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Costa Ricas Famous Ox-Carts

by Anne Watcher on Saturday February 21st, 2009 at 12:01pm

Although Costa Rica is not as rich as other countries when it comes to arts and crafts, it certainly has made it's mark with the Ox-Cart or Los Carretas. Bear in mind that even though the flashy ox-cart of today has little resemblance to the original rough cut, cane-framed vehicles of by gone days, the brightly painted oxcart holds a prominent place in the history of Costa Rica and it's economic development.

Original Wheel

Original WheelDating back to the start of the 19th century and originally pulled by people, yes I said people, the oxcart was the prime source of transport for the family, coffee and other agricultural products. As the need for transporting these goods grew, the loads became too heavy and the people were replaced by ox. They were used well into the 20th century and seem to symbolize the self-reliance of the small Costa Rican farmer.

Hauling their coffee beans from the Central Valley to Puntarenas on the Pacific coast, they were perfect for the country's dirt roads up and down the mountains. Even the wheel design, a Costa Rican original, was perfect for the sea of muck that the roads became in the rainy season. This spokeless wheel which was a cross between the Aztec disc and the Spanish spoked wheel was perfect as it cut right through the mud without becoming bogged down. They had to be strong and well made because it could mean financial ruin to the farmer if the trip was not successful.

Trips often took up to 15 days and because there were sometimes 10,000 squeaking oxcarts making their way to the coast, local economies benefitted. There was now a need for inns, work crews to maintain roads and smithies to fix any breakdowns along the way. On the way back home these farmers would fill their carts with goods to take back to their homes in the Central Valley.

So where did all those bright colours come from? Well legend has it that a farmer got bored and decided to paint his wheels and it just sort of caught on. Others copied and soon each region had their own design so one could identify where the farmer was from simply by viewing the cart's design.

At first bright colours and geometric patterns where used but around 1915 flowers started to appear. These depicted a peaceful way of life and a sensitive culture which would dignify a lowly work implement with such beauty. Landscapes and even faces started to appear after that.

Annual contests, still going on today, were held to find the most creative artists. Along the way the carts were also tuned to make a distinct sound supposedly so the farmer could hear his workers. This was done by a metal ring striking the hubnut of each wheel. The oxcart had now crossed over from purely functional to a source of pride for it's owner and this brought about the use of better woods and greater care in their construction.

Great care and talent goes into the painting process

Great care and talent goes into the painting process

This cart left unpainted shows the beauty and quality of wood used

This cart left unpainted shows the beauty and quality of wood used

Flowers mixed with geometric designs

Flowers mixed with geometric designsToday as you travel the highways and byways of Costa Rica you can still see some of these oxcarts used by local farmers. Harvesting coffee beans is a tricky business and sometimes the old way just does it best.

Want to see how they are made? Thus our trip to Sarchi - the handicraft capital of Costa Rica. Along with endless furniture and wood products to take home, Sarchi has two oxcart manufacturers. Joaquin Chaverri is the oldest and you can visit his factory as you enter the town of Sarchi. Here they produce miniature replicas to larger carts that are designed to be used as planters or living room cocktail carts. Regardless of size they are all beautifully decorated in the traditional way.

Speaking of size, drop by the central park to see the world's largest ox-cart. We did, even have the pictures to prove it!!!

Even I can play tourist given the right location

Even I can play tourist given the right locationClose to the town's center is the other factory, that of Eloy Alfaro and Sons. Here they produce mainly one of a kind carts for special orders. What is so interesting about this factory is that it is done in the original way using mainly water powered tools, paper templates and freshly planed woods.

The location itself, is in the original Hacienda la Eva with the large old trees still gracefully growing in the yard. The assembly of the carts takes place on the upper level. We had to tread lightly as the floor felt weak in spots to me. But taking the time to wonder around, watch the artesians at work and enjoy a craft of yesteryear was definitely a highlight during the trip to Sarchi.

The factory is located on Calle Eva, 1 1/2 blocks north of Ruta 118.

Old original home where Taller Eloy Alfaro and Sons work today

Old original home where Taller Eloy Alfaro and Sons work today

Water powered planer

Water powered planer

The water wheel

The water wheel

Painted carts sit under the old tree in the front yard

Painted carts sit under the old tree in the front yard - a harmonious mix of old and new

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