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How To Get From San Jose To Arenal

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Getting From San Jose to Arenal

Hundreds of thousands of tourists travel annually from San Jose to Arenal. And you might be planning on going this route, but you’re probably not sure whether or not you should rent a car, hire a private transportation service, or use the Costa Rican public transportation system to make it, right?

Don’t worry. I got you. Many people have come to me with this question, and I’ve helped them find the best ways to get from San Jose to Arenal in the most appropriate way. People have different backgrounds and needs. Thus, what may work for some might not work for others.

Therefore, this article will discuss the main ways to get from San Jose to Arenal, from using public buses to hiring a private transportation service. Let’s dive in and find out which option is best for you.

Disclaimer: I’m not too fond of ads on educational pages like this one because it ruins the reader experience. Therefore, I keep my website ad-free. However, I still need a way to make a living. Thus, this article contains affiliate links to book transportation, from which I earn a small commission at no additional cost to you. After reading this post, if you decide to book a tour, please consider using the links on this post so that I can continue sharing unbiased, helpful information with your support. 

The Best Ways To Get From San Jose to Arenal

  1. Public Transportation
  2. Group Shuttles
  3. Private Car Service
  4. Driving (Car Rental)

Let’s dive right in:

There are four ways to get from San Jose, Costa Rica, to Arenal. You can take the public bus, go on a group shuttle, hire a private transportation service, rent a car, and drive. Generally, the first two options are more affordable, but the latter is more convenient.

Riding the public bus is the cheapest way to get from San Jose to Arenal, while driving is usually the fastest way to travel there. On the other hand, getting a private transportation service is the easiest option, while going on a group shuttle gives you the best balance between cost-effectiveness and time efficiency. 

Keep scrolling to find out how each option ranks against each other based on its pros and cons, and learn a few tips and recommendations to help you make the best out of your trip from San Jose to Arenal. 

What’s The Cheapest Way to Get from San Jose to Arenal?

a blue bus parked on the side of a road

The cheapest way to get from San Jose to Arenal is to ride the public bus from San Jose to La Fortuna and then a taxi from La Fortuna to Arenal. The bus from San Jose to La Fortuna is 2,600 colones (approximately $5) per person. The Taxi from La Fortuna to Arenal is $30 for 1 to 3 people.

Compared to all the other ways to get from San Jose to Arenal, riding the bus is the cheapest way, as shown in the below comparison table. 

Most Affordable Ways to Get from San Jose to Arenal

Transportation Service Price Per Person (USD)
Public bus + Taxi $20 – $30
Driving (Car Rental) $30 – $60
Group Shuttle $50 – $60
Private Transfer $80 – $100

Notes:

  • The above rates do not include the 13% IVA tax.
  • These prices assume there is a minimum of two travelers.
  • Renting a car consists of the base rate, insurance, and fuel.
  • Prices can fluctuate throughout the year based on the market conditions and demand.

Getting From San Jose to Arenal via Public Transportation

There is no direct bus from San Jose to Arenal. However, a bus goes from San Jose to La Fortuna, where you can take a taxi to Arenal. For more information on the bus from San Jose to La Fortuna, please visit my article “How to Get from San Jose to La Fortuna.

After you get to La Fortuna, you can take a taxi from the bus terminal to Arenal. The taxi price will depend on where you are heading, but for example, the Taxi from the bus station to the Arenal Observatory Lodge is $30 for 1 to 3 people. 

Overall, I do not recommend you travel from San Jose to Arenal using public transportation unless you are on a tight budget. It’s not worth it. Following the above example, if you are traveling as a couple, it will cost you about $60 total to get from San Jose to Arenal, which breaks down as follows:

  • Taxi from your lodge in San Jose to Terminal 7-10 (where you take the bus to La Fortuna): $10 pp.
  • Bus from San Jose to La Fortuna: $5 pp.
  • Taxi from La Fortuna to Arenal: $15 pp.
  • Total is $30 per person and approximately 8 hours of travel time.

On the other hand, you can travel using a group shuttle (explained below in an upcoming section of this article) from San Jose to your lodging in Arenal (door-to-door service) for $50 to $60 per person. A group shuttle is more expensive, but it will cut your travel time from 8 hours to only 4 hours. That’s a massive time saving (and all the hustle that goes with public transportation), making the higher price tag worth it.

Using public transportation comes with a lower price point, but it also comes with many inconveniences. Some of these inconveniences include not having a guarantee that you will have a spot on the bus, the possibility of traveling up to five hours on the bus standing (not getting a seat), and of course, the long travel time mentioned above.

For more details on the inconvenience of using public transportation to get from San Jose to Arenal, you can refer to the article “How to Get from San Jose to La Fortuna,” which only covers the part of the trip from San Jose to La Fortuna. However, that part is the most inconvenient, so it’s worth checking it out before traveling to Arenal using our public transportation system.

Can You Drive from San Jose to Arenal?

The next option to get from San Jose to Arenal is to drive there. Besides public transportation, driving is the most cost-efficient way to get to Arenal. It’s also one of the quickest ways to make this trip, but you may have heard some horror stories from travelers driving in Costa Rica, which begs the question; is it safe to drive from San Jose to Arenal?

You can generally drive from San Jose to Arenal during the daytime. The main road is paved and in good condition, making it easy to navigate during the day. However, you should avoid driving this road after 5 pm because it gets very dark and foggy, making it difficult to navigate at night.

How is the Drive from Arenal and San Jose?

There are two main routes you can take to get from Arenal to San Jose. You can travel through the Caribbean side of the country through route 32, which goes through Braulio Carrillo national park. You can also get from San Jose to Arenal through routes 1 and 702 through San Ramon. Both generally take the same time, so it’s best to check the traffic and travel times on Google before starting the drive.

What’s the Drive Time from San Jose to Arenal?

As mentioned above, driving from San Jose to Arenal can be one of the quickest ways to get there, but how long should you expect the drive to be?

The drive time from San Jose to Arenal takes between 3 and 4 hours, depending on the traffic conditions in San Jose. The traffic from San Jose to Arenal is usually better in mid-mornings, except on Saturdays when many locals travel to Arenal to spend the day at the hot springs.

Compared to all the other ways to get from San Jose to Arenal, driving is the fastest way, as shown in the below comparison table. 

Fastest Ways to Get from San Jose to Arenal

Transportation Service How Long it Takes
Driving (Car Rental)* 3 – 4 Hours
Private Transfer* 3 – 4 Hours
Group Shuttle 4 – 5 Hours
Public Transportation (Bus + Taxis) 7 – 8 Hours

*Going on a Private Transfer can be faster if you’re not used to driving in Costa Rica.

What is There to See Between Arenal and San Jose?

As mentioned above, you can drive from San Jose to Arenal via route 32 through Braulio Carrillo’s National Park or via routes 1 and 702 through San Ramon. And it’s best to check on Google which course is best just before you start to drive. Here is a place I recommend you visit if you drive through San Ramon:

The best places to see between Arenal and San Jose include a stop at Mi Rancho in San Ramon. Mi Rancho is a beautiful Costa Rican restaurant with a wide variety of traditional dishes and a fantastic lookout viewpoint across the road, overlooking the San Ramon valley. 

a plate of food on a picnic table

Cons of Driving from San Jose to Arenal

Even though driving is the fastest way to get from San Jose to Arenal, it also comes with caveats you should consider before you decide to rent a car for this trip. 

Driving Might Not Be the Fastest Way of Getting to Arenal

Driving is not always the fastest way of getting to Arenal. As mentioned above, it takes between 3 and 4 hours to drive from San Jose to Arenal. However, these averages are more realistic and applicable to those used to driving in Costa Rica. They do not necessarily apply to foreigners. 

The Google Maps average time from San Jose to Arenal uses real-time traffic speed to calculate the estimated travel time. However, most tourists drive at a significantly slower pace than locals. You will experience this if you decide to rent a car for your trip to Costa Rica. More likely than not, you will drive more slowly than Costa Ricans, and that’s because you will probably want to enjoy the incredible scenery, while the average local will be rushing to get home from work. 

Therefore, as a general rule, I recommend adding 30 to 60 minutes to the estimated driving time the GPS device/app gives you

I want to reiterate that the road gets pretty dark after 5 pm, which begs the following question;

Is it Safe to Drive from San Jose to Arenal at Night? 

In general, driving from San Jose to Arenal at night is unsafe, especially if you have never done it before. The road is very dark and difficult to see. And the route is full of sharp turns and dangerous curves, which, combined with the road’s darkness, can make driving unsafe for most people. 

Keep the above in mind when planning your trip to Arenal. And if you decide to rent a car, I recommend using the Rental Car Comparison Tool. You can find the best car rental deals in one place. Choose the city or airport where you plan to pick up a rental car, and the tool will instantly show you the best deals across the major rental car companies in Costa Rica. 

What’s The Easiest Way to Get from San Jose to Arenal?

a group of people posing for the camera

Hiring a Private Transportation Service, or a “Private Shuttle,” as locals call it, is the easiest way to get from San Jose to Arenal. With a private shuttle, you can arrange a specific time and place, and a transportation company will pick you up there and take you directly to your lodge in Arenal. 

Compared to all the other ways to get from San Jose to Arenal, hiring a private transportation service is the easiest way. You don’t need to worry about taking your luggage to a bus terminal in the middle of San Jose, compromising the safety of your belongings. 

You also don’t need to worry about driving in a foreign country with roads that might differ significantly from the streets you’re used to riding back home. Instead, you arrange the time and place, and a local professional driver with a modern vehicle will take you to your destination in Arenal. 

The only disadvantage of hiring this type of transportation service is the price. Going on a private transfer is the most expensive way to get from San Jose to Arenal. It’s the most comfortable, convenient, and easiest option, but it’s pricey. 

Depending on the pickup place, getting from San Jose to Arenal on a private transfer will cost between $180 and $200 for 1 to 6 passengers. The pickup time can also influence your pricing. For example, if you arrive at the SJO Airport late at night (usually after 5 pm), the prices for this service might get $20+ higher. 

Prices for private transfers are also subject to increase as demand rises, especially during the busiest days, so I recommend booking ahead of time. 

There is one scenario where hiring a private transfer will not be the most expensive option to get from San Jose to Arenal. That’s when your party is four or more passengers. 

Group shuttles charge a per-person price, while private transfers charge a per-trip fee. Using a shared shuttle will cost $67 per adult, so the total for four adults would be $268. In contrast, the same trip with a private shuttle might cost you around $200. 

So, in this scenario, it’s not only more comfortable and convenient to hire a private transfer, but it’s also more economically efficient. You can use this link to see availability and prices in real-time if this is your case.  

Using a Group Shuttle to Get from San Jose to Arenal

a van parked on the side of a road

Getting a group shuttle from San Jose to Arenal is an excellent choice for solo travelers and couples. A group shuttle is a daily shared transportation service from San Jose to Arenal. A modern Van with A / C will pick you up at your lodge in San Jose and take you to your destination in Arenal. 

Generally, taking a group shuttle, or a “shared shuttle,” as the locals call it, is the most recommended door-to-door way to get from San Jose to Arenal for most travelers. Group shuttles are convenient and provide the best balance, saving time and money for travelers in most cases.

On a group shuttle, you share the shuttle service with fellow travelers and the cost, which is usually the best option for solo travelers and couples. Using this option to get to Arenal will be far more convenient than riding the public bus and significantly less expensive than hiring a private transfer. 

Using a group shuttle is also more manageable and less stressful than renting a car and driving. The price can change depending on the seasonality and demand, but it’s usually around $50 to $60 per person. 

Using a Taxi to Get from San Jose to Arenal

Another way to travel from San Jose to Arenal is by Taxi. This option is not very popular as the media surfaced several reports of foreigners getting scammed over the last decade. 

Local news has also reported this issue multiple times as taxi drivers have altered their vehicles. They have managed to do this by manipulating their taximeter, which they use to determine how much to charge based on time spent and distance driven. 

According to some reports, customers have been charged up to 2 times what they should have been. Travelers have widely discussed this problem in travel forums, leading taxi drivers to lose credibility, and as a result, tourists have lost faith in this means of transportation. 

However, there are some instances where you can use the taxi service safely. For example, you can get a taxi through a hotel receptionist. According to our sources from Hotel El Bosque Monteverde, having a supervisor check on receptionist’s recommendations and referrals is usual in the hotel industry in Costa Rica. Supervising the offers receptionists provide hotel guests helps ensure travelers get the best suggestions. 

Using the International Airport taxi services is another safe option to ensure you pay the correct amount for a taxi ride. The airport’s officials have strict protocols to ensure taximeters charge the proper amount to tourists. 

Now that we are talking about airports, this article would not be complete without answering the following related question, which I often get from people who are traveling to Costa Rica for the first time and are trying to decide which airport to use when arriving at the country;

Is Liberia or San Jose Closer to Arenal?

Many people wonder which airport they should use to land in Costa Rica when heading to Arenal as their first destination. There are two main international airports; the Daniel Oduber International Airport in Liberia and the SJO Juan Santamaria International Airport in Alajuela (San Jose).

Both airports are relatively close to Arenal, so you might wonder whether you should fly into Liberia or SJO.

Liberia is closer to Arenal compared to San Jose. San Jose is 163 km (101 miles) away from Arenal, or about a 3-hour drive. In contrast, Liberia is 131 km (81 miles) away from Arenal, or a 2.5-hour drive. For that reason, it’s best to use Liberia’s International airport if you are heading to Arenal.

Here’s the end of this article. Thank you for reading this far, and feel free to share this info with fellow travelers as you deem appropriate. Happy travels and ¡Pura Vida, amigos!

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About the Author

Daniel Lalinde holding a mountain bikeDaniel Lalinde

I am the founder of Monteverde Tours Online. I live in Monteverde and love nature, adventure, and Mountain Biking. My partner and I love spending time outdoors and dining in Monteverde. We have more than 30 years of combined experience in the area, and there is no park, coffee shop, or restaurant we haven’t tried at least once!

We love helping visitors and connecting them with the different tours and activities to have a memorable experience in Monteverde.

If you need help planning things to do in the area, send us a message, and we will happily assist you!