The best way to get from the volcanoes of Arenal to the surf and sunsets of Tamarindo is by car or private transfer. It's about a 4-hour drive (129 miles/207 km), and the route winds around Lake Arenal and through Liberia before ending at the Pacific beaches of the Gold Coast. If you're wondering whether to drive yourself or have someone do the commuting for you, check out this Driving in Costa Rica FAQ.
A shared shuttle is another a good option, with bilingual drivers and door-to-door service, but may add some time to your trip picking up other riders. There are no direct flights between the two cities, but there are airports in both places, so it's possible to fly to Liberia, then Tamarindo, or to book a charter flight, the quickest but by far the most costly option. Buses in Costa Rica are reliable and thrifty, but the least convenient and most time-consuming choice.
This 7-day classic Costa Rica itinerary lets you explore both areas, with an added stop in Monteverde.
By Car or Private Transfer
Duration: 4 hours
Renting a car and driving is a good alternative depending on your comfort level. With good, paved roads the whole way driving during the dry season should be no problem for the intrepid traveler, as long as you keep some safety precautions in mind. Drive during daylight hours, as the roads are unlit and winding. First-time Costa Rica drivers may want to avoid driving in the rainy season, as heavy and sudden rainfall can make roads impassable and visibility low.
You'll take Route 142 West to Cañas—if you're ready to stretch your legs there is a Puma Sanctuary here that offers your best chance of seeing these notoriously reclusive animals on your trip. For lunch, consider one of the many roadside sodas, which offer "Comida Tipico" or typical Costa Rican fare. Turn onto Route 1 to Liberia, then your last hour will be on to Route 21 then 155 right into Tamarindo.
Private transfer is a great choice, especially for larger families or groups. It is convenient, no one has to stress about directions, and with a group, not that much more expensive than a shared shuttle.
By Shared Shuttle
Duration: 4.5 hours
There are morning and afternoon options for shared shuttles, with clean and comfortable rides. It's a convenient and practical way to navigate the country. The only downsides are that waiting for others to be picked up can add some time to your trip, and you don't have the luxury of stopping whenever you want to, for bathroom breaks or meals.
By Plane and Shuttle
Duration: 45 minutes
Unfortunately, there is no direct flight from Arenal to Tamarindo. It is possible to book a flight on a regional airline from Arenal to Liberia, then take a 1-hour private transfer or shared shuttle to Tamarindo. With flight time less than an hour, if you're short on time, you could also charter a plane. It is the most costly option, with one price for 1-5 passengers.
By River Rafting
Duration: 9 hours
For the most daring, there is an adventurous route between the two locations: river rafting. Starting at 6:30 am, you'll be picked up in a van for a 2.5-hour drive from Arenal to the Tenorio River, where after a safety briefing and equipment (helmets, lifejackets, and paddles) you'll board a raft with your guide.
This is no easy cruise down a stream–these are class 3 and 4 rapids! You'll be treated to incredible scenery in addition to the thrills on this 2.5-hour float that ends by going over a 12-foot waterfall. When you reach your destination you have a short hike to the 4X4 vehicle which takes you to a restaurant for lunch. After lunch, you are taken to your hotel in Tamarindo.
Duration: 7 hours
The bus trip from Arenal to Tamarindo is a bit convoluted and involves four different buses. While the most budget-friendly, it's not recommended due to long travel time and inconvenience.