How to Travel to Arenal via Public Bus from Guanacaste

It would have been hard for me to say that I had spent two months in Costa Rica if I missed a trip to Arenal Volcano. Arenal is a picturesque cone-shaped giant that looms over the nearby town of La Fortuna. It was thought to be dormant until its violent explosion in 1968 that spewed lava, rocks, and ash over 15 square kilometers of surrounding land. After 42 years of regular activity as the most active volcano in Costa Rica, Arenal entered a resting phase. Lucky for visitors, streams of water vapor and gasses can still be seen on a clear day from the summit.

The rainforest surrounding the volcano is home to a wide diversity of plants and wildlife, particularly 400 species of birds and 6 species of wild cats. If the volcano and wildlife alone aren’t enough for visitors, there are plenty of adventure excursions, spa treatment activities, and hiking opportunities throughout the region.

Getting to Arenal via Public Bus

With the theme of adventure in mind, we decided to try our hand at getting to the Arenal Observatory Lodge via public transportation from Playas del Coco. At the current time of writing, the ride costs about $30 to $40 round trip, making this by far the cheapest option. Shuttles range from $80 to $100 per person and rental cars run even higher than that. Taking public buses can save you a lot of money that can otherwise be used on an Arenal adventure.

While the trek involves only one bus from San José, it requires four from Playas del Coco. Despite the several transfer points, you can do this trip via public bus without it taking that much longer than a shuttle.

Why the complicated route? These buses are mostly used by the locals. Even though travelers see Arenal as a top spot in Costa Rica, it isn’t affordable for everyone else. It’s something that I do my best to not take for granted.

Planning your Trip

Bus schedules change all of the time in Costa Rica. If you are traveling on a Sunday, the buses are more infrequent due to lower demand. The tables in this article are a good place to start, but do not trust the times given! Call ahead (in Spanish) to check the times.

Embrace your inner minimalist when it comes to luggage. There isn’t much in the way of space on these buses. You can sneak it into the unoccupied handicap floor space if necessary but the trip is easiest when your stuff can fit comfortably on your lap and under your seat.

Figuring Out Your Schedule

You should pick the 7:00 AM or 12:30 PM bus from Tilarán to La Fortuna and back out the rest of the schedule from there. It seems counterintuitive to start with the final bus but with only two buses per day, this route is much more infrequent than the other three routes. From there you can add on the duration times of the earlier buses plus 30 to 45 minutes of transfer time for each leg.

The Bus Route

Bus #1: Playas del Coco to Liberia

(1 hour long, runs every half hour, $1 to $2 as you board)
This bus starts outside of Soda Pelones in Coco and ends at the Pulmitan bus station in Liberia. There is no space under the bus for luggage. Once the bus arrives in Liberia, you will need to walk from the Pulmitan station to the nearby local station for the second bus.

If starting your journey from the airport, you have a couple of options:

  1. Walk or take a cab from the airport to the main road (Calle Principal). The walk is just shy of 2 kilometers and the cab fare should be about $2. Wait for bus #1 on the opposite side of the road from the airport.
  2. Take a cab from the airport to the local bus station. This ride will be 15 to 20 minutes. I have not taken this route so I do not have a cost estimate.

Bus #2: Liberia to Cañas

(1 hour long, runs every half hour to an hour, $2-$3 as you board)
This bus starts at the local bus station in Liberia, as described below, and ends at the bus station in Cañas. There is no space under the bus for luggage. Once the bus arrives in Cañas, wait at the same station for the next bus.

The local bus station in Liberia is only a couple of blocks away from the Pulmitan station. When you get off the Playas del Coco bus, walk in the direction that the buses are facing. Take a left at the road and then take an immediate right. Go straight for one block and you will arrive at the local station for the second bus.

Bus #3: Cañas to Tilarán

(30 minutes long, runs every half hour to hour, $1-$3 as you board)
This bus starts at the local station in Cañas and ends at the local station in Tilarán. I do not believe that there is space under the bus for luggage. Once the bus arrives in Tilarán, wait at the same station for the next bus.

Truth be told, we actually did not take this bus. At the current time of writing, there was a 10:30AM and 12PM bus to connect with the 12:30PM bus to La Fortuna. We arrived at 11AM and the 12PM bus does not leave enough time to connect to the final bus. If this happens, official taxis will be $28 to $30 and unofficial ‘taxis’ will be $20. This was cost effective when split two ways.

Bus #4: Tilarán to La Fortuna

(2 to 3 hours, morning and afternoon bus, $5-$6)
This bus starts at the local station in Tilarán and ends at the local station in La Fortuna. There is space under the bus for luggage. Aim to get there 30 minutes prior to the trip, as the bus boards about 15 to minutes early. You will pass Arenal Volcano National Park and several of the resorts along the way before ending in La Fortuna.

You can take the bus to the end, but you will likely need a taxi to get to your lodging. And these won’t be cheap, we were told that a taxi from La Fortuna to the Arenal Observatory Lodge would cost around $30! It’s important to know where you’re staying so that you can get off at the stop closest to your end destination. You may still need a ride but at least it will be cheaper.

In our case, the volcano comes into view as you end the drive around the lake. The bus will cross the dam and continue left, leaving the lakeside. After a couple of kilometers, an unmarked service road will come up on the right with a bus stop that leads to the lodge. As a heads up, this road continues for another 11 kilometers. You can wait at the stop for a taxi or even walk up the road to the nearby 1968 trails. Taxis won’t come frequently but they are most likely to be seen on the main road. We were lucky enough to find a taxi quickly and paid $10.

Final Thoughts

This looks more complicated in writing than it felt when executed. We actually found the trip to be fun! It was a great way to test our Spanish and public transportation skills.

Feel free to leave questions in the comments, or to give a shout-out if you make the trip yourself. Once you arrive and see what Arenal has to offer, you’ll know that the trip was worth the trouble.


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