Addresses in Costa Rica

In our new adventure in Costa Rica, we’ve discovered several interesting things about Costa Rican culture. In some previous posts I wrote about some things that were better here in Costa Rica and also some things that were not as great. One big difference that I haven’t talked about yet is addresses. The way mailing addresses are handled here is unique – at least to me in all my worldwide travels. They make for some very interesting unintended consequences.

Here is our street address in Playa Potrero:

Del Bar La Perla
200 metros sur y 300 metros este
en la esquina de Avenida Cuatro y Calle Mango
Surfside Estates, Playa Potrero, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Here’s the translation for those of you who don’t speak Spanish:

From the bar La Perla
200 meters south and 300 meters east
at the corner of 4th Avenue and Mango Street
Surfside Estates, Playa Potrero, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

You can see a few key features right away. There is no house number. It uses a landmark for reference (the bar La Perla in this case). It provides distances from the landmark almost like a pirate map. And most subtly, it doesn’t fully differentiate the address from other addresses that might also fit the directional criteria. It does, however, seem to work here. Mail gets delivered. Mostly.

Before I get deeper into some interesting things about addresses here, you might think that these sorts of addresses are primarily in the outer or lower population areas. That’s not the case. This last week I gave a colloquium at the Interaction Design Department at University Veritas in San Jose. I stayed at a cute little pensione-style hotel called Casa Voltaire. Here is its address:

De la Casa Italia
50 al este y 75 al norte.
Calle sin salida. Avenida 8 y calle 31,
San José, Costa Rica.

Or:

From the Casa Italia
50 to the east and 75 to the north.
Dead-end street. 8th Avenue and 31st Street,
San José, Costa Rica.

This particular address was interesting in that it was indeed at the end of a dead-end street, along with 6-7 others, including one other pensione. Fortunately, there was a sign out front so you could differentiate it from the 6-7 other buildings with the same address.

I didn’t survey many addresses in San Jose, but the ones I did – my pensione, the Interaction Design School, the restaurant where I ate, the hotel where I caught my bus – all had addresses like this. According to locals, it works this way throughout San Jose and elsewhere in Costa Rica.

These addresses may seem a bit challenging as is. However, add to it the fact that at least in most of the small towns in the Guanacaste area where we live, there are no street signs. We have nothing around us that would tell you where Calle Mango or Avenida 8 are, except a GPS (which few locals have).

Imagine being a mailperson here. You’d have to have an incredible amount of knowledge of the town. You could probably double as a tour guide.

There are some fun, interesting, and possibly frustrating implications in an address system like this, not the least of which is that you learn quickly how long measurements in meters are (for our metrically-challenged American friends).

For example, most addresses seem to rely on a landmark. Well, what’s the landmark’s address then? Or, do they “daisy chain” landmark addresses? Is the La Perla bar a certain distance from, say, the Super Wendy grocery store? It turns out that in most of the cases I’ve seen the answer is “no.” La Perla’s address is:

Calle principal,
Playa Potrero, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Basically, this tells you that La Perla is on the “main street” running through Playa Potrero. You’d have to know where on main street.

Another interesting thing we’ve seen is how people “augment” the system. Our Spanish teacher, Ivette, for example, brilliantly has people put her phone number at the bottom of her address. There are several houses that have the same address as hers. I can imagine folks adding “blue house” or other additions to their addresses. If we actually used ours for mail I would.

Consider what might be a very frustrating event if your local landmark changed its name or just went away. If La Perla changed their name, it would affect a large number of street addresses in Surfside. As in the U.S. these addresses are in all your legal documents as well as address books of friends, etc. If your address changes here, you need to get a new title for your car and that involves a lawyer. It’s very good incentive to keep the local landmark places thriving.

This system evidently grew out of the agrarian nature of Costa Rica and the fact that many cities are small. It is pure “Tico.” I think it says something incredibly powerful about small towns and tight-knit communities. Everyone seems to know everyone and people don’t tend to move around much. I’m sure if they did, the mailperson would be able to give them the history of their place.

Of course, there are downsides to living in a small town. Everyone does indeed seem to know your business. But then again, if you are a visitor in town trying to find a friend’s address, you may just find that people here can direct you. It’s a stark contrast for us compared to Seattle where few people seem to want to know their neighbors. It’s also a charming reminder of why people form communities in the first place. We are social creatures after all.

I understand that Costa Rica is now moving toward real street addresses. The two towns of Moravia and Coronado have evidently completed the transformation. San Jose is starting the process by getting street signs up. Can you imagine what it will be like to transform a city that large?

Playa Potrero will likely be far down the list and that’s okay with us. Addresses are just one of the odder endearing qualities of this place. I’m sure there are a few expats here who get frustrated with all of this. I think we are with the locals, though. It’s just one more aspect of “pura vida.” I know there are a lot of us who can use more of that. Pura Vida!

6 thoughts on “Addresses in Costa Rica

  1. Hi Andy. As a local, I have three things to point out:

    Ticos, for the most part, hate this system (I sure do!). It’s terribly inefficient. I get lost all the time. In our class with Dan Boyarski, a lot of us developed solutions for the confusion this spontaneously-emerged system causes.

    To make it even more difficult:

    Meters are not meters! You have to asume 100 meters is a block. So 25 meters away is a quarter of the block down. Blocks have variable sizes.

    What happens when a landmark disappears? You keep using the reference, just add “Old” (Antigua/antiguo) Good luck trying to guess where bar La Perla was 5-10 years after a MacDonald´s replaced it!

    Regards!

  2. I have to say, I love your take in the whole address thing. As the prior commentator points out, when these landmarks are long gone people keep using them with the term “old” (antiguo) as a prefix.
    It has been usually used as an example to the fact that in San Jose, some people would refer to a certain Drugstore near Parque Central (Antigua Botica Francesa) in San José downtown or to a Ficus Tree (Antiguo Higuerón), now long gone (but recently replanted) in San Pedro´s main street, as examples of how ill the way address were given is. This old landmarks change over time and fell in disuse, and get replaced.
    The way you address this issue is refreshing. The fact that you don’t rule it out nor criticize it straight away as a bad thing, but embrace it, is new. The way addresses are given have been systematically criticized in the local press, by people expecting a more street/avenue, door number system to be put in place, in the name of encouraging more business growth.
    There have been several attempts to try to reform this use of addresses, but have failed both because of lack of funding and not understanding people, basically. In the latest attempt, the task was given to the Mail State Company, Correos de Costa Rica. Under a Presidential bylaw and decree, it details how streets are to be numbered and addresses given in the main population areas. This should be implemented by local governments, but that implementation is patchy to say the least, and in some cases difficult to understand. It doesn’t take into consideration the naming of streets by locals, and house numbering hasn’t been implemented, the only new part implemented by the Mailing Company, is the fact that we now have postal codes by district.
    My personal opinion on this issue, is that somehow, if any new system of address is to be successful, it has to take into consideration what is being used now, probably not the use of meters (in my city some people still use varas an old Spanish measurement still in used before the adoption of the metric system), but the fact that people use landmarks as a way to organize space, and name streets on its level of importance (usually commercial) or a main building being in the vicinity of the street or avenue.
    And also that once implemented it has to be widely adopted and used, not only by the people who live in this places, but with everyone involved in delivering mail; companies, banks, and government.
    There has been large scale implementations of changes in this country with really good results, when the state phone company added prefix numbers based on provinces to increase the availability of phone lines and then it had to be done again, there was large scale national campaigns promoting and explaining it, why and how and a period of adjustment. This hasn’t happened with addresses, unfortunately.

    If its a matter of helping navigation systems work, Google implemented in India (with a similar issue) a way of using landmarks in their navigation, back in 2009 (http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2009/12/go-thataway-google-maps-india-learns-to.html)

    • Thanks Gustavo. I love finding these interesting cultural attributes. It would be wonderful if in the inevitable transition, Costa Rica can retain some of the charm and uniquely “tico” aspects of this system in some way. Numbers can be efficient, but also cold. thanks for your comments!

  3. While reading your blog I kept hearing the words ….” RE-CALCULATING”…. being repeated over and over and over….in my head!!!!

    But how cool would it be to have to start at a bar every time you visit a new city in order to find your destination ?. Also very interesting as to the type of business which was bestowed those honors and curious as to how it was awarded. I am guessing the physical location may not be the determining factor. $$

    It’s really interesting to read about your experiences. I never thought I would appreciate something so simple as having a numbered address.Makes me realize how spoiled Americans are when we complain about how long it takes a package travel across the country. as we track it on our phones between launching candy canes or crushing angry birds while we sit in the drive through waiting for our Starbucks…… A far cry from someone there just being happy a package actually makes it to the destination…..

  4. While reading your blog I kept hearing the words ….” RE-CALCULATING”…. being repeated over and over and over….in my head!!!! .

    But how cool would it be to have to start at a bar every time you visit a new city in order to find your destination ?. Also very interesting as to the type of business which was bestowed those honors and curious as to how it was awarded. I am guessing the physical location may not be the determining factor. $$

    It’s really interesting to read about your experiences. I never thought I would appreciate something so simple as having a numbered address.Makes me realize how spoiled Americans are when we complain about how long it takes a package travel across the country. as we track it on our phones between launching candy canes or crushing angry birds while we sit in the drive through waiting for our Starbucks…… A far cry from someone there just being happy a package actually makes it to the destination…..

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