Words by Gary
Cruising the Americas in our own vehicle was never really on the agenda when we put this odyssey in motion. We were happy to rely on buses, trains and the odd flight to get us around. We can thank our lightweight and truly underwhelming Dodge sedan that we rented from Alamo in Puerto Vallarta in our first week for changing the course of our thinking. Four wheels of your own allows freedom, spontaneity and the chance to get into the nooks and crannies of a place. And for the girls, a mobile home, a familiar and reassuring space in a year peppered with constant change and uncertainty.
Purchasing our own vehicle and making the slow trek south to Patagonia was our primary mission. So the decision was made that following our one month in Cuba we’d return to Mexico City and buy a 4WD. I was commander, lieutenant and foot soldier responsible for this challenging little sortie.
And who doesn’t love a challenge? Go forth and buy a car in a city that’s home to 20 million people where stolen cars are commonplace and English speakers hard to come by. Not to mention the bevy of bureaucratic steps and a series of cavernous information trails that can leave one assuming the foetal position.
I’d basked in four months of active unemployment and was primed to get the old cogs moving again and nail this little mission.
As for the choice of vehicle? Well, I was firmly in the Japanese corner. Toyota 4-Runner, Nissan Pathfinder or X-Trail, Honda Pilot or Mitsubishi Matero (Pajero to us Aussies) were top of the pile. Four wheel drive was a priority but not a deal-breaker. I’d read some fairly unflattering commentary on American vehicles and needed an old trusty who could deliver the goods. US cars typically fall in the ‘style over substance’ category
Finding the car was the easy part. The inspection, authentication, transaction, registration and insuring that would be the true test. From what I’d read online the overwhelming view was that unless you held a temporary resident visa or could produce a utility bill complete with Mexican address there was no chance of having the car registered in your name. Dare we even talk about purchasing a car in the U.S, Canada or Guatemala to realise this dream?
Day two in the capital and I’d sourced my first vehicle online – a 2009 Honda Pilot with low mileage, 4WD and a host of creature comforts. Leather seats speak volumes in our family! It ticked a range of boxes, importantly the affordability one, along with a kick arse stereo. A few days later Rachel and I inspected the car and walked away pretty pleased with ourselves, although there were some question marks on whether it had been involved in an accident. Some abrasive welding and loose paint work on the front chassis suggested foul play.
Used Car Rule No.1 in Mexico: never purchase a vehicle without the thumbs up from a mechanic. And for foreigners with limited Spanish, Rule No.2 is find a native speaker to assist with the process. Rule No.3 is if the price seems to good to be true then it is.
So, on the second inspection I was armed with a veritable posse to help me succeed in this mission. Two English speaking locals and two mechanics from a nearby Japanese Auto business. As it turned out the Honda had been involved in a sizeable crash and furthermore the engine was cooked and the 4WD feature had carked it. Sterling start huh? To make matters worse the Jeep Patriot we had our eye on was mutton dressed as lamb and likely stolen. A dejecting experience yes, but more so had I not been in the company of my experienced minders. A valuable lesson learned.
My English speaking driver (and money-can’t-buy authority on all things cars) for the afternoon suggested we visit a friend who owned a used car dealership nearby. Fine by me, it can’t be any more calamitous than my first attempt at buying a car in this city. The excursion was worth it. Parked on the street was a well-presented 2008 Mitsubishi Matero (Pajero) that had been listed for a week and seemingly had my name on it. One owner, 65,000kms, leather interior, MP3, 4WD and plenty of space to house our 4 backpacks, 6 day packs and ever-growing cartel of goods.
After a heartening test drive it was business time. I needed a host of guarantees. Most importantly, after purchasing the car am I legally entitled to register it in my name? In the end I had little to worry about. For an additional $3200 MXN pesos (AUD$240) the vendor would issue me the registration card (tarjeta de circulacion), new plates and settle the annual tax (tenencia) all within a 24-hour timeframe. It was that simple. All they required was photocopies of my passport and an Australian drivers license. And I was spared a litany of queues, forms and pained exchanges in broken Spanish. The whole process was legal and above board. I was just fortunate that the dealer had relations with people in the right places.
We horse-traded on the price of the car eventually agreeing on a cash payment of $177,000 MXN ($AUD13,300) on my condition that it passed the mechanic’s inspection the following day. I scrutinised the reams of paperwork, paid $10,000 MXN down payment, witnessed an invoice and walked away a contented man. Needless to say the family was chuffed with the rapid purchase.
The following day went without a hitch. The mechanic gave the thumbs up, the car paraded brand new plates and that all important tarjeta was in my name. Another phone call by our ever valuable driver-come-translator for comprehensive insurance and we’d succeeded in our mission to be car owners in Mexico. Cue unbridled joy. Our trip had a new and improved complexion to it.
Is there a moral to this story? Yep, there are many ways to skin a cat.
Patagonia here we come!