Should I Buy a Car or Use Public Transportation in Costa Rica?

Should I Buy a Car or Use Public Transportation in Costa Rica?

Hmmm, car or bus, bus or car…?

Buying a Car VS Using Public Transportation in Costa Rica is a very personal decision.  Let me start off by saying, you can get by without a car in Costa Rica.  Many people, Gringos and Ticos alike, rely on the Costa Rican public transportation system and do just fine with it.  Since buying our car, we have used public transportation and it is a very efficient and inexpensive system.

We made the personal decision to buy a car based on our own needs and a lot of research.  Buying a car here generally costs much more than it does to buy the exact same car in the states.  The process to buy a car here is not as simple as handing over your cash and getting a signed and notarized title.  Buying a car in Costa Rica is a very different process than it is in the states, this post reviews our personal experience doing so.  Like many things here, it is a process, and one that can take months to complete.  Let me start at the beginning…

Getting Some Exercise

During our first few days in Costa Rica we relied on Liz (the broker we found the house through) to take us around the city to get everything we needed.  She charges $15.00 per hour to show you the ropes and teach you the tricks to save money living here.  Paying her for 3 days of help, which cost us $300.00, was well worth it to us.  We tell her what we need and she either drives us to a store or walk us through the center of town to find it.

In the city center, once you park in one of the few available parking spaces, you walk everywhere you need to go.  You get quite a workout walking around the large downtown area.  The streets are always very crowded.  There are hills to walk up and down, and the pavement on the streets and sidewalks are old, broken, and very uneven.

Getting Some Rays

Finding what you need in Costa Rica, or at least in San Isidro (Perez Zeledon), is much more difficult than it is in the states.  You cannot search a store’s website to see if they carry a product you are looking for.  Living here is almost like stepping back in time before there was the Internet.  Sure, a few places have very basic websites or a Facebook page.  You can also use Waze (a community based transportation and navigation app) to help you get around.   In Costa Rica, you get up off your butt and explore all the small stores to see what they have.   You also ask around and talk to people to find what you need.

We are very tech reliant people and Google is our very good friend.  We almost always try to text or email before we ever call and talk to someone in person (God forbid having to talk to another human being! UGH so annoying!! :p).   Because we are so tech reliant and more than a little antisocial this change is a BIG one for us, but a welcome one.

We knew  before moving here that things are drastically different and we have welcomed the change from heads down typing away on our phones and computers, to heads up and looking at and talking to other humans.  We are pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones, and know it is good for us and for our children to socialize and see the world (wow it really is a beautiful word too!).  Plus, all this walking and catching some rays is awesome for our bodies.  I don’t think our Vitamin D levels have been this high for years (maybe since we were kids and actually went outside)!

Importing or Buying Locally

After 3 days of walking around the city for 3-6 hours each day, we were exhausted.  We were itching to go to the beach and start exploring the country so we decided that we had to find a car ASAP.  Before moving we did a ton of research to decide if we wanted to import a car or buy one once here.  We ruled out importing a car pretty early on based on the shipping prices and the import taxes.

During the research phase we found that on top of the shipping prices, the import taxes to bring a car into the country is between 45% and 85% of the value of the car (based on what they consider the value not the blue book!).  You also have to consider if parts are available for the car you want to import.  Shipping parts, or anything for that matter, into the country can cost a pretty penny (if you actually even get the shipment-from what we have read).  Based on on this information we decided that it was not worth the additional costs to import a car.

Aaron (my husband) did even more research on what type of car would best fit our family while also accommodating the need for a 4WD.   If you stick to the main highways they are modern and well kept.  But, if you want to explore or live anywhere besides the city you need a 4WD.  Most of the side roads require a 4×4 to drive on because of the poor conditions of the dirt roads that include large potholes, large rocks, and even river crossings.  He settled on a 1985 Toyota Land Cruiser BJ40 series that runs on diesel, which is cheaper than regular gas here.  Gas in Costa Rica is very expensive (around $5.00+ per gallon for regular) so diesel makes more sense with the amount of driving we want to do.

Buying a Car in Costa Rica

Day 4 in Costa Rica, Liz took us to look at a white Toyota Land Cruiser.  The seller wanted $9,000.00 for it and based on the one blurry picture shown online it looked ok.  Aaron has many years experience fixing our vehicles and has even rebuilding cars from the ground up.  He knows what to look for when buying a car, but since we sold all his tools he had to rely on only visual inspection and a test drive.  After looking the Toyota over and driving it he decided it was in pretty poor shape and not worth the money.  The second Toyota Land Cruiser we looked at was priced at $10,000.00 (yikes I know!).  Based on his inspections and the lack of other available vehicles, he negotiated the price down to $9,000.00.

Before he would commit to buying the car, Aaron wanted it inspected by a mechanic to verify everything was in good working order.  We took the Toyota to mechanic and after inspecting and driving it, they gave us a thumbs up.  They told us that it needed motor mounts and they would charge $30.00 to install them (that price includes labor too- I know awesome!).  The owner said he would take that cost off the price, making the total cost $8,970.00.

After calculating how much it would cost to rent a car for a few weeks until we found another car, and the limited availability of vehicles it made sense to buy the car.  It was not a screaming deal by any means, but one we could work with.  The car was not perfect, it did not have seat belts in the back for the kids and the ones in the front seat were unsafe.  Those had to be replaced right away and that would be at our cost.  It had very loose manual steering, the drum brakes needed work, and two front tires needed replacing.  It had more rust than we would prefer but based on the costs to do body work here it still made sense to buy the car.

To buy or sell a car in Costa Rica you go to a lawyer so that was our next stop.

Legal Matters

In Costa Rica transferring ownership of a vehicle requires a lawyer.  We followed the owner of the Toyota to the lawyer’s office arriving at 2:00 pm. We arrived on a quiet neighborhood street with rows of houses that sandwiched a small neighborhood store between them.  As we walked down the street and past the little store we came upon a barred door between two houses.  Hanging outside the door was a small sign that showed the legal scale meaning Lawyer (Abogados) in Spanish.  From the street you would never notice this business was here.

Lawyer's office in Costa Rica

Lawyer’s office in Costa Rica


The door led down a short hallway, both in length and height, that opened to a small, dimly lit room.  The room had a very large, nice wooden desk just inside the opening.  Across from the desk was a small television playing the local news about the current US election.  Across from the TV were two doorways that led into small offices, each with large wooden desks and a couch.  A young man that was in training to be a lawyer greeted us and spoke a small amount of English.

Upon us entering the small crowded office, the lawyer stood to greet us, shaking everyone’s hand.  After we sat down, the young man reached above our heads to turn on the small wall air conditioning.  He and the lawyer seemed proud to offer A/C and everyone laughed and smiled about having the cool air on.  It was soothing to feel it blow over us after being in the heat and humidity all day.  I think it helped the kids the most since they were getting a bit tired and cranky.

Liz translated for us and the first thing they wanted to know was who we thought would win the election.  We joked about the state of things in the US because of the election and moved on quickly.  The young man asked basic questions to Aaron and Liz translated where he needed help.

Once all the information was added into their computer they spoke with the owner of the car.  Liz explained that we were paying a total of $260.00 for the fees of transferring the ownership and lawyer costs. Aaron asked if seller would pay that but the lawyer said in CR the buyer has to pay for it.

How Long Does it Really Take to Own a Car?

The lawyer explained that the paperwork would take a week to process because it has to go to San Jose.  He would call us when it was in and we could pick it up.  We left the lawyer’s office at 3:45, the whole process took 1 hour 45 mins.  The previous owner of the car handed over our keys and we now own a car in Costa Rica.  WOOP! 🙂

Our Toyota Land Cruiser in Costa Rica

Our Toyota Land Cruiser in Costa Rica

Side view of Toyota

Side view of Toyota

Two weeks past and we still had not heard from the lawyer.  We called Liz and had her check in with him and he of course said it would not be long.  We had her check in with him every couple of week and finally after 10 1/2 weeks the paperwork arrived.  The lawyer explained that he had mailed it early on to San Jose and the delay on their end.  He explained that with the holidays and a little thing called Tico time, it took longer than expected.  We read about Tico time and had prepared for it but were a little surprised how long it actually took.  We are happy to have a car and have the paperwork to go with it.