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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 cars, most buy used cars imported from Japan. After the cars arrive here, they are converted from right-hand drive to left-hand drive. If it’s an experienced converter, it does a really good job and you’d never know it’s been converted at first glance. In Tacna, a city in southern Peru near the border with Chile that has an ocean port, there is a big business in these cars.
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 the rights to it and drive it. It was a Nissan 4×4 wagon, but it wasn’t built for off-road driving, which is what we have to do here in Cotawasi. After endless repairs, I finally decided to purchase another 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 a lot of advice.
First of all, despite how important tourism is to Peru, using a gringo here is something of a national pastime. Lucho protects me like a younger brother, even though I consider myself older than him. He also used to be a police officer, so he has a lot of experience to draw on. He gave me detailed instructions on what to do and what not to do in Tacna. Most of the cars are sold in a special zone called Ceticos, which is a low-duty import zone. It looks like a low-end used car mall with probably 40-50 dealers selling cars.
Knowing that I would pay more for the same car than a Peruvian, I wanted a Peruvian friend to go with me to negotiate. However, no one was able to go with me last week when I had to go. I sold my old car in Arequipa on Monday afternoon and left that night by bus for the six-hour drive 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 anything suitable I would call him and he would get on the night bus on Wednesday 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 was too crowded and dangerous on weekends. Checks aren’t usually used here, so I’ll be paying cash.
Because of this, many large transactions are done in banks. Lucho told me to take the seller to my bank, give them the money and sign the papers there so I wouldn’t walk away 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 them. He warned me to be careful, so that no one bumped into me in the bank and grabbed me, because they do that “accidentally” and then put a mark on my back. When you leave the bank, the accomplice sees the label and realizes that you have a lot of money. They will then follow you until they get a chance to rob you.
I arrived in Tacna around 4:30 am; luckily we were allowed to sleep on the bus until a more reasonable hour of the morning. Around 6:00 I finally gave up trying to sleep and went and found a nearby hostel. They said they would hold my bag until I came back in the evening to check in, so I didn’t have to pay an extra day for the room. There were no restaurants nearby so I went back to the bus terminal and had breakfast before heading to Ceticos.
There had been some changes in import laws, so fewer vehicles were being imported into Peru than before, but there were still hundreds of cars, pickup trucks, and vans parked around a large warehouse similar to the buildings in Setikas. Retooling is also done there, which is only possible because they can buy the machines so cheap, and the labor here in Peru is also very cheap. One factor made my task easier; I knew exactly what vehicle I was looking for – a Toyota Hi-Ace van, four wheel drive and manual transmission. Most Kombi (small coach van) are Hi-Aces and all are manual transmissions; all I had to do was find a 4×4 like the one I saw here in Cotawasi.
When we left Japan 20 years ago, almost all cars sold there still had a stick shifter, very few were automatic. However, in the last 10 years, automation has become much more popular there as well, probably thanks to the almost universal use of cell phones. I found some nice Hi-Ace vans with good seating for 8, but most were automatic and none had 4WD. Town-Ace is a bit smaller but I was looking for those too, same problem. I found one 4×4 van but it was a Mitsubishi with an automatic and it was too expensive. I finally started looking at small SUVs like the 4Runner and Pathfinder, but they were also automatic only. They also had a few Land Cruisers, but they cost around $20,000. One seller said a friend of his who was a notary public had a manual 4Runner for sale, but he was in town, about a 10-minute drive away.
Keeping Lucho’s advice in mind, I declined his offer to take me out for a viewing. I drove with him and his colleague all over Setikas while he tried to find me one and also the phone number of his friend’s office so we could call him. At this time we picked up another friend of his who said he knew one was for sale in town and they wanted to take me there to look. Finally, after not finding anything at Ceticos, I nervously agreed to go look at the ones in town, as they seemed like nice guys and were trying really hard to find me a car.
I had a second (say fifth or sixth) opinion 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 cars there. After I drove further and further from the city center I was really nervous and thinking about jumping out of the car if I saw a policeman and finally we got to where one of the trucks was supposed to be. Another five minutes later someone brought in a very beat up 4Runner that was asking $10,000 and it had an automatic! Next, we went to the notary’s office. He sold the one they wanted to show me, but a newer one was selling 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 and I said no, “Take me back to Ceticos!” After wasting a couple of hours and 10 soles on the gas they asked me to pay for, I was glad to be safely back in Setikos where I checked out the rest of the places I hadn’t been before.
None of the vendors had a 4×4 van with manual transmission and I was ready to give up and go back to town. First I decided to take another look at Mitsubishi and see if they had anything cheaper. Turns out I misunderstood the price and it was within my budget. Using my best negotiating tactics, I was able to drop the price by a thousand dollars, but it was still probably more than a Peruvian would have to pay. I really needed a car, so I decided to buy it, even if it was automatic. I spent the entire next day doing paperwork, getting money from the US, transferring money, and doing minor repairs to the van. The documents had to be completed by a notary, the seller used the same one I was on the day before! Luckily, Hector made it to Tacna in the morning to help with all of this and make sure everything was just right.
We got the necessary permission to take it back to Arequipa without registration and at 7:30pm we were finally ready to leave. We grabbed fried chicken and fries, our first meal after breakfast, picked up my bag at the hotel, and headed to Arequipa. We still had to go through customs, but Hector took care of everything there, and in 30 minutes we were on our way again. When we passed through a small town, I saw a policeman near the road and a sign with the inscription “Control”. I asked Hector if we needed to stop and he said no and we drove past. About an hour and a half later, when we were passing through a toll booth, a policeman waved us to the side of the road. I showed him the permit papers and he said we had to drive about 60 miles to a checkpoint to get them stamped. It was getting late and I didn’t want to waste any fuel, so I asked if there was a way to avoid going back. He took me into the building, put a seal on it and said it was good to go!
We arrived at Hector, where I park my car when I was in Arequipa, at 2:00 am, tired but grateful for a successful trip. The next day, after spending several hours waiting and standing in lines, all the registration papers were submitted and now I have to wait 10 days to get my title and then another couple of days to get my license plates. Then I can drive my car!
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