If you’re planning on driving to Arenal from Guanacaste, we’ll show you what it’s like in this post. We’ve driven this exact route quite a few times and it is one of our favorite drives in the country with beautiful views and fresh weather.
You can watch our video below or read on to find out if what kind of car you need, see what the road is like and why it’s such a beautiful drive! Don’t forget we also have a Costa Rica car rental discount which you can get in the link.
- Driving to Arenal from Guanacaste
- Arenal to Guanacaste Driving Time and Route
- Driving Directions to Arenal from Liberia
- Tips for Driving to Arenal from Guanacaste
- Points of Interest on the Way
- Alternative Routes
*This post was updated Sept 2020.*
Driving to Arenal from Guanacaste
Whether you are staying in Gulf of Papagayo (Playas del Coco, Hermosa, Ocotal, etc.), resorts like RIU, Four Seasons, Planet Hollywood or coming from Tamarindo/Flamingo, the route is about the same.
You need to go to Liberia, get on the Interamericana highway 1, exit at Cañas, drive to Tilaran, go around Nuevo Arenal and the lake and finally reach La Fortuna. The distance is about 130 kilometers or 80 miles. From Liberia Airport to Arenal, the drive time takes around 3 hours. If you’re coming from Playas del Coco, Gulf of Papagayo, Conchal or Tamarindo, it is around 4 hours.
Arenal to Guanacaste Driving Time and Route
The route from Liberia to La Fortuna does not require a 4×4 using Route 1 and Route 142. These are all main paved roads. However, there are some big pot holes around Nuevo Arenal so just watch out for those. Additionally, once you start going around the lake, the road gets very curvy so you have to go slow. If you get carsick or have kids, I highly recommend taking anti-nausea medicine before hitting the road.
Here is the route on Google Maps.
When you set your GPS for La Fortuna, make sure it goes through Tilaran continuing on Route 142.
Driving to Arenal from Liberia
GPS works very well for this route and you will go from Liberia, to Cañas, Tilaran, Nuevo Arenal and then La Fortuna mostly on Interamericana Highway 1 and Route 142. This is a beautiful drive, especially when you start going around the lake past Tilaran.
This route has a lot of signage. Hopefully you will have a nice sunny day so you can soak in all the views and enjoy the drive.
Eventually after all the curves and turns, the volcano finally appears and you’ll start noticing signs for resorts like the Springs and Nayara. You will know when you are close to La Fortuna when you arrive at a bridge and the hydroelectric plant. There is a view of Arenal Volcano right in front of you on the bridge to the left. From there, you are only about 20 minutes from La Fortuna downtown.
Keep going on this road, driving past the many luxury hotels and resorts in the area, passing the Arenal Volcano National Park entrance on your right and eventually ending up in La Fortuna, the main town and tourism hub.
Guanacaste to Arenal Driving Stops: Restaurants, Bathroom, Places to See, Etc.
If you need to use the bathroom, Plaza Santa Rosa has public bathrooms. This plaza also has a large supermarket, bank and ATM. As Liberia is the capital city of Guanacaste, there are a lot of food options, including fast food.
Then on the drive from Liberia to Cañas, you can stop by Catarata Llanos de Cortes for a quick photo. It’s technically in Bagaces, about a 15-20 minute drive from Liberia and right off the highway before Cañas so you won’t be taking a big detour. It a 5 minute walk down to the beautiful waterfall and if you go in the morning on a weekday, it is very likely there aren’t going to be many people.
In Cañas, we like to get breakfast/lunch at Restaurante Mimi. This is where all the local farmers and workers eat in town. There isn’t a lot of parking (street only) and it is buffet style. Great place for a local spot, not a touristy restaurant. There’s a statue of the pig right out front (Cañas is known for their farming). Right on the route so no detour required.
In Tilaran, there is a famous Costa Rican restaurant called Restaurante Aroma Tico. It’s a great stop in the middle of the drive to get lunch, use the bathroom and check out some souvenirs. You can also get gas as there is a gas station right across the street.
In Nuevo Arenal, there is a nice German Bakery with pastries, coffee and treats. They have a cafe so you can stop and eat lunch there. Only street parking.
Then Lake Arenal Brewery, Los Heroes and Cafe y Macademia are three other nice spots around Lake Arenal to stop. Lake Arenal Brewery has food and craft beer, Los Heroes has a restaurant and a train station (nice for kids) and Cafe y Macademia has coffee, pastries and food. All three places have really nice views of the lake. However, Cafe y Macademia is where all the tour buses stop so there are always a lot of people there.
For two places that are not as touristic that the tour buses don’t stop at, you can go to Tinajas Arenal, a nice restaurant with a beautiful view. It is not right off the route so requires a detour.
Another great more local place to stop is Rancho Mirador Los Peñas, near Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park. It’s a local family owned property with a stunning view of Arenal Volcano and Lake Arenal and they offer delicious traditional breakfasts and lunch.
One of our favorite viewpoints on this route is in Tilaran, close to the turn of Lake Arenal Condos. It goes up the mountains toward the windmills and you get a beautiful view of Tilaran and the Guanacaste province below. If you want to see this one, you can set the GPS destination as “Planta Tejona, ICE” and right around there are some beautiful views. You can also get very close to the windmills which is impressive!
This is a dirt road going up the mountain so a high car is recommended. This detour may take around 30 extra minutes.
There is another more accessible viewpoint in Tilaran. On the map it is called “Mirador Tilaran” and you can just pull off to the side of the road for photos of the lake and hills.
There is also a sign when you are driving around the lake to see a very old and big Ceiba tree (turn to the left) which is cool.
If you rented a 4×4 and are a proficient off road driver, you can also stop by Lake Cote. This is the largest natural lake in Costa Rica and also the spot of the only “official” UFO sighting in the country. As it is truly an off the beaten path place, you do need a high car, 4wd/4×4 required and to plan your stop accordingly. Read our post for more information. This detour will add at least 1 hour to your drive from Guanacaste to La Fortuna.
Another neat stop is Centro de Rescate Las Pumas in Cañas. You can take a short tour of the rescue center to learn about their work and see their animals.
Below is a map with most of the points of interest I mentioned.
Once you get around the lake, you can stop by the dam for a nice view of the volcano and lake. You can watch our video of our road trip from Guanacaste to Arenal in the video below to see where we stopped. **In Sept 2019, last time we drove this route, they had closed the area by the dam so you can’t stop there anymore.*
Tips for Driving to Arenal from Guanacaste
- Give yourself at least 5 hours for this drive to include bathroom, photo and food stops. Drive slow around the lake. It’s curvy with tight turns and no street lights.
- Whenever you stop, try to park your car where you can see it from the restaurant. For bathroom stops, have one person stay at the car at all times. Try to make your luggage not visible in the car if possible to prevent car theft.
- If you get carsick, bring anti-nausea medicine.
- It’s not advised to drive this route late at night, especially in rainy season. This is because of the very dark and curvy roads. Remember, the sun sets at 6 PM and it tends to start raining in late afternoon in rainy season.
- If your flight lands from 4-6 PM, we recommend to stay a night in Liberia and then leave early the next day instead.
- If you don’t rent a GPS, use Waze or Google Maps. You need phone internet data so get a Costa Rica pre paid sim card or sign up for an international date plan with your home provider.
- The road is paved so you won’t need a 4X4. But there are a lot of potholes once you start going around the lake.
- There are gas stations in Liberia, Canas, Tilaran and La Fortuna. Read more about Costa Rica gas stations here.
You can watch our video below of us driving from Liberia to Arenal. We included the major turns and towns.
Alternative Route (Via Bijagua and Rio Celeste)
There is an alternative route you can take from Guanacaste to La Fortuna and it allows you to see one of the most beautiful places in Costa Rica. You can drive from Liberia to Bijagua, hike Rio Celeste and then continue to La Fortuna.
The drive from Liberia to Rio Celeste is 2 hours and Rio Celeste to La Fortuna is about 2 hours. If you are coming from Tamarindo, it is 2.5 hours to Rio Celeste. High car is recommended. Here is the map:
If you plan to stop at Rio Celeste, we recommend to arrive at the Tenorio Volcano National Park early as the hike can take around 3-4 hours and so you can arrive in La Fortuna right at sunset. You can have lunch at the restaurant outside the national park entrance and then head on your way to La Fortuna. So try to get to the park before 9 AM to finish the hike by 12- 1 PM, have lunch, leave before 2-3 PM and you’ll arrive to La Fortuna before dark.
Keep in mind that if you visit during rainy season, particularly months like May, June, August – December, the Rio Celeste area does tend to rain more so plan and pack accordingly.
You can read more about getting to Rio Celeste in this post here.
San Jose to La Fortuna
Are you coming from San Jose instead of Liberia? Check out our post driving from San Jose to La Fortuna to see what it’s like.
Looking for some activities? Find out what are the top things to do in La Fortuna/Arenal!