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Buying a Used Car in Costa Rica

I was always a Volvo girl back in the States. Driving a boxy tank of fortified Swedish steel lent an air of safety for those long road trips. But after three years of negotiating Costa Rica’s roads by public transportation, I knew I’d soon be purchasing a more practical 4WD vehicle. I wanted to explore; to break free of bus schedule constraints; and most importantly, to have the freedom to stop whenever I liked. Whether it was an old man selling gorgeous mangoes by the road or an interesting art gallery tucked away on a side street — I wanted to pull over and interact. Some of my most cherished experiences have resulted from impromptu stops while traveling the countryside.

If you’re like me, and on a budget, there’s some good news and bad news to buying a used car in Costa Rica. Bottom line is that vehicles — especially older model 4X4’s — retain their value here. I was shocked to discover that a 1988 Suzuki Samurai would set me back nearly $4000. I could understand if this was a pampered car with all the extras, but we’re talking an old, rusted out beater. However, with a little online research, I found a couple of websites that specialize in auto classifieds for Costa Ricans. No middle men, no dealers, and no inflated prices. Since I wasn’t financing the car, I knew I’d be better off buying directly from another individual.

A good friend of mine advised me to choose a model that was common in Costa Rica, and after a few weeks of simply paying attention to what I saw on the road, I noted an astonishing number of older Mitsubishi Monteros and Hyundai Gallopers cruising the highways. Toyota, Nissan and Honda were also popular makes. The more common the car, the easier to source the parts, and the cheaper it is to fix. That forest-green Jeep Cherokee wasn’t looking so hot anymore, nor was the Ford Bronco I’d originally liked.

I decided on a late 80’s 2-door Montero — a high clearance 4WD that could climb any mountain and cross rivers, when the occasion arose. After a fun test drive, I made sure the marchamo and RTV (taxes and annual inspection) were up to date, and went about negotiating a price. I took the car to a third-party mechanic and got the thumbs up, save for some minor issues. A quick trip to the bank and lawyer to transfer the title, and I was driving for the first time in Costa Rica! It was trial by fire, as my journey back from Puriscal snaked along switchback roads, where I crossed a dilapidated suspension bridge ala Indiana Jones and endured a solid hour of intense thunderstorms. But I made it, and have been driving happily ever since.

I found a trustworthy mechanic in our neighborhood who has proven indispensable over the years. If the truck is making an odd noise, I simply swing by his shop and kidnap him for a quick drive to troubleshoot the sound. If my car needs work, he’ll run me home and pick me up when it’s ready. I can’t think of too many mechanics that offer this level of service free of charge in the States.

If and when my budget ever exceeds $4500 for a new vehicle, I’ll upgrade to one with better gas mileage. My old V6 engine gets an embarrassing 14 miles per gallon on good days. Luckily, my boyfriend helps offset my carbon footprint by commuting everywhere by bicycle in our small home town. If I continue to maintain my car, and do repairs as needed, I can sell it for just a little less than the purchase price. Not a bad investment, and I’ve certainly reaped the rewards of independent travel.

Thinking of purchasing a used vehicle in Costa Rica? Some sample prices of used cars for sale by owner:

1985 Toyota Land Cruiser: $8,000
1988 Mitsubishi Montero: $4,300
1990 Nissan Sentra: $2,600
1993 Nissan Pathfinder: $6,500
1995 Toyota Corolla: $5,500
1996 Geo Tracker: $6,800
1998 Honda Civic: $6,900
2002 Hyundai Accent: $6,000
2005 Daihatsu Terios: $10,000
2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara: $21,300
2010 Toyota Prado: $49,000

Buying a Used Car in Costa Rica in Pictures

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