Puerto Vallarta vs Playa del Carmen – Battle Of The Best

There’s no shortage of great beach destinations in Mexico, running up and down both coastlines. So how do you decide where to go for your next sunny vacation? Two of our favorite spots, Puerto Vallarta and Playa del Carmen, happen to be on opposite sides of the country making their offerings quite different. To help you (and us) make a choice we’ve compared Puerto Vallarta vs Playa del Carmen based on our personal experiences plus polls with other travelers to Mexico.

 

We wrote a similar article in 2014 after spending 3 months in each destination. Since then we’ve returned to  Playa del Carmen twice but it wasn’t until 2019 that we made it back to Puerto Vallarta. There have been a lot of changes to both places over the years so we thought it would be interesting to do a new comparative study.

There are many things that both destinations share: beautiful beaches, great weather, delicious food, and friendly people for a start.

Some things will never change: Playa del Carmen will always have the sugar-white sand and calm turquoise waters of the Caribbean. Puerto Vallarta will always be preferred by surfers because of the thundering Pacific waves. 

However, even though they are both Mexican beach resort towns with all the activities, dining and nightlife that go along with that there are vast cultural, historical, and geographical differences that make each one unique.

So, once again the question is how do you choose between Puerto Vallarta and Playa del Carmen? Following you will find our picks for the best in a variety of categories. We’ve also noted which picks have stayed the same since 2014 and which have changed.


Puerto Vallarta vs Playa del Carmen

 

Best for beaches: Playa del Carmen

*Our pick is unchanged since 2014 but with a note about the Sargasso issue in Playa del Carmen

Sarah jumping in a bikini on the white sand of Xpu Ha Beach near Playa del Carmen
Xpu Ha Beach near Playa del Carmen

Probably no surprise or argument when it comes to the Pacific Coast town of Puerto Vallarta vs Riviera Maya which is on the Caribbean Sea. It’s pretty tough to beat the turquoise water and powder-soft white sand. One of our favorite beaches near Playa del Carmen is Xpu-Ha Beach

 

Note: There’s been an unusually high amount of Sargasso seaweed washing up on the shores of the Caribbean since 2018 and the Playa del Carmen area has been hit hard. There is a lot of work underway to help relieve the issue but ultimately Mother Nature will determine when it really ends. For now, be prepared for some less than picture-perfect beaches on the days the Sargasso strikes.


Best for variety of restaurants: Tie

*Our pick is unchanged since 2014

Seafood tostada
Seafood tostada at Mariscos el Guero, Puerto Vallarta

It’s really impossible to choose a winner for best restaurants in Playa Del Carmen vs best restaurants in Puerto Vallarta since both offer a wonderful array of varied eateries from taco stands to world-class cuisine. However, as you’ll read further on there are some differences in other restaurant-related categories.

 

Note: For a recent list of the best restaurants in Playa del Carmen click here.


Best for character & charm: Puerto Vallarta

*Our pick is unchanged since 2014

Puerto Vallarta vs Playa del Carmen: Our Lady of Guadalupe
Our Lady of Guadalupe, Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta is the hands-down winner for its charming old town with cobblestone streets, local neighborhoods and the iconic Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. Playa del Carmen didn’t stand much of a chance in this category as it’s more of a planned tourist destination with very little unique character.


Best for street food: Puerto Vallarta

*Our pick is unchanged since 2014

Puerto Vallarta vs Playa del Carmen: Street tacos
Street tacos in Puerto Vallarta

Although Playa del Carmen has its share of taco stands we found that Puerto Vallarta offers more options for consistently good street food, especially in the touristic areas. Choose from a variety of meat and seafood tacos, saucy birria, volcanes, tostadas, grilled meat skewers and even ceviche made fresh to order at a street food stand.


Best for nightlife: Tie

*Our pick has changed from Playa del Carmen in 2014 to a tie in 2019

Nightclub in Puerto Vallarta
Nightclub on the malecon in Puerto Vallarta

Back in 2014, we picked Playa del Carmen with its blocks of nightclubs and bars around 5th Avenue plus the Vegas-style Coco Bongo. However, after re-visiting both places we’ve decided that it’s a pretty dead heat between the two.

Playa del Carmen used to have a section of clubs and bars on 12th street that made it hard to beat for nightlife in a beach town. But on our last visit, we found that some of them had been shut down and the street just doesn’t have the same energy.

Puerto Vallarta, on the other hand, still have their share of dance clubs and bars along the malecon but they have also added some new venues both in Zona Romantica and outside of old town where there’s been a lot of new development.


Best for public transportation: Puerto Vallarta

*Unchanged since 2014 and now Puerto Vallarta has Uber which puts it even further ahead of the race

A colorful custom car
Puerto Vallarta public transportation…Just kidding!

The fabulous Puerto Vallarta bus system takes you all over the city and beyond for one low price. Playa del Carmen has limited bus routes but they do have colectivo vans that run up and down the highway and 30th Ave.

Also, as mentioned above, Uber is now in Puerto Vallarta which makes getting around uber-easy! Unfortunately, Playa del Carmen is still stuck with regular taxis which makes it a lot more challenging to get a fair rate.


Best for watersports: Tie

*Our pick is unchanged since 2014

Parasailing over the turquoise waters of Playa del Carmen
Parasailing over the turquoise waters of Playa del Carmen

Our first thought was Playa del Carmen 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. However, we spent more time in the water in Playa del Carmen due to the warm Caribbean. Overall they have pretty much the same options: parasailing, sailing, jet skis, paddleboards, 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: Playa del Carmen

*Our pick is unchanged from 2014

aerial view of a beach resort near Playa del Carmen
Resort near 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.

Accommodation Tips:

When we are looking for hotels we always start with Hotels Combined. This is a search engine/booking site but it lists the prices of all the other booking sites like Expedia and Booking.com. This saves time and makes sure we are getting the absolute best prices.

When we want something with a kitchen or for longer stays we always go to Airbnb. If you haven’t signed up for Airbnb yet use this code and get up to $40 off your first booking.


 

Best for friendliness: Tie

*Our pick has changed from Puerto Vallarta to a tie

A man and a woman smiling with a big margarita
Cheers!

This category probably shouldn’t even be in here as Mexico, in general, is one of the friendliest countries in the world and both these beach towns are no exception.

We originally picked Puerto Vallarta as being the most friendly based on our 3-month experience living in each place. However, five years later we found the friendly level to be pretty much equal.

In 2014 Playa del Carmen seemed so much more touristy and packaged than Puerto Vallarta which felt slightly less authenticly welcoming. Todays Puerto Vallarta has lost a little of its small-town charm due to the growth of tourism and ex-pat communities which can often lead to locals getting a bit tired of the masses.

Having said all that we still find both communities to be friendly, safe and welcoming overall making them both great vacation destinations.


Best bang for your buck: Puerto Vallarta

*Our pick is unchanged from 2014

Puerto Vallarta vs Playa del Carmen

Overall we found Puerto Vallarta to be less expensive than Playa del Carmen, although the difference is not as great as it used to be.

Living expenses like rent, utilities, clothing, and household items tend to be slightly less expensive in Puerto Vallarta as does eating out and buying alcohol. Grocery prices and transportation are pretty much a wash. In the end, we decided that even though Puerto Vallarta may be catching up to Playa del Carmen in costs you will still save a bit by vacationing on the Pacific coast.

Tip: Here are 12 ways we saved money in Puerto Vallarta.


Most aggressive vendors: Tie

*Our pick has changed from Puerto Vallarta to a tie

Cart of bags of candy on the beach in Puerto Vallarta
Beach vendor in Puerto Vallarta

We originally chose Playa del Carmen to have less aggressive vendors simply because they don’t allow many of them on the beaches. Unlike Puerto Vallarta where you have to repeat “No, gracias” every five minutes while you’re trying to relax.

On our last visit though we found the street vendors in Playa del Carmen to be even more aggressive than they used to be and the constant call of “Hey amigo, wanna get high?” on 5th Ave was pretty annoying. For this reason, we’ve changed to a tie.

Note: Like many lower-income countries the people of Mexico have to work hard to make even a very basic living. For this reason, you will find masses of vendors selling their products everywhere you go just to make a few extra pesos. Yes, it can get annoying but for the most part, they are polite and will not hassle you too much. Please keep in mind that this is their country and their livelihood before getting angry and being rude. A simple smile and “No gracias” usually does the trick.


Best for romance: Puerto Vallarta

*Our pick is unchanged since 2014

Playa del Carmen vs Puerto Vallarta Ryhthms of the night
Puerto Vallarta Ryhthms of the night

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, beachside restaurants where you can watch the sunset in Puerto Vallarta. 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.

 

Tip: For an extra special romantic evening consider going to Rhythms of the Night in Puerto Vallarta

*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: Playa del Carmen

*Our pick in unchanged from 2014

Sign post, palm trees and ocean at Xcaret
Xcaret Park Playa del Carmen

This is close to a tie because the beaches of Puerto Vallarta are generally more kid-friendly. But, because of the abundance of adventure and theme parks in the Riviera Maya as well as the many all-inclusive resorts with kids activities we had to go with Playa del Carmen.

If your family loves a day of fun, nature, culture, food, and adventure be sure to check out the many parks like Xel-Ha, Xplore and Xcaret Eco Theme Park.

Xcaret Eco Park mexican Culture, Folklore and Typical Flavors, Underground rivers at Cancun and Riviera Maya.

If your family loves a day of fun, nature, culture, food, and adventure be sure to check out the many parks like Xel-Ha, Xplor and Xcaret Eco Theme Park.


Best for a destination wedding: Playa del Carmen

*Our pick is unchanged since 2014

Beach wedding set up with white chairs, Flowing white fabric and palapas
Beautiful beach wedding in Riviera Maya

The combination of the captivating Caribbean backdrop and the abundance of lavish beachside resorts make Playa Del Carmen a clear choice for a destination wedding. Whether you want a sunset ceremony on the beach, an afternoon event by the pool or a more traditional wedding in a glamourous resort Playa del Carmen can make your dreams come true.


Best for living or long-term stay: Puerto Vallarta

*Our pick is unchanged since 2014

View of the town of Puerto Vallarta with a mountain in the background
View of 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 for long term stay. 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.

 

Note: You can read about our experience in finding a temporary home in Puerto Vallarta and in Playa del Carmen here.


Best for cultural events: Puerto Vallarta

*Our pick is unchanged since 2014

Puerto Vallarta vs Playa del Carmen: Show at Act II Puerto Vallarta
Show at Act II in 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.

Some of our favorite cultural events in Puerto Vallarta are the Southside Shuffle  art walk, or an evening of entertainment at Act II Stages or Incanto.


Best for shopping: Tie

*Our pick is unchanged from 2014

Display of colorful Mexican crafts
Mexican crafts

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 everyday 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 and day trips: Playa del Carmen

*Our pick is unchanged from 2014

Cenote Playa del Carmen
Cenote near 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, the beautiful islands of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres and the many magical cenotes.

 

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.

 

Tip: You can learn all you need to know about a day trip to Xel-Ha (one of the Xcaret theme parks) here.

Note: Although we picked Playa del Carmen as the winner in this category we did love our day trips from Puerto Vallarta too. Especially the numerous waterfalls in Puerto Vallarta, this hike from Boca de Tomatlan to Las Animas and also the Botanical Gardens


Here are some tours we recommend based on our experiences in Playa del Carmen


Best for weather: Puerto Vallarta

*Our pick is unchanged since 2014

Beach with white sand, turquoise water, palm trees, people on beach, parasailer in the sky
Another perfect day

This is another one that we found difficult to decide as they both have great beach 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.

 

In Puerto Vallarta, the weather is best from December to May when it’s warm and quite dry. June to September tends to be hot and wet. October and November are a bit of a crapshoot with the weather but it’s generally decent and with fewer tourists.

 

Playa del Carmen is tropical which means higher temperatures and humidity. September and October tend to be the wettest months and June to November is hurricane season.


Best for nature and scenery: Tie

*Our pick is unchanged from 2014

Definitely a toss-up for us. Puerto Vallarta has the mountains whereas Playa del Carmen is as flat as a pancake. But then Playa del Carmen has the turquoise waters and powdery white sand whereas the Pacific beaches of Puerto Vallarta are 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: Puerto Vallarta

*Our pick is unchanged for 2014

Colonia Emiliano Zapata Municipal Market Puerto Vallarta
Colonia Emiliano Zapata Municipal Market Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta has several permanent and/or weekly markets making it a clear choice when compared to Playa del Carmen where you’re mainly limited to tourist shops and supermarkets.

 

Some of our favorites in Puerto Vallarta are the Mercado Municipal Rio Cuale, Pueblo Viejo Mercado de Artesanias, Colonia Emiliano Zapata Municipal Market and the weekly and seasonal Olas Atlas Farmers Market.


Best for sunsets: Puerto Vallarta

*Our pick is unchanged since 2014

Sunset in Puerto Vallarta
Sunset in Puerto Vallarta

The fact that Puerto Vallarta faces west whereas Playa del Carmen faces southeast makes this an easy choice. During our many months in Puerto Vallarta over the years, we can honestly say that there were very few evenings that didn’t offer up a beautiful sunset…many times it would even be called spectacular.

Plus, with the many beachside bars and restaurants, there’s ample opportunity to find a spot to enjoy a refreshing drink while watching the sky change from blue to gold to pink and purple.


And the winner is…

Our second comparison of Puerto Vallarta vs Playa del Carmen in 2019 ends with pretty similar results as 2014. Puerto Vallarta stills wins overall by a small margin but Playa del Carmen gained some ground by coming in tied for a couple of spots where they’d previously lost.

As I mentioned in the original article this conclusion came as a bit of a surprise to me. Prior to 2014, I had only ever been to Cancun and the Riviera Maya. This was because, based on my love for the beach and tropical weather, I had assumed that the Caribbean side would appeal to me more.

But then Puerto Vallarta stole my heart and 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.

Truth be told we love the whole country of Mexico. It’s so big and diverse that even after years of exploring the coast, the mountains, the desert, the cities, the towns and everything in between we have yet to find a place that we don’t like…some places just resonate with us more than others.

We’d love to hear your opinions on this debate:

Puerto Vallarta vs Playa del Carmen…Which do You Pick & Why?

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Other posts that may interest you:

Things to do in Cancun, MexicoPlanning a beach vacation? This ultimate list of things to do in Cancun, Mexico will help!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Things to do in Merida, MexicoIf you’re tired of beach vacations in Mexico take a look at all the cultural and fun things to do in the colonial city of Merida!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Puerto Vallarta vs Playa del Carmen – Battle Of The Best”

  1. I definitely think PV is more liveable than Playa although I do love them both. Old Town is awesome but tends to be more expensive and gets really busy in high season. It’s a great choice for a vacation but when we stay in PV longer term we prefer to be a bit outside of the centro and zona romantica for cheaper rent and a less touristy neighborhood. Our last long term rental was in Palmar de Aramara and we found it to be very central and convenient but also quiet and with local neighbors which was nice.

  2. I needed this list! I’ve been debating which one to move to. I was just recently in PV and it’s so magical, yet has everything you need. I didn’t find it as hot as Playa either.

    Question. Obviously I’m not going to ask you where you live in PV, but what area would you suggest I start looking that’s quieter. I’m thinking Old Town, but that’s from a vacation point of view. Stay in the hotel/marina area last time, nice – but seems more transient – like only there for the winter expats. What area would you suggest?

    Any suggestions on expat meet ups for book clubs? Learning Spanish places?

    Thanks!

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