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HomeCosta RicaCars for Expats: Owning an Old Gajo in Costa Rica

Cars for Expats: Owning an Old Gajo in Costa Rica

Most of the cars I have owned over the years in Costa Rica have been gajos. A gajo is Tico slang for an old car, one that has taken its share of abuse on our potholed and rutted backroads and urban streets. It may be in need of a paint job. When in motion, it is accompanied by a series of squeaks, pings and rattles.

It sometimes amazes me to think that at one time my 2001 Jeep Cherokee Sport was actually new, with zero kilometers, a shining showroom floor model boasting all the latest on and off-road technology. But now, at age 22, while still reliable, my gajo shows its age. Recently, I heard a thumping sound while driving on an unpaved round. It was my rear hatch door banging freely, as the metal loop that holds it closed broke. That is what two decades of wear and tear will do.

I know more mechanics than I would like: One for engine work, another for the suspension, and the all-important electro-mechanic for keeping the car from short-circuiting while in traffic and exploding in a fireball that would attract a dozen or more phone-wielding morons, all filming my car’s horrid demise for their TikTok channels.

An old car is a lot like an old person, in regular need of maintenance and check-ups. And like an old person, my gajo has its share of permanent flaws. On my dashboard, the Check Engine Light is always on.

The engine itself seems fine. In the past several years I have driven my car without problem to San Jose, Puerto Jimenez, Arenal, Tamarindo, always accompanied by the illumination of the Fix Engine Light. I have decided that if that light ever shuts off, I will then need to worry. Sometimes I glance down while driving and see the airbag light on.

I am never sure what to think. Is it a false alarm? Are the airbags about to suddenly deploy while I am driving, saving my life when I crash because I can no longer see the road? Or does my car have ESP, and is anticipating an upcoming head on crash? Fortunately, so far it has been none of the above.

Recently as my gajo strained to the top of El Alto, a climb that goes from sea level to almost 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) in a winding 10 miles (16 kilometers), a new light came on as I reached the peak.

When I later checked the owner’s manual, I saw it was the windshield fluid light. It has since remained on, even though I have plenty of wiper fluid in the reservoir. Believe it or not, there are benefits to owning a gajo. Among them are:

  • Really cheap annual marchamo
  • The only look a car thief gives my car is one of contempt.
  • The simple acts of driving, shifting gears and rolling the windows up and down burn as many calories as a 20-minute aerobic workout.
  • I don’t worry about nicks, dings, scratches and scrapes marring the finish.
  • I don’t worry about the finish, period.
  • Pirate taxi drivers would never think of intentionally colliding with me in order to collect the insurance money.
  • If I’m in a hurry, I never worry about yielding to other, newer, fancier cars.
  • Nobody ever asks to borrow my car in order to impress someone.
  • Every mechanic in the country is familiar with the 2001 Jeep Cherokee Sport, and parts are easily obtainable.

I have owned my present gajo for 10 years, and will likely own it until it is time for it to be sent to the gajo retirement home– where it will become like an organ donor, with all still usable parts removed for resale to other gajo owners.

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