I had never been one to lust after a particular kind of car. But here, the car you drive says a lot about you; it’s a status symbol of how badass you are.
At home in Savannah, I would routinely roll my eyes at anyone driving a Hummer or a giant Land Rover. I mean, traffic can get bad on DeRenne Avenue at 5 o’clock, but it’s not the Serengeti.
But here, it’s not uncommon to see an ancient, rusted behemoth of a car with oversized wheels, a snorkel affixed to the side for river crossings, a roof rack for hauling surfboards, and a dirty dog sticking his head out the window. And instead of rolling my eyes, I find them turning into jealous slits. A jungle car in the jungle makes total sense.
In particular, I found myself drawn to a classified ad for a lime green Jeep Land Cruiser where the back seats actually faced in toward each other. The seat belts probably didn’t even work.
The junkier, the older, the rustier the jungle car – the more it looks like it belongs on a movie set than in a garage – the better.
But someone snatched up that lime green jungle car, and good for them, because we have a vehicle. It may not rank high in the badass department, but it gets us where we need to go.
We’re rocking a 2003 Subaru Forester. She’s red (under all that dust). She’s filthy. There is a CD stuck in her CD player and it won’t play. She has all-wheel drive, air conditioning, and five working seatbelts. There’s no awesome snorkel for river crossings, but there’s a can of fix-a-flat in the back and an air pump, along with a spare tire and some tools.
She may not be a jungle car, but she’s just right. We named her SubaRoja. And we know we’re lucky to have her.
When we were making plans for this trip, I spent many a night lying in bed worrying about cars. It was too expensive to ship our car here (hello 100% import tax). Leasing from a rental agency was too expensive (more than $1,000/month), so it looked like buying a car was our only option. But even that isn’t simple, and involves hiring your own attorney and paying cash, and every expat has a story about someone they know who got screwed over in a car deal. Then there’d be the hassle of selling the vehicle at the end of our year … plenty of problems to keep my eyelids open into the wee hours.
So after we chose our rental house, we asked the owner if he had any leads on a car. We were thrilled to find out that he had this 13 year old Subaru collecting dust in the garage, and he’d be willing to rent it to us for much less than the rental agencies. No sketchy contracts. No worries about resale. Just a set of keys and a little extra on our monthly rental payment.
Part of the deal though, was that we were responsible for maintenance and upkeep as if it were our car. And with Costa Rica’s notoriously awful roads, that’s no joke.
So far we’ve replaced the AC belt, the power steering belt, had a flat tire repaired, oil and air filters replaced, and oil changed.
Our total bill for all of the above? Less than $150. Not much is cheap in Costa Rica, but so far auto repair has been surprisingly affordable.
When we got our flat tire, we took it to the local tire repair shop where a kid about Camille’s age took care of us. He found the nail in it, and then asked me in Spanish to choose between one type of repair and another. I didn’t have a clue what he was saying, but I knew one method would cost us $3, and the other $4. So I splurged on the $4 repair, and he soon had us on our way.
But taking care of the car involves more than just maintenance. Each December, every Costa Rican driver must pay taxes on the vehicle, which we did. And then once a year, every auto, quad and moto must pass an inspection called Riteve.
I was nervous about the Riteve inspection. You have to make an appointment at your nearest government inspection center, which for us is about an hour away. Then the inspectors run the vehicle through a series of tests. If you pass, you get a shiny sticker for your windshield and a year’s reprieve. If you fail, then you have to find a mechanic, address the problems, and come back, over and over until you pass.
I first became concerned about the inspection when I was sitting in the car, waiting for a herd of cattle to cross the street, and noticed the sticker in the upper left corner of my windshield. The one that says when you should next have your oil changed.
September 2009. Surely not.
The next time I saw our property manager, I asked him about that. “Do you think we should get the oil changed?” I asked.
“Huh!” he said, thoughtfully. “That’d probably be a good idea. No telling how long it’s been.”
That’s when I began to worry about passing any kind of inspection.
That’s also about the time our AC belt snapped, so we took the car to Jorge. Jorge the mechanic doesn’t have a sign, just a spot in the grass behind the “Buena Nota” bar, a padlocked chain link fence, and a reputation as the only guy in town who works on Subarus.
Luckily for us, our property manager happened to have an extra AC belt for our car, because Subaru parts are in short supply. Jorge charged us about $5 to replace it. While he was digging around under the hood, we asked him about the oil.
So he checked it and – shockingly – it was filthy. As were the air filter and oil filter.
Knowing our Riteve inspection was coming up, we looked into addressing these maintenance issues. But the Subaru filters would have to come from across the country and would be expensive to deliver. We found it was actually easier and much cheaper to have Lee’s mom buy them in the US and then fly with them in her suitcase when she came to visit.
Parts in hand, we made another appointment with Jorge, who didn’t show up. So we were directed to Flaco down the street, who quickly put our car up on the rack and got to work. We had to bring our own oil, which cost a staggering $60, but for just 10 bucks Flaco changed our oil and the filters.
The filter on the bottom – that was our air filter. It was supposed to be red like the new one above it. Eww.
So, having done what we felt was necessary to pass inspection, we got an appointment at the Riteve center and headed to Nicoya. As we got closer to the inspection center, we noticed lots of mechanic shops, like this one directly across the street. Brilliant, really – all the folks who fail inspection can just roll right on over for repairs.
We got in our spot behind a line of cars, and the inspection soon began. An inspector asked us to test our blinkers. Our headlights. Our hazards. This shouldn’t have been difficult, except we didn’t have the vocabulary. I don’t recall a “car inspection” chapter in my college Spanish textbook.
So we pantomimed our way through the inspection. There was that time when the inspector was trying to check our alignment and we could NOT figure out what he was asking. He wanted us to go faster? We stepped on the gas, but in reverse. “Adelante!” he shouted, asking us to go forward instead. Then we were going too fast. Then not fast enough. “Freno!” I learned is the word for BRAKE!
We rolled through station after station, having our suspension checked (felt like an earthquake under the car wheels), our emissions screened, brakes inspected and more. Finally, we were told to leave the inspection area, park and come get the results.
We nervously approached the window, where they handed us our shiny sticker and our inspection report. We’d only been cited for one thing – no wiper fluid – and it wasn’t egregious enough to fail the inspection.
With a great sigh of relief, we drove away, past all those car repair shops, happy not to need their services. At least not today.
I bet if I’d bought that lime green Land Cruiser – the ancient one with the funky seats and the snorkel – it would’ve failed. Who knows what that jungle car had been through.
Yeah, so maybe our oil hadn’t been changed in 7 years, but you’ve got to give ole SubaRoja some credit. She came through like a champ when it mattered, and we have the shiny sticker to prove it.