Adventure is the most common word we hear when we ask travelers to describe navigating around Costa Rica and it’s no surprise. Street names have only been introduced in the past couple of years and signs and addresses still only exist in about one out of ten communities.
GPS users frequently complain of phantom roads that don’t exist, and that sometimes the calculated shortest route takes hours longer than going around.
Directions are given relative to landmarks only known to locals and directo (straight ahead) really means make a sharp left, two gentle rights then seven 180 degree hairpin turns in a row in order to follow the “main” road…if you can tell which one it is…
The Costa Rican idiom is unique so even native Spanish speakers need to pay special attention when asking directions, and if you struggle with Spanish it’s difficult to ask and even harder to follow the answer.
Ask early, ask often and ask all the right questions
Ticos are nearly without fail delighted to try to help if you find yourself lost, disoriented or unsure about the route ahead but as we recently learned even if you understand the answer perfectly you can end up in trouble if you don’t ask the right question.
There are two types of four wheel drive roads in Costa Rica. The ones that keep getting worse – steeper, narrower, rockier, and more rutted until they get better and the ones that get worse and worse until they disappear altogether.
We were in the tiny community of Alto Buenavista exploring north of Turrialba and stopped at one of the two buildings – the bar (the church looked empty) – to ask about road conditions. There were two choices, back the way we came or down the hill in front of us towards the Reventazon river. I could see highway 10 on the opposite side of the valley high above the river. I thought the road might be rough but if we could cross the river we’d make it up to the highway and on to the Caribbean coast.
I asked the three guys leaning against a battered Land Rover “How is the road ahead.” The youngest answered with a question “is that a 4WD?” and I said yes.
He replied that as long as I had “doble” the road was okay.
I asked “is there a bridge over the Reventazon river?” He nodded in the affirmative.
I’d spent enough time in Costa Rica to know I wasn’t done yet so I added “can I cross the bridge?” and he again nodded.
We headed past the church but didn’t make it fifty meters before I stopped. I thought I’d seen the faintest hint of a smile on one of the old-timer’s face. I threw it in reverse and backed back to the bar.
“Can we take the car across?”
“Oh, no! The bridge is only a small one for pedestrians and bicycles. You can’t drive a car on it.”
When we tell this story to our Tico or expat friends they all see the punchline coming a mile away. As soon as I mention the smile they know there’s no way we’re getting that little SUV to the highway.
When we tell the story to people unfamiliar with Costa Rica they’re shocked and think the guys are jerks but that’s really not it. There’s a cultural tendency to take questions literally and give perfectly accurate answers but not so much to volunteer extraneous information.
It can be a perfectly reasonable way to communicate as long as everyone in the conversation knows the rules.