• Jill Reed

Inside an Expat Family’s Debate and Decisions About Cars in Costa Rica




Taking the cars with us

I am sitting outside my home chatting to the moving company representative about shipping estimates for a full 40 foot container of household goods. We are sorting through how to add the two vehicles to the assortment, whether by container or roll-on roll-off, commonly referred to as ro/ro shipping.


Perhaps you have considered bringing your own cars to Costa Rica with you when you move. Both of our cars were brand new. We loved our Honda Pilot and Toyota 4Runner, and by every estimate, we assumed they would be perfect in Costa Rica. One would play a more formal role and the other would be the mud, beach, dog car.


We brought neither.


Driving the rental cars

I moved down in perfect time for our household items to make their arrival at our new house, and I took a rental car to begin our adventure. Once I’d driven several weeks on the roads in and out of our development and back and forth to school, I knew the Pilot would have been a mistake.


The incredibly rough half dirt, half paved (Tico style, but that’s another post) road between the major highway and the entrance to home is hell on tires and shocks. I popped the rental car tires twice accessing one of our beaches by the golf course.


We sold the Pilot.


Buying the first car

After a month of renting a car, I bought a Nissan XTerra off a guy who was heading back to the States. I am the third owner of this awesome ride, but it was originally imported from California by its first owners and that means parts are a nightmare.


Our first dry season, the Nissan ended up in the shop over and over with brakes, alignment, rods, and, most recently, the crankshaft sensors. We’ve ordered parts from the US and we’ve had mechanics find parts in the country, but in every situation, the problem persists.


It is officially a beach and dog car only. Otherwise, we are hurtling ourselves around in a dangerous box on wheels. Bygones.


Inching closer to the dream car

During the string of problems with the Nissan, while we spent millions of dollars on rentals, we started looking for another car while simultaneously debating about bringing the 4Runner down. We’d left it sitting at my brother’s house.


Friends and locals advised us to buy a car here and deal only with Costa Rican parts. Here’s the funny thing about cars down here - they cost at least double what you pay in the States. The 4Runner I paid $45,000 for at home brand new with bells and whistles starts at $70,000 here. That’s NUTS.


BUT, importing would cost the price of shipping, $4,000, and an import tax of around 75% of the total estimated value of the car. WHAT?! You read that correctly. Guess who gets to estimate the value? You got it, the Costa Rican tax collectors. This car would have cost us an additional $15,000 in taxes.


We made the painful decision to sell the beloved 4Runner and invest that $30,000 into a car here.


Buying the second, nicer car

In a previous post, I’ve discussed the various ways you can own a car here, and I’ve mentioned our friend Andy Ehlers.


Andy specializes in finding buyers the exact vehicle they’re looking for and handling the mechanical and transactional details for you. He is absolutely stunning at his job.


I ALWAYS hesitate when trying a new service here because, as we’ve learned, things are never what they seem. You really must be alert and take recommendations from others who have gone this way before.


Our builder friend, who has been here for well over 20 years, recommended Andy, so we felt confident seeking his guidance. In about a month’s time (pura vida) we decided on and he found for us a Toyota Prado. We considered Range Rover, Jeep, Nissan, and Mitsubishi.


Most people recommended the Prado for value and longevity. Costa Ricans and expats love the Prado, so owning it would be like driving a blank check, just in case. Our budget ($40,000) directed us to a used 2014 Prado with fairly low mileage.


At my request, Andy found someone to make additional seat covers in faux leather (hard on the sweaty legs, but easy to clean with kids and dogs) and had a dog gate installed in the rear. He handled the purchase details with my lawyer in San Jose and then drove it out to us.


“...give yourself some time to get here, feel it out and discover what works for your family. I recommend renting cars for a month or two to figure out what you like to drive (the cars are different here) and how well the car does on the roads you need to travel daily.”

Drinking the Prado Kool-Aid

The Prado is a BEAST. I love it so much and I am so very glad we waited for the right car for us. It has loads of room and the souped up tires we added to it can handle pretty much anything swiftly, effectively and smoothly.


My work has me driving this awful rutted muddy road, and the Prado sails through it like a champ with hardly any mud on the body afterwards. The shocks are that crazy good. This car was made for this terrain.


So, here’s my advice. If you are making the move to Costa Rica and you’re considering the car situation, give yourself some time to get here, feel it out and discover what works for your family. I recommend renting cars for a month or two to figure out what you like to drive (the cars are different here) and how well the car does on the roads you need to travel daily.


Make your decision based on your experience and research. Ask for recommendations, of course, but always consider your own needs. I swore when I moved here that I would never drive a Prado because ALL the expat moms had them - my kids’ school parking lot was the Sea of Prado.


Never say never.


It took a year of personal experience to realize why, and to drink the Kool-Aid myself.



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