Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Costa Rica Part 4: Sarchi's colorful carretas

A vividly painted carreta is displayed in the center of Eloy Alfaro's oxcart workshop.  Notice the two bow yokes resting on the top of the carreta (ox cart). One of these would be fastened over the shoulders of a pair of oxen so they could pull the cart. Our Caravan Tour stopped at the Taller Eloy Alfaro (Eloy Alfaro's Workshop) for a tour of the little factory. This taller is one of the few that are still creating these beautiful little hand-painted vehicles. Most of the workshops are located in the small town of Sarchi, in Alajuela Province. Sarchi lies about 46 km (29 mi) northwest of Costa Rica's capital of San Jose. To locate Sarchi on a Google map, click here

Sarchi, the oxcart makers' town

Sarchi as it used to be. Notice the steeples of the Iglesia de Sarchi Norte. The church is surrounded by a cluster of small, tile-roofed houses. Cattle and horses graze in lush meadows. The heavily wooded Corderilla looms in the background. This scene portrays Sarchi as it would have appeared during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Sarchi of today is considerably bigger and far busier.

Iglesia de Sarchi Norte is one of the most impressive churches in Costa Rica. The church overlooks the main plaza in Sarchi. Unfortunately, the Caravan bus didn't stop, so we never saw the interior. However, I did manage to get this shot through the window. Notice the street sign in the lower left. The top of it replicates part of a painted carreta wheel. There are two districts in Sarchi, Norte (north) and Sur (south). Together they cover an area of 38.9 sq km (24 sq mi) and have a combined population of 11,571. The town is located on the slopes of the Central Cordillera (mountain range) on the eastern edge of Costa Rica's Central Valley.

Eloy Alfaro's oxcart workshop

Eloy Alfaro stands with his wife in the doorway of his workshop. This is the way the taller looked in the old days. Today, this structure forms one corner of a four-sided courtyard. The other sides now contain a gift shop and a restaurant. The water wheel seen in the right center still drives the taller's machinery. The wheel was upgraded from its original wood construction to metal in 1934, and finally to iron in 1965. Notice the wall to the left of Alfaro and his wife.

Wheels, saw blades, and other machinery hang by the entrance to Taller Eloy Alfaro. The big, brightly-painted circular saw blade carries the name "Alfaro Castro Hermanos, Ltda. (Alfaro Castro Brothers, Limited). Eloy Alfaro launched his workshop in 1920. In 1928, Alfaro bought the taller's machinery from the Hacienda La Eve. Still later, he added hydraulic power to create the electricity that drives the shop.

Three cart wheels show stages in time. The rustic old wheel at the bottom is from the 19th century. In the middle hangs another, somewhat newer, version that has also had considerable use. On top is a brand new version, freshly painted with vivid, intricate designs. In the background, some of our Caravan group are touring the workshop. 

A giant wheel leans against the shop wall. For scale, I asked one of our Caravan party to stand next to it. This wheel is similar to the ones on the giant carreta displayed in the main plaza of Sarchi. Taller Eloy Alfaro constructed that huge cart to help celebrate the naming of La Carreta as the National Labor Symbol in 1988. Later, in 2005, UNESCO designated the painted ox cart as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. I was unable to get any decent shots of the Plaza's huge carreta, since our bus passed it quickly on our way to the taller. However, this photo helps give some idea of the size of the plaza's cart.

Crafting the carretas

Leather belts connect to wheels that turn the machines. Most of the machinery and tools in the shop dates back to the 19th century. 

Device used to construct the wheels. The process somewhat resembles assembling a pizza from its individual, triangular slices. The cart makers use 16 triangular wedges of Spanish cedar, mahogany, or laurel to form a wheel. The screws around the rim are tightened to squeeze the "pizza slices" together tightly after they are glued.

An array of axles stand to one side, waiting for a wheel of the appropriate size. Work in the taller continued even as our tour filed through.

An artisan paints a design on a wood slat, soon to be part of a finished carreta. This requires painstaking work that demands the full attention of the artisan. He never looked up as our group crowded around to admire his creation.

A work table contains finished wheels. A variety of paint pots containing a rainbow of colors share the space with the finished work. Most carts are similar in construction, but all are unique in their painted designs. In the late 19th century, craftsmen began painting elaborate patterns on carretas. The practice rapidly spread to many different pueblos. It reached the point where the origin of a particular cart could be identified by the patterns its creator used.

The painted carts at work

A sugar cane worker chops his way through a stand of cane. In the background, another worker prepares to load the cut stalks into an ox cart. One of the many uses of the painted carretas was to transport cane to the sugar mill for processing. (Photo from a mural at the Doka Coffee Estate)

A carreta loaded with cane stalks pauses for a photograph. A sign under the 1940 photo identifies the boyero (carreta driver) as Teodoro Umaña Brenes. In his left hand he holds a chuzo, or prod, with which he controls the oxen and keeps them moving. The location of the photo is Cemetery Street in the pueblo of San Antonio de Escazú, today a suburb of San José. A typical load required a pair of strong oxen, called a yunta. Oddly, the first carretas were pulled by people rather than animals. As the loads increased, oxen were substituted. Notice the designs painted on the wheels and side of the vehicle.  Dia de los Boyeros (Ox Cart Drivers Day) has been celebrated for more than 30 years.

A worker holds a large bunch of green bananas as a group of women pick coffee beans. Bananas and coffee have been among the top agricultural exports of Costa Rica since the mid-19th century. Sometimes they were grown together, with the banana trees providing needed shade for the coffee plants. This painting is a detail from a large wall mural in the Taller Eloy Alfaro. The mural is a copy of the 1897 original, called Alegoria al Café y Bananas. The 19th century version was painted by Aleardo Villa and hangs in the National Theatre in San José. 

A long caravan hauls sacks of coffee beans to the Caribbean port of Limón. The man standing on the right may be the caravan's leader. Coffee was first shipped from Costa Rica to London in 1843. Soon, long lines of carretas were hauling sacks of beans from highland plantations down rough mountain roads to Puerta Limón. Between 1854-57, a railroad was built to connect San José with Limón. However, even after the advent of railroads, oxcart caravans continued to move sugarcane, coffee and bananas from remote plantations to the railheads. The "golden age" of carretas  lasted from 1850 all the way to 1935.

Workers load sacks of coffee aboard steamships moored at Puerto Limón. This is another panel of the Alegoria al Café y Bananas. A variety of flags fly from the ships' masts, including those of France and the United States. Many of the workers in Puerto Limón were of African descent, similar to the sugar cane worker in a previous painting. Some Africans were brought to Costa Rica as slaves during the colonial period. However, slavery was abolished in 1823, following independence from Spain. Most of the Afro-Costa Ricans depicted above would have been immigrants from Jamaica. They began arriving in 1872 after an employment crisis on their home island. The newly arrived Jamaicans initially worked on the railroad, but later got jobs as stevedores in the port or as banana or sugar cane workers in the interior. 

Yesterday and today

A boyero pauses to chat with a woman at a rancho along his route. Over his shoulder, he carries his chuzo. His cart is empty, so he is probably at the end of his long workday. Notice the painted ox yoke over the lintel of the woman's window. This timeless scene is very realistic, as you will see in the next two photographs.

Our bus paused near a carreta being driven by its boyero through the mountains. We didn't dismount from the bus, but I was able to get this and the next shot through the window. The previous painting and these photos bear a remarkable resemblance. It could almost have been a portrait of this boyero as a young man. Even the black and white spotted oxen look similar.

The boyero relaxes against the yoke connecting his yunta to the cart. Like the man in the painting, he holds a long chuzo. Notice how the yoke has been carved so that it will fit comfortably over the neck of each ox. The beasts stood patiently until we foreigners finished gawking and snapping our photos. The oxen were probably grateful for a break from their long trudge up the mountain.

This completes Part 4 of my Costa Rica series. I hope you have enjoyed it. If you'd like to leave a comment or question, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Que hermoso lugar, hojala algun día me decida por salir a viajar sin preocupaciones y bueno primero conocere Todo lo mas humanamente posible em México


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim