Buying a car in Costa Rica

Both Frank and I had imagined a car-free sabbatical in Costa Rica. Our dream was to go around on foot (flip-flops to be more precise) or with a bike and enjoy a slooooooooow life.

It turns out that while it might be possible when we live around Puerto Viejo during the second half of the year, it would be a major challenge in the Osa Peninsula, when visiting some of the most remote national parks and when moving from one place to another with Matilda since pets are not allowed in public buses and not welcome in private shuttles either. Not to mention the four suitcases and two bags.

The alternative could be to “live the dream” and just rent a car whenever was necessary. Or buying a car. After some thinking and consulting with our local friends, we decided to go for the latter. It will allow us more flexibility when traveling around and, if we can sell it before leaving the country, it will be much cheaper than renting a car.

Of course, it takes more time (and energy) but hopefully, it will be worth the effort. In the end, finding a car, a good car was not that difficult. But we had help.

What to look for?

We were looking for a 4×4 wheel drive, with manual gears, since we are anticipating some challenging roads & river crossings during the rainy season.

We were told by a local friend that we should count that a second-hand car would have driven about 12000 Km per year. We were also told that it was important to look for a car brand that had a strong presence in the country. Those ended up being Suzuki, Toyota, Nissan and to a lesser extent Hyundai. We were explicitly told to avoid European brands like Renault (or Dacia), Volkswagen, Peugeot, …etc. as finding spare parts is very difficult and repairing the car extremely expensive in Costa Rica. Finally, we were told that it was important that the car was revised by a trusted mechanic before buying it, and particularly look for any sign of rust.

And, we should count on needing some repairs. Outside the main motorway to the pacific or the Caribbean side, the roads are…oh well, let’s say that craters and volcanoes are not only found in the national parks. In the words of a local mechanic that we consulted, the cars are “exposed to a lot of trembling”, which will gradually loosen the bolts. And this is not counting on “special” road conditions such as the ones that we will encounter in Osa.

Where to look?

Initially, we were told to look at the website to have an idea of what was available within our budget. In we could find a couple of good-looking cars, with a reasonable amount of mileage (but still over the 12000 thresholds) and of the “right” brand.

However, we found our car not through the website but through “guanxi”, our local network. One of our colleagues at the Universidad Nacional called his trusted mechanic asking him if he knew of any car with our preferences that could be on sale. That same day, we went to see one. Unfortunately, it didn’t drive well, had too many kilometers (Kms), too little luggage space, and the engine was kind of tilted and sunk, which could be an indication of a crash. All in all, we were not convinced. Back in the house, the mechanic sent us photos of another one, which we went to see and try the day after. It was just perfect! Few km, extremely well maintained, larger luggage booth, stronger engine, and the engine was looking like new. Really! Just perfect!


What else to take into account?

That was last Thursday. Since then, we have been struggling to make the money transfer to pay for the car. Five days and counting. One really wonders how on Earth, in the digital banking era, it can take soooooo much time to transfer the money between two banks. Right? And until the money has arrived, we cannot officially transfer the ownership of the car, which means that we cannot buy the car insurance. So, we are stuck in the noisy polluted San José, until the money arrives.

Speaking about car insurance, according to the people that we asked but also to our own research it seems that the best option (considering price and coverage) is Qualitas. The price is about 400 US$ per year for a 4×4 SUV. Which is not a lot. The way that the local insurance companies work is that one calls them first, then they send a car “inspector” to your home to check the car, and then they give you a quotation. If time is a constraint, one can also take the car to their premises and ask them to check it on the spot. An alternative to this system (to a limited extent) is to use an insurance intermediary – like the one here to get an online quotation and a contract. The car will need to be checked by the insurance company in any case.

Our tips

In sum, some tips about buying a car in Costa Rica:

  • Focus on car brands that have a local representation
  • Make sure that the car is revised by a mechanic before buying- pay special attention to rust, as a rusted car has a higher probability of falling apart in the Costa Rican challenging roads
  • Look for cars that have a reasonable mileage (Max. 12000 km per year)
  • The legal status of the car can be checked at the registro nacional or by a lawyer who should be able to see if the car has any loans, accidents or fines. We used the lawyer recommended by the mechanic.
  • And if you do not have the money in the country and need to transfer it, be zen and relax….it might take time.
  • Calculate an additional 500 to 700 US$ for the contract and the legal transfer of the ownership to you. This includes the lawyer and the taxes. These costs are always the responsibility of the buyer.



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