“Hwee!” hollered my carreta driver, swatting at the ox team’s rumps to spur them on. Then, when we arrived at our destination: “Haysa!” (“Stop!”) These and a dozen other words are integral to the ox driver’s lexicon, and as I rode through Costa Rica’s coffee country, I was learning fast.
But the driver’s slang wasn’t the only colorful element in the scene. My cart itself was an explosion of parti-colored patterns: fuchsia, turquoise, gold, ultramarine blue, eggshell white. These hues shifted kaleidoscopically as the cart’s wheels turned, making my conveyance a roving artwork, a rustic equivalent of the Merry Pranksters’ psychedelic bus. As we crested a hilltop, I saw row upon row of coffee bushes fringed by jungle on the distant horizon. I imagined the looks we’d receive (and the shaking I’d endure) if I rode the cart all the way to the coast, a hundred miles away.
Bumping along in a traditional Costa Rican ox cart is like being on a slow carnival ride, one that appeals to all the senses. The bright colored artwork, the rolling motion, the musky aroma and snorting of the oxen, the squeaking of wooden wheels, the tinkling of chimes: it’s a charmingly old-fashioned mode of transport, but one with entirely practical origins.
The carretas first appeared in the 1880s, during the heyday of Costa Rica’s coffee boom. Then, and into the early 20th century, these carts were the sole means of getting coffee and other crops to the coast for shipment to the markets of Europe and North America. The two solid wooden wheels proved perfect for the country’s challenging terrain, moving over rough trails, shallow rivers, deep mud, and sandy beaches.
Soon the carts became more than just work tools: they became sport utility vehicles, used to drive the family from the farm to vacations at the shore, to church, even to burials, where they were used as hearses. They were like mini-vans, but with flies and extra jolts.
Decorating the carretas initially was a safeguard against decay in the tropical climate. Designs were simple, functional. By the early 20th century, however, cart-painting began to blossom into an art form, a way to make a statement. Today there are displays and competitions to create the most beautiful carts, and the winners are huge crowd-pleasers at parades. Colorful themes include flowers, grotesque or comical faces, stars, sunsets, and landscapes, in eye-popping hallucinogenic patterns.
The customization doesn’t stop with painting. Carts are also made to sing by adding metal chimes and tuning forks that ring out when the big wheels turn. Each cart plays a distinctive song, allowing them to be identified from a distance.
The craft of building the carretas begins with selecting the finest lumber for strength, durability, and beauty. Today the town of Sarchi, in the Alajuela district, is the capital of carreta manufacture, with hundreds of the vehicles on display. The Joaquin Chaverri Oxcart Factory began in 1902 and continues to manufacture carretas to this day. They take credit for the largest cart in the world, displayed in front of the local church.
Carretas became less important with the construction of Costa Rica’s railroads, which linked the coffee plantations with the ports after World War II. Finally tractors and transport trucks made the carts obsolete. Yet they remain a vital badge of Costa Rican cultural identity, and are still built and driven with pride.
Some of the finest examples of this Central American staple roll along San José’s Paseo Colon in November’s ox cart parade, and in mid-March in the Escazu area of the city. You can also ride carretas at many of the coffee plantations that offer tours. My own ox cart ride was at La Casita, a re-created pioneer village at La Paz Waterfall Gardens.
Models of carretas are popular souvenirs. They range from miniatures that fit in the palm of your hand to carts that can serve as garden planters or liquor cabinets. They are also printed onto t-shirts, embossed on leather belts and handbags, and depicted in paintings and postcards, so it’s easy to take home one of these emblems of Costa Rican culture in one form or another.
Proclaimed by UNESCO in 2005 as one of its Intangible World Heritages, carretas are a national emblem that harks back to simpler times, to the self-sufficiency of country living that is at the heart of every Costa Rican’s dreams and values.