Las Carretas Costarricenses

We bought ourselves an oxcart. I love that splash of cheer in our earth-tone abode. It makes me smile. Every time my gaze passes the cart, I feel happy vapors drift in my direction.

For a long time, carretas or oxcarts were pretty much the only means of transportation through the rugged, mountainous landscape of Costa Rica. The backbone of the country is formed by las Cordilleras de Costa Rica, a chain of over sixty volcanoes born out of tectonic plate fricción and this volatile condition is still being fueled by the subduction of the Cocos Plate under the Caribbean Plate. These Costarican volcanoes are part of the Eastern portion of the Ring of Fire and luckily for us now, only six of them are still active – as far as we know! If one’s country mostly consists of mountains and wild river canyons, infrastructure can be a bit of a challenge. The elegant Spanish style spoked wheels imported by los Conquistadores didn’t serve well in this rugged environment, especially since most roads turn into quagmire during the rainy season, lo siento, green season. Gradually a solid wheel was developed for use on the ubiquitous oxcarts, later replaced by an even stronger solid wheel, which was constructed of three to five wedges of hardwood. And with it La Carreta, the oxcart típico Costarricense was ‘invented’! By the mid-eighteenth century, las carretas were the most common form of transport for people and all conceivable goods. Firewood, building materials, fodder, sugar cane, farm produce, children, chickens and sick abuelitas, everyone and everything was schlepped hither and thither in a carreta. Those original carretas were not gaily painted like we know the carretas to be today. Depending on the wealth of its owner, it might just be a rough-hewn rickety affair or a well-built, solid cart, the pride of ownership expressed in multi-colored artistry came much later.

Even though carretas were used for so many different jobs, their claim to fame is most strongly associated with the fruit that was destined to become Costa Rica’s most important crop: Coffea arabica. Costa Rica’s coffee industry experienced a number of ups and downs since it was first introduced straight from Ethiopia in 1779, but one thing remained constant. After the harvest, the coffee cherries must be brought to the beneficios for processing, after which the seeds or coffee ‘beans’, designated for export, must be transported to the merchant ships, which laid at anchor at the Pacific harbor of Puntarenas.

These all-important coffee transports became the responsibility of the boyero, the ox team driver. A proper boyero trains his team from calf-hood. Each pair of oxen is carefully matched for strength, temperament, size and markings to create a functionally, as well as aesthetically, twinned pair. In the olden days, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was a grueling journey of up to two weeks, to bring each precious load of coffee safely down from the volcanic mountain slopes of the Meseta Central, the highlands of the central valley above the cities of San José, Cartago and Heredia, to the gentle waves of the Pacific beaches. These coffee transports also created a whole new support network of wheelwrights, blacksmith, innkeepers and road workers along its route to facilitate safer and thus more profitable transports.

One commodity along the carreta route to Puntarenas, now Hwy 3, was not promoting safety, though. It’s the same commodity, which still makes today’s traffic on Hwy 3 dangerous, Alcohol. The liquor of choice in rural Costa Rica has always been guaro, a clear and slightly sweet sugar cane distillate. Back in the nineteenth century, during peak production in the government-sponsored coffee industry, when as many as 10 000 carretas crowded the muddy, rutted dirt road, competing to bring the most beans to the ships, the home-brewed guaro was ever present to make the rough journey bearable. A boyero is supposed to walk beside or ahead of his team to scout the terrain and lead his oxen team along the safest path. In the past, he was even required by law to do so. If you’re familiar with the modern highways’ switchbacks and elevation changes up and down these hillsides, you can imagine the extreme fortitude required to travel from a Tarrazu coffee plantation, at almost 1800m/5900ft altitude in the Talamanca Sierra, to the coast – with an overloaded oxcart. Oh, that guaro sure helped! Unfortunately, it also made the boyero tired … so tired that he climbed on top of the coffee sacks in his carreta to take a quick snooze, while his trusty oxen lumbered along on their own as best they could.

With all those oxcarts passing through the different administrative regions on their way to Puntarenas, naturally, there were toll stations. The government needs its share, right? The garitas were always located near the deepest canyons, of course, as to prevent circumvention of the mandatory tax. Those ever vigilant tax agents also spotted their share of drunken boyeros sleeping it off on their carretas. The tipsy boyero was pulled down, charged a hefty fine and sent on his way with his head bowed in shame, humiliated in front of his team. Ultimately they were embarrassed in front of their entire family because the government published a list of boyeros found “on the wagon” to discourage the overindulgence of guaro. This is the reason, why being “on the wagon” has the opposite meaning in Costa Rica, then in the US. The distillation of guaro, by the way, has since been nationalized. Ostensibly for national health, but I suspect commercial considerations might’ve come into play as well. The only legal guaro, Cacique Guaro, is now produced by the government-owned Fábrica Nacional de Licores or FANAL.

With the rise of importance of the carretas, they gradually were also viewed as a status symbol. After all, the proud boyero took his family to church on Sundays in his freshly scrubbed carreta! After some time a custom evolved to decorate the solid wheels of the carretas with geometric shapes. At first, those designs were regional, allowing the onlooker to identify the boyero’s home valley through the pattern on the painted wheels of his carreta. Eventually, simple patterns became more elaborate, including stars, flowers, birds, and butterflies. Gradually the decorations poured forth from the wheels, so the spirited designs with toucans, tree frogs and even landscapes and tableaux spread out, covering the entire carreta, even encompassing the yoke for the oxen. A riot of color and joy!

Our hometown of Atenas played an important role as a way station for boyeros. To commemorate the hard work of the boyeros and their teams, Atenas erected a boyero memorial statue and museum right at Hwy 3, the former carreta path to the Pacific coast. Atenas also stages a huge boyero festival in April featuring a procession of hundreds of carreta teams with their skillful boyeros. Being an ox team driver, a boyero may be an obsolete occupation, but it’s still a cherished tradition. Boyero dads still teach their sons, and sometimes also their daughters, how to select and properly raise a willing and beautiful team of oxen. These days it may have become more of a sport – there are certainly plenty of competitions for teams – but above all, it encompasses and demonstrates National Pride. Apparently, UNESCO agreed with this assessment, when it included the Oxcart Tradition of Costa Rica in it’s 2005 “Third Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”. 

For over a hundred years now, the tradition of building carretas leads you straight to the artisanal town of Sarchí. In this small mountain town in Alajuela Province, several craftsmen still build ox carts the old-fashioned way, even though modern-day full-sized carretas are rarely used for work anymore, having been replaced by motorized vehicles in all, but the most remote fincas. Today they serve in processions and fiestas, they’re used for sport and in displays, and, in a variety of sizes, as tchotchkes for tourists. But make no mistake, those carts are by no means cheap souvenirs, even if some of them (including ours) sport bottle shelving inside, so that they can be used as bar carts. They still are handmade and lovingly decorated carretas! In 1988 the Costa Rican government declared the carreta a “National Symbol of Work”. If you’d like to hear one of the artisans in Sarchí talk about his work, here’s a link to a ‘’ video clip:   “Sarchí, Costa Rica”

Las Cordilleras = from Spanish ‘little rope’ mountain ranges rimming the Pacific ocean, e.g. the Andes mountains in South America
fricción = Reibung = friction
Los Conquistadores = die Eroberer = the conquerers
típico = repräsentativ = typical of/for
costarricense = costaricanisch = Costarican
La abuela/abuelita = Oma = grandmother
¡Lo siento! = Verzeihung! = I’m sorry!
El beneficio = coffee processing plant
la garita = Zollstation = toll house, check point
Finca = Bauernhof = farm
tchotchke = Mitbringsel = trinket

3 thoughts on “Las Carretas Costarricenses

  1. I love it – as you say, the colours are wonderful. Now, I've been thinking – you could modify the shaft and the dogs could pull you around.


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