Driving Mad

There are many challenges to living in Costa Rica. Heat, rain, dust, mold and bugs are the easy part. Inane bureaucratic process and a mañana attitude can be frustrating but is manageable. Owning and maintaining a car however is a whole other story or, perhaps more accurately, a never-ending one.

First off cars are ridiculously expensive, as is gas, insurance and parts. On top of that, here in the jungle the roads wreck your car as fast as you can drive it. The only reprieve is labour, which is cheap. Unfortunately even that often ends up a problem, as mechanics will fix only what is necessary to keep the car moving today, which all but guarantees you will be back soon for a related repair.

And then there is the potential nightmare of buying a vehicle without a clear title. Here is my story, which as of today is still unresolved.

My first car was a ’86 Isuzu Trooper. I bought it from a friend for $800 and spent another $800 over the next several months keeping it alive. The car rarely started on its own so I had to either park on a hill or get towed to jump-start speed (I kept a strong rope in the trunk). The engine had been rebuild twice, parts of the 4×4 differential were made by hand, the air filter was attached with bungee cords and the driver’s door flung open on right turns until the day it hit a gatepost, slamming it back shut permanently. After that I had to climb in the window Starsky and Hutch style. Within six months the car died for good and I gave it back to my friend who wasn’t happy to see it.

My next vehicle was a ’93 Toyota Land Cruiser. I bought it from a Canadian couple that barely drove it during the 11 years they were in Costa Rica. Within a month of purchase the fuel pump stopped working, the first of many repairs I would make. Ultimately the upkeep and fuel costs were too much to bear and I decided to sell it and buy something more economical. Nearby towns turned up nothing good so I moved my search to the closest city, San Isidro, which is an hour’s drive up and over the mountains. My friend Tommy came with me.

San Isidro Day 1: The Land Cruiser had a lot of trouble through the mountain passes but eventually made it to town where one dealer after another gave us a definitive “No” to a trade. Too expensive on gas they all said. Finally a little roadside dealer offered me a silver two-door ’94 Suzuki Sidekick 4×4. It looked good except for the tires. Since my car had been acting up on the way there, we decided to have it checked by a recommended mechanic nearby and get some lunch while the dealer switched the Suzuki’s tires with another car on the lot. Ninety minutes later we returned to pick it up and take it to the mechanic for inspection.

The little Sidekick drove well. It was nimble and quick but for the life of me I couldn’t find the 4×4 shifter. It should be right there said Tom. Feeling stupid I asked the mechanic where it was. This isn’t a 4×4 he said. When we returned to the dealer and asked why they switched cars on us they were totally unapologetic. The first thing they said was that this was the car I had asked for, which is ridiculous. When I responded angrily the salesman said they sold the 4×4 just after I left. Why did you sell it when you knew I was coming back, I asked? No answer. I expressed my anger clearly and left.

By now it was late afternoon. It began to rain. The Land Cruiser was driving well again and I wanted to get over the mountains before dark. Just then I saw a nice looking blue 4-Runner at another roadside dealer. I stopped and asked about a trade. For $2000 and my car they said. I decided to have it checked by the mechanic first and then negotiate. The 4-Runner stalled twice on the way there. When we finally got it on the hoist, the mechanic flashed his light and frowned. Come here, he said. He pointed to a long weld across the width of the frame. This is two different cars he said. Probably two wrecks with a third body on top. This car is not safe to drive.

We left San Isidro fuming. How do these guys get away with this? I was angry and frustrated and ready to complain all the way home until the Land Cruiser’s brakes failed and I had other things to worry about. We made it home safe but frazzled.

San Isidro Day 2: Tommy was busy. Plus, if he didn’t want to drive over the mountains again in the Land Cruiser I couldn’t blame him. The brakes had since been fixed by Heiner, my local mechanic. Perhaps out of pity Heiner had also agreed to come with me and take us to places I might not know. Unfortunately however we had the same response. No one wanted the big Land Cruiser. The day worn on and I was dreading the ride home when Heiner pointed out one more place. It was the guys who had switched Suzuki’s on me. Reluctantly I followed Heiner into the lot and was surprised to see the 4×4 Sidekick I had tried to buy last time sitting there.

The dealer greeted me in English, asking why I left so angry last time. I was ready to scream but Heiner took me aside and asked that I let him to the talking. He opened the hood of the Sidekick and pointed out some painted-over frame damage. This car has been in an accident he said. Good thing you didn’t buy it. Just them the dealer pointed out a green 4-Runner on the lot next door. We just got this in, he said. I’ll sell it to you for 4 million Colones (approximately US$8,000).

We agreed on the price pending an inspection and arranged to meet at the mechanic in the next few minutes. Heiner and I waited a full hour before he went back to get them. Another twenty minutes later the dealer’s son Harold arrived in a well-worn Nissan pick-up truck with a rickety wood-framed bed. Where is the 4-Runner I asked? Oh, Harold says, that’s my brother’s car and he wants more money. How about this at the same price, he asked, pointing at the Nissan. A few choice words and 15 minutes later Harold’s brother arrived in the 4-Runner. It passed both Heiner’s and the local mechanic’s inspection and after a lengthy discussion I conceded to a price of $1,750 plus my Land Cruiser as a trade in. I gave them a deposit, we switched cars and made plans to meet at Bufete Jimenez, their Abogada’s (lawyer’s) office the next morning.

Back in San Isidro the next day Abogada Msc. Yadira Jimenez Olivares explained the title to the 4-Runner was clear but, as the dealer had just acquired it themselves, it was still in the name of the previous owner. The paperwork she created for our transaction specified the transfer of both the 4-Runner and my Land Cruiser and all three parties involved. She then charged me the transfer fees and a portion of her services, which I paid for in cash.
I drove home happy.

One month later- last Thursday Jan 24th- the dealer, his son Harold, Abogada Jimenez and the car’s previous owner showed up unannounced in my driveway. They accepted my invitation to sit down, ate and drank my food and then asked that I give them back the 4-Runner in exchange for a well-used Pathfinder they had brought down with them. Minutes later another party arrived with a court order to repossess the 4-Runner and demanded it be given to him. A very confusing argument ensued and I had to yell at them all to stop talking while I sorted out exactly what was going on.

Unsure of exactly what to do I called my lawyer Minor Zamora Castellon who quickly checked the National Registry. The 4-Runner title-change request to my name that Abogada Jimenez prepared over a month ago had been denied due to an unpaid lien against it, which she had hidden from me. Minor spoke to Abogada Jimenez and established that she had hidden the fact that the lien was there. Due to the court order he advised me to give the car back to the original owner, not accept the Pathfinder and meet him and the other parties first thing in the morning at his office 30 minutes south in Palmar Norte. Minor then went on to explain they had all come in person with the offer of another car to prevent me from taking them to court. Apparently the offense they committed could result in jail time and Abogada Jimenez losing her license to practice law.

I did what he said and handed over the keys to the 4-Runner. The group confirmed our meeting time and place for tomorrow and insisted on leaving me the Pathfinder so I had transportation to get there. Signing nothing I agreed to borrow the car just for the night as, by this time I was already late for a gig up on the mountain. This is where the Pathfinder died, forcing me to leave it behind and hitchhike home and to Palmar the next morning.

That next morning all four of us sat around Minor’s desk as he facilitated the expected settlement. The dealer, previous owner and Abogada Jimenez agreed that they were obligated to replace the 4-Runner with a car of equal value or pay me back it’s value in cash. Citing the previous trick the dealer had pulled with the Suzuki and the dead Pathfinder, I stated I would not take another car from them and wanted the cash value plus legal fees and reimbursement for a rental equal to the time it would take me to find another car. We then looked up comparable 4-Runners for sale on crautos.com and I calculated an average price of 4,350,000 Colones.

They countered with an offer of 400,000 Colones (US$800) and the Pathfinder, which I declined. We spent the rest of the day getting nowhere and finally we agreed to meet again the next day. This time only Harold and the previous owner showed up and after several hours we remained at an impasse. During a break Harold walked across the road and pissed on Minor’s car. Back at the table I said all I wanted was the cash value of the car I had already paid for and my expenses. They refused to pay, said they did not have the money and again insisted I take the Pathfinder.

That was last Thursday. On Friday and Saturday I spoke to the previous owner by phone. Both times he told me he was trying to get the issue resolved but Harold would not return his calls. He expressed his regret for the situation and promised to do what he could. Perhaps finding a worthy replacement car himself. I told him that would be acceptable as long as my mechanic checked it first and the car did not come from Harold’s family or business.

One week later nothing has changed. Minor is preparing the paperwork to sue the three parties but warns it may take years to go through the system. Meantime I have no car and no money. I am prepared to settle for a car of equal value however I also want to ensure no one else gets taken advantage by these people.

One month later I have received another 1993 Pathfinder from the bad people. The car runs well and I have accepted it as replacement for the 4-Runner. Of course there is no paperwork and we are waiting for that to happen. I only hope it does before I leave for the summer…