Ox-carts have become synonymous with Costa Rica. Although the flashy ox-cart of today bears little resemblance to the original rough-hewn, rectangular, cane-framed vehicles of yesteryear, the brightly painted oxcarts hold a prominent place in the history of Costa Rica and its economic development.
The traditional oxcart, or carreta, is the product of Costa Rica’s most famous craft. Dating from the mid-nineteenth century, oxcarts were used to transport coffee beans from Costa Rica’s central valley over the mountains to Puntarenas on the Pacific coast, a journey requiring ten to fifteen days. The oxcarts used spokeless wheels, a hybrid between the disc used by the Aztec and the spoked wheel introduced by the Spaniards, to cut through the mud without getting stuck. In many cases, oxcarts were a family’s only means of transport; they often served as a symbol of social status.
The tradition of painting and decorating oxcarts started in the early twentieth century. Originally, each region of Costa Rica had its own particular design, enabling the identification of the driver’s origin by the painted patterns on the wheels. By the beginning of the twentieth century, flowers, faces and miniature landscapes began to appear beside patterns of pointed stars, and to this day annual contests reward the most creative artists in this tradition.
Each oxcart is designed to make its own ’song’, a unique chime produced by a metal ring striking the hubnut of the wheel as the cart bumped along. Once the oxcart had become a source of individual pride, greater care was taken in their construction, and the highest-quality woods were selected to make the best sounds.
Today’s colourful and richly decorated carretas bear little resemblance to the original rough-hewn, rectangular, caneframed vehicles covered by rawhide tarps. While in most regions of Costa Rica trucks and trains replaced oxcarts as the main means of transport, the carretas remain strong symbols of Costa Rica’s rural past, and still feature prominently in parades and in religious and secular celebrations. Since oxcarts have become obsolete as means of transport, there is a decreasing demand for them, which means that the number of artisans who possess the training to manufacture and decorate oxcarts has strongly declined over the past decades.
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. This oxcart is featured as the title photo of this page (above): it is truly an amazingly beautiful oxcart!