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How To Get From San Jose To Arenal

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How To Get From San Jose Costa Rica To Arenal

Hundreds of thousands of tourists travel every year from San Jose, Costa Rica, to Arenal. 

I’ve done this trip dozens of times when I was training for an MTB race called “Arenal Epic.” And I have also helped tons of people travel there through my agency, Monteverde Tours Online

In this post, I will share the best ways to get from San Jose to Arenal, as well as the pros and cons of each option to determine which one suits you best. 

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 or rent a car and drive. In general, the first two options are more affordable but the latter 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, there is a bus that goes from San Jose to La Fortuna from where you can take a taxi to get 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 to, but to give you an 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 that goes 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 your lodge in San Jose to your lodge 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 totally worth it.

Using public transportation comes with a lower price point but it also comes with a lot of 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. Driving is the next most cost-efficient manner to get to Arenal from San Jose. 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?

In general, you can 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 during the night time.

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 just 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 to travel 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 couple of places I recommend you visit, depending on which way you take.

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 a couple of 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, on average, 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 bases its calculation on real-time traffic speed. 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 to work or back home. So, 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 a critical factor I mentioned above, 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, it is not safe to drive from San Jose to Arenal at night, 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 darkness of the road can make driving unsafe for most people. 

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 $160 and $200 for 1 to 4 passengers. The pickup time can also influence your pricing. For example, if you arrive at the SJO Airport late at night (usually after 10 pm), the prices might get $20+ higher for this service. 

Prices for private transfers are also subject to increase as demand rises, especially during the busiest days, so I would recommend that you book 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 3 or 4 passengers. For example, if you have three adults in your party, you are close to the SJO Airport, and you book ahead, most of the time, the price will likely be $160 for the three of you. That comes to approximately $53.50 per person, which is less than riding a group shuttle, which I will explain in the next section. Getting a group shuttle from San Jose to Arenal will cost $57 per adult, so the total for three adults would be $171. 

The same would apply if you had a party of 4 adults, in which case, taking the group shuttle would cost $228 while taking a private transfer would be $160 to $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. If this is your case, please get in touch with us, and we will happily get you a quote and help you get from San Jose to Arenal via a private shuttle. 

Using a Group Shuttle to Get from San Jose to Arenal

a van parked on the side of a road

A group shuttle is a daily door-to-door 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. 

In general, 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 they 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 you also share 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 be a lot easier and less stressful than renting a car and driving yourself. The price can change depending on the seasonality and demand, but it’s usually around $50 to $60 per person per way. 

With my travel agency, Monteverde Tours Online, I’ve used the group shuttle services thousands of times over the last decade, bringing customers from San Jose to Arenal, from San Jose to La Fortuna, and from San Jose to Monteverde. If you are heading to any of these routes, you can use the following links to check on availability and current pricing to book this service: 

Using a Taxi to Get from San Jose to Arenal

Another way to travel from San Jose to Arenal is by taking a 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 among the hotel industry in Costa Rica. Supervising the recommendations that receptionists provide to hotel guests helps make sure 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 they are 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 of these 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.

Whether you land at Liberia or SJO, if you need a reliable transportation service to take you from the Airport to Arenal, please get in touch with us, and we will happily assist you. 

About the Author

Daniel Lalinde holding a mountain bikeDaniel Lalinde

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

We love helping visitors, 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! 

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