The coffee and craft town of Sarchí, in the northwestern Central Valley, has long been associated with oxcarts, going back to times when coffee was conveyed to the Pacific port of Puntarenas in convoys of carts.
A halfway point in the heart of coffee country, between Alajuela, northwest of San José, and Puntarenas, the town was a convenient rest stop during the heat of the day or the heavy rain. Sarchí is still known for its oxcarts and the traditional designs adorning the town’s walls, benches, bridges, bus stops and anything else with a paintable surface.
Today it is a popular tourist spot known for carved wooden furniture and souvenirs in traditional designs.
Recently, however, oxcart history took a giant step forward with the construction of the largest oxcart in the world.
For the record, the Guinness book of world records, that is, the cart is 14 meters (about 45 feet) long and weighs two tons.
Built to scale, it is five times the size of a normal oxcart, according to Fernando Alfaro, whose factory built the enormous wagon. The idea came from the local tourism bureau, and the cart went on display July 13 to celebrate the feast of Sarchí’s patron saint, Santiago the apostle, July 16.
Though a parade of carretas drawn by oxen was part of the festivities, the huge one was pulled by a tractor to a permanent space in front of the town culture center.
The cart is made of cedar and is painted with four coats of orange paint and the multicolored, intricate design typical of Tico oxcarts. Construction and painting took a total of 70 days.
One of the many stories of the origin of the designs, according to Alfaro, is that carts were decorated with real flowers for processions and parades, but the flowers wilted, so owners began to paint flowers on their carts.
“That’s just one version,”Alfaro says.“ Who knows for sure? But some designs leave a space in the center for adding flowers.”
Another old-time story says that the designs copy the ones found on compasses. Building oxcarts was a major industry in Sarchí in the early 1900s, when the huge coffee plantation La Luisa needed lots of carts to haul its coffee. The Alfaro factory was bought by Alfaro’s father Eloy in 1923, and still runs on waterpower from channels that once carried water to the coffee processing plant on the plantation. The force of the water pushes a giant water wheel, which drives the pulleys that run the saws, sanders, drills and lathes that make the carts, trunks and other carved wooden furnishings.
Contrary to the common belief that oxcarts are part of the past, demand is growing as farmers now use them for work and for parades.
“It’s a matter of pride and economy as the price of diesel and gasoline go up,” Alfaro says.
The huge orange cart is mighty impressive, but where might they find a beast big enough to haul it? We’ve heard that up in Minnesota there’s a blue ox named Babe that might do the trick