Located in the Central Mountain Range, not far from Costa Rica’s capital city of San Jóse, the town of Sarchí is the center of Costa Rica’s painted oxcart industry.
According to legend, around 1910 a farmer was suddenly inspired to spruce up the appearance of his oxcart. He painted the wheels with multi-colored designs. Others copied his designs and oxcart painting became a uniquely Costa Rican art form. At one time each district in the country had its own special design, and people could tell by looking at an oxcart what region it came from.
Until about thirty years ago, oxcarts were the principal means of transporting coffee beans and other agricultural products to market. Today some farmers still rely on this traditional method of transporting their goods. The father of former president Oscar Arias Sánchez made his fortune hauling coffee in oxcarts to the port of Puntarenas.
Today, the painted oxcarts are produced mainly for decorative purposes. In addition to the full-size carts, replicas are available for sale ranging from small, inexpensive table top models to larger carts that are designed to be used as planters or living room cocktail carts. Regardless of size and price, all of the oxcarts are beautifully handpainted in bright colors featuring motifs of butterflies, flowers and fruits, as well as traditional design patterns whose origin can be traced to designs brought to Spain from North Africa by the Moors.
The gift shops in Sarchí are also filled with other woodcrafts including furniture, chairs, desks, coffee tables, and polished wood serving dishes, as well as leather items, ceramic crafts, and jewelry.
Exploring the arts and crafts of a country offers travelers another way to learn about its people and culture. Costa Rica has a wide spectrum of art objects ranging from the inexpensive to museum-quality collector’s items. Goods offered for sale include wood crafts, ceramics, reproductions of pre-Colombian figurines and masks, leather accessories, hammocks, woven baskets, jewelry made of woods, silver, gold and jade, embroidered dresses, blouses, table linens, and, of course, replicas of the famous painted oxcarts.
In San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital, almost every craft item is available. However, as travelers visit the beautiful and diverse provinces of Costa Rica, they can purchase products reflecting the particular traditions and culture of the surrounding countryside.
One item that most visitors bring home is a bag or more of Costa Rican coffee beans. Sipping the rich flavor, and inhaling the wonderful aroma weeks after returning home helps recapture some of the adventures and sights of a Costa Rican vacation.
So how about it? Wan’na buy an oxcart?