They turn up everywhere in Costa Rica: the brightly painted carts pulled by miniature pairs of oxen made of wood are found in the all the souvenir shops, in seemingly every town in the country. On the roads of the rural towns nestled in the hills surrounding the Central Valley, the real thing is often seen being led by a man dressed in worn work clothes and rubber boots with a machete hanging off his waist. The farmer, his cart and oxen are not as common a sight as they were in the past, but they are figures deeply etched in the hearts and minds of Costa Ricans. The painted oxcart is the official symbol of labor in Costa Rica, but it represents much more than daily toil.
Costa Rica Oxcart
Once the only means of transportation, /a carreta, pulled by a faithful pair of oxen, carried produce to market and served as a taxi for travelers, an ambulance for the sick and often a hearse for the dead. As many as a thousand carts a day carried coffee to the Pacific Ocean port of Puntarenas for exportation, allowing this small country to begin an exchange of goods and culture that has marked "the Rich Coast's" openness to free trade and innovative ideas since the mid-1800s.
The decoration of the carts began as their use in coffee exportation diminished and the locomotive took over the job. At first it was the cart owners themselves who began painting their beloved vehicles. The beginning of the 1900s then saw workshops springing up all over the Central Valley, each one boasting its own particular style of cart decoration. But it was the unique mix of organic and baroque designs painted on the wheels and side panels of the oxcarts by the artisans of Sarchi that made this kind of folk art internationally renowned.
The cart and oxen were so integrated into Costa Rican life that they were considered part of the family. Always included in civic and religious celebrations, the painted oxcart of the 20th century was a source of pride to their owners, much like the family car is for some people today. It was also a source of inspiration for the artists of Costa Rica during the 1930s and 1940s. Thanks to a new awareness of the value of their homeland and culture, Costa Rican artists stopped looking to Europe for aesthetic models and began to paint what was once taken for granted. Along with the adobe house and lush tropical scenery, the painted oxcart of Costa Rica is a national icon and was declared a part the Heritage of Humanity Program by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2005.