What do Costa Ricans have against street addresses?

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They don’t really have street addresses in Tokyo, and I’ve always chalked that up to a combination of the city’s plethora of really short streets running into each other at odd angles, and the widespread Japanese desire to remain undecipherable to foreigners.

They don’t really have street addresses in Managua, either, and when I was there on my one and only visit 13 years ago, I chalked it up to the fatigue of war and the hodge-podge rebuilding (and failure to rebuild parts of) of the city after a devastating earthquake in 1972.

I’m still trying to figure out what’s up with the Costa Rican capital San Jose, where the Curious Capitalist family spent Sunday night. The central part of the city is laid out in an orderly grid, with numbered streets and avenues. Yet street addresses, and even intersections, are hardly ever used. Instead, locations are usually described in terms of their distance (200 meters south, 300 meters west) from some landmark like the Pizza Hut or the bus station located on the site of long-gone Coca-Cola plant (known simply as “Coca-Cola”).

This is (sorta) charming, but hugely inefficient. Reported the LA Times in November:

Postal authorities say that 1 in 5 pieces of mail is undeliverable because they can’t figure out where the addressee lives. The problem is worse in new subdivisions, where neighbors don’t know one another and can’t advise carriers.

Mail is just one problem. Emergency crews, cab drivers, utility workers and delivery people spend an inordinate amount of time on cell phones and knocking on doors to find out where they are supposed to be.

According to the article, Costa Rican postal officials are now trying to change this, assigning an address to every building in the country–although they haven’t set aside money yet for all the street signs they’re going to need to make the new system stick.

I’m still scratching my head, though, at how things got to be this way in the first place. The main explanation in the LAT article–that for Costa Ricans it’s “a reassuring link to their country’s agrarian past”–just doesn’t seem adequate. I mean, in rural areas and even suburbs I kind of get that. But in the downtown San Jose grid it’s just perverse. You have to go out of your way there not to use the already existing street names. And yet that’s what everyone does. Was there some traumatic historical experience that caused this? Was the despised William Walker a big believer in street addresses? If anybody has any ideas, please do share.