A common joke in Costa Rica finds former president Oscar Arias giving the following directions to his house: “From Oscar Arias’s house, walk 100 meters to the north, then 100 meters to the south.”
Those unfamiliar with Costa Rica’s unique urban idiosyncrasy might miss the beat. Not so for residents of San José—and the rest of the country—who have lived most of their lives on streets and houses neither named nor numbered.
Allan Mendez, a driver for a local logistics and delivery company, knows all too well the treasure-hunt skill set needed to navigate to a new address. First, he’ll be given a known landmark as a starting point: Oscar Arias’s house, a park, a McDonald’s, a notorious brothel, or even places that don’t exist anymore, like the old Coca-Cola bottling plant. From there, he’ll follow a set of cardinal directions given in meters, with each hundred meters understood to be the equivalent of an average city block. If he’s lucky, he’ll get descriptive milestones to make sure he’s on track, such as a bridge painted red or a local bus stop.
Oftentimes, it will be up to him to pinpoint the exact location, either by circling the block a few times or rolling down the window and asking for help. To make sure he doesn’t get lost on return trips, he keeps a notepad detailing his own points of reference for each neighborhood.
This may help promote neighborly interactions and provide good punch lines, but time lost among couriers is costly—around USD 720 million per year, according to a 2008 study. Allan himself claims to lose anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour each day tracking down an address.
In 2013, the government kicked off a numbering scheme in several districts of San José, led by the country’s postal service. Distribution director Geovanni Campos is confident the population will see how critical the change is. “Most people will be convinced on money and time costs alone,” he says. “But ultimately, they have to understand how it also affects their safety. The police or emergency responders lose valuable time when they don’t know exactly where they’re headed.”
The initiative includes a mass media campaign kicking off this year, classes to teach younger generations to pick up the system, and staff to correct errors in popular navigation apps such as Waze. Meanwhile, drivers like Allan remain unconvinced. “I’m used to finding my way just by heading north to south from any point. If I had to remember street numbers, it’d be like starting all over again.”