Cars In Costa Rica: A Bad Idea Since 1962

As any tourist who’s rented a car in Costa Rica can affirm, driving here can be as much a hair-raising, terrifying adventure as any experience related to zip-lines, bungee jumping, or killer waves. If you live here, though, cars are more of a necessary evil, especially in Berlín. If you ever feel the need to get out of Berlín, there is a bus that goes a few times a day between Berlín and San Ramón; however, when you arrive, then you’re stuck in San Ramón, in which case the solution itself presents a whole new problem.
There are also taxis, as well as the option of attempting to constantly bum a ride from someone going down-mountain, but of those two options, the former is very expensive and the latter just plain sucks. Indeed, the only real workable solution to living in Berlín seems to be to buy a car. In the past, we had a RAV-4, but after seeing how expensive maintenance, gas, annual inspections, registrations, and especially insurance was becoming, we decided to sell it and downgrade to a cheaper sedan or coupe.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Costa Rica seems to be a strange sort of twilight zone for car depreciation values, in that the values of many cars here go up, not down, and the result is a terribly skewed pricing system in which a 1985 jeep-style Land Cruiser sells for $11,000, and in general the prices of most cars are about twice what they would be in the U.S. For a nominally poor, third-world country, I’m not sure how they can maintain this system wherein many families’ cars cost more than their houses.

The upside of this strange arrangement, though, is that I was able to sell the RAV-4 for quite a bit of money, even while offering it a bit below market price. I also barely lost any money by reselling it two years and thousands of kilometers after I bought it. (In fact, here I sold my 2001 RAV-4 with around 110,000 miles for about the same price I sold my 2005 Subaru with only about 10,000 miles in the U.S.…like I said, it’s weird.)

Once I sold the RAV-4, though, I didn’t have a car. My father-in-law Honorio graciously let us use his Land Cruiser for a while, but we didn’t want to take advantage of his generosity. We began looking for cars, but found a market inundated with expensive crap. Around the same time, I found some statistics in the paper regarding car sales in Costa Rica. Here is a breakdown of the most commonly-sold cars in the country, according to their percentage share of the market:


For me, this is very interesting. I’d like to see a breakdown of how these figures look in the U.S., just to compare, but I’m sure it’d be quite different. In any case, you’ll notice that with the exception of Geo, there’s virtually NO presence of American cars here, and a glance around on the street confirms this. On a recent trip to my old job, I made it my task to count all the American cars I saw. An hour later, after I’d counted about 5 Geo Trackers and one Ford Ranger truck, I finally saw two Ford Fiestas as I was pulling into the commercial park where I worked. I know I’ve already mentioned this, but to me it’s incredible that Costa Rica, with its close relations and dependence on many American things, can have virtually no American cars. Especially considering that it’s got to be much easier logistically to import a car from the U.S. than from Japan or Korea, this whole idea doesn’t really speak to well to the image or quality of American cars here.

But I digress. After searching for a few weeks, my goofy friend Luis called randomly to say that he’d found a Nissan Sentra that we ended up liking. We bought it a few days later, while our friend Annie was visiting. The car was unfortunately named “Campanita”— or “Tinkerbell” –and it had a totally lame sticker on the back window to confirm its handle. I scraped it off with a razor blade one evening while Angela was at work, much to her dismay. Hey, I know that Tinkerbell was kinda hot, and that guys often name their cars after girls, but I don’t think this is what they had in mind when they started this custom.

In any case, our car now has no name, but it’s been serving us relatively well, especially considering the sort of inclines it has to go up in order to get from Palmares to Berlín. And the best thing of all: It’s not a Hyundai.

Now all that’s missing is a Sad Jesus Head sticker.

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