San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Buying a car in C.R.: What should you know?

So, you’ve arrived in Costa Rica, and you’re finding that places you want to be are sometimes far away from each other. Public transportation is cheap but not exactly convenient, and you’re wondering just how daunting and expensive it might be to get yourself some wheels. The Tico Times can help answer your most pressing questions regarding car buying and ownership in Costa Rica.

How do car prices here compare with North America?

They’re higher. Heavy import taxes increase the price of new cars to around 30 percent more than cars in the United States. Additional hikes in the price can be due to higher prices that dealers pay factories and the popularity of certain models.

As for used cars, these are significantly cheaper than new cars, but they typically cost more than you’d pay in the U.S. Because the cars are worth more here, owners oftentimes take great care of them to maintain the resale value.

Where should you start?

To get a general idea of what’s out there and what it’ll cost you, begin with newspapers and websites, starting with,, and the daily La Nación’s print version and website also feature large selections.

When you’ve come to a better understanding of the market, you might check out some of the dealerships in San José. Keep in mind that buying from an individual seller rather than a dealer will definitely save you a few bucks.

What kind of car makes sense in Costa Rica?

Basically, anything Japanese or Korean. That includes Nissan, Hyundai, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Honda, Daihatsu and Kia. The French brand Peugeot also has  been increasing in popularity here. These are good cars for Costa Rica, because mechanics here are familiar with them, and spare parts are relatively affordable and easy to find.

Several of the cars mentioned above are manufactured specifically with the Costa Rica market in mind. Their engine tuning, suspension and motor sizes are all ideal for driving in this country. In Costa Rica, high clearances and four-wheel drive are definitely attractive.

Who should you buy from? 

Don’t buy a car from anyone unless you are aware of the status of the car’s import taxes. These are ridiculously high, and if you buy a car that needs to be registered in Costa Rica, you will end up footing the bill. Aside from that, you can take your chances with just about anyone. But definitely be sure to find a good mechanic to inspect your new wheels before you sign on the dotted line.

And watch out for scams. Police recently  warned used car buyers against meeting potential sellers in isolated areas, as some buyers have become victims of robbery. Also, don’t hand over any money until you’re certain the deal is legitimate.

If you go with a dealer, you will want to do your homework on the dealer’s reputation, service center and length of time they’ve been in the biz. A few reputable dealerships include Purdy Motor, EuroAutos, Vetrasa & Veinsa and Datsun.

The good thing about dealers is that they have a legal obligation to offer a 30-day guarantee on the transmission and motor of any car they sell. They also can take care of a lot of the hefty paperwork, take your old car as a trade-in, and offer financing on the cars they sell.

If you happen to know a careful and trustworthy owner selling his own car, this is a perfectly good way to go, particularly if the person is leaving the country and needing to sell fast.

What hidden costs and requirements should you beware of?

Did we mention import taxes? Yes. We’re mentioning them again. If you buy a car oblivious of unpaid import taxes, you will be forced to pay them or the car will be impounded.

You should also check to ensure the car has no outstanding encumbrances (gravámenes) or infractions recorded in the National Registry. This can be done by anyone online at

Also ensure the vehicle’s marchamo, or annual circulation permit, has been paid for the year (a sticker displaying the current year should be affixed to the windshield), and that the car has passed the required annual Riteve technical inspection.

In addition, there’s also the traspaso (transfer of registration) fee, which varies depending on the car’s value. Check with an attorney to find out how much this will run you, and factor in the attorney’s fees as well.

What’s up with car insurance?

When you buy or renew your marchamo, you’ll pay a small amount for mandatory personal liability insurance. The coverage is minimal, so cautious people also opt for additional insurance. Through the country’s public insurance provider, the National Insurance Institute (INS), you can insure your vehicle against collision, fire, theft, personal liability and property damage. The usual term for such coverage is six months, and it covers your car no matter who is driving (as long as that person has a license).

The opening of Costa Rica’s insurance market also means an increasing number of private insurance companies will be competing for your business in the future.

How do people drive? 

Haphazardly. The rules of Costa Rican driving basically are that rules are often ignored, so be prepared for aggressive drivers. Stoplights are routinely ignored, and pedestrians are not held in quite the same regard as in North America. Another big difference is the meaning of a honk. If somebody comes up behind you beeping, that doesn’t imply an expletive. It’s just a friendly way of saying hello, I’m behind you in a massive truck and if you aren’t aware of me, I might smash you. And by the way, the light’s green.

How bad are the roads, really?

With the exception of the newly constructed Caldera Highway, many of the roads in Costa Rica are in pretty bad shape. Potholes are abundant, as are two-way bridges only wide enough for one vehicle. Helpful road signs – not so much. What looks like a short drive on a map may actually take several hours, and driving at night is not always a good idea, especially in the mountains. Curves are sometimes a little hairy and oftentimes lack guardrails, divider lines and reflectors.

Happy driving!

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