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!

Arrival

We all arrived safely in Costa Rica, Thursday October 24 for our new adventure. We’ve gotten rid of our stuff, taking only the most important with us and successfully uprooted from our life in Seattle. The first few days have already been a big change – and not just geographically.

Our trip was pretty easy actually. After our challenging departure in one minivan because our cab was a no show(!), things got easier. We got to the airport 3 hours in advance and did all of the dog paperwork and prep. Lucy was very curious and Isis was a bit tentative, but they both went into their crates well. Security was easier than I expected with all the technology, but they did open up the bag with all the hard drives, modems, routers, etc. to take a look and then I got to put the puzzle back together. The 2 flights were uneventful and we all got a bit of sleep.

Arrival in Liberia was what we were most worried about and Lucy and Isis did fine. They were super excited to see us and get out, of course. Isis had a little accident but I had planned for that and brought disposable towels, etc. Customs went very smoothly; it seems the thing of most interest to the customs folks was our sewing machine!

We headed “home” in another large van for an hour ride from the airport to Surfside, our new community sandwiched between Playa Portrero and Playa Flamingo. Along the way we passed by the cool little town of Brasilito (“little Brasil”) and that made me smile (because I am still a carioca at heart). We stopped by a small Mercado and go some supplies then made it to our new home.

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It is a beautiful 3 bedroom house known as Casa Dutry. It has a wonderful little swimming pool, gated yard – great for dogs who aren’t familiar with the area or the critters, and just enough room.

Deb had brilliantly arranged for someone to bring us dinner that first night. Chef Miguel’s stew and fixings were amazing. We were all wiped out so it was a perfect end to our first night. And then we slept for many hours!

The next day two days involved a bit of rest, a bit of exploring and a lot of setting up. We didn’t have Internet initially  the modem in the house was missing. Our landlord got us one immediately but then we had to get the cable guy out because we weren’t getting service. Despite folks here saying things are slow here, the cable guy came out “within 24 hours” and earlier than I expected. Actually, it was just as fast as a similar call in Seattle. I just set up a new wireless router and now we are mostly digital again.  We still need SIM cards for our Costa Rica phones.

The kids are settling in. Things are different of course. The pool helps J. We’re starting off with a “vacation” attitude and letting them relax, rest and have fun. They are still a bit grumpy that everything wasn’t working immediately and things like our new dishwasher(s) is named “Aidan” and “Vie”, but they are starting to embrace the life change more each day. It really has only been two days; Deb and I haven’t gotten there either quite yet.

Coming back from getting groceries and looking for SIM cards, we had an unexpected world change moment. We turned on the radio and found a program that was evidently the surf program, “man.” It talked about the surf and the season and featured some really great personalities who lived the surfing life and played great tunes from the 80s. “Man”, what a cool welcome. Hunting for it on the web, I think it is the Evan Luck show.

We then had another great experience at dinner. We stopped at a local pub here called Maxwell’s. It instantly became our new favorite hangout, like the Hudson was in Seattle. You can bring your dogs, which was very cool (there’s probably a whole post coming on dogs here soon). The food and Margaritas were awesome. The real treat though was meeting the owner, Kelly who is truly larger than life. Vie was still a bit grumpy but Kelly managed to lighten Vie up and get a smile. She asked Vie to come help decorate for Halloween and now Vie has a new bud here.

Here in Costa Rica, people talk of the pura vida – the pure life. People are very happy, helpful and welcoming. They actually say “hi” (or “hola” on the street). It is a very different feel than Seattle – or any place I’ve ever lived. Like us, people seem to work to live, not live to work. It’s probably a bit early for us to really speak about pura vida with any sense of real understanding. But soon, I think we’ll find it.