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The Story Behind the Tradition of Oxcarts in Costa Rica

Oxcarts may be used all over the world, but the oxcarts in Costa Rica are famous for their bright colors and rich decorations. Find out the story behind the tradition and how Costa Rica’s oxcarts got their colors.

Oxcarts in Costa Rica, photo by Shannon Farley
Oxcarts in Costa Rica, photo by Shannon Farley

Article by Shannon Farley

Once the main form of transportation across a mountainous country that depended on agriculture for its survival, oxcarts in Costa Rica today are mostly used for celebrations and are considered a traditional and cultural icon in the country.

The colorfully-painted wooden oxcarts (called carretas in Spanish), their teams of matched oxen, and their oxcart drivers are known around the world. In 2005, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) proclaimed Costa Rica’s vibrantly painted, traditional oxcarts to be an Intangible World Cultural Heritage. Since 1988, the oxcart has been the National Labor Symbol for Costa Rica.

Oxcarts are not only used in Costa Rica but in many rural areas around the world. However, the Costa Rican kind are famous for their unique and colorful painted designs on the cart, wheels and oxen yoke that include geometric patterns, flowers, animals, landscapes, and even sometimes portraits.

No two oxcarts in Costa Rica are painted exactly the same. The fine art of oxcart painting has been passed down in families from generation to generation, especially in the Central Valley town of Sarchi – located west of San Jose. In that town’s central park, you can also see the “World’s Largest Oxcart” – built in 2006.

It was in Sarchi that the tradition of painting oxcarts in Costa Rica all began.

World's largest oxcart in Sarchi
World’s largest oxcart in Sarchi, Costa Rica, by Crsoccer08 – Pablo A, wikimedia commons

The Story Behind the Tradition

Originally, Spanish colonizers to Costa Rica brought oxcarts to be used for transportation and farm work. But their original European design of spoked wheels kept getting stuck and breaking in the rugged, muddy Costa Rican terrain. So, during the mid-19th century, a new design based on the indigenous Aztec disc was incorporated into a solid wood wheel bound by a metal ring that could cut through mud without getting stuck.

Dating from about 1840, oxcarts were used to transport coffee beans, sugar cane, corn and other goods from Costa Rica’s Central Valley over the mountains to the Pacific Coast port of Puntarenas or the Caribbean port of Limon for export. The journey would take 10 to 20 days crossing jungle-covered mountains, rivers, swamps and beaches. Now you can drive that same route in a little over an hour to the Pacific and in about two hours to the Caribbean.

Oxcart tradition in Costa Rica
A traditional oxcart in Costa Rica hauling coffee beans. Photo courtesy of the Joaquin Chaverri family.

The earliest oxcarts in Costa Rica were simple and functional plain wood. The tradition of painting and decorating oxcarts started in the early 20th century at the Joaquin Chaverri Oxcart Factory, which began in 1902 in the artisan town of Sarchi. Farms near Sarchi have been producing some of the country’s best coffee beans for over 100 years. The demand for oxen-pulled carts was born of the need for a sturdy way to transport this precious cargo to the coastal ports.

The story, handed down in the family of Joaquin Chaverri, says that Joaquin decided to beautify his oxcart to take his family on outings in the cart on Sundays. He painted his first oxcart bright orange because that was the only color he had available, according to his family. Orange and red have since become known as the most traditional colors for cart painting. Joaquin used powdered pigment mixed with linseed oil to deeply soak into the wood, making it more durable and long-lasting.

Oxcart painter Carlos Chaverri
Oxcart painter Carlos Chaverri, son of Joaquin Chaverri, in the family factory. National Geographic Magazine, July 1965.

The designs and colors in the decorations are based on Costa Rican plants and flowers. Curlicues, for instance, are modeled after chayote (squash) and ayote (pumpkin) vines. The iconic star shapes on the wheels were inspired by spear tips. The Chaverri family tells that Joaquin wanted the designs to be different from any other kind of art at the time. Not having any ready-made brushes, he fashioned them from dogs’ hair.

When the practice of painting oxcarts in Costa Rica spread, different regions – and sometimes even individual families – developed their own particular design and color scheme. At one time, it was said that you could tell where a farmer was from just by looking at how his oxcart was painted.

Oxcarts in Costa Rica
Varied designs and colors decorate oxcarts in Costa Rica from different regions, photo by Shannon Farley.

Oftentimes, oxcarts were a family’s only means of transport, and they served as a symbol of social status. Very elaborately painted carts meant the owner was wealthy and had the money to pay a talented painter. Each oxcart also was designed to make its own “music,” a unique chime produced by a metal ring striking the hubnut of the wheel as the cart bumped along.

Once the oxcart became a source of pride for people, greater care was taken when crafting them like selecting the highest-quality wood. Eventually, contests were held to award the “most creative and inspiring oxcart designs” – a practice that continues today.

Oxcarts in Costa Rica
Oxcart parades are common celebrations in Costa Rica. This photo was taken in Atenas, Costa Rica; photo by Shannon Farley.

Costa Rican Oxcarts in Modern Times

Although trucks, tractors and other motorized vehicles have mostly replaced oxcarts in Costa Rica in everyday life, some farmers still stick to the old ways by using them during harvest season or when places are too rough for modern vehicles. Oxcarts in Costa Rica remain strong symbols of the country’s rural past and still feature prominently in parades, festivals, and other celebrations.

Oxcart at Hacienda Guachipelin
Traditional oxcart at Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin.

The bright orange, richly-decorated traditional oxcart at Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin, pulled by its team of matching white oxen, comes from the famous Joaquin Chaverri Oxcart Factory in Sarchi. It is one of the many symbols of Costa Rica’s rich ranching traditions at the 138-year-old Hacienda Guachipelin. See the oxcart every day at noon at the hotel’s Adventure Center or at Cowboy Saturdays events.

Oxcart at Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin in Costa Rica
See Hacienda Guachipelin’s traditional oxcart in Costa Rica in daily appearances at the hotel.