Retirees who have cars in Costa Rica often have to park them on the street in crowded urban areas. In some cases they will have no choice but to entrust their vehicles to a wachiman, derived from the English word watchman. A Wachiman, Wachi or Cuidacarro in Spanish refers to someone who looks after your car while parked on a public street. It can also extend to watching your car while in the restaurant parking, local shopping center, etc. In general, the Wachiman is an self-employed worker who in theory looks out for your vehicle while you are dining, taking in a show, a soccer game or concert at the stadium, etc.
With the exception of very few, Cuidacarros are a pain in the neck and found in almost every street in urban areas across the country. They are self-appointed in that they claim a stretch of curb of a public street and set rates depending on what they can get. Some, with or without the permission of the property or business owner, set up shop outside the restaurant, strip mall, etc and charge you for watching your car in the parking lot – not a public street.
Many Cuidacarros, are for the most part indigents, alcoholics or people who at other times we scoff at for sleeping on the sidewalk. Over the years, the watching of cars has evolved to the point that car owners are now extorted. It is impossible to leave your car anywhere, save in front of your house (maybe) without someone sticking their hand out to watch it for you.
In some areas like around the national stadium in La Sabana and the Teatro Nacional in the center of San José the Wachiman charge up to ¢5.000 colones. This can be a very lucrative business, especially since it is all cash and tax free. For the services of the Wachiman there is no standard set rate. No tariff like for other public services. Not even a concession or license requirement. For a Watchiman to set up shop all he (almost every Watchiman is a man) has to do is don a reflective vest and stake out a curb.
Since there is no legislation to regulate the practice and the municipalities fail to provide proper and secure street parking, the Wachiman practices his trade while municipalities turn a blind eye and deny there is a problem. If the municipalities, led by the Municipalidad de San José, really wanted to, they could completely eliminate the problem by providing effective and secure off street parking. Unfortunately, due to the failure of municipalities, the lack of public parking , street parking is the only alternative in some places. In the downtown areas of San José, Alajuela, Heredia and Cartago, for instance, in the worst case scenario it is sometimes better to entrust the Wachiman with your car than to risk having to walk blocks in the dark and insecure streets to get to and from the parking lot.
The bottom line is that most wachimen are ineffectual. They are armed with a crude nightstick and whistle and could never fend off a hard core criminal from breaking into your vehicle or stealing it. In a serious confrontation the wachi will probably run the other way. On top of that most don’t have cell phones to call the police if there is a serious problem. Your best bet, if possible, is to look for a parking lot or parqueo where your vehicle will be better protected. Car theft occurs in Costa Rica and you lessen the chances of it happening to you or having your vehicle damaged by leaving your it in a secure parking lot. According to the law if your car is damaged in a parking lot you do have legal recourse.
By the way, unlike the U.S. and in Canada parking lots in Costa Rica are privately owned, very profitable and the land they are on is very valuable. A few years ago I saw an ad in the local Spanih newspaper for a parking lot in San José that was worth over 3 million dollars.
* Part of this article is courtesy of QCosta Rica Magazine