Se Vende — the Costa Rican Used Car

Prado Plate Edited

Who needs a hydraulic lift when you can drive up onto concrete ramps six feet tall that end in … a six foot drop.

July, 2015

“It’s the best car in the whole country. Immaculate!”

This endorsement came from the salesperson of a small used car lot in the small town of Grecia, Costa Rica — which sits just outside of the sprawl that is San Jose.

I stared harder and noticed that the exterior was a collection of tiny scratches, some of which were in a swirling pattern, as if the car had been pelted by tumbleweeds of steel wool.

“How many miles are on it?” The actual question involved kilometers as Costa Rica, like just about the entire globe sans the U.S., embraces the metric system. It’s also prudent that this, and all referenced exchanges took place in my version of the Spanish language (I owe apologies in arrears to anyone who actually speaks Spanish).

I’d been in Costa Rica for a couple of weeks at this point and had met a number of amazing people. Costa Ricans, or Ticos as they like to be called, are the first to volunteer the fact that their otherwise refreshing approach to life is not compatible with automobiles. “We drive like lunatics,” is a comment I’ve heard from more than one Tico. When the topic is the purchase of a used car the narrative is, “Don’t believe what anyone tells you about their car — everything they say is a lie.”

The salesperson appeared willing to live up to that billing. “I don’t know, but I can find out.”

“If you have the keys we can start it up and look at the odometer.”

She bit her lip and pondered what I had hoped would be a small, routine task. Eventually she nodded and disappeared back in to the facility, which looked like the shell of a fast food restaurant that’s been converted into a parking lot/showroom.

As I waited for her I took a closer look I saw that the tires were bald and the inside of the driver’s window had so many scratches in the tinting that it made me ponder what had been trapped inside.

She returned and, after a few attempts, got the door open. Something looked strange, but I couldn’t put my finger on it until she pointed out that the entire floor had been sealed off by a thick layer of clear plastic (think what Grandma did to the couch and the carpet in the hallway and you’ll get close). Unfortunately, the seal wasn’t exactly tight and the contents of many spilled drinks were permanently trapped in the carpet behind the plastic. The headliner, on the other hand, had no plastic liner but did feature a layer of grime that could only have happened if someone had used it as a napkin. Every day. Homer Simpson’s song, Spider Pig, sprang to life in my head and threatened to drown out everything else. Spider Pig, Spider Pig, does whatever a Spider Pig does

She beamed as I took it all in, and then held out her hand as if to formally introduce me to my new car. “See, it’s perfect!”

Further questioning revealed she wanted a price close to what I could pay for a new version of the car, and I beat a hasty retreat from Grecia.

Later that afternoon I met with John, an ex-pat who’d set up a fairly large operation on the other side of San Jose. I’d seen a few of his cars on Craig’s List and local variations thereof. He spoke English, which likely swayed me more than it should, but is perhaps understandable in view of the large number of frustrating conversations I’d been having with “sellers” who turned out to actually be the girlfriend, boyfriend, cousin or just an acquaintance of the car owner who happened to have a working phone. The phone queries typically contained a variation of the following: “The car is amazing. Perfect. No, I don’t know where it is now, when you can see it or how many kilometers are on it. We are also selling some land on the Caribbean side — would you like to buy it?”

John was a seller all right, but he’d also done a fair bit of buying. In his case the purchases involved human growth hormone. I was happy to converse in English, but I found it hard to avoid being distracted by the creepy, bulging muscles poking out of the tank top he sported on his 65+ year old body. HGH does appear to work miracles on muscle tissue, as John will gladly tell you, but they have not yet come up with a variation that will also work on the old skin now stretched over these bulging muscles.

John and I managed to come to preliminary terms on a car but I soon found that my US bank, which is ironically owned by a financial conglomerate based in Spain, doesn’t wire to foreign countries unless the client requests the wire in person at their local, U.S. branch. John, while pushing that another buyer had their eye on my car, told me to write a U.S. check and deposit it in the branch of his Costa Rican bank in my small town. “It’s no problem, I’ll push them on my end to expedite the processing.”

I later relayed the path that was envisioned in broken Spanish to the branch manager of that Costa Rican bank, and his eyes said more than I could ever translate. In terms of what he did convey, it was clear that they’d eagerly process my check and take my funds the next day. They would not, however, expedite any kind of crediting of the proceeds — that portion would likely take up to the full 45 days. John didn’t take kindly to that news, and besieged me with calls and e-mails suggesting that I write three smaller checks and put them in the care of the public bus that would run from my town to his the following day. He’d “figure something out” once he had them in his chiseled hand.

I opted against that path and, after many more false starts covering a couple more weeks, found myself inside a walled compound deep inside San Jose. The concertina wire running along the top of the walls was distracting — almost as distracting as the large quantity of bananas, plantains and coconuts in the bed of the baby blue El Camino parked a few feet away.

“You should be able to get at least two or three more months out of them.”

The “them” in this case refers to the tires on a used car. The speaker was the driver for the owner of the vehicle, a director of a quasi-governmental organization who had recently departed his assignment in San Jose, Costa Rica, for a new position in Switzerland. This particular used car came with a fleet of people with some sort of interest. There was the owner, an Italian now residing in Switzerland but utilizing a bank account in Austria, the driver, who arrived in the El Camino with the load of fruit and as well as a power of attorney to sell the vehicle on behalf of the owner and, finally, the wife of the driver, who was supposed to help with translation but was instead hunkered down inside the El Camino recovering from several rounds of vomiting blamed on a bad banana.

In my anemic Spanish I volunteered to the driver that the name of the town in which I reside contains the actual word mountain, and, further, since we have two small boys that we’ve recently uprooted to come to Costa Rica, dancing with the expiration date of mostly bald tires is likely not a viable option (what I actually said will likely never be replicated but it seemed to impart the desired message).

I scored a point in this particular portion of the debate — or at least I was led to believe that I had attained the upper hand. After a curious bit of excitement caused by the driver’s inability to actually start the vehicle, we dickered for roughly twenty minutes before finally coming to terms. As I’ll soon explain, I was not offered a banana, but I sure got a lemon.