A lot of times, a countries most important arts, crafts, and traditions end up as just another tourist trap, especially in a place with as many tourists as Costa Rica. Eventually, as travelers aim to avoid anything overly touristy, these traditions and crafts get labeled as nothing more than a tourist trap and overlooked by everyone but the package, tour bus tourist.
I’ll admit, as a backpacker I really try and seek out “authentic” travel experience. So, when I first heard about the painted oxcarts of Costa Rica, or rather saw the glossy tourist brochure in my hostel, I kind of turned my nose up at it. To be honest, it looked like a big tourist gift shop with a giant painted oxcart outside for all the tourist to crowd around and take pictures with.
Well, eventually I got my “authentic” travel experience and ended up staying with a great local family. Guess where they wanted to take me? The painted oxcart “museum” and artisan shop.
The Oxcart Factory in Sarchi
Located in Sarchi, the Fabrica de Carretas Eloy Alfaro is an old oxcart factory with yep, a giant gift shop. The gift shop is actually pretty interesting and filled with local crafts and art pieces. There is a lot of wood carvings and eco-friendly produces as well as the typical Pura Vida bumper stickers. Nearby is the “World’s Largest Oxcart” which is painted up beautifully and does make for a nice picture.
Behind the gift shop though, is where things start to get a bit more interesting. The actual “factory” is here and they both carve the oxcarts as well as paint them. Some of the machinery in the shop dated back to the 1920s and they aim to keep the manufacturing process as traditional as possible.
The oxcart was originally used to transport grains and coffee from the central valley to the coast where they would be packaged up and shipped to other countries. It was a utilitarian item that was built to survive the 10-15 day trip without getting stuck in the thick mud on the roads. While it was built for work, it was also a sign of a families prosperity and social status.
In the beginning, the oxcarts were not painted. However, starting in the early 20th century, families began to paint their oxcarts and wheels to identify where they came from and to once again, show off their social status. Each region of Costa Rica had a particular painting style and the motifs on the carts almost served as a license plate, allowing them to be easily identified.
Eventually, as cars and trucks replaced the oxcarts, they became more elaborate and more for show. The wheels of the cart were designed with a unique song, which would play as the the cart bumped along and a metal ring struck the hub nut of the wheel. Today, the oxcarts are mainly just used in holiday or celebration settings.
At the Sarchi Oxcart Factory, you can see the carts being made, painted, and used. The artisans here are a dying breed – it’s hard to convince the younger generation to study an art form that is disappearing as oxcarts become ever more useless in the modern day. The artists love to show off their craft though and if you have time, you can even sign up for a art class with one of the factory artists.
I’m really glad I got the opportunity to see the painted oxcarts. Yes, sure, it was touristy with a packed gift shop but that just meant I had to look a little deeper to find the “authentic” bit that was unique and special to Costa Rica.
Couple Travel Tips
- If you have the opportunity, check out a local religious celebration or festival in any of the small towns in the central valley. You will probably see a painted oxcart or two which are still used in parades and ceremonies.
- Don’t spend all your time in the gift shop. I swear that I saw a number of people spend a half hour in the gift shop and then did little more than poke their head out the backdoor to see the actual factory.
- Sarchi is a great little town. Grab lunch at one of the local restaurants before or after your visit to the oxcart factory. Its a good way to support the rest of the community, not just the artists and gift shop owners.