I visited Costa Rica last week and took some time out to take a look around the Edificio Correos in the heart of San José.
In a country not known for its architectural beauty – not least because so much has been razed by successive earthquakes – the Central Post Office is a rare gem.
This is a building constructed in the days when a capital’s main post office was a visual statement to the importance of communications. What could now be viewed as a historical curiosity – albeit one still serving its intended purpose – would have been looked upon as the Google HQ of its day.
It was built in 1917 by The English Construction Company in a French Renaissance style. Previously painted in pea green, it was refurbished to celebrate its centenary last year and now sports a fresh ‘coffee and cream’ façade.
The Costa Rican Address System
Despite issuing stamps for over 150 years, Costa Rica has never really got to grips with establishing a fully functioning postal system. Fundamental to the successful arrival of mail is a delivery address…and Costa Rica doesn’t really do addresses.
Many streets don’t have names, most don’t have signs and homes rarely have numbers. Needless to say, a significant amount of mail goes undelivered due to the vague addressing system.
Whereas you may be familiar with the format of 101 Main Street, Anytown, a typical Costa Rican address will go along the lines of ‘150 metres north of the Citibank office, over the bridge, 3rd floor of the blue painted house on the right’.
Reference points such as churches, buildings, trees, statues and squares all play a vital role in determining the rough location of a particular delivery point. After the reference point, just add the fact that your location is two blocks north, next to the supermarket on the left and, well, what could possibly go wrong…?
Tricky for the postman.
Aligned to this is a dearth of street post boxes, often meaning a trip to the town or city post office to post a letter. Things are starting to change with investments in a new street signage initiative over the past few years. But it will take a long while before the old ‘landmark and directions’ system is no longer used.
Nicaragua has similar issues and utilises the same system.
For guaranteed delivery, at least in a town centre, a mailbox is probably the best way of ensuring your post gets delivered.
The Costa Rican Mailbox
A mailbox in the nineteenth century would have only been accessible to those with means.
And they certainly looked the part.
Today, they are still in use although the ornate decoration has given way to economic conformity. As an indicator of the continued decline in mail usage, many of these mailboxes lie empty and will probably not see usage again.
However, it’s good to see the Costa Rican authorities engaged in the promotion of philately.
Prominent within the Post Office is a new philatelic museum, covering the basics from Rowland Hill to Costa Rica’s first issues of 1863 and a judicious showing of thematics.
Originally located on the second floor,the museum was relocated as part of the centenary renovations.
The final irony however, may be that by the time a universal addressing system has been adopted throughout the country, the days of mail delivery by your local postman may well be a thing of the past.