Navigating in Costa Rica

Getting where you want to go can be daunting but these tips should help. The best advice, ask for help early and often. (Our roadmap includes an English/Spanish "asking directions" phrase section printed right on it so it'll always be handy.)
Street driving in Costa Rica

Calle Siete and the Rooftops of Heredia Looking South Towards San José (More Photos)

Street Grids

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

Directions from landmarks are often used in lieu of addresses. For example "Corporate offices, 150 meters west of the church, San Carlos."

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.

Many place names are shared by multiple locations. It is common to provide a secondary identifier if one is ambiguous. For example, La Fortuna de Arenal 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.

Distances

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.
Cable car ferry across the RŪo Colorado north of Zancudo. They were driving the pilings for a new bridge in 2010 so if you really want to experience this unique chevy small block powered conveyance you should probably hurry.

Cable car ferry across the RŪo Colorado north of Zancudo. They were driving the pilings for a new bridge in 2010 so if you really want to experience this unique chevy small block powered conveyance you should probably hurry. (More Photos)

Navigating Across Country

There are a few highways in Costa Rica where you can get on, drive, when you've gone far enough look for a sign, make your turn and pull in to your destination. A few.

You're unlikely to get lost following the Pan American highway (except across San José, see below), highway 32 from San José to Limón on the Caribbean and 36 continuing south along the coast to Manzanillo, the Costanera Sur (highway 34) to Manuel Antonio, or highway 21 down the center of the Nicoya penisula.

Once you pull off these main routes you'll need some strategy.

The best way to find your way along the back roads to popular destinations like volcano Arenal, Corcovado park, Caño Negro wildlife refuge and the turtle nesting beaches of Ostional is to start with a list and follow it.

Before you head out take five minutes to pick half a dozen towns on the map along your route. Either circle them with a sharpie on the map or write them on a scrap of paper.

For example from Alajuela to La Fortuna you might pick Naranjo, San Ramón, Angeles, Tigra and San Isidro. General direction signs are uncommon, but nearly every village no matter how small has a little sign announcing your arrival in town.

Church Santo Domingo de Heredia

Churches like this one in Santo Domingo are excellent landmarks and can be used to find your way out of town on the correct road (More Photos)

Navigating Through Towns Along the Way

Nearly every town in Costa Rica has mainly one way streets. Nearly every cross country road and highway will dump you into town with little indication of how to get to the other side, pick up the highway and continue on your way.

Soon after entering town you'll inevitably dead end into a one way street headed the direction you're coming from. Don't panic. Turn left or right (the one that seems to be aimed more at the center of town is usually better) and since the directions of travel on the one ways alternate, in a block you'll be able to turn again to continue in the correct direction.

Your goal is to reach the parque central and/or the church (usually on adjoining blocks). In most towns the four street surrounding the church and park each go one of the four cardinal directions and are the main routes in and out of town.

You may have to circle a couple of times but you should be able to exit headed towards the next town on your list.

Navigating San José

If you can possibly avoid it don't drive in San José.

If you can't avoid it, go on Sunday morning.

If you have to cross San José at other times, destinations to the east, south or west aren't too bad. The ring road (circunvalación, highway 39) is easy to follow and will save you at least an hour standing in traffic and/or wandering lost. Don't expect to fly across town, but you should be able to average 45 kph (30 mph).

If you need to get north (to then head east through Braulio Carrillo National Park to the Caribbean) you're facing a challenge. Unfortunately the ring road is a ring in name only and has a large gap on the northern section that is perpetually "under completion". To go north get a good map, get on the ring road and keep going until you're inevitably dumped onto a surface road and then do your best to wander north watching carefully for signs to Limón (believe it or not they're there). When you think you're lost you are. Look at your map or ask for directions.

If you end up totally discombobulated (or want to avoid it) break out twenty bucks and flag down a taxi. Tell them where you want to go and that you want to follow them to your destination. Pay $10 in advance and $10 when you arrive. $20 should get you anywhere you want to go in the Central Valley.
Getting stuck behind a truck on Costa Rica's narrow winding roads can make any drive much longer

Getting stuck behind a truck on Costa Rica's narrow winding roads can make any drive much longer (More Photos)

Driving Times

A very rough rule of thumb is that you can average 50 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 though. As with many things in Costa Rica, the easiest conversion isn’t a conversion but a change of attitude.

Instead of doing the math that 45 kilometers is 28 miles and then trying to figure in your speed just guess it'll take you at least as long to drive 45 Costa Rican kilometers as it would to drive 45 U.S. miles and you'll probably come out about right (between 45 minutes and an hour).

For those who are used to thinking in km, it will take about twice as long to drive 20 km in Costa Rica as it would in Canada or France.

The Unexpected

The unexpected should be expected. Don't make any plans to roll up to the dock ten minutes before the ferry departs or pull in to town 15 minutes before a meeting or you'll certainly face the unexpected.


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