When I first arrived in the small town of Sarchí, in the heart of Costa Rica, I was more than a little sceptical. If there was every a town that screamed tourist trap, this was it. Filled with hundreds of small handicraft shops, the town can at first glance seems like one big gift shop. Add to that the “world’s biggest oxcart” at the center of town and it is easy to think you have stumbled upon one of those middle-of-nowhere road trip tourist traps.
To say my first impression was wrong is an understatement. Yes, Sarchí is a town famous for handicrafts and souvenir shops but this is not the average “Made in China” junk you find in souvenir shops around the world. Here real artists, masters in their crafts, produce pieces that are truly one of a kind. From wooden bowls to hand carved furniture, the work here takes ordinary household objects to a new level.
That being said, before you can see the real beauty and art of Sarchí, you have to get past the not so subtle tourist trap mask. Any place that claims the “world’s largest _____” immediately comes off as a tourist trap unless they are talking about something actually grand, like the world’s largest temple or the world’s largest waterfall. Back in the US you see the roadside signs – world’s largest ball of twine or world’s largest light bulb – and either avoid at all costs or stop just to see the ridiculousness of it all. These are not travel highlights, more like just weird attractions to distract from a long road trip.
The famous World’s Largest Oxcart of Sarchí falls into this same category. Built in 2006, the creation of the oxcart was a bid to get the town’s name in the Guinness Book of World Records. It worked and today every traveler who drives through Sarchí seems to stop for at least a photo with the brightly painted cart. I was no different and once I had taken the obligatory touristy photo, I was ready to get back in the car and leave. Thankfully I was traveling with a local who knew that first looks can be deceiving and immediately marched me into the nearest “souvenir shop.” I use quotes because the shop was far from what I expected. Instead of thrown together crap, marked up for tourists, I found really incredible pieces that you could tell took real work. Sure, plenty of the shops also had a corner stacked with Costa Rican coffee and “Pura Vida” fridge magnets, but at the center of their shops were the real handcrafted gems.
Oh, and that painted oxcart at the center of town? Turns out it is more than it seems as well. Not only is Sarchí today home to some of the best handicrafts in Costa Rica, it is also home to the vast majority of the remaining oxcart artists.
Oxcarts in Costa Rica have an interesting and beautiful history. Originally used by farmers throughout the country, the oxcart was the main means of transportation of both goods and people throughout colonial Costa Rica. The oxcart design here is unique, using a spokeless wheel which is a sort of hybrid between an early Aztec disc wheel and the Spanish spoked wheel. The carts were vital to the coffee industry of the 19th century, transporting the beans from the central valley to the coasts, a journey of 10-15 days.
Gradually, the oxcarts became more than just a means of transportation. Farmers traveled with their oxcarts throughout the country and they became a sort of representation for the success of the farmer and his family. Taking pride in their carts, farmers started to build them with better quality woods, paint them with decorative designs, and even creating a unique “song” for their carts by adding a metal ring near the hubnut which would strike the metal and create a specific sound, or song, as the cart bumped along.
Painting styles became even more important as different coffee regions of Costa Rica developed their own individual style. Carts, at the larger markets, could be identified as to where they came from based solely on the painted motifs. By the early 20th century, painting oxcarts had become a serious artform with not only unique patterns but also flowers, faces, and even landscapes being added to the designs. Contests were set up at the markets to award the most creative artists and oxcart painting became a serious business.
Eventually, as proper roads became the norm, cars and trucks replaced the old oxcarts. It was more important to farmers to invest in new farming equipment and machinery than to repaint or repair old oxcarts. Even so, the artform of the painted oxcarts never really died out. Farmers saved their old carts, which continued to be used in parades and during festivals. Oxcart artists continued to create new designs and improve their craft. That being said, the oxcart went from everyday necessity to something only used on special occasions and as such, fewer artists were needed. Today only a few true oxcart painters remain and many call the town of Sarchí home.
As the art of oxcart painting has begun to decline, UNESCO has taken notice and awarded the tradition a title as a Masterpiece of Intangible Heritage of Humanity. While this has attracted some new attention, few younger generation artists are learning this unique art style. A few of the old masters of oxcart painting have set up workshops in Sarchí where visitors are welcomed to visit and see the process. These are the people keeping the tradition alive and while yes, Sarchí comes off as a bit of a tourist trap, spending some time and money in these shops is a great way to support this unique artform.
A great place to visit to see actual oxcart artists is the Fabrica de Carretas Eloy Alfaro. This oxcart workshop is not only the oldest in the country, it was also responsible for building and painting the “World’s Largest Oxcart” at the center of Sarchí. Before you can even walk into the actual workshop, you will first have to make it through the massive gift shop. Yes, it does take away a bit from the authenticity of the craft but it is also an important part of preserving the art of oxcart paintings, which isn’t exactly a lucrative business anymore.
Behind the gift shop you’ll find the workshop/museum. This is a real, working factory where they not only paint the oxcarts but actually build them from scratch. Walking through the woodworking machinery is like visiting a museum, with many of the machines dating from the 1920s and all of them run on traditional hydropower. After expertly carving each cart, the factory then brings in the painters, who add beautiful, bright colored art to every square inch of space. You can see the painters at work most days and if you speak Spanish, they are happy to answer questions about the styles and traditional motifs of the oxcart paintings. Also don’t miss the display of old oxcart wheels. The wheels show the different painting styles through the decades and also make it clear that this is a time honored tradition.
It is easy to see a tacky tourist shop and staged photo ops and just assume that a place is no more than a tourist trap. I’m very guilty of this quick judgment. However, just as they say every myth has an ounce of truth, most tourist traps probably have a bit of something really fascinating at their core or else why would people have come in the first place? Sarchí is a small town of artisans, preserving their old traditions and passing on their knowledge. If they have to wrap all of that in a shiny, new bow to attract a few paying tourists, that is a small price to pay to preserve the true talent of the oxcart artists.