Trying to get directions in Costa Rica can leave your head spinning trying to remember if the house was 150 meters left of the pescaderia or was it 150 meters past the cementerio and then left at the pescaderia near the old cenizaro tree. If you were to ask anyone for directions in Costa Rica this could actually be your navigational route.
It can seem a bit chaotic to those that want their directions simple and direct, wanting to get from point A to point B. However, be prepared to take some wrong turns dropping your pride and asking locals for directions. They won’t be the same directions along the way and probably several different descriptions of old trees, bars and churches.
San Jose and Central Valley
San Jose and the Central Valley have been working on becoming a bit more fluid with street names and signage being put up but that doesn’t necessarily mean that people use them when giving directions. The informal way has worked for the people and they are accustomed to it with old habits being hard to shed.
Some are slow to adapt to change and many simply use reference points in the city like the Coca-Cola Bus Terminal. The Coca-Cola Bus Terminal was an old coca-cola bottling plant, they just kept the name and added the words bus terminal now being one of the landmark jumping points for giving directions.
The city is laid out in a grid pattern at the core being Avenida Central. Avenidas are avenues and they run from east to west, going south the numbers will be even and to the north they are odd. Calle Central is at the heart of the city as well, calle meaning street and they travel from the north to south. The odd numbers will be to the east and even streets are to the west.
However, if you were to tell a taxi an address using these coordinates, they may turn to you and say, is that near the Pura Vida soda 100 meters from the local iglesia. Many buildings and homes in towns are not numbered or if so maybe faded out or even painted over and foliage has grown over.
There aren’t standardized addresses across the entire country which many of us are so familiar with. Blocks are seen as 100 meters, even if they may be a bit bigger or smaller. Take this into consideration and don’t refer to the meters literally, if someone says 50 meters, think of it as half a block.
Addresses have been based on proximities to landmarks and are the old, tested, and true way in Costa Rica. The landmarks are well-known places like a church or factory, even a local bar in town, or a landmark that was once there and may no longer even be in existence. With the increase in urbanization within the country there has become a need to transition from the system of using landmarks.
The country began the installation of street signage originally in San Jose and slowly the government, companies, and communities try to move from their informal landmark system however, sometimes people are slow to adapt to change. Like anything new perhaps eventually, it will become familiar and culturally common after practice with a bit more acceptance.
Through education within the schools teaching the new generations the street names and directions within the city the archaic ways of landmarking reference points of old trees and corner shops will dissipate.
Outside the City
Outside of the city, however, it is not consistent. If you do see signage, you might question the randomness or be unsure of the structure, but instead, just be happy to see the innovation and sense of direction. In more remote areas you are most likely to still be looking for signs like Casa de Mangoes or Villa del Mar as opposed to your street signs.
Once you are out traveling the national highways and main roads throughout Costa Rica it can be easy and direct with your GPS, the only confusion or frustration you may have is with construction and congestion. It is once you are leaving the main roads where it can become a bit more interesting.
GPS works in Costa Rica and you can download your maps getting a direct route, putting in the name of the establishment or landmark where you going. However, it doesn’t take into consideration the flooding of the dirt roads and conditions from fallen trees. Often you may be headed out with what seems like the most reasonable direct way until you come to a washed-out road with unexpected flooding or deep unpassable mud on a backroad it has led you on.
It is best to plan out alternate routes ahead of time to be prepared. There are many areas where your cell and internet service won’t work as you are traveling throughout more rural areas in the country losing your GPS signal.
Waze is the most popular way of navigating through the roads and streets of Costa Rica and you will want to have access to the internet with it so you can have accurate up to date information. If you are meeting someone at a location it is easiest to have them send you their location so it can guide you along the way.
So, if there is no exact address, how do you even write out an address. I know when I was given my first address in Costa Rica, I thought this can’t be, it read “el frente” meaning in front of, so my address was literally, in front of the name of the building I lived across from. No numbers, no street name. I was surprised the words “at the green gate” weren’t in my address as well.
It wasn’t until 2007 when postal codes came into effect in Costa Rica. Postal codes have a meaning behind them and are comprised of 5 digits. These digits are used to decipher whereabouts in the country the mail needs to go.
They are made up of the province, county (canton), and district, so those short few numbers can tell you a lot of information and are quite important. The first number is from 1 to 7 and that will tell which province you reside in whether it is San Jose, Alajuela, Cartago, Heredia, Guanacaste, Puntarenas, or Limon.
An example would be 10201, indicating you are in the province of San Jose, canton of Escazu, and district of Escazu. If you mixed up your numbers and ended up writing 10901, your mail would end up going to the province of San Jose, canton of Santa Ana, and district of Santa Ana.
On the first line you will write out the name of the person, second, you will write out the distance in meters from a landmark even including a description of the color of the home, since there are often no numbers on the homes. This could include 150 mts south of the local school’s name, orange house, sometimes addresses may even include the distance from a well-known fast-food restaurant in town or church.
Remember to translate the direction into Spanish as well. Next is a bit more straightforward with the province, canton, and then district ending with the postal code and country. If you aren’t too sure of an address or how to write out the direction Correos de Costa Rica https://correos.go.cr/codigo-postal/ has an easy site to put in information to help you format your information.
Finding your way around Costa Rica can be an adventure making it somewhat of a treasure hunt to your prized destination. Stopping along the way asking for directions is a common way of life here and half the fun, interacting with the people and trying to find your way around.
The directions may seem a bit bizarre and unusual but it works and, in the end, you will always get there. Just sit back and enjoy the ride having a good story to tell remembering how you were trying to find the big old tree in the middle of town 100 meters south of the school.