Oxherding and Oxcart Tradition
in Costa Rica
 

The traditional oxcart, or carreta, is Costa Rica’s most famous type of craft. 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 Spanish, to cut through the mud without becoming bogged down. In many cases, oxcarts were a family's only means of transport and often served as a symbol of social status.  

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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 even miniature landscapes appeared beside patterns of pointed stars. Annual contests were arranged to reward the most creative artists and are still held today.

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 best-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, cane-framed vehicles covered by rawhide tarps. In most regions of Costa Rica, trucks and trains replaced oxcarts as the main means of transport, but they remain strong symbols of Costa Rican former country life, and the carretas still feature prominently in parades and in religious and secular celebrations.

As most oxcarts became obsolete as means of transport, they have been reduced to decorative craft objects. Due to the decreasing demand for oxcarts, the number of artisans who possess the training to manufacture and decorate oxcarts has rapidly declined over the past decades. Therefore, only a few of the younger artisans are interested to learn and practice this craft tradition today.