Cancun vs. Cabo: A Look at Two Great Mexico Destinations

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Two great Mexico destinations. Both with endless beaches and shimmering ocean water and romantic resorts. Yet Cancun and Cabo San Lucas also are quite different, with different feels and vastly different geography and attractions. Which one is right for you? Read on for a taste of both, and then make up your own mind.

CANCUN There is a city of Cancun, located on the Yucatan Peninsula on the Caribbean side of Mexico. Folks often use the word Cancun, however, to describe hotels and resorts up and down the Mayan Riviera. Cancun itself is quite varied. Yes, you can find cheap hotels specializing in spring break madness and chain restaurants serving Jello shots and sickly sweet, frozen alcoholic drinks in every colour of the rainbow.

The design at La Habichuela Sunset in Cancun is as good as the food. And that's saying something. JIM BYERS PHOTO

The design at La Habichuela Sunset in Cancun is as good as the food. And that’s saying something. JIM BYERS PHOTO

But you also can dine on a romantic patio on the water at a place such as La Habichuela Sunset, which has an interior that resembles a Mayan museum and a luscious patio and serves sensational soft shell crab tacos. Or you can stay at a sumptuous resort like The Westin, where you can undergo a purifying “temazcal” ceremony in a super-heated adobe structure or take in a luxurious spa treatment.

The Mayan ruins at Tulum are some of the most spectacular in Mexico. JIM BYERS PHOTO

The Mayan ruins at Tulum are some of the most spectacular in Mexico. JIM BYERS PHOTO

The Yucatan Peninsula was hugely important to the ancient Mayans people, and you’ll find magnificent ruins up and down the coast. One of the prettiest settings is at Tulum, where centuries-old temples are built right along the water’s edge. Further north you’ll find Coba, with several complexes to admire in a quiet, leafy setting where you can rent a bike for a couple bucks. You also can climb one of the tallest pyramids for an impressive “selfie” shot. The granddaddy of them all is Chichen Itza, a couple hours west of Cancun. Too glued to your Cancun resort to manage a trip to the bigger ruins? There’s a small set of Mayan buildings right downtown in Cancun.

The Beach Palace is a wonderful family resort in Cancun. JIM BYERS PHOTO

The Beach Palace is a wonderful family resort in Cancun. JIM BYERS PHOTO

One great family resort is The Beach Palace, where you’ll find a lovely swimming pool complex and a ton of great food choices. It’s walking distance to the lovely, waterfront La Isla shops, which feature Venice-like canals and outdoor patios. The posh Fairmont Mayakoba has a world class golf resort and wonderful food. The Barcelo Maya Beach south of Playa Del Carmen is a great family option. One thing you’ll find here that you won’t see in Cabo San Lucas are cenotes; fresh water caves that are great places to cool off on a hot day or to examine local wildlife. Be careful where you go as some are known to have crocodiles in the area. Xcaret is a great theme park for the kids, complete with lagoons for swimming and snorkelling. There’s also a Wet ‘N Wild water park in the south end of the hotel zone in Cancun. Or try the MUSA Underwater Museum, with magical figurines built under the water that make for a great snorkel trip.

Sand sculptures on the beach in quiet Puerto Morelos, Mexico. It's a pretty town just south of Cancun. JIM BYERS PHOTO

Sand sculptures on the beach in quiet Puerto Morelos, Mexico. It’s a pretty town just south of Cancun. JIM BYERS PHOTO

Many folks enjoy a trip to Playa del Carmen. It’s got a great beach, but I prefer the smaller, more intimate town Puerto Morelos, closer to Cancun proper. Other great options include Isla Mujeres, with its laid-back atmosphere and great beaches, and Isla Holbox, an island where you might spot dolphins and can even swim with whale sharks.
CABO SAN LUCAS Where Cancun is flat, flat, flat, Cabo is surprisingly mountainous. It’s also a mostly bone-dry desert, with less than 10 inches of rain per year (much of it in September and early October). Located at the southern tip of Baja California, it also has become hugely popular (like Cancun) in the past couple decades. Fishing and golf are big here, with golf layouts from the likes of Jack Nicklaus and other top designers.

The famous Arch in Cabo San Lucas. JIM BYERS PHOTO

The famous Arch in Cabo San Lucas. JIM BYERS PHOTO

You won’t find the fresh-water cenotes or Mayan ruins, but you will find marvellous rock formations off the coast, including the famous Arch or Arco de los Cabos, where you can snorkel and swim. Try any number of boats for hire in the harbour and enjoy the view from a speed boat or perhaps a catamaran. The town of San Jose del Cabo is far less touristy than Cabo San Lucas. It’s a fun spot to wander about and purchase souvenirs or a cheap Mexican meal. There’s a small church just off the main square that’s well worth a contemplative visit. One great activity is a short trip to Las Tamarindos, a working, organic farm where they grow lemongrass, artichokes, and other fruits and veggies. You can take a cooking class and learn to make fantastic salad dressing, not to mention a killer margarita. The area has become a magnet for celebrities, and among those with homes in the area are actor George Clooney. He also owns part of a tequila distillery. Cabo is only 90 minutes from Los Angeles, which makes it hugely popular with California visitors.

A waterfront suite at One and Only Palmilla in San Jose del Cabo. JIM BYERS PHOTO

A waterfront suite at One and Only Palmilla in San Jose del Cabo. JIM BYERS PHOTO

One of the best resorts in all of Mexico is the stunning One and Only Palmilla. It was virtually destroyed by a hurricane in the fall of 2014 but was quickly rebuilt, and improved. There’s a huge beach on the south shore, and a more protected stretch of sand to the east; with beautiful rock formations and iguanas sunning themselves on the rocks. There’s a restaurant supervised by superstar chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and marvellous drinks, as well as shimmering pools and a quiet spa. They also have a yacht that can take you out to see the famous Arch or drop you off at a popular swimming hole. Folks with more restrictive budgets can find plenty to choose from, including Holiday Inns.

Sunrise is a glorious time of day in Cabo San Lucas. JIM BYERS PHOTO

Sunrise is a glorious time of day in Cabo San Lucas. JIM BYERS PHOTO

Cabo San Lucas has a great number of all-inclusive properties. Cancun has its quiet spots, and Cabo has plenty of action. On the whole, however, I’d vote for Cabo as more of a quiet destination for older travellers and Cancun a better option for party types and families with kids who need activities to keep them occupied.

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About Author

Jim Byers

A veteran of 32 years with the Toronto Star, the last five as travel editor, Jim has been covering the travel business and writing about destinations for nearly a decade. He appears regularly in Zoomer Magazine, WestJet's Up! Magazine and, of course, with Expedia.ca as a blogger.

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