address system

Lost Without Translation

Costa Rica News – ”Stop the car!” I yelled at my husband. “Maybe that guy knows where the place is.”This is an all too familiar cry when we are driving anywhere in the Central Valley. We are both excellent drivers, but the bulk of the driving has fallen to him. I invariably ride shotgun, acting as navigator, and that involves asking for directions more often than not.
giving directions in costa rica
The man I spotted had what I look for when making inquiries. He was older, trimming a big red bougainvillea that overflowed from his yard into the street, so I assumed he lived there. And he appeared to own a car. One was parked in his drive, anyway. This last item is almost essential, because, with luck, the directions he gives will be for a driver and not a pedestrian. I’ve gotten those, and we’ve run into one-way streets, alleys, and dead ends. I have used taxi drivers parked by the side of the road. They are great. And on more than one occasion I’ve actually taken the taxi and had my husband follow in the car to find the correct address.

On this particular day we were trying to locate a wrecking yard in San José, Auto Repuestos Hermanos Copher. The address on their website said—no kidding: in San José, La Uruca, Barrio Corazon de Jesus, 800 meters north (road to Heredia) at the intersection of Pozuelo.

This is not an anomaly; this *is* the approved address system of Costa Rica. If you are a local, you probably know right where these places are, but if you are an expat or a visitor, good luck. It’s a bit like directions the old farmer gives when you’re lost in rural America. “Go up this road until you come to the Burns’ place, turn north, and continue on… oh, maybe a mile or two until you get to the corner where that old oak was hit by lightening back in ’96.”

It’s hopeless. Even if you do follow the directions to a T, you often discover the hypothetical tree is no longer there. For instance, there are addresses that mention the Coca-Cola Building in downtown San José. Coca-Cola moved to another location—across town—years ago, and the building is now a flea market, but many businesses close by still refer to it in their address (From the Coca-Cola building 50 m north and 25 m east, between avenida…). That sort of thing. And the 50 meters north or 25 meters east address makes having a compass in the car indispensable.

We were familiar with Uruca, a section of town known for its traffic jams and the Office of Immigration. I had no idea where Barrio Corozon de Jesus was. I searched desperately on our old, and not very detailed, roadmap as we inched along in traffic.”Road to Heredia,” it said. Okay, I found Heredia on the map. Dot to dot. It must be the road we’d seen at the bottom of Uruca, at the huge intersection that was often a free-for-all of cars and trucks. We needed to turn right at that point, but what in hell was “Pozuelo?” I beavered through my trusty Spanish-English dictionary. No entries.

“We are going to have to turn right pretty soon,” I said. “You need to get over in the far lane.” Easier said than done. Costa Ricans, like the rest of us, are polite face to face but can be rude and pushy behind the wheel. As we edged across two lanes of traffic and a chorus of horns, I became vaguely aware of the smell of sugar baking, something buttery.

I was checking our map when we drove straight past the turnoff. A couple of blocks later we looked for a place to turn around. That is when I saw the man trimming his bougainvillea and yelled at my husband to stop.

I showed this portly stranger the address, and he pointed to where we had come from. He said we needed to turn left for Heredia. “But what is this?” I pointed at the word Pozuelo. He gave a me quizzical look and pointed up and across the intersection. I looked up and saw the huge billboard-sized sign: POZUELO. Of course, Pozuelo, the bakery, the one that makes all those sugary cookies. I thanked him, feeling rightfully foolish, and said I was lucky it wasn’t a snake.

We took another stab at it, made the left turn and headed toward Heredia. 800 meters later, not counting overshoots, turnarounds, and the need for more directions, we found Auto Repuestos Hermanos Copher. They did not have the auto part we needed, but suggested another wrecking yard that might, Repuestos Pana: in San José, North Granadilla, Curridabat, University Latina, 4 kilometers east.


No Direction Home

It used to be when you asked for directions in Costa Rica you got something akin to rural American farmer directions: “Just go up the old road past the Van Cleef’s place and when you get to the intersection where the oak tree was struck by lightening, turn north.”

Maybe it’s their agrarian background, but Costa Rica has stuck with this sort of  address system right into the twenty first century as though it were useful, or even sane. For instance, street addresses in San José, a fairly cosmopolitan city, require a compass and a good, if not historical, knowledge of the city.

“From the Coca-Cola building 200 meters north and 25 meters west,” reads one address. Now all this is fine, but you have to know that the “Coca-Cola building” in question (like the oak tree that was once hit by lightening) is long gone. In this case moved across town, and the husk that remains now houses an informal street market. You will never find the place you were looking for at the “new Coca-Cola building,” although you can spend quite a bit of time trying.

Where we live—out in the country—this system doesn’t seem quite so deranged. Our legal address is actually (and I kid you not): “From the entrance to Punta Uva, 300 meters east, left-hand side, wood house with red roof.” It sounds better in Spanish. We live on the road from Puerto Viejo that dead ends in Manzanillo, so there isn’t much variation in where you can get lost. I have actually begun to add more precise locators for delivery trucks and visitors, though. I’ve used “directly in front of the I.C.E. electrical post #96, ” which seems to confuse about 50% of the people I’ve given it to.

So, imagine my surprise when we drove through Puerto Viejo the other day and each and every street had brand spanking new street signs at the intersections.  The main street through Puerto, for instance, is Avenue 71 (see the photo above). Why 71, one asks, and not 1st Ave? I have no idea. Extrapolating here, our road is actually a continuation of Puerto’s main street, so is our new address going to be Avenida 71?

The new plan for street addresses only lacks one (major) detail, house numbers. So the closest we will get to an address–familiar to other countries– is how many meters we are from an intersection. Maybe ours will be something like  3.42 kilometers east of the intersection of Avenida 71 and calle 211, left hand side, wood house with red roof. Or, 256 ½  potholes east will be more like it.