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Using a GPS and Waze in Costa Rica

December 3rd, 2014

gpssatFor the longest time, I have wanted to blog about the use of GPS devices in Costa Rica. I actually asked and received some GPS maps from companies (located in Costa Rica) to test on my Garmin Nuvi. These are pretty much the same maps available online and when you rent a GPS at car rental  agencies in Costa Rica. For tourists especially, a GPS can be pretty handy as this country is well known to have no street names nor addresses. Pretty daunting for many travelers. Anyway, I tested several, and all worked adequately, especially for location hotels and common tourist destinations, they did not work so well once you got off major highways.  In fact, I found it to be common for at least two of the maps to cheerfully tell me to “turn right” from where I was driving on the Pan American Highway!  Only problem? I was between exits!

Another more personal issue was that NONE of them showed MY street… like the one where I lived.  If I entered my GPS coordinates, it happily took me to the street running behind my home and suggested I enter my driveway via my neighbor’s living room. In fact, the entire subdivision where my wife’s daughter lives (for three years now) shows as empty farm field.

It was then that I decided to write this article covering not only GPS systems in general but Waze as well as that is the future of GPS.  Interested?  Read on…

Prices of GPS navigation systems have fallen dramatically over the past couple of years and are now at the point where there are some pretty incredible values like those at Amazon under GPS and Navigation Systems.  This is due in no small part to the fact that smart phones have become commonplace almost everywhere in the world and that includes Costa Rica. While prices have dropped, this does not mean they are going away.  I have used my Garmin in other countries (all used addresses btw) and found then very handy… more so than in Costa Rica. If a tourist either owns a GPS and has added the Costa Rica map before arriving, they will probably be pretty happy because they likely will not be doing a lot of travel in residential neighborhoods or in the zillion small towns in this country. Further, it is becoming very common for many tourist destinations to include their GPS coordinates right on their web sites.

If you already know about GPS, skip this paragraph.


Before I get in to using a GPS here and more accurately a smart phone with GPS, I guess I best take a moment to make sure everyone knows what IS a GPS.  GPS is short for Global Positioning System.  It is a group of (currently) 68 satellites not all of which are operational. See the graphic above. They are Geo-stationary meaning that they are fixed in the sky.  As the earth rotates, so do they.  If you could see them by looking (you would need really good eyes as are 11,000 miles above the earth), they would appear to never move. They communicate with GSP units in cars, in your hand, even on aircraft to tell you exactly where you are at any moment.  Software in those GPS devices can show you roads, trails, airport locations, hotel, the way to your uncle George’s home… Pretty cool. That’s it.  End of techy stuff.

Now whether you live here in Costa Rica or are coming to visit, getting around is important.  While someone living here may need to find their dentist’s office for the first time, a tourist may need to find how to drive to the Arenal volcano from San Jose.  Tourists can get a GPS from their car rental company (or bring one) while those living here can use one that they own.  However, as mentioned above, those GPS units even with current maps can leave much to be desired, especially if you live here or have to find locations other than tourist spots.

Enter the Smart Phone

Obviously not everyone owns/uses a smart phone… but lots of folks do! So, before I begin, here are some important caveats!

1. Later in this post, I will be describing the use of an app (application) for smart phones called Waze. It is available for just about any smart phone, but may not work well on all of them. See #4 below.

2. Why?  Smart phones are NOT equal.  Smart phone applications use the resources of any smart phone meaning memory and the computer chip that runs the smart phone (the microprocessor).

3. Regardless, if you plan to get the most from using a smart phone, remember that:

a. Your smart phone must have a GPS built in.  Most do,

b. To get the most out of your smart phone with GPS, you should also have continuous connection to the Internet… not a given in CR as many cell phones from the US are tied to a US phone carrier.  In other words, they are “locked” and will not function here or if they do, may bankrupt you with roaming charges.

If you have an unlocked phone, then you can buy a pre-paid SIM here that should work adequately.  If you want to buy an unlocked cell phone, Amazon has a ton of unlocked cell phones available for sale.

4. CRITICAL – Some phones simply do not play well with some apps, in this case Waze.  I use a Samsung S4 and it works fine.  However, I bought my wife a Samsung Duos, a crummy phone if ever there was one. While it technically works with Waze, it really does not.  One night we were on the way to a wedding located up in the mountains over San Jose.  I easily set the destination in both my phone and my wife’s phone.  Mine worked just fine telling me to “turn left” a good 100 yards before the turn.. My wife’s phone told her to make the same turn… 200 yards AFTER the turn!  The point here is you must be using a smart phone with sufficient memory and speed to work with Waze.  Fortunately, Waze is 100% free, so if you already have a smart phone, you lose nothing.  If you are buying a smart phone and you want to use Waze and other programs… maybe don;t buy on the cheap.  Just sayin’.

 OK… so what IS Waze and why do you want it, especially in Costa Rica but certainly in ANY country?

Waze works in conjunction with the GPS already in your phone. Now any GPS should tell you where you are and how to get there.  Any GPS should allow you to enter a location, then set the route to get you there. Waze, however, adds something very big.  Waze alerts you before you approach police, accidents, road hazards or traffic jams and also calculates in real time, the best a shortest route to your destination based on traffic.

How?  Because millions of Waze users world wide are sending constant reports of road conditions, traffic, stopped cars… the list is endless.  In San Jose alone, there are 300,000 Waze users!  If tiny San Jose has 300,000 users, imagine how many there are in Chicago or LA giving live feedback on traffic, accidents, police etc.

When I turn on Waze, it shows at least 2,500 Wazers with 3 miles of me!  So if I want to drive to Santa Ana, I will know if I am better off taking the Pan American highway (PAH), or maybe cutting over to Belen to use Lindora.  I can even do this from my home.  What I can see now, before I get in the car, is that the PAH is open and Lindora has heavy traffic.

You can too!

Here is Waze for your area:  Click Here.  Yup… that IS a live map of your area.

Recently, the Washington Post wrote about the Waze phenomenon in Costa Rica.  I suggest that you read it.

The app is especially popular because of the unique challenges of navigating Costa Rica.

“Most of our streets don’t have road names so a lot of the addresses end up being very much next to some kind of landmark associated with it, and that’s how we give directions,” said Sebastian Urbina, Costa Rica’s vice minister of transportation. “There’s never been good maps generated to be able to get to where you’re trying to go.”

Waze has become such a part of the culture that businesses will even list their addresses in advertisements as locations that can be searched for on Waze.

If inviting friends over for a party, it’s common to share a Waze hyperlink to one’s address through a WhatsApp group or a Facebook event.

That way a driver doesn’t have to know every landmark in the country, a feat that’s especially challenging for young people and tourists.

Costa Rica’s government recently partnered with Waze as part of its Connected Citizens campaign to share information with Waze on road closures. So if Urbina has to close a highway due to a storm, that information is automatically shared with Waze, and drivers using the app are all instantly aware.

Last month, The Tico Times published a nice article: Waze partners with San José to improve city traffic.  I  suggest that you read this article as well.

I travel with Waze on in my phone with earbuds so I easily hear not only directions (presuming that I have set a destination) or just the alerts if I am just driving. I could also watch the screen while driving, but that can get very distracting:


If you own a smart phone, I suggest that you download and install Waze (free) and play with it wherever you are.  this is NOT just an app for Costa Rica, but whether tourist or resident… I can pretty much guarantee that you will love it and use it.   ** Remember you must have GPS on your phone, and it might not work well if you went cheap on your smart phone.  While technically not a requirement, you really should have an Internet connection as many alerts and other features function better if you are online. That means a reliable mobile data connection.

Try it out before coming here so you can get the feel for it.  For those of you living here, you will be amazed at just how many places are already searchable in the navigation.  Waze can use voice commands in a ridiculous number of languages, male or female voices, etc.

Now for you business types… owners or otherwise… I found this article of interest.

I am sure that I have left out stuff… so be sure to add your comment about using GPS and specifically Waze, inside or outside of CR.

Oh… and remember my street and my step daughters subdivision mentioned above?  Both show nicely on a Waze map.

9 Responses to “Using a GPS and Waze in Costa Rica”

  1. sean on December 4, 2014 10:23 am

    I have been using waze here in San Jose for almost three years. Great app for real time traffic, police updates.

  2. tam on December 5, 2014 9:24 pm

    I live in California and love using waze. It is way better than other apps i have used. The interactive aspect is the best feature for real time hazards, accidents , etc

  3. John Neuhaus on February 1, 2015 5:47 pm

    Great article about WAZE in Costa Rica. I have a minor quibble with your explanation of GPS. The satellites are not “Geo-stationary meaning that they are fixed in the sky.”

    “GPS satellites fly in medium Earth orbit (MEO) at an altitude of approximately 20,200 km (12,550 miles). Each satellite circles the Earth twice a day.” [http://www.gps.gov/systems/gps/space/]

  4. Steve on February 7, 2015 11:18 am

    Hi thank you for the article if I use Verizon in the United States is there any point in getting Waze for my phone for my Costa Rica trip? Or should I buy a GPS prior to coming?

  5. Tim on February 7, 2015 11:27 am

    Please read the blog post as this is covered. The only question is whether your US phone will even work here. If it is locked, it will not work at all.

  6. Eusebio orellana on June 9, 2015 11:05 pm

    I will be traveling to Costa Rica and I like to know if I can use my 128 GB iPhone with waze gps there I’m in Los Angeles CA

  7. Tim on June 10, 2015 6:22 am

    Yes, as long as your iPhone is UNLOCKED and you purchase a pre-paid SIM in CR.

  8. Jonathan on January 2, 2016 7:53 pm

    OK, I got Waze on my smartphone – I live here in Costa Rica. How do I change the audio instructions from Spanish to English, does anyone know how??? Please post if you know how.

  9. Jim on January 13, 2016 1:40 pm

    I have an iPhone 6 (64 gb) and my wife has an iPhone 6plus (64 gb). Our provider is Verizon Wireless and will be using an international plan which allows 250 mb of data per month plus text and phone allowances. We will be traveling to Costa Rica for the month of February 2016. We have the Waze app installed on our phones. Will we be able to use the Waze app to navigate without being connected to the internet? If not, to what extent will our data usage be affected if we navigate with Waze. Do you have any recommendations on how to better approach our navigation situation? Thanx.

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