Since Buying a Car in Costa Rica about 10 months ago, we have gone through many of the motions of car ownership, including taxes, insurance, maintenance, and of course repairs. Anyone living in Costa Rica will tell you that the roads are rough and your car will take a toll. Our 14-year old Chevy Tracker has had an especially difficult past several months.
Since we bought it, we’ve been vagabonding around the country and have put on 15,000 miles. From the southern Pacific to the Caribbean coast, to northern Guanacaste and the mountains of the Central Valley, we’ve been on smooth highways, sandy beach trails, as well as some of the worst pothole-ridden roads in the country.
With that much travel, we feel lucky to still have four wheels on the ground, let alone a functioning car. This post will cover some of the regular maintenance costs anyone would encounter as well as specific issues we’ve faced since owning the Green Buggy.
General Ownership & Routine Maintenance Costs ($630 plus gas)
Annual Marchamo (registration & mandatory liability insurance): Marchamo is easily renewed at many banks in Costa Rica. Our cost: $230 (based on vehicle year, make, and model). Newer or high-end cars will be more. Marchamo is due at the end of the year (payable Nov. – Dec.).
Annual Riteve (vehicle inspection): We had heard horror stories about people needing many repairs to get their Riteve and were even warned when buying a car to make sure the Riteve was not about to expire. The general consensus after talking to a few people was to have a mechanic bring it in for you, so that’s what we did. We dropped off the car with a mechanic for a few days while he did some repairs, and waited for his phone call. Cost: $18 for actual Riteve + $20 service fee + cost of repairs (steering column, rear brakes, muffler welding; see costs below). The peace of mind of having the mechanic take care of it was worth every penny of the $20 fee.
Additional Insurance Coverage (purchased through INS, the national insurance company in CR): This of course is optional but we paid about $130 for an annual policy with a good amount of extra liability (no collision) coverage. Find a local agent to see what works for you.
Gas: Gas prices have been consistently above the $5 per gallon mark ($1.30+ per liter) for our time here. This makes the cost to fill our modest 17 gallon (64 liter) tank a wallet-hurting $80-90. Diesel is a little cheaper at about $4.75 per gallon ($1.25 per liter). The good news is that the price is the same at all gas stations because it’s government regulated so you don’t have to bother shopping around.
Oil Changes: Similar to gas, oil is expensive. At $8-10 per quart, an oil change done by a mechanic can run around $70 (5 quarts oil + filter); depending on where you live and what kind of car you have, it could be a little more or a little less. We’ve started buying the oil and doing it ourselves instead for about $50.
Air for Tires: One nice thing about Costa Rica is that you never pay for air. Pull into any gas station and the attendant will gladly check your pressure, even if you don’t buy gas.
Headlight or Blinker Bulbs: Also very easy, most of the larger gas stations have an inventory of the popular bulbs and other things like wipers, fluids, etc. They will also usually install them for free. Cost $6-12.
Unexpected Repairs (Total ~ $725)
Serpentine Belt & Pulley: Unfortunately our belt went during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. If it had been just the belt, we would have been fine, but since all the parts’ stores were closed for the holidays (and then were backed up afterwards), we waited 10 days for the pulley to arrive. Total cost: $310. The lesson: If your car breaks down during one of the big holidays in Costa Rica like Christmas or Easter, don’t expect to see it anytime soon.
New Headlight & Assembly: The hot weather had dry-rotted the plastic fasteners holding in our headlight. We didn’t even want to try getting this from the parts’ store so we bought it on eBay for $40 and had some friends bring it down, then installed it ourselves.
New Battery: One thing about bumpy roads and hot conditions is that they can really take a toll on your battery. When ours died, we decided on a quality new one with a 2-year warranty. Cost: $120.
Tire Patch: We got tired of visiting the gas station every three days to add air and finally got it patched up for just $3. Look around and you will see dozens of tire repair shops along the road (Reparar de llantas).
New Steering Column: This was part of our necessary Riteve inspection repairs. The new one is actually a used part and doesn’t look much better than the old. Cost: $150 (parts & installation).
Rear Brake Pads: Also part of the inspection, but we thought we might need brakes anyway as they were starting to squeak. Cost: $50 (parts & installation).
Muffler Welding: It’s no wonder that most people who live in Nosara (where we’ve been living for the last couple months) have an ATV or a horse to get around. Many of the roads along the central and southern Nicoya Peninsula are basically like off-road trails, especially in the rainy season. Our muffler shook loose after hitting a few massive potholes just in time for inspection. Cost: $46.
Bolt installation (missing from steering column installation): The mechanic must have forgotten to install a cotter pin on the tie-rod end because we lost a bolt a few days after we picked it up. Fortunately the nearby gas station mechanic had a jar full of them and we were back on the road $6 later.
Overall, around $725 in unexpected repairs is probably less than we imagined over a ten month period for such an old car. We knew going into it that buying a used car in Costa Rica was a gamble and we would probably need to make some major repairs.
Through all of our car woes, it has helped that Matt is mechanically inclined. For example, when our muffler became unattached about an hour and a half from home, he MacGyvered some coiled up barbed wire from a nearby fence to temporarily hold it in position and prevent any more damage. Similarly, after the shop installed our new battery, we discovered that it was really loose and bouncing around. The missing steering column bolt is another good example of a careless installation. Last but not least, after our first oil change, we noticed that the filter that the mechanic used was about half the size that it should have been (it looked like a motorcycle filter).
By far the best thing we brought to Costa Rica was a bag full of tools and some backyard mechanic knowledge; it has saved us far more than the extra baggage fee we paid. Now to find out what that loud noise is coming from the front end . . . .
All in all, we don’t regret buying a car as it has given us the freedom to see so many parts of this amazing country. Maybe at some point though we’ll be able to upgrade to something a little newer, maybe even from this decade.
Update: After many years of faithful service, the Green Buggy was sold and we’ve since purchased a newer car. You can read about that experience here. Having a newer car has made a lot of difference with our overall maintenance costs. Really, all we’ve had to do is keep up with oil changes, get a new battery, and replace the tires.
With a newer car though, there definitely is a bigger investment, plus the annual marchamo and insurance costs are higher. Overall though, we are happy to have a newer car and less worry while driving out on Costa Rica’s adventurous roads!