New cars are very expensive here in Peru, due to customs and taxes. The average Peruvian can’t afford a car and even having a driver’s license is not common. Of those that can afford cars, most buy used cars that have been imported from Japan. After the cars arrive here, they are converted from right hand drive to left hand drive. If it is an experienced converter, they do a really good job, and at first look you would never know that it had 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 an ocean port.
I bought my first car here in Arequipa, over three years ago, and it was not a good experience. Due to improper import documents, it took six months before I could get it licensed and was able to drive it. It was a 4×4 Nissan station wagon, but was not made for the rough off highway driving that we need to do here in Cotahuasi. After endless repairs, I finally decided to get different vehicle, as I needed something better for my adventure travel business. I talked to Lucho, whose family has become my family here, and he gave me lots of advice.
First of all, in spite of how important tourism is to Peru, taking advantage of gringos is kind of a national pastime here. Lucho protects me like a kid brother, even though I think I am older than he is. He also used to be a policeman, so has lots of experiential wisdom to draw on. He gave me detailed instructions on what to do and not do in Tacna. Most of the cars are sold in a special area called Ceticos, which is a reduced duty import zone. It looks like a low budget used car mall, with probably 40 or 50 dealers selling cars.
Knowing that I would pay more for the same car than a Peruvian would, I had wanted a Peruvian friend to go with me to do the negotiating. However, no one was able to go with 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 night for the six-hour ride to Tacna. One of my friends, Hector, said he could help me but only for one 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 mid-week was the best and safest time to buy a car there, it is too crowded and not safe on weekends. Checks are not commonly use here so that meant I would be paying cash.
Because of this, many large transactions are done at banks. Lucho told me to take the seller to my bank, give them the money there, and sign the papers there, so that I wouldn’t be walking around with over $10,000 in my pocket. He also told me to ignore anyone who tried to talk to me, help me, or asked me to help them. He warned me to be careful that no one bumped into me or touched me in the bank, because they do that “accidentally” and then put a mark on your back. When you go out of the bank, an accomplice sees the mark and knows that you are carrying a lot of cash. They will then follow you until they get the opportunity to rob you.
I arrived in Tacna at about 4:30 am; fortunately, we were allowed to sleep in the bus until a more reasonable hour in the morning. I finally gave up trying to sleep at about 6:00 and went and found a nearby hostel. They said they would hold my bag until I returned 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 I went to Ceticos.
There have been some changes in the import laws so there are less vehicles being brought into Peru than there used to be, but there were still hundreds of cars, pickups and vans surrounding the large warehouse like buildings in Ceticos. The conversions are done there as well, which only is feasible because they are able to buy the cars so cheaply, and labor is also very cheap here in Peru. One factor made it easier for me; I knew exactly what vehicle I was looking for – a Toyota Hi-Ace van, 4-wheel drive and manual transmission. Most of the combis (small van bus service) are Hi-Aces and they are all manual shift; all I needed to do was find a 4×4 like one I had seen here in Cotahuasi.
When we left Japan, 20 years ago, almost all vehicles sold there were still stick shift, very few automatics. However in the last 10 years, automatics have become much more popular there as well, probably due to the almost universal use of cell phones. I found a number of beautiful Hi-Ace vans, with nice seats for 8 people, but most were automatics and none were four-wheel drive. The Town-Ace is a little bit smaller but I looked for them as well, same problem. I found one 4×4 van but it was a Mitsubishi and automatic, and it was too expensive. I finally started looking at small SUVs like the 4Runner and Pathfinder, but they too were only automatics. They also had a few Land Cruisers, but they were close to $20,000. One salesman said a friend of his, who was a notary public, had a manual 4Runner for sale, but it was back in the city, about 10 minutes away.
Remembering Lucho’s advice, I declined his offer to take me to see it. I did ride with him and his co-worker all over Ceticos while he tried to find me one, as well as the phone number of his friend’s office, so we could call him. During this time we picked up another friend of his, who said he knew of one for sale in the city as well, and they wanted to take me there to see that one. Finally after not finding anything in Ceticos, I nervously agreed to go look at the ones in the city, as they seemed like nice guys and were trying so hard to find a vehicle for me.
I had second (make that fifth or sixth) thoughts when we picked up a fourth young man (he was related to one of the owners) in Tacna, and I still hadn’t seen any vehicles there. After driving all over, away from the center of town, I was really getting nervous, and was thinking about jumping out of the car if I saw a policeman, we finally arrived to where one of the trucks was supposed to be. Another five minutes later, someone brought out a very trashed 4Runner that they wanted $10,000 for, and it had an automatic! Next we went to the notary public’s office. He had sold the one they wanted to show me, but had a newer one for sale for $19,000. I said it was nice 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 couple of hours, and 10 soles for gasoline that they asked me to pay for, I was glad to be safely back in Ceticos, where I looked at the remaining places I had not been to before.
There was not a 4×4 manual van to be found at any of the sellers, and I was about ready to give up and go back to the city. First I decided to look at the Mitsubishi again and see if they might have anything cheaper. It turned out that I had misunderstood the price and it was within my budget. Using my best negotiating tactics, I managed to get the price down a thousand dollars, but it was probably still more than a Peruvian would have had to pay. I really needed to get a vehicle so decided to buy it, even though it was an automatic. The whole next day was spent doing the paperwork, getting my money from the U.S., transferring the money, and getting some minor repairs done on the van. The paperwork had to be done by a notary public, the one the seller used was the same on that I had been to the day before! Fortunately Hector made it to Tacna in the morning to help with all that, and make sure everything was correct.
We got the required permission to drive it back to Arequipa without registration, and at 7:30 pm we were finally ready to leave. We grabbed some roast chicken and fries, our first meal since breakfast, picked up my bag at the hotel and headed off for Arequipa. We still had to go through the customs checkpoint but Hector handled everything there, and within 30 minutes we were on our way again. As we went through one small town, I saw a policeman standing near the road and a sign that said, “Control”. I asked Hector if we needed to stop and he said no, so we drove by. About an hour and a half later as we were going through a tollbooth, a policeman waved us over to the side of the road. I showed him the permission papers and he said we needed to go back about 60 miles to the control point to get them stamped. It was getting late and I didn’t want to waste the fuel, so asked if there was any way we could avoid going back. He took me in the building, stamped the papers and said we could continue!
We arrived at Hector’s place, where I park my car when in Arequipa, at 2:00 am, tired but thankful for a successful trip. The next day, after spending a few hours waiting and standing in lines, the registration paperwork was all submitted and now I just have to wait 10 days to get the title, and then a couple days more to get the license plates. Then I can drive my car!