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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.

Hidden History of Hacienda Guachipelin Found in 1917 Book

The Hacienda Guachipelin ranch in Costa Rica in the early 1900’s was a wild place next to the Rincon de la Vieja Volcano. A 1917 natural history book unveils a piece of hidden history about Hacienda Guachipelin.

Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin in Costa Rica
Hacienda Guachipelin in Costa Rica dates back to 1880.

Article by Shannon Farley

Discovering old historic documents about a place is like finding hidden treasure in a forgotten attic or cellar.

That’s how it was for Jose Tomas Batalla, owner of Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin, when a colleague sent him the online link to a 1917 book entitled A Year of Costa Rican Natural History. Written by the husband and wife scientific team of Amelia Smith Calvert, Sometime Fellow in Biology from Bryn Mawr College, and Philip Powell Calvert, Professor of Zoology at the University of Pennsylvania and Editor of Entomological News, the 577-page book describes a long account of the Calverts’ travels and observations of nature in Costa Rica including a visit to Hacienda Guachipelin in Guanacaste.

Continue reading “Hidden History of Hacienda Guachipelin Found in 1917 Book”

Rincon de la Vieja National Park by Hacienda Guachipelin Grows

Nearly 5,000 acres more dry tropical forest and wildlife habitats are now protected in the newly expanded Rincon de la Vieja National Park by Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin.

Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin at Rincon de la Vieja National Park
Rincon de la Vieja National Park by Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin has expanded.

Article by Shannon Farley

The Rincon de la Vieja National Park next to Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin has expanded and now protects nearly 5,000 acres more dry tropical forest and wildlife habitats in this part of the renowned Guanacaste Conservation Area.

Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado and the Environmental Minister, Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, signed a decree earlier this month – on June 5 in honor of World Environment Day – for the expansion.

Continue reading “Rincon de la Vieja National Park by Hacienda Guachipelin Grows”

Why the dry tropical forest in Rincon de la Vieja is unique

Going for a walk in the woods in Costa Rica isn’t always in the rainforest. Find out why the Guanacaste dry tropical forest is so unique.

Dry tropical forest in Guanacaste Costa Rica at Hacienda Guachipelin
Horseback riding in the dry tropical forest at Hacienda Guachipelin by the Rincon de la Vieja Volcano in Guanacaste, Costa Rica.

Article by Shannon Farley

All forest in tropical places like Costa Rica is rainforest, right?

Wrong.

Most people are surprised when visiting Costa Rica’s northwestern province of Guanacaste to encounter dry tropical forest, which looks nothing like the rainforest.

One of the rarest ecosystems in the Americas, Seasonally Dry Tropical Forest is found from Mexico to Argentina, and throughout the Caribbean islands.

Also known as semi-deciduous tropical dry broadleaf forest, this delicate life system survives in arid areas with much less water than in the rainforest. With a dry season that lasts approximately eight months, plants and animals have adapted to fit these conditions. Predominantly deciduous trees shed their leaves during the dry season to conserve essential water; and animals require large territories for food supply.

However, despite restrictions in water and resources, the dry tropical forest has the greatest biodiversity after the rainforest and is full of a splendid variety of plants, trees and wildlife.

dry tropical forest Rincon de la Vieja Volcano in Guanacaste Costa Rica
The Rincon de la Vieja Volcano and National Park is an excellent place to experience the unique dry tropical forest.

Guanacaste in Costa Rica has one of the largest dry tropical forests in Central America, especially in the area of the Rincon de la Vieja National Park. Its unique landscapes, climate, and wildlife make a trip to this region anything but boring.

Trees you will see include Costa Rica’s national tree, the Guanacaste (Enterolobium cyclocarpum), along with dry season flowering trees like the Cortés Amarillo (Tabebuia ochracea) that sports yellow trumpet flowers, and the Malinche Tree (Delonix regia) featuring reddish-orange flowers. Other main dry forest trees include Pochote (Bombacopsis quinata), Guapinol (Hymenaea courbaril), “Indio Desnudo” (Bursera simaruba), and Caoba (Swietenia macrophylla).

Cortes Amarillo tree in Costa Rica
The Cortés Amarillo Tree (Tabebuia ochracea) is common in Costa Rica’s dry tropical forest.

Wildlife is plentiful. Rincon de la Vieja is home to 300 bird species, including the White-throated Magpie-Jay (Calocitta formosa), Violaceous Trogon (Trogon violaceus), Collared Aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus), and the Turquoise-browed Motmot (Eumomota superciliosa), as well as a host of parrots, parakeets and hummingbirds.

Mammals here include collared peccaries, agoutis, nine-banded armadillos, white-nosed coatis, raccoons, white-tailed deer, pumas, and three species of monkeys (white-faced capuchin, howler and spider).

Rincon de la Vieja National Park Costa Rica wildlife
It is common to spot white-faced capuchin monkeys in the Rincon de la Vieja National Park in Costa Rica.

The Rincon de la Vieja National Park surrounds the Rincon de la Vieja Volcano, one of six active volcanoes in Costa Rica (along with another 61 that are dormant or extinct). The giant, 600,000-year-old volcano soars 6,286 feet (1,916 meters) high and its caldera is nine miles (15 km) wide, bridging the Continental Divide.

Hiking in the Rincon de la Vieja National Park on the Las Pailas (“The Cauldrons”) loop trail takes you 2.5 miles (3.5 km) through exotic dry tropical forest. The route also shows off the awesome power of the live volcano with steaming fumaroles, mini-geysers, bubbling volcanic mud pits, and sulfur-smelling hot springs.

Costa Rica national park Rincon de la Vieja
Hiking the Las Pailas trail in the Rincon de la Vieja National Park gives visitors an exciting experience of both volcanic activity, like this boiling sulfur pond, and the dry tropical forest.

You can easily visit the dry tropical forest and Rincon de la Vieja National Park when you stay at Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin. The award-winning eco-hotel is located minutes from the Las Pailas entrance to the national park, and offers guided tours in the park.

Cowboy Saturdays at Hacienda Guachipelin

Cowboys of Guanacaste Costa Rica at Hacienda Guachipelin
Authentic Costa Rica cowboys of Guanacaste perform every Saturday at Hacienda Guachipelin.

Article by Shannon Farley

Don’t miss Cowboy Saturdays at Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin in Guanacaste – with  incredible horse riding skills, exciting bull riding, Costa Rican folkloric music, and a traditional Costa Rican oxcart!

Every Saturday from 4:00 to 4:45 p.m. at Hacienda Guachipelin’s rodeo arena, or redondel in Spanish, guests and day visitors can see an authentic Costa Rica cowboy show.

Continue reading “Cowboy Saturdays at Hacienda Guachipelin”

Simbiosis Spa Reopens at Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin

Relax and rejuvenate at the newly reopened Simbiosis Spa during your stay at the best hotel at Rincon de la Vieja, Hacienda Guachipelin.

Simbiosis Spa at Hacienda GuachipelinArticle by Shannon Farley

The beautiful Simbiosis Spa has reopened at Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin by the Rincon de la Vieja Volcano.

All facilities have been refurbished to give a full-service, luxury spa experience to guests, making their stay at Hacienda Guachipelin even more special.

Continue reading “Simbiosis Spa Reopens at Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin”

How to Get to Hacienda Guachipelin for your Costa Rica Vacation

Eleven airlines from 18 worldwide locations fly into the Liberia International Airport in Costa Rica, making it easy for how to get to Hacienda Guachipelin for your Costa Rica vacation.

how to get to Hacienda Guachipelin guanacaste costa rica
Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin in Guanacaste, Costa Rica.

Article by Shannon Farley

Hacienda Guachipelin, located at the Rincón de la Vieja Volcano, offers one of the best destinations in Guanacaste for a Costa Rica vacation full of adventure and nature. Continue reading “How to Get to Hacienda Guachipelin for your Costa Rica Vacation”

How Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin began

Thriving cattle and horse ranch to award-winning eco-adventure hotel – discover the many faces of Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin over the years.

Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin in Costa RicaArticle by Shannon Farley

Costa Rica’s Rincon de la Vieja Volcano in 1982 was a remote, wild place.

Jose Tomas Batalla, owner of Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin, remembers what it was like back then when tourists first started visiting the area. Thanks to a Lonely Planet travel guide writer that year, Rincon de la Vieja Volcano suddenly jumped in popularity.

Only 9 years prior, the largest volcano in the Guanacaste province had been declared the country’s eighth national park. Now, Rincon de la Vieja was being publicized as a place to hike through wildlife-filled forest, climb an active volcano, swim in pristine waterfalls, and soak in undiscovered natural hot springs.

Rincon de la Vieja Volcano in Guanacaste Costa Rica
Rincon de la Vieja Volcano in Guanacaste Costa Rica.

The problem was that getting there wasn’t so easy. The closest decent-sized town was Liberia – capital of the Guanacaste province – 16 miles away. Back then, approximately 91% of Costa Rica’s roads were dirt or gravel, and the way to Rincon de la Vieja crossed a few streams besides being rugged. What today is a 35-minute drive, in 1982 would take four to five hours. Hotels in the area didn’t exist. Hacienda Guachipelin at that time was a large cattle and horse ranch owned by the Batalla family.

“Tourists would arrive at our ranch sometimes in the late afternoon. They would ask if they could stay overnight to visit the national park and volcano the next day,” said Batalla. “This started happening a lot.”

Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin in Costa Rica
Early guest rooms at Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin in Costa Rica.

As the number of visitors to Rincon de la Vieja grew, the Batalla family naturally progressed into the hospitality business.

“Our family prepared a few guest rooms, and over time built a few more. Until, finally in 1985 we opened Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin.”

The hotel’s exceptional location bordering the Las Pailas section of the Rincón de la Vieja National Park has made it a top place to visit ever since.

Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin at Rincon de la Vieja Volcano
Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin at Rincon de la Vieja Volcano.

The ranch itself dates back to 1880, with a rich history of Guanacaste’s cowboy traditions.

“For over 100 years, our land has been a flourishing ranch, spreading across 3,460 acres (1400 hectares) of golden savanna and dry tropical forest at the base of the mighty Rincon de la Vieja Volcano,” said Batalla.

Batalla’s father, Tomás Batalla Esquivel, a renowned Costa Rican cattle rancher and purebred Spanish horse breeder, had acquired the property in 1975. Since then, two generations of the Batalla family have loved and worked this ranch land.

Hacienda Guachipelin still keeps about 220 head of Brahman cattle and related breeds for beef and milk production. They have around 90 Costa Rican horses for ranch work and horseback riding tours, and 12 Spanish breeding mares and stallions. In the mornings, you can see the ranch hands milking the cows (fresh milk is brought to the hotel kitchen daily) and working with the horses in the corrals by the Reception area. They raise chickens and turkeys, and grow fruit trees along with vegetables and herbs, which hotel guests enjoy in fresh, homegrown meals in the hotel restaurant.

Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin
Costa Rican ranching traditions continue at Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin.

Over the decades, Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin has expanded to continue accommodating guests, but one thing hasn’t changed. The award-winning hotel still offers comfortable accommodations for travelers to relax after a day of adventures by the Rincon de la Vieja Volcano.

Summed up Batalla: “At Hacienda Guachipelin, most of all, we want people to have an authentic experience of being in Guanacaste and Costa Rica.”

The Best of 2017 at Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin

Find out what happened at Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin in Costa Rica in 2017 – new rooms, big events, added tours, and more!

Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin in Costa RicaArticle by Shannon Farley

This year was a big year at Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin in Costa Rica. 2017 saw new additions, big events, added tours, anniversaries, and through it all we received high praise from our guests.

Hacienda Guachipelin started off the New Year of 2017 with new rooms and improvements on its 137-year-old Guanacaste ranch next to the Rincon de la Vieja Volcano. To keep up with the demand of tourists who love to visit the Rincon de la Vieja National Park, the eco-adventure hotel introduced 13 new guest rooms called Legacy Suites. Increasing the hotel’s room offering to a total of 77, the Legacy Suites feature ranch-style architecture and authentic handcrafted furniture using traditional woods of Costa Rica.

Legacy Suites at Hacienda Guachipelin in Costa Rica
Legacy Suites at Hacienda Guachipelin in Costa Rica.

One of the favorite things to do at Hacienda Guachipelin is visit the beautiful Oropendula Waterfall by the Las Pailas entrance of the Rincon de la Vieja National Park. At the beginning of 2017, the hotel improved the trail down to the waterfall and built a secure hanging bridge spanning the river to a spacious observation deck that provides excellent views of the 82-foot (25-meter) waterfall and its bright turquoise pool in the lush canyon of the Blanco River.

Waterfall Oropendula at Rincon de la Vieja
Oropendula Waterfall by Rincon de la Vieja National Park.

This year marked the fifth annual return of the North Face Endurance Challenge Costa Rica to Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin in Guanacaste. Hundreds of runners from all over the world were on the ranch competing in the intense ultra-trail running endurance race sponsored by The North Face.

In the middle of the year, Hacienda Guachipelin added a new mountain biking tour at Rincon de la Vieja Volcano using electric mountain bikes. The hotel’s state-of-the-art, French, electric power-assisted mountain bikes open up mountain biking tours to everyone regardless of ability.

Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 2017 as a member of the prestigious hotel group of Enchanting Hotels Costa Rica. The exclusive collection of boutique hotels and ecolodges in Costa Rica rewards visitors with outstanding places to visit in Costa Rica’s best destinations.

Electric bikes at Hacienda Guachipelin
Electric mountain bikes were new to Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin in 2017.

What did our guests say about us in 2017?

Taken from our TripAdvisor comments:

“A beautiful place to be in harmony with nature.”

“If you are a nature lover, definitely Hacienda Guachipelin is an excellent option for a place to stay.”

“The tours, the hotel and the service are the best in Costa Rica.”

“This place is amazing. You wake up in the morning and are surrounded by the sounds of the rainforest. The staff here is very friendly and the service is impeccable. The breakfast is delicious and I would love to stay here again.”

“If you have to go to ONE place to do the whole Costa Rican experience, here it is: Hacienda Guachipelin.”

Escape the winter blues and come to Costa Rica for Christmas or an after-the-holidays winter sun vacation. Warm sunshine and blue skies in Guanacaste at Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin make every holiday festive!

Rincon de la Vieja Volcano in Guanacaste Costa Rica
Visit the Rincon de la Vieja Volcano in Guanacaste, Costa Rica when you stay at Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin.

Why you should spend Christmas in Costa Rica

Tell Santa he can find you this Christmas in Costa Rica, where warm summer sun and blue skies make the holidays even more festive!

christmas in costa ricaArticle by Shannon Farley

If your usual Christmas is cold and gray, and you have to bundle up in multiple layers just to go outside, wouldn’t it be nice to be festive under warm sunshine and blue skies and spend Christmas in Costa Rica?

As chilly winter weather frosts the United States, Canada and Europe, you are not alone if you are dreaming about a sunny tropical holiday.

Christmas Costa RicaEscape the winter blues and come to warm summer in Guanacaste for Christmas in Costa Rica. Dozens of daily flights to Costa Rica from the U.S., Canada and Europe make traveling to Guanacaste simpler than Christmas shopping for your in-laws.

Jingle your bells at Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin by Rincon de la Vieja Volcano. Set on a 137-year-old traditional Guanacaste ranch next to the Rincon de la Vieja National Park, Hacienda Guachipelin is the best place to experience Costa Rica’s famous nature. The award-winning hotel is surrounded by tropical forest, waterfalls, rivers, hot springs, and exotic wildlife.

Hacienda Guachipelin’s adventure park offers the largest variety of things to do in Guanacaste all in one location. There aren’t any sleigh rides, but you can horseback ride to your heart’s content to waterfalls and volcanic hot springs. And you can fly through the air like Santa’s reindeer on the canopy zip line tour. Besides that, you have mountain biking, hiking, river tubing, waterfall rappelling, an archaeological tour, butterfly garden, frog habitat and Serpentarium.

Horseback riding in Guanacaste Costa Rica at Hacienda GuachipelinComfortable accommodations cater to individuals and couples, and also families and groups. See their special offers here.

So, whether you’ve been naughty or nice, tell Santa he can find you this Christmas in Costa Rica!

Christmas in costa ricaWhat is Christmas in Costa Rica like?

Christmas in Costa Rica is a vibrant time of elaborate decorations and lights on houses and businesses, Christmas parades, festivals, concerts, and family gatherings.

Rainy season has ended, replaced with dry cool winds, sunny days, and clear and starry nights. Students start their long “summer vacation” from December through February, workers receive their legally-required annual Christmas bonuses, and everybody is ready to celebrate!

Nativity scenes, often life-size, are an essential part of Costa Rican families’ celebrations. Friends and family get invited over to show off the detailed creations.

Christmas trees can be fresh-scented real cypress trees, artificial trees, or even decorated palm trees.

Christmas in costa ricaLike the rest of Latin America, tamales are a time-honored Christmas tradition. Costa Rican tamales are made from corn meal filled with rice, potatoes and other vegetables, and shredded pork or chicken, and then wrapped in banana or plantain leaves and boiled.

Costa Rica’s Christmas celebration begins on Christmas Eve, or “Noche Bueno,” when people visit family and friends for feasts of roast pork, tamales and other traditional dishes. Eggnog with rum is drunk while family members exchange presents before midnight.

The New Year kicks off Costa Rica’s summer festival season from January to April. Known for their gregarious, fun-loving style, Costa Ricans’ enthusiasm for these fun cultural events is contagious.

Spend Christmas in Costa Rica and join in the festivities!