Buying a car in Costa Rica, or how I learned to love the bus

One of the first things I wanted to do in Costa Rica was buy a car, and I was already talking to several sellers on a popular Facebook expats page.

Brother Paul counseled me to wait and ride around a bit with people who already had cars before deciding what kind of ride I needed.

So I did — I caught a ride with him to Puerto Jiménez, and then to Matapalo, but after four or five days in country I was still jonesing for my own car.


I took a bus back to San José and caught a taxi to Alajuela to test-drive a Jeep Grand Cherokee advertised on Facebook.

I brought $5,000 cash to the test drive, hoping to drive this car home, as I knew the owner through my brother and father and it sounded like the car was in good shape. The seller was a gringo who was in the process of relocating his Tica wife and child from Costa Rica to Florida, and he was in Florida at the moment, so his wife met me at a mall in Alajuela.

I was happy with the test-drive, but my friend’s wife was not prepared to sell the car on the spot, as she needed it for the next two or three weeks. I was sorry to hear his, because I was a motivated buyer now, not in the next two or three weeks.

My taxi driver, Jimmy, earned his payday by driving me to Alajuela, going on the test drive and driving me back, with free lessons on how to drive in Costa Rica included. He commiserated with me that I should bring $5,000 cash to a test drive yet go home in a taxi.



Working his contacts, Jimmy actually found me another Jeep Grand Cherokee for sale for $6,000, and I test-drove that one the same day. It had been modified by a conversion kit to run on cheap propane, and Jimmy showed me the special pumps at the gas station that provide this type of fuel (not widely available outside San José). When I tried to learn more about this system online, the first hit I got was “Top 5 Reasons to NOT Convert Your Car to Propane or LPG.” I decided against wading into these unknown waters.

Meanwhile, I had to evacuate “the Hive,” my brother’s three-bedroom rental in San José, because his roommate Paco and his parents and brother would all be in town for two days and would need to entire house.

It so happened I had a friend in Heredia I needed to visit anyway, so I packed a bag and caught some buses to Heredia for pocket change. Turned out the inn was full at my friend’s house, so I found my way to Costa Rica Love Hostel, which charged me $6 (six dollars!) for an upstairs dormitory bed in a very comfortable house.


The owner of the Costa Rica Lo-o-ove Hostel (as I liked to pronounce it) was a young, handsome, well-spoken man named Manfred Cordero. He asked me if I would like to go with him and some of the other guests on a day trip to Arenal tomorrow. Why not!

I ended up writing a 700-word article, “Costa Rica Love Hostel: Big adventure on a small budget,” that was published in the Tico Times roughly three months after I wrote it. It’s worth reading, and it’s a fast read.

But speaking of my need of wheels … I watched Manfred expertly drive his big adventure-mobile home to Heredia from Arenal — a four-hour drive — in the dark, in the rain, in the fog, on narrow, fast highways where people sometimes walk on the road.

I was exhausted from a long day of driving, eating, drinking, swimming under waterfalls, soaking in two rivers, jumping off cliffs and spotting sloths, toucans and poison-dart frogs. There’s no way I would trust myself right now to take the wheel if I had to.


I had an epiphany: I did NOT want to buy a car! At least not yet. I wanted to ride around with people who already have cars and know where they’re going, who can talk to me on the way about all the cool things we’re seeing, so I can sponge up information and take notes or record quotes instead of sitting at the wheel worrying that I’m going to misjudge the next curve, plow into a bus and kill four people in my vehicle alone.

I had a good experience every time I took the bus — it’s incredibly cheap, it’s extremely safe and the driver knows exactly where he’s going. My costs for fuel, maintenance and insurance were zero, as was my liability in case the bus crashed into something.

A few days later Paul dropped me off in Jacó so I could visit a friend in Playa Hermosa. Two days after that I hopped onto a one-hour taxi boat to Montezuma for $40.

This is one thing you can’t do with your own car!

Next: How I jumped into a waterfall pool with $5,000 cash and my passport





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