Find Yourself In Costa Rica

Find Your Way Around In Costa Rica

“I think Ticos must be born with homing devices in their brains, like homing pigeons,” writes Costa Rica correspondent Lucy Culpepper.

“Both seem to be able to find their way back to base no matter how twisted around they get. They don’t need addresses, road names, or even maps…just a feeling for the lay of the land.


“I’ve been in Costa Rica with my family now for close to five weeks, and we seem to spend a lot of time driving around in circles and doubling back on the same roads. I think I have a good sense of direction, plus I had seven years of practice on poorly marked roads in Spain. But nothing compares to Costa Rica.

“To start, there are no clear and detailed road maps available of or in Costa Rica. Period. (Great business opportunity!)

“To complicate things further, homes, shops, and offices don’t have actual addresses, such as 30 Calle Mariposa. They have locations in relation to other, bigger buildings or entities. A typical address, for example, could be ‘200 meters east of the football pitch and 500 meters north of the church.’

“Even if you do have a street number (as in San Jose), the locals generally won’t know it. They might know the address by the name of the store on the corner, for example, which you won’t know because you’ve never been to that store…

“In my travels in Latin America, I have learned never to provide an answer to a question as part of the question. Asking, “Is the bank to the left?” probably will get you lost, because it’s too easy for your friendly Tico to say, ‘Si, señora,’ even when the bank is to the right.

“I don’t think they do it because they want to laugh at another gringo heading off in the wrong direction (though I’m sure that happens). It’s more to do with keeping face. They don’t want you to know that they don’t know either. So asking, ‘Which way is the bank?” is a safer bet. At least it makes the person think. The answer may well still be wrong, but at least you’ve improved your chances of getting a right one.

“In the Central Valley, where we are located, every town and city seems to have more than one barrio (district) with the same name. There can be Santo Domingo de Heredia and Santo Domingo de Alajuela, but only the ‘Santo Domingo’ part appears on road signs.

“So the inevitable conversation goes like this:

“’Weren’t we just in Santo Domingo?’

“’Yes, 10 minutes ago.’

“’But, look, there’s the sign again. We must have missed the exit. Let’s go back…’

“If you and your co-pilot have navigational arguments at home, where roads are clearly marked, maps are reliable, and hosts have given you clear instructions…whatever you do, don’t attempt driving together in Costa Rica. It’s sure to lead to divorce.

“What can you do to cope?

“Buy the best quality road map of Costa Rica you can find as well in advance of your arrival in the country as possible. Then pin it up in your kitchen or study and look at it each day as you do your online research before getting here. I can recommend the Rough Guides’ ‘Map of Costa Rica & Panama,’ available online.

“When you arrive in Costa Rica, hire a guide to drive you around for two or three days to give yourself a chance to get oriented.

“Print off lots of mini-maps and annotate them with your own references and landmarks as you drive around with your guide.

“If the cardinal points are not your strength, also invest in a compass before you arrive here and get used to using it in your car. It’ll be your only hope for knowing which end is up once you hit these streets.

“I have heard from another expat that GPS does work here. He has a Garmin 330 and purchased his maps from You should also be able to rent GPS equipment through most of the major car rental companies.

“Finally, my best advice: Make sure you have a full tank of gas before you set off!”

Kathleen Peddicord