San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Numberless Buildings Have Days Numbered

Justo Velásquez often watches tourists walk around the block several times before they find what they are looking for.

The 47-year-old doorman at Hotel Don Carlos in San José’s Barrio Amón said visitors often try to find museums or restaurants based on street signs and avenue numbers, which are famously absent throughout the city.

As he stood outside the hotel on a sunny July morning, he said, “Not having numbers is a problem for many of the city’s visitors.

Because many don’t speak the language, they can’t ask for directions and they end up going around and around with their map in hand.”

But the numberless buildings and streets of Costa Rica’s capital – which have always been half-charm and half-headache – may soon become a forgotten relic.

On Monday, San José Mayor Johnny Araya announced a $1.2 million initiative to place street numbers on the long-empty facades of homes and office spaces.

“In the 21st century, it’s not acceptable for Costa Ricans to give directions the way they do,” Araya told the daily La Nación.

The project is expected to begin in December and will be funded in part by the Banco Nacional de Costa Rica and Banco de Costa Rica. In return for their financial commitment, each bank will be able to place its logo beside the street name and number.

The city’s lead engineer, Rodolfo Sánchez, said he’s confident the project will happen.

“Although it has been discussed for a longtime, there’s never been money to do it,” he said. “Now, the difference is that we have the funds.”

However, Juan Carlos Brenes, a 38-year-old taxi driver, is not so sure that Costa Ricans will leave the old system behind. Brenes said many locals will continue to depend on reference points.

“Take me 100 meters south of the National Theater or 500 meters west of the Subaru,’ they’ll say. Or, ‘I want to go 200 meters north and 100 meters west of the Scotiabank on Paseo Colón.”

Brenes was referring to the system Costa Ricans use – 100 meters is one block, 200 meters two blocks, 50 meters is half a block, and so forth – in which maps do not figure.

But where a new system can be of help, Brenes said, is with foreigners. “They are used to getting in the car and saying, ‘I want to go to Avenida 8, Calle 13,’ while pointing to a map of the location.”

Taxi drivers will usually take one look at the map and study it for a familiar landmark. “Only about 50 percent (of cab drivers) can ever get there based on street numbers,” Brenes said.

Carlos Chacón, who works for a tourist transportation company, said it’s not just the foreigners who will benefit.

“Without having exact addresses, we end up passing many of our destinations,” he said. “And when there is as much traffic as there is in San José, we lose a lot of time by circling the block.

“These days it can be dangerous to stop to ask for directions,” he added. “You are putting yourself at risk.”

Perhaps not everyone will subscribe to the new system. It will require re-learning the lay of the land, and maybe even purchasing a map. Although skeptical this will catch on, Brenes said, “Overall, it will be a good thing for Costa Rica.”

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