It drives tourists crazy!
You arrive in Costa Rica  eager to explore the capital city of San José . You ask for directions to the Mercado Central  (Central Market) and are told that it’s “300 meters east and 100 meters south of Coca Cola.”
Er, no! It’s actually at the corner of Avenida Central and Calle 6 (Central Avenue and 6th Street). That shouldn’t be so hard. Except Costa Ricans never use street names and numbers. They don’t even know them!
Instead they use landmarks, such as Coca Cola… a reference to the old bottling factory that stood here decades ago but has long since disappeared.
“So, where is Coca Cola?” you ask your friendly Costa Rican, thinking that you can navigate to the market from there. But instead of being given a street location, you’re told that Coca Cola is 100 meters north and 50 meters of the Hospital Nacional de Niños (Children’s Hospital). And on it goes.
Worse, if you know that the market is at Avenida Central and Calle 6 and ask a josefino (resident of San José) to point the way, you’ll meet with a glazed eye response. Few Costa Ricans know even the street name or number they themselves live on. And no wonder! The capital city doesn’t even have street signs that show the names.
Fortunately, two weeks ago the first street signs began to go up at corners throughout the city of 1.4 million people.
On September 27, San José Mayor Johnny Araya unveiled the first sign. “My current home address is 200 meters north of the Pizza Hut then 400 meters west, but in a few months I will be able to give a proper street name and a number," he said during the ceremony, which took place at the corner of Avenida Central and Calle Central.
“Today, on the occasion of World Tourism Day , San José takes a step forward to be more attractive to tourists,” he added, acknowledging that the lack of street signs has been a deterrent to tourism.
The municipal authorities are slated to erect some 22,000 signs and plaques. The project is being financed by the Banco Nacional and Banco de Costa Rica (the signs will bear the banks’ logos). Putting up the signs is expected to take seven months to complete. Stage Two will be to give every building a number.
A quick look at the maps in my Moon Handbook Costa Rica , or Google maps , shows that almost all streets in San José already have official numbers and names. It appears, however, that many are going to be renamed after illustrious political and intellectual figures from Costa Rican history.
According to historian Gustavo Naranjo, of the University of Costa Rica , street names were actually in use well into the twentieth century. But mass migration of relatively uneducated folks from the countryside led to the evolution of a more informal descriptive system “a la tica” and the eventual disappearance of actual street signs.
Postal codes were even introduced in 2007, but no-one uses them. (Imagine the headache for postal delivery! In fact, the Inter-American Development Bank  estimated losses caused by undelivered mail at $720 million annually, while one-quarter of the country's mail never reaches its destination.)
The past few years have seen signposts erected in other cities throughout Costa Rica, but many signs originally pointed the wrong way, as in Quepos : they were placed by crews who hadn’t the foggiest idea which street was a calle and which an avenida.
For the record, if you’re told that a site you’re seeking is X-meters from Subaru, the reference is to the corner of Avenida Central and Calle 41, in the Los Yoses  district. The Subaru showroom, of course, is no longer there, having been replaced by a Hyundai showroom. But the reference lingers on in popular parlance. So, too, an old cattle-shed-turned-gas-station. Even a once-famous fig tree that has long since disappeared is still used as a landmark.
Talk of the need for street signs was on official lips more than two decades ago when I first began researching my guidebook. Yet resistance, or inertia, led literally nowhere.
Now that the signs are finally going up, there’s hope that a more logical system will take hold. The government plans a campaign to encourage josefinos to use the new system. But don’t hold your breath. Costa Ricans are wed emotionally to the “landmark” system.
It’s remarkable to me that josefinos I’ve talked to about this are ambivalent at best. Many still display tenacious resistance to the idea of a logical street name and number system.
"It's money spent in vain. No matter what, I will always live 50 meters north of the Supermarket Colores," resident Martha Gross told Associated Press writer César Barrantes.
Thank goodness you’ll now have street signs to guide you.
Now that you’re ready to travel to Costa Rica, buy Moon Handbook Costa Rica .
If you're traveling only to San José and the Caribbean, buy Moon Spotlight Costa Rica's Caribbean Coast  pocket guide.
If you're traveling only to the beaches of Nicoya, buy Moon Spotlight Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula  pocket guide.
If you're traveling only to Arenal and/or Monteverde, buy Moon Spotlight Costa Rica's Arenal&Monteverde  pocket guide.
Learn more about Christopher P. Baker .
Disclosure: I occasionally accept free or discounted travel when it coincides with my editorial goals. However, my opinion is never for sale. The opinions you see in Cuba & Costa Rica Journal are my unbiased reflection of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Copyright © Christopher P. Baker