Oxherding and oxcart traditions in Costa Rica
Inscribed in 2008 (3.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (originally proclaimed in 2005)
Country(ies): Costa Rica
- Once used to transport coffee beans from the Central Highlands to the Pacific coast, colourfully painted and decorated oxcarts are today presented at nation-wide contests. The oxcarts’ characteristic spokeless wheels are a hybrid between the Aztec disc and the spoked wheel introduced by the Spanish.
- © Carmen Murillo / Ministerio de Cultura, Juventud y Deportes
The traditional oxcart, or carreta, is the product of Costa Rica’s most famous craft. Dating from the mid-nineteenth century, oxcarts were used to transport coffee beans from Costa Rica’s central valley over the mountains to Puntarenas on the Pacific coast, a journey requiring ten to fifteen days.
The oxcarts used spokeless wheels, a hybrid between the disc used by the Aztec and the spoked wheel introduced by the Spaniards, to cut through the mud without getting stuck. In many cases, oxcarts were a family’s only means of transport; they often served as a symbol of social status.
The tradition of painting and decorating oxcarts started in the early twentieth century. Originally, each region of Costa Rica had its own particular design, enabling the identification of the driver’s origin by the painted patterns on the wheels.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, flowers, faces and miniature landscapes began to appear beside patterns of pointed stars, and to this day annual contests reward the most creative artists in this tradition. Each oxcart is designed to make its own ’song’, a unique chime produced by a metal ring striking the hubnut of the wheel as the cart bumped along. Once the oxcart had become a source of individual pride, greater care was taken in their construction, and the highest-quality woods were selected to make the best sounds. Today’s colourful and richly decorated carretas bear little resemblance to the original rough-hewn, rectangular, caneframed vehicles covered by rawhide tarps. While in most regions of Costa Rica trucks and trains replaced oxcarts as the main means of transport, the carretas remain strong symbols of Costa Rica’s rural past, and still feature prominently in parades and in religious and secular celebrations.
Since oxcarts have become obsolete as means of transport, there is a decreasing demand for them, which means that the number of artisans who possess the training to manufacture and decorate oxcarts has strongly declined over the past decades.
These videos (and many more) can also be consulted through the UNESCO Archives Multimedia website
Safeguarding project (10-2006/03-2008)
The safeguarding project’s objective is to contribute to revitalizing and safeguarding the oxherding and oxcart tradition in Costa Rica through education and awareness-raising activities, empowerment of oxherders’ and artisans’ organizations and inventory and research activities. A national network for safeguarding and revitalizing the tradition will be established, and training workshops organized on cultural management and resource management for members of oxherders’ and artisans’ organizations. An inventory in digital format containing the different expressions of the oxcart tradition and a practical manual containing the technical and artistic processes involved in making and decorating oxcarts will be produced. One aim of the project is to enhance the capacities of oxherders’ and artisans’ organizations to propose and manage current and future safeguarding activities in cooperation with government, civil society and the private sector. Additionally, the Plan proposes to sensitize the public to the importance of this tradition.