Wheels or No Wheels? Buying a Car in Costa Rica

Wheels or No Wheels? Buying a Car in Costa Rica

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Buying a car in Costa Rica takes a little bit of legwork, a fair amount of nerve, and usually quite a bit of money. But if you’re planning on living here very long, you may find that having your wheels is virtually essential.
I’ve lived here for eight years, and I’ve bought two cars and sold two cars. The first was probably the best investment of my life I bought a 1999 Suzuki Grand Vitara for $5,000, used it for seven years, and sold it for $3,500. My second car, a 2012 Nissan Murano, cost quite a bit more, and well, I love it when it’s working right.
If you’re thinking about buying a car in Costa Rica, here are some things to consider:
  • How long do you plan to live here? If you’re looking at six months or so, you can find alternatives. But if you’re planning to stay for years, you’re probably going to get tired of taking the bus or searching for taxis.
  • Do you live in the Central Valley, on the coast, or in the boondocks? The metropolitan area of San José, Alajuela, Heredia, and Cartago has lots of public transportation options: buses, taxis, Ubers, and even trains. But outside the densely populated center of the country, your options will be more limited, involving longer wait times and often higher fares.
  • Does your lifestyle (or your work) require you to be highly mobile, or do you not have a lot of transportation needs? Are you the kind of person who wants to go where you want when you want, without having to depend on anyone else? If so, you probably want your car.

Can I drive or ship my car to Costa Rica?

When my mother died in Arkansas in 2015, she left behind a gorgeous 2012 Nissan Altima. My brother and I both lived in Costa Rica, and we bought round-trip flights to the funeral. But we liked her car so much that we decided to forfeit our return tickets and drive the car home.
And so we did visit seven countries in seven days (the U.S., Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica). We never felt unsafe, though border crossings were always a bit stressful. Shipping the car by sea would have been another option.
However, Costa Rica’s import duties for used cars can be punitively high. According to Costarica: “In most cases, importing a new or used vehicle will cost about the same if not more than buying a similar car in Costa Rica. In addition to the $1000+ freight cost to ship your foreign car, the Costa Rican government taxes all imported vehicles 45%-85%.”
Unless you are so attached to your car you could barely live without it, I would recommend selling it and buying a new one in Costa Rica.
By the way, we eventually sold my mom’s car, which we managed to do fairly easily by advertising it on the classified ad site Encuentra24.

Buying a car in Costa Rica

Shortly after moving to Costa Rica in 2015 (but before my mother died), I met a German woman in Tamarindo named Johanna who needed to sell her 1999 Suzuki Grand Vitara because she was returning to Germany.
She was asking $5,500, but I talked her down to $5,000. She was a motivated seller because she already had her tickets to Germany, and she certainly couldn’t take the car on the plane.
So if you want to buy a used car in Costa Rica, the first sneaky trick I propose is that you find an ex-pat who HAS to sell their car because they’re leaving. Try prowling ex-pat “buy and sell” sites on Facebook.
Funny story, though The door of the glove box on the passenger side wouldn’t latch, so the glove box was always open. I told Johanna I would buy the car if she fixed that first. She delivered the car with Super Glue sealing the glove box closed forever. Ha ha! German ingenuity.

The Blue Demon and Me

I nicknamed my car the “Blue Demon,” and I drove it everywhere. I managed to get a job as travel editor of the Tico Times, and I spent two years visiting every major tourist destination in Costa Rica (except the top of Mount Chirripó).
The Blue Demon shuttled me across rivers, up and down mountains, along beaches, and even one time to the Four Seasons, where the valet parkers undoubtedly thought this was the dirtiest car they had ever parked.
Over the years I replaced batteries, tires, and brakes, but the car never gave me a problem that was too costly to fix. Yet by 2022, my constant companion of seven years was feeling her age, and I decided it was time to let go. Plus, my next-door neighbor wanted to buy my car, so all I needed to do was find a new one.
My girlfriend’s savvy sister Hannia said, “If you want to buy a car in Costa Rica, you have to go to Grecia.” Named ancient Greece, this little town in Alajuela is the undisputed car sales capital of Costa Rica.
And sure enough, after one long day of searching in Grecia with two women, two chihuahuas, and, a mechanic, I had closed a deal on an immaculate 2012 Nissan Murano that cost 7.5 million colones ($13,350). It was a little older than I wanted, but it had everything I was looking for 4-wheel drive, automatic transmission, and air conditioning. Yet it was half the price of many cars we looked at.
The car came with a 2-month warranty, which I had to use to repair a leak in the rear that let water in when it rained. At this point, I had second thoughts about buying in Grecia, since I live in Flamingo, about five hours away. In addition to the drive, we ended up having to pay for a hotel for three nights while they fixed the car.
So while the selection in Grecia is unsurpassed, there can be an advantage in buying closer to home in case you ever need to take the car back to the same dealer. In some cases, the drive and the hotel might cost you more than paying for the repair yourself where you live.

Costs of Owning a Car

Every vehicle owner has to pay two annual obligations called the Marchamo and the Riteve. (Actually, the Riteve is now known as Dekra after a German company took over from a Spanish company to provide vehicle inspections.)
The marchamo is a part registration fee and part insurance fee, covering bodily injury to people in your vehicle in case of an accident. Depending on the age and value of your car, this might cost a few hundred dollars (though I read of one 2018 Porsche that paid 8.8 million colones, or almost $16,000). Also, the insurance is minimal and doesn’t cover liability to other vehicles, so it’s a good idea to buy additional insurance that does.
The Riteve/Dekra is an annual vehicle inspection fee that is frighteningly thorough. Back in California, I had to take my car in every two years for a quick check of its emissions. But in Costa Rica, this annual ritual involves an inspection of the emissions, tires, drivetrain, steering, brakes, headlights, turn signals, brake lights, and seat belts. If any of this doesn’t pass inspection, you have to repair or replace it.
After paying the marchamo and passing the vehicle inspection, you’ll get two new stickers to put on your windshield. If your stickers aren’t current, the traffic police can pull you over and take away your license plates.

Driving in Costa Rica

I find it pretty easy to drive in most parts of Costa Rica, though, in the Pell-Mell Central Valley, it can often be stressful and confusing.
A few idiosyncrasies of the roads here: One-lane bridges are common, requiring one side to yield to the other before crossing. Most roads are only one lane each way, and sometimes you have to pass slow-moving trucks on hilly roads. The roads here rarely have shoulders, so you’ll often encounter bicycles, pedestrians, and even cows and horses on the road. Another oddity is intersections that have both stop signs and traffic signals. If the light is green, just ignore the stop sign and roll right through.
Also, drivers frequently stop right on the road to pick up or drop off passengers, conduct some roadside business, or even chat with a pedestrian. This can lead to frustrating delays, especially if there’s room to pull off the road and they just don’t bother. But all in all, these challenges are manageable. In my book, the pluses of owning a car in Costa Rica far outweigh the minuses.
By the way, I sold my Grand Vitara to my next-door neighbor for 2 million colones ($3,500). We had to pay a lawyer 150,000 ($230) to make it official, as it’s oddly impossible to buy a used car in Costa Rica without a lawyer. So now I have a new car, but I can still see my old car in my neighbor’s parking lot from my bedroom window. It’s almost like having a new wife, but your old wife is still living next door! But so far, we’re pretty happy with our new relationship.

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