Where am I? Getting directions in Costa Rica
Even our taxi driver was lost. “Where’s the mango tree?” he asked the person on the cell phone. The taxi sat idling on the side of the road as the driver spoke to the host of
Even our taxi driver was lost.
“Where’s the mango tree?” he asked the person on the cell phone. The taxi sat idling on the side of the road as the driver spoke to the host of the party that we were going to somewhere in the hills of Escazu. He nodded his head and then said in exasperation, “But I drove past that street and there was no mango tree.” That’s when he learned that the mango tree had been cut down a few years ago…
If you’ve ever had an experience like this, you are likely wise to the frustrations of getting and giving directions in Costa Rica. Luckily, with the advent of apps like Waze or Google Maps, it’s far, far easier to navigate the roads of Costa Rica than it once was. Occurrences like the above were relatively routine as directions are often given by landmark here in Costa Rica and not with street names. In fact, in many places even Ticos don’t know the names of streets and referring to them can be an exercise in futility.
Given the ubiquity of Waze and Google Maps, this article may only come in handy on the odd occasion when you are without a cellphone, without signal, or without charge on your phone. However, when you need to know this information, you really need to know it so it’s still useful to keep in your proverbial back pocket.
Without further ado, here are some tips for giving and/or getting directions in Costa Rica:
Street names and addresses:
As mentioned above, street names are relatively useless in Costa Rica. The only place where that is a bit of an exception would be downtown San Jose. Paseo Colon is universally known as the street that runs from La Sabana Park to approximately where Hospital San Juan de Dios ends. It then dog-legs into Avenida Central which runs the rest of the length of downtown San Jose.
“Avenidas” (or avenues) run east-west and have even numbers on the south side of Paseo Colon/Avenida Central and odd numbers to the north of those streets. For example, Avenida 5 would be to the north of Paseo Colon whereas Avenida 6 would be to the south of it.
“Calles” (or streets) run north-south and are even numbered to the west of the street that fronts Parque Central and are numbered with odd numbers to the east. In other words, Calle 3 would be to the east of Parque Central whereas Calle 6 would be to the west.
Even so, knowing this will only maybe help you with taxi drivers or Ticos who understand the system. In general, outside of a few streets like Paseo Colon and Avenida Central, street names are rarely used and, therefore, rarely helpful.
Since street names aren’t used (or even known), this means that addresses don’t really exist in Costa Rica in the way that many of us think of them. There is no such thing as living at 715 E. Main Street in Costa Rica. Instead, any address would be a physical description of the place where you live in reference to another location (more on this later). When you ask for someone’s address, be prepared to get a something like “I live 200 meters north and 50 meters west from the Banco Nacional.”
People like myself from the United States are at a bit of a disadvantage when getting and giving directions since distance is almost always given in meters. However, once you understand that Ticos almost universally tend to use “100 meters” as a substitute for giving blocks, it’s really quite easy to understand what they are referring to. For example, if a Tico says, “The church is 200 meters to the east of here,” what they are staying is that it’s two blocks to the east. This is true even if the distance is more (or less) than 200 meters in actual distance.
While it isn’t as common, the term manzana can also be used to talk about “blocks.” So, if you hear someone say that a given location is “dos manzanas de aqui” that would mean it is “two blocks from here.”
Perhaps the most frustrating and confusing part of getting/giving directions in Costa Rica is the insistence on using local landmarks as reference points rather than using street names or addresses. The landmark could be anything. Stores, banks, or restaurants are frequently used and I’ve also been given churches or municipal buildings as a reference point. By far the most aggravating is when local natural features like trees or even large rocks are used. As can be seen in my brief opening story, these features can be non-existent and still even be used years later by people who have had that reference point so ingrained in them that they still use that non-existent reference all these years later. Something that is pretty objective and easy (giving an address) becomes an exercise in subjectivity and what that person finds most important in that neighborhood.
It’s not uncommon to get directions such as “go 400 meters north after you see the brick church” or “it’s 350 meters west of the furniture store.” This is all well and good when you are familiar with the place, but almost by definition, if you are asking for directions, you aren’t familiar with where you are so even references to fixed places like a store can be a challenge. It is a less-than-efficient system and can be a real challenge when doing all this in a second language to boot.
Never the same direction twice:
To make matters even more daunting, two different people may give two different reference points when giving directions. For one person, a location may be 300 meters north of the supermaket, while for someone else it’s 200 meters west of the local fried chicken restaurant. It’s very useful when driving to have your co-pilot (if you have one) keep an eye out for the reference point while you navigate the chaotic driving patterns found in Costa Rican traffic.
Also, very generally speaking, Ticos are at once both extremely helpful, but also not given to readily admitting ignorance, and so one can find that the directions given were totally erroneous. I have had countless experiences where I’ve asked someone for directions only for the directions to be totally wrong. Unfortunately, people want to appear helpful, but also don’t want to appear ignorant and so would rather given directions that are incorrect rather than admit that they don’t know where something is. This is not always the case, naturally, but it does happen often enough to warrant some skepticism when getting directions from a stranger. A quick look at their face and also at how readily and quickly they are to answer helps give you a clue as to whether they know or not, but I tend to take almost any directions given to me with a grain of salt.
Be patient. Ask for a second (or third or fourth) opinion:
If the above facts may seem a bit daunting, that’s because… well… in truth they are. Getting around in Costa Rica without a cell phone and a navigation app can be a real challenge and even more so when one doesn’t have a working knowledge of Spanish and/or the local layout.
If you don’t speak Spanish, look for a younger person as it is more likely that they understand/speak English. Stop into stores or restaurants where English is more likely to be spoken. But keep asking. The good news is that Ticos are usually quite approachable, friendly, and willing to help (even if that help is not always accurate). You’ll get the information you need eventually. It just may take a while to get the information you need in a way that is clear to you and makes sense.
Give yourself time:
Given all the pitfalls listed above, it’s very wise to give yourself plenty of time to get anywhere if you aren’t sure where you are going and if you aren’t able to use some sort of navigation app. Add some padding to your estimated time because it’s not unlikely that you’ll get a little lost. Lots of Costa Rican streets aren’t on a strict grid system due to mountains, rivers, coastlines, etc. and so the roads can have lots of twists and turns too. If you leave with plenty of time, it’ll help mitigate some of the stress and frustration you may have if you do get a bit lost.
Try to enjoy the adventure:
Navigating Costa Rica without a navigation app can be a very frustrating and stressful experience. When you find yourself in that situation, try to take a bird’s eye view of the moment if you can and look at it as a learning experience and a way to get to know the city, town, place where you are. Perhaps you’ll find a new restaurant or shop. Perhaps you’ll meet someone new. Perhaps you’ll see a part of the city that you’ve never seen before. I know this is far easier said than done, but remember the old saying that it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. Costa Rica may remind you of that fact more often than you would like!