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Adventures in Peru – Buying a Car In Tacna
New cars are very expensive here in Peru, due to customs and taxes. The average Peruvian cannot afford a car and even having a driver’s license is not common. Of those who can afford a car, most buy used cars imported from Japan. Once the cars arrive here, they are converted from right-hand drive to left-hand drive. If it is an experienced converter, it does a very good job, and at first sight you would never know that it has been converted. There is a big business in these cars in Tacna, a city in southern Peru near the border with Chile, where there is a seaport.
I bought my first car here in Arequipa over three years ago and it was not a good experience. Due to incorrect import documents, it took me six months before I could get it and be able to drive it. It was a Nissan 4×4 station wagon, but it wasn’t made for the hard off-road driving that we have to do here in Cotahuasi. After endless repairs, I finally decided to change vehicles because I needed something better for my adventure travel business. I spoke to Lucho, whose family has become my family here, and he gave me a lot of advice.
First of all, despite the importance of tourism in Peru, enjoying gringos is something of a national pastime here. Lucho protects me like a little brother, even though I think I’m older than him. He was also a police officer, so he has a lot of experiential wisdom to draw on. He gave me detailed instructions on what to do and what not to do in Tacna. Most cars are sold in a special area called Ceticos, which is a low duty import area. It looks like a budget used car mall with probably 40 or 50 dealerships selling cars.
Knowing that I would pay more for the same car than a Peruvian, I wanted a Peruvian friend to accompany me to negotiate. However, no one was able to accompany me last week when I needed to go. I had sold my old car in Arequipa on Monday afternoon and left on the bus that evening for the six hour trip to Tacna. A friend of mine, Hector, told me he could help me, but only for a day. I said I would spend Tuesday and Wednesday looking, and if I found something suitable, I would call him and he would take the Wednesday night bus, to help me on Thursday. It wasn’t an ideal situation but Lucho told me that the middle of the week was the best and safest time to buy a car there, it’s too crowded and not safe on weekends. Checks are not commonly used here which meant I would pay cash.
For this reason, many important transactions are carried out in banks. Lucho told me to take the vendor to my bank, give him the money there, and sign the papers there, so I wouldn’t walk around with more than $10,000 in my pocket. He also told me to ignore anyone who tried to talk to me, help me, or ask me to help him. He warned me to be careful that no one bumps into me or touches me in the bank, because they “accidentally” do it and then put a mark on your back. When you come out of the bank, an accomplice sees the mark and knows you are carrying a lot of cash. They will then follow you until they have the opportunity to rob you.
I arrived in Tacna around 4:30 am; luckily we were allowed to sleep on the bus until a more reasonable time in the morning. I finally gave up trying to sleep around 6:00 am and went to find a nearby hostel. They said they would keep my bag until I came back in the evening to check in, so I didn’t have to pay an extra day’s room charge. There were no restaurants around so I went back to the bus terminal and had breakfast before going to Ceticos.
There have been some changes in the import laws so there are fewer imported vehicles in Peru than before, but there were still hundreds of cars, vans and vans surrounding the large warehouse like buildings in Ceticos. Conversions are also done there, which is only possible because they can buy the cars so cheaply, and the labor is also very cheap here in Peru. A postman made it easy for me; I knew exactly what vehicle I was looking for – a Toyota Hi-Ace minivan, 4WD and manual transmission. Most combis (small van bus service) are Hi-Aces and they are all manually changeable; all I had to do was find a 4×4 like the one I had seen here in Cotahuasi.
When we left Japan 20 years ago, almost all the vehicles sold there were still behind the wheel, very few automatics. However, over the last 10 years, automatics have also become much more popular there, probably due to the almost universal use of cell phones. I found a number of nice Hi-Ace vans, with nice seating for 8, but most were automatic and none were 4WD. The Town-Ace is a bit smaller but I looked for them too, same problem. I found a 4×4 van but it was a Mitsubishi and an automatic, and it was too expensive. I eventually started looking at small SUVs like the 4Runner and the Pathfinder, but they too were just automatics. They also had a few Land Cruisers, but they cost almost $20,000. A salesman said a friend of his, who was a notary public, had a manual 4Runner for sale, but was back in town about 10 minutes away.
Remembering Lucho’s advice, I declined his offer to take me to see him. I rode with him and his colleague all over Ceticos while he tried to find me one and his friend’s office phone number so we could call him. Meanwhile, we picked up another friend of his, who said he also knew of one for sale in town, and they wanted to take me over there to see that one. Eventually, having found nothing at Ceticos, I nervously agreed to go to the ones in town, as they seemed like nice guys and were trying hard to find me a vehicle.
I had a second (do that fifth or sixth) thought when we picked up a fourth young guy (he was related to one of the owners) in Tacna, and I still hadn’t seen any vehicles there. After driving everywhere, far from downtown, I was getting really nervous and thinking of jumping out of the car if I saw a policeman, we finally got to where one of the trucks was supposed to be. Five minutes later, someone pulled out a very dirty 4Runner that he wanted $10,000 for, and it had an automatic! Then we went to the notary public’s office. He had sold the one they wanted to show me, but had a newer one to sell for $19,000. I said it was good but too expensive, and also it was an automatic. Then they wanted to show me another one somewhere and I said no, “Take me back to Ceticos!” After wasting a few hours and 10 soles for the gas they asked me to pay, I was happy to be back safely at Ceticos, where I looked at the other places I wasn’t not gone before.
There were no manual 4×4 pickups at any of the vendors, and I was about to give up and head back to town. First I decided to look at the Mitsubishi again and see if they could have something cheaper. Turns out I had misunderstood the price and it was within my budget. Using my best bargaining tactics, I managed to knock the price down a thousand dollars, but that was probably still more than a Peruvian would have had to pay. I really needed a vehicle, so I decided to buy it, even though it was an automatic. The whole next day was spent doing paperwork, getting my money back from the US, transferring the money and doing some minor repairs on the van. The paperwork had to be done by a notary public, the one the seller used was the same one I had consulted the day before! Luckily Hector flew to Tacna in the morning to help with all of this and make sure everything was correct.
We got the necessary authorization to take him back to Arequipa without registration, and at 7:30 p.m. we were finally ready to leave. We grabbed roast chicken and fries, our first meal since breakfast, picked up my bag at the hotel and left for Arequipa. We still had to go through customs, but Hector was taking care of everything there, and within 30 minutes we were on our way again. As we passed through a small town, I saw a policeman standing by the road and a sign that said “Control.” I asked Hector if we should stop and he said no, so we drove by. About an hour and a half later, as we were going through a toll booth, a policeman waved us off to the side of the road. I showed him the clearance papers and he said we had to go back about 60 miles to the checkpoint to get them stamped. It was getting late and I didn’t want to waste the fuel, so I asked if there was a way to avoid running back. He took me into the building, stamped the papers and said we could move on!
We arrived at Hector’s, where I park my car in Arequipa, at 2 am, tired but grateful for a successful trip. The next day, after spending a few hours waiting and queuing, all the registration paperwork was submitted and now I just have to wait 10 days to get the title and then a few more days to get the license plates. So I can drive my car!
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