Getting where you want to go can be daunting but these tips should help. The best advice, get a GPS for turn by turn, a good map for the overview, and ask for help early and often (buy our nifty waterproof roadmap with an English/Spanish “asking directions” phrase section printed right on it so it’ll always be handy).
Roads in towns are laid out on grids with north south calles (streets) and east west avenidas (avenues)—Roads are numbered sequentially outward from Calle and Avenida Central, with even numbers to the west and south and odd to the east and north respectively. Thus, an address of calle 5, avenida 7 indicates a corner in the north east quadrant of town. Calle 5, avenidas 7—9 indicates a location facing calle 5 between avenidas 7 & 9.
Directions & Addresses
Especially off of the downtown street grid, directions from landmarks are often used in lieu of addresses. This is true even on business cards, in the phone book, and in advertising.
Don’t try to find something at an Apdo. address; this is a post office box. Small town or rural businesses may have an Apdo. address in San José, 100 km from their physical location.
If someone is giving you directions “directo, directo, directo” literally means straight ahead but it’s rarely straight. A more useful translation would be “follow the main route,” which is rarely if ever straight ahead. Usually you’re going to have to follow winding curves, maybe make a sharp left on the paved road instead of straight ahead on the gravel one an maybe circle around a church and parque central or two to stay on the “main route.”
Many place names are shared by multiple locations. It is common to provide a secondary identifier if one is ambiguous. For example, La Fortuna San Carlos is near the town, volcano and lake named Arenal while La Fortuna de Bagaces is 50 km away north of the town of Bagaces.
Finally some places have more than one name. The Cuidad Quesada on your map is known to Ticos as San Carlos.
Signs used to be nearly non-existent in Costa Rica and although the highway department has been making a good effort at improving the signs are frequently stolen and sold as scrap (last I heard they were trying a new un-recyclable composite material worthless to thieves). I wouldn’t count on navigating by following signs.
In the U.S. and elsewhere an arrow pointing up is used to indicate straight ahead. This concept is foreign in Costa Rica where you’re more likely to see a left of right arrow indicating which direction you will turn after you’ve driven another 15 km straight ahead. It still confuses the crap out of me and I take the next left even though I know it’s wrong.
In town, 200 meters usually translates to “two blocks” rather than a precise distance. 250 meters means 2 and ½ blocks. In rural areas meters or kilometers have their literal meaning.
A very rough rule of thumb is that you can average 40 kph on main routes. For the benefit of U.S. citizens, one kilometer is 0.625 miles. 10 miles is about 16 kilometers.
Making the exact conversion isn’t necessarily the best approach. As with many things in Costa Rica, the easiest conversion isn’t a conversion but a change of attitude. Just think of kilometers and miles as the same thing. Since the roads are usually narrow and winding it will probably take you longer to drive 20 km, than you’d expect for 20 miles. For those who are used to thinking in km, it will take much longer to drive 20 km in Costa Rica than the U.S., Canada or France.