The Costa Rican Colorful Oxcart
La Carreta, “The oxcart” in English, was designated National Labor Symbol on March 22nd, 1988. During the nineteenth century, with extensive coffee plantations around the country, it was necessary to have a vehicle that could actually pass through muddy places, beaches, hills, curves, rocky mountains and deep small rivers. That’s when this rustic, wooden, strong cart was created.
As the coffee industry of Costa Rica increased, so did the need to use the oxcart to produce and export the coffee beans. Thus, the first shipment of coffee to London was transported from the coffee plantations to Costa Rica’s main ports by oxcart in 1843. Oxcarts carried coffee to the province of Puntarenas on a small road between 1844 and 1846. A curious fact is that oxcarts were originally pulled by people, not oxen. However, as the need for transporting goods grew, the loads became too heavy and the people were replaced by oxen.
The oxcart also served as an ideal transportation for family trips and other types of social activities such as weddings and funerals, and even for medical assistance. It is interesting to know that before the railway was built, which connected San José with Puntarenas, many families used the oxcarts to spend summer days in the coast. The round trip consisted of 4 ½ days to get there, 2 days in the beach and other 4 ½ days to return!
The golden age of oxcarts is said to go from 1850 to 1935. The custom of originally decorating and painting these carts began in the early twentieth century, when cowherds decided to add life to oxcarts by hand painting them with bright colors and geometrical figures. In 1903, people decided to start enhancing the carts by decorating the circle wheels, and in 1915, the entire wheels were painted and decorated to create a distinct look among families. After World War II, the oxcart became obsolete due to new inventions; being replaced by trains, tractors and trucks. It has been used since then as an ornamental object.
The oxcart is not only used in Costa Rica, but also in Central America. However, the Costa Rican oxcart is unique because it is the only one decorated in such an original way with colorful patterns and shapes, and even flowers, stars and animals. Although the oxcarts can present evident similarities, there are never two oxcarts painted exactly the same since all of them contain changes in color tones and figures. This art has been passed from generation to generation up to the present time.
The town of Sarchí, located in the province of Alajuela, is the great traditional center for manufacturing and decorating carretas. That’s why it is common to see beautifully painted oxcarts in gardens and in the more than 200 stores, where a wonderful variety of oxcarts can be found, offering all kinds of sizes and colors. The largest and oldest oxcart factory is also found in this place: the Joaquín Chaverri Oxcart Factory was built in 1902 and is considered to be the birthplace of oxcart handicrafts in Costa Rica. In front of the church of Sarchí you can also see the world’s largest painted oxcart, which was built in 2006 in order to get the name of the town into The Guinness Book of World Records. It is an amazingly beautiful oxcart!
The oxcarts are nowadays used in parades and festivals around the country. The most famous one takes place on the second Sunday of every March in San Antonio de Escazú, a town in San José. The Oxcart Drivers Day, Día de los Boyeros in Spanish, has been celebrated for 30 years. This year, over 200 yuntas (sets) of oxen and beautifully decorated and colorful oxcarts participated in the event. The boyeros or oxcart men use a traditional prod or chuzo to keep the oxen moving and under control as they climb uphill to San Antonio. Besides the parade, where the priest blesses the oxcarts, the festival also offers visitors a good variety of typical food and traditional music.
After learning so much about the oxcart, it is easy to understand its importance in the Costa Rican culture. As María Alvarado says in her article about the typical oxcart, it is one of the most genuine folkloric manifestations of the country as it represents the simplicity and aspirations of rural Costa Rican people, who have become artisans thanks to it. La carreta symbolizes humility, patience, sacrifice and endurance in an effort to pursue goals in a pacific manner. The national progress is linked to the oxcart, which imposes respect in virtue of its glorious past. The typical oxcart was declared Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO on November 24th, 2005.
So, if you are ever in Costa Rica, don’t miss the opportunity to visit Sarchí or Escazú, get on an oxcart to take a picture or buy a miniature oxcart somewhere. It will always remind you of how the Costa Rica you know today was forged.