While we are in Panama, we need to have a car. Where we live is about a 15 minute drive into Boquete and we are over a mile off the main highway, the closest place to catch a frequently-running local bus. We were renting a car from a local guy known as Cowboy Dave, who has older cars that he rents at very reasonable rates ($30/day). The best monthly rental rate we could find is $700 (also Cowboy Dave). For the 4 months we plan to be here, that adds up to $2,800 in rental fees, with nothing to show for it. We decided buying a car makes better economic sense.
We started looking around, asking around, and checking various online sources. We weren't coming up with much and the vehicles we did look at seemed a little pricey and didn't match our needs. Several people told us the best place to buy used cars is Panama City (PC), the capital and largest city in Panama. Lots more people (1.5 mil) means lots more cars and better prices. Even though PC is about a 7-8 hour drive from Boquete, we found it wasn't that unusual for people (usually expats) to make a car-buying trek to the City. Two friends of ours had purchased vehicles from an informal "broker" in PC, and they highly recommended him. His name is Sergio.
I contacted Sergio to inquire about the process and how it worked. He said I would need to let him know what kind of car I wanted and the price range. He would line up cars for me to see, help me through the purchasing process and take care of the considerable paperwork required. I would fly into PC from David, he would pick me up and drive me around and I would drive back to Boquete in my newly-purchased vehicle. We decided to do it. After all, the rental charges kept racking up and we weren't finding anything locally.
It only took a few days to make the arrangements and set things up with Sergio. Little did I know that this car-buying trip would turn out to be the biggest challenge I have dealt with since we came to Central America. It's an extensive story that is still sometimes even hard for me to believe. Here's how I'm going to relate it to you: In this post, I'm going to give you a brief overview of what happened each day of my trip. That way, you'll get the story in a nutshell. I'll also write up a separate post for each day of my trip, giving you more details (and pictures). If you want to read the details, they will be there for you.
So, here we go...
Day 1 - Monday (Jan 26): I flew from David to Panama City (PC). Sergio picked me up at the airport. He had arranged for me to see several vehicles. By 12:30 pm, I had selected the car I wanted to buy: a 2008 Kia Sportage (small SUV). It was located at a dealership called TD Motors (see picture above). I initiated a wire transfer from our US checking account to transfer funds into Sergio's account (as the broker). It was expected to take 1-3 days. I spent the night at a studio apartment in PC that Sergio had arranged for me.
Day 2 - Tuesday: The wired funds were in Sergio's account this morning. Sergio took the money to the dealer - without me - and paid off the balance due on the car. Then he came and picked me up, to go to the dealer and do the paperwork. Once the paperwork was signed, we took the car to a nearby mechanic that Sergio recommended, in order to get a "tune-up" service (oil change, plugs, filters, tire rotation, etc). I was going to need to stay another night in PC, since the final paperwork (including title) wouldn't be ready until about noon on Wednesday.
When Sergio drove me back to the apartment at the end of the day, he said he needed a favor: he was out of money and asked if I could pay him his fee now ($200). I was reluctant, since we weren't through with the process, but I gave in.
Day 3 - Wednesday: Sergio called in the morning and said his mechanic found a problem: there was a lot of "gunk" (my word) in the oil and crankcase of the Kia. Big problem that needed to be addressed. I told Sergio the dealer should be paying for it, since I was told I had a 6 month warranty on the engine and transmission. Sergio said he'd talk to dealer.
I checked out of the apartment, with everything I had brought stuffed into my backpack. I was told the apartments were booked up for that night. I walked to a nearby Subway restaurant to get lunch and wait for Sergio to pick me up. He didn't show up and wouldn't answer my numerous calls to him. I waited 5 hours in the Subway, then a couple hours in a nearby hotel lobby, then a couple more hours in another restaurant, where I had dinner. Sergio left me stranded, literally on the streets of Panama City, with no place to stay. Frustrated and angry, I managed to find my own accommodations.
Day 4 - Thursday: Sergio was still not answering my calls. I found my own transportation back to the dealer (not easy). I finalized paperwork there and walked to the mechanic's shop. I stayed there the rest of the afternoon, working with them to try to fix engine problem. They determined a new oil pump was needed and the repairs would take until 7-8pm. I went back to the apartment to spend another night.
Day 5 - Friday: I went back to the dealer in the morning, to try to get them to pay for the repairs to the newly-purchased vehicles, which was now into hundreds of dollars. Very surprisingly, Sergio met me at the dealer to translate and plead my case. No luck. It turns out the warranty is only good if the repairs are done by the mechanic designated by the dealer. I went back to the mechanic, picked up my car and followed Sergio out of the City (a crazy place to drive!).
Only about 10 minutes after I was outside the city, my car broke down. I called Sergio, he came back out and called a tow truck. I had the car towed to the dealer's mechanic, this time. The mechanic declared the Kia "dead" ("muerto"). I went back to the dealer to meet with the owner. He allowed me to trade the dead Kia for a different car. I selected a 2005 Honda CRV. We did the initial transfer paperwork and I drove it off the lot. I took it to the original mechanic, to have the same "tune up" work done that he did on the Kia. He finished up about 6:00pm. I brought the Honda back to the apartment building and spent another night in PC.
Day 6 - Saturday: I drove back to Boquete with no problems - the car performed very well.
This experience turned out to be a real test of my persistence, resourcefulness, patience, and faith. Getting through all of these challenges and getting back to Boquete with our "new" vehicle represented a major accomplishment for me. While I was going through this process, I felt that God had my back. In retrospect, I know that even more. He provided for me, giving me a place to stay when all the apartments were supposed to be filled. He provided English-speaking contacts when I desperately needed them. And I believe He even had the Kia break down just a short distance out of the City, rather than somewhere out in the boonies or after we had it back in Boquete. This enabled me to get the car towed back into the City and get is swapped out for a much more reliable vehicle. He is so good!
Posted by Mark