is Puerto Vallarta
Puerto Vallarta has a fabulous bus system which will take you all over the city and beyond for one low price whereas Playa’s buses are much more limited and mainly just run up and down 30th Avenue.
Best for Watersports is a Tie
Our first thought was Playa del Carmen in this category due to the superior snorkeling and scuba diving, however, the scales are more balanced when you account for the surfing waves of the Pacific. We personally spent more hours on the water in Puerto Vallarta due to the fact that you can generally negotiate the price of a boat ride more than in Playa but overall they have pretty much the same options. Parasailing, sailing, jet skis, paddle boards, fishing…you name it they both have it. You can watch a video of one of our days out on the water in Puerto Vallarta here.
Best Selection of Accommodations is Playa Del Carmen
Playa Del Carmen and the surrounding area definitely have more in the way of luxury and all-inclusive resorts whereas Puerto Vallarta offers more in the way of condos and smaller hotels. In looking at the overall picture though we would say that Playa del Carmen wins for having more variety.
Best for Friendliness is Puerto Vallarta
It’s not that Playa del Carmen is particularly unfriendly but we did find Puerto Vallarta to be a bit more open and welcoming. We attribute this mainly to the fact that Puerto Vallarta is slightly less touristy than Playa and that there are many people (especially snowbirds) that return to Puerto Vallarta year after year often for months at a time. This tends to create more of a community feel as visitors and proprietors have time to develop relationships.
Best Bang for Your Buck is Puerto Vallarta
With the development explosion in Playa Del Carmen comes an increase in prices. Although some prices are pretty comparable between the two towns, overall we have to say that you have a much better chance of staying within your budget in Puerto Vallarta. We were able to scout out far more options for mid and low-priced food and drink in Puerto Vallarta including our favorite $1 Margaritas beach side at the Sea Monkey!
Best for Vendor Free Beaches is Playa Del Carmen
There is a law in Playa Del Carmen that does not allow for beach vendors. This means that unlike in Puerto Vallarta you won’t have to be repeating the phrase ‘No, gracias.’ every 10 minutes to sellers of everything from sarongs to sunglasses and donuts to drugs. The downside is that you actually have to get off your butt to hunt down that coco frio or henna tattoo.
Best Town for Romance is Puerto Vallarta
Surprisingly (even to ourselves) we had to go with Puerto Vallarta on this one. Despite the beautiful Caribbean beaches in Playa Del Carmen there are just so many more romantic, candlelit, beach side restaurants where you can watch the sunset in Puerto Vallarta like La Palapa which we experienced here. Plus you have the bonus of strolling along the quiet cobblestone streets of old town after dinner as opposed to the rowdy 5th Ave of Playa.
*Note that this is based on the town itself, not accounting for the exotic and romantic resorts along the Riviera Maya.
Best for A Family Vacation is Playa Del Carmen
Best for a Destination Wedding is Playa Del Carmen
The combination of the captivating Caribbean backdrop and the abundance of lavish beach side resorts make Playa Del Carmen a clear choice for a destination wedding.
Best for Living is Puerto Vallarta
Having spent almost three months in each place we can say without a doubt that for us Puerto Vallarta is the better option if we were to stay long term again. Puerto Vallarta is just more livable, feels less touristy and is overall less expensive than Playa Del Carmen. We also found it much easier to develop friendships and get involved in the community. You can read about our experience in finding a temporary home in Puerto Vallarta here and in Playa del Carmen here.
Best for Cultural Events is Puerto Vallarta
Probably due to the reasons above we found Puerto Vallarta to offer more in the way of cultural and community events. They have community centers, live theater and plenty of art galleries. One of our favorite weekly events in Puerto Vallarta was the Southside Shuffle.
Best for Shopping is a Tie
This is a very subjective choice as it depends on what you’re looking for. Playa del Carmen has more in the way of designer label and high-end boutiques but Puerto Vallarta has better every day shopping. As you would expect they are pretty comparable when it comes to souvenirs and local crafts so ultimately we gave it a tie.
Best for Excursions & Day Trips is Playa del Carmen
Puerto Vallarta is a good base for some fantastic day trips such as Bucerias, Sayulita, and Yelapa, to name just a few. However, Playa del Carmen wins for best excursions as it boasts the ruins of Tulum and Chichen Itza, the numerous Xcaret theme parks and the beautiful islands of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres.
In addition to those listed they both offer many great snorkeling, fishing, diving and party boat excursions as well as zip lines and other more adventurous activities.
You can learn all you need to know about a day trip to Xel-Ha (one of the Xcaret theme parks) here.
Although we picked Playa del Carmen as the winner in this category we did love our day trips from Puerto Vallarata too. Especially the hike from Boca de Tomatlan to Las Animas and also the Botanical Gardens.
Best for Weather is Puerto Vallarta
This is another one that we found difficult to decide as they both boast perfect weather depending on what time of year you visit. Ultimately we went with Puerto Vallarta simply because the humidity and rainfall tend to be a little less than in Playa del Carmen.
Best for Scenery is a Tie
Definitely a toss-up for us. Puerto Vallarta has the mountains whereas Playa del Carmen is as flat as a pancake but then Playa has the turquoise waters and powder white sand whereas the water and sand in PV is a little less spectacular. They both have blue skies and palm trees along with tropical flora and fauna so when you lay it all out it really is tough to decide…so we didn’t.
Best for Markets is Puerto Vallarta
With the old town market along the river plus the Zapata food market and the weekend craft and farmers markets Playa del Carmen is no match for Puerto Vallarta in this category.
Best for Sunsets is Puerto Vallarta
Puerto Vallarta beaches and the malecon boast a front row seat for spectacular sunsets as they face West whereas Playa beaches face Southeast.
It looks like for us at least Puerto Vallarta wins by a small margin which is actually a bit of a surprise to me. This was my first visit to Puerto Vallarta as I had always been pulled by the lure of the exotic Caribbean and had therefore just assumed I would prefer Playa del Carmen. Creating this comparison of Puerto Vallarta vs Playa del Carmen really opened my eyes to how much I’d been missing by making assumptions and dismissing the Pacific coast of Mexico. I guess that’s what travel is really all about.
We’d love to hear your opinions on this debate.