Costa Rican Directions: Finding Your Way
The "Coca-Cola' and the "old fig tree' may not sound important, but they're both integral parts of the Costa Rican address system, as I quickly learned. When I first moved here I understood the theory of Costa Rican directions but not the practice. A Costa Rican address often begins with an important landmark, such as the former Coca-Cola bottling plant, which is now a major bus station, or the old fig tree that fell down years ago. Since most streets have no common name and houses are not numbered, this system is practical and easy to use.
Directed this way and that, I was convinced I'd have to buy a compass and perhaps a homing device just to find my way around town. My apprehension would rise every time I took the public bus -- how on earth could I keep myself oriented and find these so-called landmarks? Detailed maps simply didn't exist, and directional signs ("North This Way') were conspicuously absent.
It took much trial and error before I came to terms with the Costa Rican address system. Now I love it -- plop me down in any town, anywhere, and I can find my way around. All you need to know are a few basic rules. And of course you have to practice, practice, practice.
A typical address might read "300 meters north of Alajuela's central park, 200 meters east, and 50 meters north. The green house on the right with a white garage door." To follow these directions, orient yourself to the central park -- it helps to remember that the main entrances of all churches in Costa Rica face west. Three hundred meters are equivalent to three city blocks, so begin by walking three blocks north. Turn right (east) and walk two blocks; turn left (north) for another half block. Look for the green house.
Though some people get mail delivered to their homes, many Costa Ricans and expats use post office boxes. You can reserve one at any national post office -- fees vary by locality, but most cost less than $25 annually. Additionally, the post office offers an in-care-of service; for less than 50¢ each, they'll hold your letters for pickup.
The upside to Costa Rica's unusual mail system is no junk mail! No catalogues, no solicitations, no paper overload to clog your mailbox. Postal employees deliver bills, magazines and newspapers to your front door -- no post office required.]
If you need to receive important documents and packages from outside the country, your best bet is one of Costa Rica's courier services like Jetbox or Aerocasillas. Sign up for your own Miami P.O. box and physical address and receive any type of mail you choose. The courier charges you by package weight -- usually around $3 per pound -- plus Customs duties and fuel surcharges. For a nominal fee, they'll also deliver your packages to your front door. For many expats, this service is invaluable for keeping in touch with loved ones back home, importing household items, or purchasing goods unavailable in Costa Rica.
If you plan to own a car in Costa Rica and wonder how you'll navigate the country -- tourist locations are very well marked, especially along the main roads. You can also rent a car with a GPS, though the system here works differently. You can't type in a specific address, but a GPS can guide you from one town to another and, in some cases, from one landmark to another.
Today, a favorite hobby of mine is wowing Costa Rican friends with my incredible directional skills. I can give directions to my house more than five different ways, and can follow anyone's directions. Every new address is a treasure hunt and finding my way feels just as good as a happening upon a pot of gold. Best of all, when my husband and I are in an unfamiliar location, he always asks me which way is north -- did I mention he's Costa Rican? Now that's what I call adaptation!