Confusing tourists with directions like “150 meters south of the higuerón tree – the one they chopped down 10 years ago” appears to be a national pastime in Costa Rica.
An almost comical lack of street signs, poor lighting and landmarks that range from fallen trees to buildings that burned down decades ago, make navigating around Costa Rica a challenge – especially for those not familiar with the country.
For the hopelessly lost, however, there is now at least some hope.
In December, visitors to Costa Rica became the first in Central America to be able to enjoy the assistance of global positioning system (GPS) technology, according to Rudy Vargas, the main investor in Rutas Satelitales GPS, S.A., the firm that introduced the equipment to the country.
Under the trademark “Smart Ways RSGPS,” Rutas Satelitales has made GPS devices available to tourists who rent cars in Costa Rica. The technology is used around the world – particularly in the United States – to locate points of interest on maps displayed on a screen.
Rutas Satelitales is working with Garmin, a GPS manufacturer from Kansas, in the U.S. state of Texas, to provide the service and devices. The company will start small, renting 100 GPS models that can be attached to dashboards and are programmed to direct drivers in 11 languages, according to Arturo Vargas, Rudy Vargas’ brother and Rutas Satelitales general manager.
Not only can maps be displayed on the GPS touch-screens, but the device is programmed to give voice commands so drivers can keep their eyes on the road – a necessity in a country where traffic accidents are almost as numerous as the roads.
GPS technology pinpoints user locations via 24 satellites that orbit the earth, according to Rudy. The satellites, originally placed in orbit by the U.S. Department of Defense for military use, transmit signals to earth.
The GPS unit then translates the information and uses it in conjunction with maps and information such as hotel and restaurant locations to help users find their way.
As part of its pilot program, Rutas Satelitales will work with two rental car agencies, Economy and Solid Rent-A-Car, to work out the kinks.
To date, Arturo said, the program has been a raging success.
“It’s been very well received by our clients,” he told The Tico Times. He said his company has received calls from small hotels who’d like to be included on the program’s maps, and that some outlying hotels, which until recently insisted clients stay their first night in San José, are now recommending visitors armed with the GPS drive at night.
“That allows hotels to benefit from an extra night of paid lodging,” he said. It also allows tourists to maximize their stay by taking advantage of odd hours for driving.
According to Rudy, a Costa Rican engineer who resides in Florida, the GPS systems should help boost car rentals, too.
“The type of tourist who does not rent a car because he (or she) is afraid of getting lost will turn into a new client,” he said.
The good word about GPS is spreading quickly.
Canadian tourist Shane Burleigh, of Calgary, Alberta, raved about his experience with the GPS system on a recent Christmas vacation trip, when he, his fiancée and a friend navigated dirt roads, drove at night, and even used the GPS to locate the closest hotels and restaurants.
“It’s amazing. Literally too good to be true. Here you are in kind of a crazy country you’ve never been to, that doesn’t have the best road system, and you can find your way almost everywhere,” he said.
He said the GPS guided them almost flawlessly, erring just once when it guided them the wrong way down a one-way street. His only real complaint?
“We didn’t get out of the car and talk to as many locals as we otherwise would have,” he said.
GPS proponents say sometimes, that can be a saving grace.
Tourists “stop to look at maps and they would get robbed…(GPS) takes them without getting lost and without going down dangerous roads,” said Julio Ojeda, a Florida investor in the firm who visited Costa Rica last month.
Rudy, who gave The Tico Times a test drive near Paseo Colón, west of San José, to show how a GPS can help locate a pizzeria, explained that Rutas Satelitales will rent the equipment directly to tourists, through car rental companies. These companies will be in charge of giving clients their GPS and drawing up receipts for them.
For the system to work, a map had to be tailor-made. Rutas Satelitales started working on mapping the entire country more than a year ago, taking note of points of interest for tourists, the Vargas brothers explained.
To assemble the country map, the company fused two existing maps from the early 1990s, one by the National Geographic Institute (IGN) and another by the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE).
Rutas Satelitales had to map the country’s Northern Zone because the region’s relentless cloud cover had kept MINAE and the Geographic Institute from mapping it aerially. The GPS company accomplished this by land, according to Arturo, a lawyer who lives in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is the second country in Latin America, along with Chile, to offer complete maps with GPS technology. Other countries, such as Argentina and Brazil, have mapped only major cities.
The company plans to expand its rental service throughout Costa Rica and all of Central America if its pilot program is successful.
To rent a GPS, clients can visit the Rutas Satelitales store, located in front of the Hampton Inn near JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport in Alajuela, or visit its Web site, www.rsgps.net. Units rent for $7-13 a day, depending on the length of the rental.
For Burleigh, who had precious little time in Costa Rica, renting a GPS was worth every penny.
“It was the best investment we made in Costa Rica,” he said.