The streets of San José, as in most towns in Costa Rica, each block is assumed to be 100 metres, although some blocks may be much longer and some may be shorter. So if someone tells you to head down the road 500 metes, they mean five blocks.
There are no North American type addresses in Costa Rica. And although most urban areas are laid in a grid pattern with calles (streets) running north and south and avenidas (avenues) running east and west, most likely there is no street sign or marking to indicate the name of the calle or avenida. And if by chance there is, it is faded or rusted to the point it is totally unlegible.
To navigate the streets of downtown San José like a pro all you need to know is that the bulevar (boulevard) is the Avenida O or better known as Avenida Central, and all avenues to the south are even numbers (2, 4, 6, 8 etc) and all to the north are odd (1, 3, 5, 7 etc).
As to the Calles, Calle O or Calle Cental is the one that runs in front of the Catedral Metropolitana – Metropolitan Cathedral and all calles to the east are odd and to the west even.
However, the foreging this is of very little help, for knowing the landmarks is most important.
For instance locating the Racsa offices which are located on the southwest corner of Calle 1 and Avenida 5 is better described: from the Correo (post office), 200 metres (2 blocks) east and 100 metres (1 block) north.
Most directions are that straightforward. Of course knowing your north/south and east/west and knowing the location of the post office – your starting reference point – is imperative.
A typical direction is based on a landmark. The Holiday Inn, the Caja, the Parque Central that is different than the Parque Nacional or the Parque La Merced. The Mercedes Tower, which is now the Scotiabank tower, the San Juan de Dios (the hospital), the Cementerio (Cemetery on Avenida 10) or the Muni (Municipal offices down the street from the cemetery) are all landmarks used for giving directions.
For the average Josefino (resident of San José) this is pretty straight forward. But for visitors, foreigners from another country or Ticos (Costa Ricans) not familiar with San José, this is a nightmare. Especially when the landmark references have changed, but are still being referred to as they once were.
Take for instance someone who has never been in San José how will they know that the “banco negro” is the main offices of the Banco de Costa Rica on Avenida 2. The “negro” or black reference dates back to when the bank building was a dark green (never black, though it looked black at night). The building face today has since been remodeled and now is aluminium (or aluminum) grey with a large horizontal flag of Costa Rica.
Years ago the obscure building at the south/west corner of Calle 1 and Avenida 3, currently housing a government office of some time was once the home of the US Embassy in San José. Some will still use the embassy as a reference. The US Embassy today is located in Pavas, some 8 kilometres west of downtown San José.
Or take the common case of using the Oscar Arias house for an address in Rohrmoser. How is the average person to know where Don Oscar lives?
An changing the exterior colour of a building or any other type of major renovation can through off any direction. The orange coloured house with the black gate has since changed to blue and the gate is white. Of what happens if one day Don Oscar decides to move?
Over the years there have been plans to modernize the system, not change the street names, but rather erect street signs.
This task has fallen on the post office, the Correos de Costa Rica, which for whatever reason has never able to get the job done.
You would think that the post office would have an interest in getting an address system in place and do away with one that is not three paragraphs and squarely based on landmarks.
Well, you see the post office doesn’t deliver the mail. No siree! Oh sure if you have lived long enough in San José you may have seen a mailman or two. But they, like the fire hydrants, are few and far in between.
Utility bills are delivered by the utility companies, thus the reason why you are asked for a utility bill when opening a bank account or applying for any type of credit. They, the utility companies, know exactly where the meter is located. Important letters and notices are delivered by private courier on motorcycles or on foot.
Mail is delivered to postal boxes at post offices or satellite locations like in Plaza Mayor, where the boxes are hidden and not property identified below the escalator of phase 1 (the Automercado).
There is a plan in place, one that was recently introduced and with the help of private companies, to place street signs at every corner. The plan has begun in downtown San José. It is unlikely, however, to reach the suburbs anytime soon. Or that many Costa Ricans want the signs, preferring the directions “”a la Tica”.
So, in conclusion, to navigate the streets of Chepe (as San José is often referred to) here are a few simple tips:
1. Allow lots of time to get to an appointment to an address you have never been to before.
2. Always carry the phone number of the person or office you are going to, to ask for more exact directions based on your current (lost) location.
3. Don’t rely that the address you are looking for has a number. Make sure you get specific landmark references, ie colour of the building, what is next to it, across the street, number of floors, etc.
4. Ask a taxi driver to take you or lead your way if you are driving.
5. Don’t assume that 100 metres is that, it refers to one block, be it 50 metres or 200 metres. An address with 50 metres is half a block and 25 metres a quarter block. If you are told 200 metres, don’t pace them, it is simply two blocks. So, why not say one, two or hald a block? Too simple.
6. Keep in mind that the reference point may have changed. The age of the person or the lenghth of time living in San José may mean reference points that no longer exist, like the Mercedes Tower on Paseo Colón. An older Tico will refer to the “Palace”, while a newcomer to San José will day the KFC, which is exactly the same place, diagonal to the Parque Central.
Watch the Reuters video below as the news of Costa Rica”s new street signs as covered by the international press.
7. Rorhmoser is in Pavas, but Pavas is not Rohrmoser. San Pedro every ones, but where is Montes de Oca? Alajuelita is not Alajuela. Make sure you write down or read the directions very, very carefully.
8. Using McDonalds as a reference point is always good. In the few square miles bounded by La Sabana on the west, Paseo Colon on the north, Avenida 10 on the south and Calle 9 on the east there are, count them, seven (the number) Mickey D’s. You could use KFC or Taco Bell or Burger King. All together they add up to less than the number of McD’s which is your better bet.
9. Everyone knows the Hotel del Rey or Key Largo, the original pickup bar for Costa Rica, located in the heart of historic Barrio Amon. Suggest you leave this one for last, don’t want to be labeled a “gringo verde” (a term used for a pervert, usually an older man looking for a young girl). Also many Ticos, though they know will not admit to it.
10. And last, if you are qless (clueless) or totally lost ask three people for directions and pick the two of the tree, moved in that direction and ask three more, repeat until you get close or actually find it.
If all fails, well there is tomorrow. Pack it in, start fresh mañana.