Addresses ‘Tico Style’

One of the things that I find most peculiar about the Ticos (Costa Ricans) is their addresses’ and directions’ system. At least compared to the ones that we have in the parts of the world where Frank and I come from. While in Europe, for instance, addresses are based on streets and numbers, in Costa Rica they are based on the distance and direction from a particular nature or man-made landmark (a tree, a river, a school or a bar). Typically, the address to your hotel could be something like 75 meters North East from the corner of the Bar La Liga or 200 meters West from the Special school, close to the veterinary. In some cases, they are accompanied by the description of the color of the door, like the “portón color café”. No postal code. No street name. No number.

treasure map

It follows that asking directions about how to reach a place to someone on the street is like playing a Ginkana. You get a bunch of clues that will only make sense when you reach a particular point. Ah! Here is the Iglesia de la Agonía (Check!). Now 100 meters west from the NE corner of the church (Check!) and now we need to find the Bar la Ventana (Check!). Almost there…, tension building up…and now the green papaya door! BINGO!!! You almost feel as if you will get a prize of something for the mere fact of having reached the place.

I am thinking that a system like this can only work when a) the local population is relatively small, b) the postman has been on the job his entire life, c) the landmarks do not change much (must be a near life-or-death decision to consider painting the door of your house with a different color; almost like entering in a witness protection program) and d) you are born with a natural sense of direction (at least to identify the four cardinal points). [side note, this is not my case].

The most amazing thing is that 1) it works! Letters arrive, and taxis can navigate their way to a place even if they do not know the area so well (although to be fair, in those cases, they have to ask around a bit). And 2) in some cases, it even beats GPS coordinates and Google maps. Yes, no kidding!

Let me illustrate the latter with a real-case experience (for an account with the “scary “details you can read the blog in Spanish). Last Thursday we could finally leave Alajuela and head towards what will be our home for the next month. We had booked the house through Airbnb and the owner had sent us the GPS coordinates of the house. The problem was that when we were introducing the coordinates in google maps, it pointed to a place in the middle of nowhere, with no roads or paths to reach it. Oh well, we thought, we will figure that out when we arrive. Oops! Bad choice. By the time we reached the area, the sun was quite low. And as it is customary when one is in the middle of nowhere, the GPS of the phone stopped working. So, there we were. Literally in the middle of nowhere, on four-wheel-drive-only dirt roads, at sunset and with NO idea of where the house was.

Fortunately, the owner had also given us the phone of the local house care-taker who gave us the directions “tico style”. From La Playa bar, the first dirt road to the left, after 75 meters take the road to the right and after 250 meters we will see our house to the left. Wooden fence. We just had to ask someone where La Playa Bar was and hurrraaaa, we found the house when the last ray of sun was getting on the horizon! 😉

PS. The day after, we got a message from the owner. He had heard from the house care-taker that we had difficulties finding the house the evening before. Apparently, we were not the only ones. He, himself, had to sleep in the parking of La Playa Bar the very first time that he came to the area to see the house before purchasing it because it got dark… and he did not get any directions “Tico style”. ;-).


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