After tooling around town in my 1998 Nissan Sentra for the past several years, I decided to buy a new car. We got it at a time when it was dangerous (potential robberies and carjacks) to have a nice car so all you saw were cheap compacts or Mitsubishi Monteros followed by bodyguards in pick up trucks. The Sentra was the most common and innocuous car in the city. It has served us very well and is good on gas, very cheap to fix ($130 to replace a front bumper), and has very inexpensive insurance (about 10% of the value of the car - but with a very low third person liability payout - which seems to be okay in this non-litigious society). Then, nicer cars started to appear, first Mercedes and then BMW’s and now you see everything here including Ferrari’s, Range Rovers, Maseratis and Porsches.
We looked at some new cars but a small group of people seem to own all the dealerships and have an oligopoly over the market resulting in very high prices. Bizarrely, with the entire world’s car industries on the brink of collapse, there are no sales in this country on new vehicles.
So how to buy a used car in El Salvador?
There are four different places to find a used car - the newspaper classifieds, areas where people bring cars for sale (there is a popular area in Merliot), large lots belonging to the major dealers, and garages that fix up smashed cars from the U.S.
And there are two kinds of used cars - either originally purchased here new from one of the dealerships and maintained by them (called "agencias") or brought in from the U.S. and repaired. There are many garages that buy damaged cars from the States at auction, truck them back, pay a lower rate of duty, and then fix them up for sale taking advantage of low overhead and low labour costs. These cars usually don’t have driver-side airbags and sometimes have scuffed up parts (like dashboards that were scratched or cut up by broken windshields). Some people say you should not buy one of these in case the frame is bent or the crumple zones are compromised but other people say that if it drives okay, it will be fine. I kind of like the thought of saving money while creating local jobs (for the mechanics) and some wealth (for the business owners) in this country. I have also been told to Carfax the history of the vehicle but Consumer Reports says that they miss a lot of accidents and I don’t know if it would be helpful. You may be spending $50 to find out that your car was in an accident ... something that you can already assume. On the other hand, it would be helpful to know if your car was in a flood.
So we are looking for a SUV with three rows of seats to accommodate all the visitors that we are expecting this winter. That would mean a Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder, Mazda CX-9 or a Hyundai Veracruz. Found some in the newspaper and drove out to a few places. One place was a bit far but consisted of a big garage wedged into a very small property off a busy street but with no sign and only a tiny street number. We risked getting T-boned by buses trying to get into the driveway and when we were leaving. They strip cars down to the chassis, do the welding and bondo, do a very good paint job and reassemble. Douglas, the owner, seemed honest and forthcoming with all of his answers. He had a 2008 Pathfinder S with 8,000 miles going for $21,500. Very nice car but it was really basic. He only had three cars ready for sale but he had a bunch of them being fixed including a 2008 Honda Pilot EX for $19,000 and a 2007 CX-9 with 22,000 going for $29,000. All pretty nice vehicles that come with a 3 month warranty and negotiable down by maybe $1,000. I think it was telling that he had a lot of cars being worked on but few for sale - he doesn’t seem greedy and he is moving them at those prices.
We then went to a big dealerships lot and they had a very luxurious 2009 Veracruz with 32,000 miles going for $37,000 and a 2005 Cayenne with 55,000 miles going for $42,000. Hmm, those are both very nice cars but since I don’t have a job in this country and no credit, it would be a bit difficult to get financing (plus at 15% interest, it’s a rip off).
So we followed up some newspaper ads and met a woman at a gas station just outside the city on the highway to the airport. She told us that she has a small shop that fixes up smashed cars and she brought us a 2005 Honda Pilot with 75,000 miles. She was asking $14,000 but the car had a terrible interior and all the plastic trim on the outside looked really old. The trim stood out since the body had recently been nicely painted but the plastic was scuffed, faded and peeling in some areas. I wonder now if it was a flooded out car. If a car sits in water (especially salt water) for a few days, it’s a write-off and the insurance company will sell it for salvage. The car will have a funny smell and you run the risk of stuff rusting or breaking down faster, especially the electrics. Anyways, I didn’t like the car although she kept asking me to make her an offer.
Then we went to another big repair shop but this place was the opposite of the other place. They had a huge lot with a big sign and the lot was full of high end cars - Mercedes, BMWs, Land Rovers, Infinities, and Lexuses. They seemed to have a tiny shop but they had probably 40 finished cars packed so tight that they had to turn in the rear view mirrors and most cars were touching bumper to bumper. You couldn’t fit one more car into the entire lot. Mario had 3 Pathfinders and the Infinity QX 4 version as well. He had a 2008 Pathfinder S with 24,000 miles and was asking $28,000! This was the same car (but with more mileage) than Douglas was asking $21,500 for! I knew that I’d have to be careful with this guy. The SUV I liked the most was a 2006 Pathfinder SE with 24,000 miles asking $18,000 with a 3 month warranty. Looked pretty good with running boards, sun roof, upgraded interior, motorized drivers seat, Bose speakers, and rear AC.
The 2006 Pathfinder SE for $16,500
I also asked around amongst my acquaintances and came up with two cars. Test drove a 2006 Pathfinder LE with 45,000 miles asking $26,000. Getting an North American loaded vehicle isn’t that value added down here - who needs heated seats or heated mirrors? The GPS won’t work unless you can insert an El Salvador SD map chip that they are going to charge you $200 for. Not sure if satellite radio will work down here as well. So why bother paying all that extra? This car is about $8,000 more than the SE I saw and has more miles although it has never been in an accident. Is it worth that kind of premium? I don’t think so.
Another friend has a 2006 Honda Pilot with 44,000 miles, repaired from crash, asking $14,500. If the car is in good condition, I’ll probably get this one but it is out of town for a few weeks.
Went back to test drive the 2006 SE and it drove very well. Mario was in the back seat with an armed security guard in case I tried something funny. The Pathfinders are much more powerful than the Pilots and use a lot more gas. Since I have nothing to tow, the Pilot would be better. Mario wanted $18,000 with no airbag and 3 months warranty. I countered with $16,000 with a year warranty and I’d pay for the drivers airbag (about $500). They agreed on the $16,000 but said no way to the year warranty. I may counter with $16,000 with airbag and 3 month warranty. I also asked them to clean up the interior (the dashboard was scuffed up), fix the radio controls on the steering feel, and fix the weak AC. Mario said that they would want a $500 refundable deposit before they did the work and I said no way to that.
So for now, I am going to wait on my friend’s 2006 Pilot and will offer between $13,000 and $13,500 depending on the condition of the car and tires. I may put an offer in on Douglas’ 2008 Honda Pilot EX with leather.
It’s been interesting to see who you can trust, how much you can trust, and who will negotiate. Clearly Mario is in a weak position since he has so many cars - he must really need cash flow for the garage’s overhead and payroll so it may be a good idea to make a low ball offer at the end of the month. In fact he’s called us twice asking us if we were going to buy the Pathfinder. Douglas has much fewer cars and may have people waiting to buy his vehicles in progress. He may move a bit on his prices - I’m sure he’s built in a extra thousand for negotiation purposes.
In the interim, it was Canadian Thanksgiving! My friend went to Pricesmart (our local version of Costco) to buy a turkey and they didn’t have any! Won’t have them until November when the ‘mericans have their Thanksgiving.
Luckily, there is a good local provider that sells in all the regular grocery stores. The smallest I could find was 18 lbs but it looked like a good bird. Brined it in a gallon of water with ½ a cup of salt and ½ a cup of sugar (just regular, can’t find kosher salt here and only had white sugar in the house), some fresh rosemary from our giant plant, bay leaves and crushed peppercorns. Put it in a big food safe bag with the turkey for 18 hours in the fridge.
The Flor de Izote, before and after. Tastes good with butter and maple syrup.
Wanted to do a smaller and simpler meal - normally we have so much food and so many sides that you can’t enjoy just having a nice turkey. So I just made a zucchini, mushroom, and onion sage dressing with about 4 different kinds of bread I found, some mashed potatoes with lots of butter and whole milk, some roast baby ayotes (a baby version of what grows into a hard orange fleshed squash) that I steamed, tossed with olive oil and salt and pepper, then roasted and finished with truffle oil, and some sweet corn out of a can. I wanted to try another localish food and finally found some Flor de Izote - the national flower of El Salvador. The Izote is a type of a giant yucca tree but instead of eating the root, you eat the flowers or the base of where the leaves come out. The latter part is usually peeled, boiled and eaten with salt and lime (like a lot of the more unusual foods here - like baby green mangos). Since it can be quite bitter, I steamed it until soft and then mixed it with a candied carrot dish I make with lots of butter and maple syrup (and salt and sugar). It was quite nice and the bitterness was almost all gone. The taste was like a mild squash but it was quite juicy while still being firm. If you ever had yucca, "juicy" isn’t a term you would normally associate with it.
Roasted Ayote with Truffle Oil and Cranberry Sauce!
I was using a new recipe where you roast at 350 uncovered with breast side down for the first 2.5 hours and then flip it over and finish it breast up for about another 1.5 hours until the thigh measures at 180 degrees. Well, it went pretty well and we recorded the flipping of the turkey - my friend Rene wanted to see me try to flip over a very hot 18 lb bird without dropping it on the floor. We got it done but the roasting tray kind of left indentations and discolouration on the breast which wasn’t cool - but then it roasted very dark mahogany so it wasn’t noticeable. The brining made the breast very juicy although it took longer to cook because of that (or it could have been because the turkey was in the fridge until I put it in the over).
We invited a few friends over and had a very nice meal with lots of Chilean wine. Happy Thanksgiving!