Costa Rica Putting Up Streets Signs for First Time

By CESAR BARRANTES | October 1, 2012

How do you find the National Theater in San Jose? “Left-hand turn 100 (meters) south of the People’s Bank.”

The train station? “Right-hand turn, 400 (meters) west of the Costa Rica Middle School and 100 south.”

Those are addresses in the Costa Rican capital, a city of 1.5 million residents that hasn’t had street signs and where people asking directions often are told to take a right at a landmark that hasn’t existed for decades.

It works for people who know how the city looked 20 or 30 years ago, but it’s a big headache for visitors, not to mention anyone trying to deliver the mail, a quarter of which never arrives.

“If you’re not from here, it’s really difficult to get around,” said Venezuelan student Claudia Galindo, who never leaves home without her GPS.

But this week, city workers started putting up 22,000 streets signs, some on posts and some on the walls of buildings. The plan is to get Costa Ricans to start using the real street names that have existed for at least 20 years, but that no one knows.

The $1 million project, expected to be completed in seven months, is a way to modernize the city and make it more attractive to tourists, who more commonly visit the country’s beaches and national parks, Mayor Johnny Araya said.

Google Maps show street names in the San Jose metropolitan area. But if you ask someone how to get to San Martin Avenue, no one will have ever heard of it. The few street names people use, they invented – among them “Light Street,” because it was the first spot in Costa Rica to have electricity.

The descriptive address system, “a la Tica,” as Costa Ricans are known, is actually relatively new, historian Gustavo Naranjo said.

He said streets had names and numbers up to the early 20th century. “But cities used the vast migration from farms in the 1950s and ’60s, the population boom and the lack of formal education as an excuse to stop worrying about maintaining street signs,” he said.

The streets of most major Central American cities are well-marked, with the exception of Managua, Nicaragua. There you can be told to take a right or a left “where the tree used to be,” or at “La Pepsi,” a soft drink plant that hasn’t existed for at least 15 years. There are no efforts there to hang street signs.

In San Jose, locals say no amount of signage will change their custom of giving descriptive directions.

“In a city so disorganized, where there are a lot of tricks to getting around, it’s a system that functions well,” said Jefry Arguedas, who travels San Jose by motorcycle.

Resident Martha Gross also dismisses the news signs. “It’s money spent in vain. No matter what, I will always live 50 (meters) north of the Supermarket Colores.”

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