One day between two surfing sessions in Huanchaco we had a brilliant idea. We would buy a car, travel with it across Chile and Argentina and sell it before flying back to Switzerland. We could drive from one climbing spot to another without worrying about bus schedules or carrying our 90 kg luggage from bus terminals to hostals and back or organizing transfers from where public transportation stops to remote climbing spots. Since we had to pass by Antofagasta in the north of Chile to receive our gear we would buy the car there, on our way to the Atacama desert and its canyons of ocher, cracked sandstone.
We looked over a few websites listing cars for private sale in order to get an idea of the car market in Antofagasta, read that blog informing about the paperwork one has to go through when buying a car in Chile and leaving the country with it and that article explaining how to assess how roadworthy is a car when considering to buy it.
Once in Antofagasta (we arrived on a Wednesday) we visited a few garages selling second-hand cars and called several private person selling their cars on the internet. We soon figured out that relatively recent (less than ten years old), second-hand cars were expensive (starting at 5000 Sfr in a garage and at 3000 Sfr from a private person). Thus we had two options (1) buy a relatively recent but expensive car from a reliable car dealer and take the risk to loose time/money selling it back or (2) buy an old but cheap car from a private person and take the risk to break down and lose time/money to repair/sell it back. We chose the second option, answered to some more ads from the internet and arranged two appointments with private persons on the following day (Thursday).
On the same day (Wednesday) we went to the tax office to obtain a RUT number which identifies a tax payer and which is required by anyone who among other things buys a SIM card or a car in Chile. What happened next is a story inside the story that is worth telling since it illustrates all the bother that bureaucracy, laziness and incompetence put together can cause to individuals.
A clerk (let us name him clerk A) redirected us to the civil registry office. At the civil registry office clerk B explained to us that we first had to go to the immigration office to get a work permit. At the immigration office the waiting line in front of the building was so long that we returned to the tax office convinced that there had been a misunderstanding (the author of the blog was clear about obtaining the RUT number at the tax office).
Back at the tax office, after having explained again that we were travelers willing to buy a car, clerk C told us with a firm tone of voice to address ourselves to another office and helpfully indicated the way to us. Ten blocks away at that other office that was a kind of pension fund clerk D confirmed to us what we knew from the beginning namely that the right place to ask for a RUT number was the tax office. Back again at the tax office containing ourselves we were able to obtain the right form from clerk E which we filled out and handed to clerk F who again questioned us about who we were and why we needed a RUT number. He asked for our address at which the central tax office in Santiago would send the RUT card within three weeks (you get a provisory RUT number for the meantime). We provided the address of our friend Marius in Valdivia which was however refused by the system. It turned out only an address in Antofagasta could be accepted. When we proposed to provide the address of our hostal in Antofagasta clerk F hesitated and asked the chief clerk for help. The answer of the chief clerk was that we needed a written agreement from the hostal owner. The tax office was closing shortly after so that we resolved to come back the next day with the agreement before our two appointments.
At the hostal the manager had no objection and signed a business card with name and phone number. The next day (Thursday) at 8.30 am we were sitting in front of a clueless clerk G. He called the chief clerk for support who ignored the business card, refused to call the hostal manager and asked for a notarial agreement instead. At that point we bursted out and demanded to talk to the chief of the chief clerk directly. We were introduced to his secretary to whom we explained the situation from A to G. The chief of the chief clerk probably heard everything through the ajar door and when we entered his office accompanied by his secretary without even looking at us he nodded. Ten minutes later we were leaving the tax office with a provisory RUT number.
Half an hour later we were meeting Mr. X who was selling his 1992 Nissan Sony for 1500 Sfr. The ad had been online for one week. Our first feeling of both the car and the owner was good. We went carefully through the check-list of the article to become aware of the condition of the car. The answers of the owner to our questions were satisfactory and the car despite its age looked like one which had been taken care of over the years. We drove through the neighbourhood putting our forearms to work to turn the wheel with no power steering. Mr. X hinted that for the travel that we were planning it would be better to change the oil, the oil filter and the brake pads and that he would take care of these costs by reducing the price to 1300 Sfr. We thanked him, promised a soon answer and left for our second appointment.
The second car for sale was also a Nissan of similar age and price but the inspection was finished much more quickly. We had a short drive during which we almost caused a few accidents. The brakes did not work at all with the forward gear in (it was an automatic) and worked poorly in neutral. The automatic gearbox was defective since it required some manipulation of the gas pedal to shift gear. The engine was covered with dirt and it seemed that no one had opened the hood since the Chilean-Peruvian war.
That afternoon we spent some more time in the city center looking for cars with a “SE VENDE” sign behind the windscreen and calling the owners but they all turned out to be expensive. Finally we called Mr. X, offered 1100 Sfr cash for the car and fixed an appointment the next morning at the civil registry office to make the sale official.The half an hour at the civil registry office surrounded by couples getting married and happy relatives waiting in the line was wasted time since we had to address ourselves to a notary to issue the act of sale (only if the buyer is not Chilean). Moreover Mr. X had to sign a statement authorizing us to leave the country with the car since the official registration of the car under Stephan’s name would take three more weeks. Before midday on Friday three days after our arrival in Antofagasta the car was ours. Departure for San Pedro de Atacama was planned for the next morning. In the afternoon we had the oil, the oil filter and the brake pads changed for about 100 Sfr. Later we met a local climber who advised us a small climbing spot close to town. Thus the next morning (Saturday) we wasted two hours looking for the “Roca Roja” and not finding it after driving some 50 km back and forth along the coast.
At midday we were back in Antofagasta, bought a road map and left the city feeling quite frustrated. We drove the few kilometers uphill to the pass connecting the coast strip from the desert inland and drove another 40 km until the car stopped… It felt like if we ran out of petrol. None of the indicators of the instrument panel were working but we had gased up in Antofagasta. Stephan asked for petrol at some mining barracks standing close to the road but they had only diesel. We decided that Stephan would hitch-hike to the next petrol station, bring some petrol back and find the phone number of a breakdown service. Two hours later he was back driving the car of two helpful guys with no driving license with 10L of petrol in PET bottles. We all pushed the car shifting up the second gear and… it started. We thanked the guys and drove 20 km more until the car stopped again. Luckily we were only 500 m away from the entrance of the small village of Baquedano. We pushed the car along the roadside with more than 30 degrees celsius and noticing the amused faces of drivers coming in the opposite direction. At the village another helpful guy inspected the engine and was able to start it by spilling fuel on the carburator. He also drew the anormally low level of the fuel filter to our attention. He accompanied us to the home of mechanic of the village and waited with us for him to come back from work (like everyone he worked for a mining company).
The mechanic checked the engine as well but could not diagnose any defect. It was 7 pm, almost night and Calama the next city was 140 km distance and 1000 m elevation away in the desert. We drove the 20 km to the petrol station where Stephan had been a few hours earlier, refueled and noticed that the top of the petrol tank was perforated. A helpful truck driver also had a look at the engine. By sucking through the fuel filter he found out that it was partly clogged maybe by some tiny pieces of the petrol tank. Even if the fuel filter would have been easy to replace it was 10.30 pm and we were only 80 km away from Antofagasta. We came to the conclusion that we did not want to travel with that car.
We had a late supper at the canteen next to the petrol station with sleepy truck drivers. I slept next to the car, Stephan in the trunk and the next morning (Sunday) we drove the 80 km back to Antofagasta, taking twice a break to let the fuel level in the filter rise. We called Mr. X and explained to him that we did not want to travel with the car and that we wanted our money back. After a hard bargain and a new car inspection with the roles being pathetically switched he agreed to take the car back for 900 Sfr. On Monday morning we met at the notary, canceled the act of sale and retrieved our money. We sent our mountaineering equipment to Valdivia by road freight and at 2 pm we took a bus to San Pedro de Atacama. We were heavily loaded pedestrians again but we were feeling somewhat lighter…