Few objects are as iconic as a Costa Rican Oxcart. With its brightly painted wooden wheels and matching ox yoke, “la Carreta” is the quintessential symbol of Costa Rica’s past. It played an important role in Costa Rica’s history since it made the of export of coffee and other goods possible. Fittingly the Oxcart is considered one of the country’s national symbols.
The idea of the oxcart was bought to Costa Rica by the Spanish colonizers, but the original design had spoke wheels that kept getting stuck and breaking on the country’s rough terrain and muddy roads. During the 19th century the oxcart, as we know it, was born. The spoke wheels were replaced by solid wood wheels bound by a metal ring that held up much better on rutted, muddy roads. The side and back panels were made removable in order to accommodate different types of cargo–walls for coffee and corn, none for sugar cane. Some carts had a front bench where the driver and a passenger could sit, but usually there was just the cargo area and the driver and his passengers rode in the box when empty, or walked alongside when loaded. The oxcart was the only means of transportation for many families and became a vital part of their lives.
The first exports of coffee were transported from coffee plantations in the Central Valley to the ports by oxcarts in the mid-1800’s, and this continued for almost 100 years, making the oxcart a key player in the economic development of Costa Rica.
The first oxcarts were plain and functional. Painting and decorating the oxcarts started early in the 20th century, predominantly by Joaquin Chaverri, founder of his namesake Oxcart Factory in Sarchi. He first painted his family’s cart orange, and then painted decorations on it for family outings. To this day, orange and red are the traditional backgound colors. As time went on, each region developed its own unique design allowing for identification from afar and in crowded markets. Soon, each farmer created designs distinctive to his family. They used bright colors, geometric designs, stars, flowers, birds, animals and even portraits and landscapes to decorate the entire cart–including the wheels. The quality and intricacy of the painting indicated the social and economic status of a family.
No two oxcarts are painted the same, and, in time, contests were held to reward the most creative and inspiring designs. Some oxcarts even had their own song–a chime created when a metal ring struck the hub nut of the wheel as it turned. Though oxcarts are used all over Central America, only Costa Rica decorated their carts, making them unique.
Since oxcart painting originated in Sarchi, it is the cultural home of the oxcart. There is a museum, and in the town’s central park you can see the “World’s Largest Oxcart” built in 2006.
Replaced by trucks and tractors, nowadays the colorful oxcart is mostly seen in parades and festivals and on display as a work of art. But in rural areas, it is not uncommon to see an old farmer walking alongside his loaded cart, prodding along his pair of oxen. There are still muddy, rutted roads barely wider than a path that only an oxcart and its team can navigate.
In his book La Carreta Pintada (The Painted Oxcart), Michael Sims wrote: “It is not an exaggeration to say that the Republic of Costa Rica was built on the strong tenacity of the oxcart. In each aspect of agricultural labor, the countrymen relied on the strength of their oxen, plowing the earth, hauling harvests, and bringing sugar cane to the mills. As a mode of transportation. it took products to and from the market, transported travelers, was an ambulance for the sick and a hearse for the dead.”
In fact, in 1988, the vibrantly painted, traditional oxcart was designated the National Labor Symbol for Costa Rica, and UNESCO declared it an Intangible World Cultural Heritage in 2005.
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