The Ox-carts of Costa Rica

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Ox-Carts and Costa Rica

Some Ticos still prefer the traditional method.
Some Ticos still prefer the traditional method.

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 carts, which once dominated the rural landscape of the central highlands, date back to the end of the 19th century, but were used exclusively to transport coffee and other agricultural products well into the 20th century. The oxcart seems to symbolize the self-reliance and fortitude of the small Costa Rican farmer.

At the peak of the coffee boom and before the construction of the Atlantic Railroad, oxcarts were used to transport coffee beans to Puntarenas, located on the Pacific coast; as they were ideally suited for the country’s mountainous conditions and rutted dirt roads. The journey required 10-15 days. During the rainy season, the oxcart trail became somewhat of a quagmire. Thus, Costa Ricans developed their own spokeless wheel--a cross between the Aztec disc and the Spanish spoked wheel- to cut through the mud without becoming bogged down. In their heyday, some 10,000 cumbersome, squeaking oxcarts had a significant impact on the local economy; creating the need for such things as highway guards, smithies, inns, teamsters, and workcrews to maintain the roads. On the return trip from Puntarenas, they would haul goods mainly from Europe back to the Central Valley.

Originally adorned with bright colors and geometric patterns, by 1915, flowers had bloomed beside the pointed stars, and then faces and even miniature landscapes soon appeared. And annual contests (still held today) were arranged to reward the most creative artists. The ox-carts in fact, had stopped being purely functional and had become every farmer's source of pride. Each cart was also designed to make its own "song," a chime as unique as a fingerprint, produced by a metal ring striking the hubnut of the wheel as the cart bumped along. Supposedly, the intention was to allow the farm owner to hear his laborers. Once the oxcart had become a source of individual pride, greater care was taken in their construction, and the best-quality woods were selected to make the best sounds.

These days, ox carts are being decorated with jungle scenes, wild animals, flowers and other non traditional designs.

Ox-carts are still common in many parts of the country. The carts, which come in all sizes (including a miniature about the size of a toy car) are made in Sarchi, the wooden crafts capital of the country. Although an occasional full-size oxcart is still crafted, many seem to be made to serve as liquor bars or indoor tables, or merely used as garden ornaments or to simply accent a corner of a home.

Today, the carts forced from the fields by modern technology, are almost purely decorative, but the craft and the art form live on in Sarchi, where artisans still apply their masterly touch at two fabricas de carretas (workshops), which are open to view. A finely made reproduction oxcart can cost up to $5,000.