Cabo and Cancun are two of the most popular coastal spots to visit in Mexico. But these two destinations are actually very different in many ways. In this article, I will talk about some of the key differences and distinctions between the two destinations and give you some insight to help you choose which one to visit. I’ll cover things like which destination is better for spring break, families, and just for people looking for things to do.
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There are a lot of different metrics you can use to judge popularity but I just want to focus on the amount of traffic that goes through the airports of these two destinations because it’s pretty eye-opening.
Cancun receives substantially more passenger traffic than Cabo. In 2016, CUN had over 20 million passengers while Cabo (SJD) only had 4 million. So there is a drastic difference in terms of how many tourists are flowing into these places.
Of course, just because more people are heading to one destination, that does not make it better than another. You might be someone that prefers a more laid-back experience and thus be more prone to choose a place with less traffic like Cabo.
Still, it’s good to know which airport serves more passengers because that airport (Cancun) is probably going to be easier to find a nonstop flight to for most people.
If you are into airport lounges, both airports have Priority Pass lounges, though I found the lounges at Cabo’s airport (SJD) to be superior.
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Cancun is located on the Yucatán peninsula, near the border of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. Meanwhile, Cabo is located on the Baja Peninsula (Baja California Sur) between the Pacific and the Gulf of California.
So Cancun has a Caribbean vibe when it comes to things like the weather and the amazing clear water and Cabo feels more like an extension of California (which it literally is).
Tip: Cabo’s location in the Pacific makes it less likely that hurricanes will be a factor when planning your visit during the summer which gives it a certain advantage (hurricanes can still hit Cabo).
The topography at these places couldn’t be more different. Cancun is very flat and is home to lagoons and mangroves. You will not see any hills or mountains and instead you’ll just see rows of tall resorts forming a skyline, not too far from jungle terrain.
Here’s what a hotel view might look like in Cancun:
Cabo is a unique place because it is where arid, desert terrain meets beautiful deep blue ocean among a backdrop of mountain peaks and foot hills. I don’t think that I have ever visited another place that looks quite like it and that is a major draw to me.
Here’s what a hotel view might look like in Cabo:
The topography also gives rise to cool unique features like the famous Arch of Los Cabos “El Arco,” a UNESCO World Heritage site, and other beautiful areas where you can take in the stunning scenery.
Cabo actually consists of two separate cities: Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo. Together these are known as “Los Cabos” but in many cases I’ll just refer to both as “Cabo” for this article.
These cities are about 35 minutes away from each other. Cabo San Lucas is the “party destination” while San Jose del Cabo is a much more laid-back experience.
This distinction is kind of similar to Cancun versus Playa Del Carmen, where Playa Del Carmen is smaller and more laid back. (You might be interested in: Hilton Playa del Carmen, Mexico Review (Junior Suite).)
Cancun has a typical Caribbean climate, which is more stable than Cabo. In other words, the summers don’t get as hot and the winters don’t get as cold as Cabo. This makes Cancun a better year round destination in my eyes. If you want a true warm weather getaway during the winter, I would suggest to go to Cancun (just be ready to deal with more humidity).
The Baja Peninsula can have more “extreme” temperatures. For example, it can get hotter in the summer and colder in the winter. The thing about sunny Cabo though is that you get hit with that nice Pacific breeze and the air is more dry.
This makes those higher temperatures very tolerable and the evenings and mornings feel quite nice compared to the more muggy mornings in Cancun. Personally, I love the climate that Cabo has and think that it feels much better than Cancun during times outside of winter.
If you’re wondering about rainfall, Cancun gets much more rain than Cabo. The rainfall in Cabo averages 193 mm which is substantially less than Cancun which averages around 1,300 mm.
Cancun does have a dry season that runs from November to April, so it’s not like Cancun is like Seattle year-round but rain is very rare in Cabo most times of year. August and September are the wettest in Cabo (often due to tropical cyclones) and some months may not see any rain at all.
Both Cabo and Cancun boast some beautiful beaches. However your experience in the ocean at these places will be vastly different.
The white-sand beaches at Cancun have warmer water that is more clear and a stunning turquoise color. The waves are also much tamer than Cabo. So if you are in search of one of those iconic tropical beaches with warm turquoise waters then Cancun is probably the spot for you.
Cabo on the other hand has water that is colder, more of a deep blue, and also waves that are much more powerful. In fact, at most of the beaches in Cabo you are advised to not get into the water because the rip currents are so strong and the waves so big. (There are some nice beaches that are swimmable in Cabo like Medano Beach.)
Even if you can’t swim at many beaches in Cabo, the waves are still a pretty magnificent sight and sound. If you are fortunate enough to get an ocean front room in Cabo you can enjoy the sound of powerful waves crashing throughout your stay which is pretty mesmerizing.
Also, visiting beaches like Lovers Beach, with stunning rock formations, makes up for the lack of “Caribbean style beaches” with their natural beauty.
If you’re worried about the water temperature in Cabo, know that it does warm up at certain points in the year. Here’s a graph showing the average high and low temperatures and show that the water warms up in September.
If you’re visiting Cancun there is a good chance that you will be staying in what is known as the “Hotel Zone.” This is a 14 mile stretch of white sand beaches that is home to over 100 hotels and resorts. You can find all sorts of different types of hotel brands in Cancun and many different all-inclusive resorts.
Cabo also has a pretty good lineup of hotels and resorts it is just not as extensive. We stayed at the Hyatt Ziva in San Jose del Cabo and had a pretty great stay at the all inclusive resort but if you want more options you might consider Cancun.
Things to do
Both of these destinations have a lot of things to do. If you are in to ocean activities you can find plenty of things at each place like: parasailing, jet skiing, fishing, boat excursions, snorkeling, etc.
Cabo has some cool scuba diving with unique sites like Sand Falls, which is essentially an underwater waterfall of sand that drops off a thousand plus feet. I also think Cabo is special because you can encounter sea lions and other marine life that you don’t necessarily find in the Caribbean (the whale watching is great). By the way, did you know they find Megalodon teeth in the mountains at Cabo!?
Just remember the water is colder in Cabo so some water activities like snorkeling might not be as pleasant for some people during certain times of the year.
Cancun can offer great diving if you venture to nearby Cozumel, which has some of the best diving around.
In Cancun, we went on an excursion to swim with whale sharks which was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. You can also do this in Cabo as well but it always depends on the season.
Cancun does have a few distinct advantages. First, when it comes to shopping malls Cancun is definitely the winner with well-known spots like La Isla and Luxury Avenue. Second, it’s not difficult to check out other really popular spots nearby like Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, and Playa del Carmen.
Finally, Cancun really shines when it comes to things like the famous historical ruins. With sites like Chichen Itza (the former capital city of the Mayan civilization and now a “Wonder of the World”) and other ruins like Tulum not too far away you can have an amazing encounter with history.
Tip: if you actually want to climb a pyramid head to the Coba ruins.
All these places make for great day excursions, but you don’t really have that type of opportunity to encounter ancient history at Cabo.
However, at Cabo you do have the ability to enjoy the rugged landscape along the coast and do things like hiking (try Mount Solmar), mountain biking, ATVs, or excursions through the dessert at Wild Canyon where you can zip line. Deep sea fishing is also very popular in Cabo, especially around the fall.
Cabo also has its share of history. At San Jose del Cabo, you can wander among the charming historic town center and check out some interesting colonial architecture and art galleries, including a weekly art walk. San Jose del Cabo offers that traditional old-town Mexican feel for tourists that I don’t think Cancun can offer and it can be quite a romantic place to stroll around in.
So it is hard to choose one location over the other because it really comes down to personal preference but…
Cabo is probably better suited for the adventurous and those interested in a more rustic vibe while Cancun is for those looking for a destination with more tourist infrastructure, unique historical sites, and tamer water experiences.
Spring break (partying)
Cabo San Lucas and Cancun are both huge spring break destinations.
Cancun has more iconic and extravagant nightlife spots and mega-clubs (Coco Bongo, The City, Bulldog, Mandala, etc.) that would attract clubbers and people interested in partying through the night. If you’re looking for the “ultimate nightlife experience,” Cancun will offer that to you more than Cabo can.
Cabo San Lucas has its fair share of night life hot spots like:
- Señor Frogs
- NoWhere Bar
- El Squid Roe
- Pink Kitty
- Happy Endings
These spots will generally be smaller than Cancun. Smaller doesn’t mean less fun though — it will just be a different and likely more intimate setting. The beach bars are also something that a lot of partiers enjoy in San Lucas and day drinking at places like Mango Deck is definitely a thing in Cabo.
One thing that is also great about Cabo San Lucas is that the area can be pretty walkable. You won’t have to take a taxi or Uber or make any other logistical arrangements in a lot of cases because you can simply walk out of your resort and within 10 to 15 minutes be in the heart of the city, depending on where you’re staying (like the Medano Beach area).
Families & kids
I think both Cancun and Cabo can be great destinations for families.
In Cancun, it’s not that difficult to get away from the party scene and get out and do some excursions or do things kids love like dolphin experiences, etc. Teens will likely enjoy the shopping, too. The beaches are usually very family and kid friendly, too.
If you are headed to Cabo then San Jose del Cabo will be a more family-friendly place than San Lucas, since it is more removed from the party scene. We actually traveled with a family to San Jose del Cabo and they had a fantastic time at the resort and exploring the nearby areas.
I will say that Cabo might be a little bit better for teenagers who enjoy adventurous activities since there are more things like that to do. Also remember with Cabo that the beaches are not safe for swimming in most cases.
So if you’re traveling as a family I don’t think you can go wrong with either one but if I had younger kids I’d probably go Cancun and with older kids I might go Cabo.
Are they safe?
Everybody wants to know if it is still safe to visit tourist hotspots like Cancun and Cabo. As someone who has recently visited both of these destinations within the last six months, I felt completely safe at both places.
But I also did not go wandering around in places outside of the major tourist areas. And that really is key to staying safe in Mexico because a lot of times the crimes that occur happen outside of the touristy resort areas.
I’m not saying that the resorts are 100% safe of course — it’s just that you stand a better chance of avoiding trouble if you stay within those heavily populated areas where there is likely a police presence nearby. But as always, you should check for travel advisories before you ever head out of the country.
Cabo vs Cancun FAQ
If judged by airline passenger traffic, Cancun is substantially more popular than Cabo.
Both destinations experience similar temperatures but there are some major differences. Cabo receives much less rain and has substantially lower humidity. Cancun temperatures are not as “extreme” as Cabo in the summer and winter.
Cancun has warmer water that is easier to enjoy at the beach. Cabo has more stunning coastline but colder water temperatures.
Cancun is a more popular spring break destination overall and will offer you more night clubs to choose from. However, Cabo has a great spring break experience that is often enjoyed in more intimate settings.
Overall, Cancun and Cabo are two of the most beautiful places to visit in Mexico. They both can be perfect places for a getaway but they are very different.
If you’re someone who really values the warm turquoise water you find at the Caribbean, shopping, crazy nightlife, and ancient ruins, then Cancun is where you want to go. But if you want to explore a more scenic and less busy place with mountains and more opportunity for adventure then Cabo is a great destination to choose.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC. Read my bio.