Originally pulled by men, not oxen, oxcarts (known as carretas) were a tool used early in the coffee trade of Costa Rica. It wasn’t until the loads grew too heavy for human strength that the oxen were used to move coffee. Combining the Aztec disc and the spoked Spanish wheel, high- quality wood and a sturdy design, the oxcart was created to sustain a variety of rough terrains including mountains, curvy roads, rivers and beaches.
It is said that the first export of Costa Rican coffee to London was hauled on an oxcart from mountainous coffee-growing areas all the way to Puntarenas on the Pacific coast. Many a coffee-hauling trek were made from the Central Valley to Puntarenas; the round trip lasted anywhere from 10-15 days. Oxcarts were used to transport more than coffee however; entire families would pile into their cart for travel. Not entirely different from today’s methods of transport, a family’s oxcart was a sign of social status.
Declared the Costa Rican National Labor Symbol in the late 80’s, each cart sings to its very own “tune” produced by a metal ring that chimes against the hub-nut along the wheel. While oxcarts are used in other Central American countries, the Costa Rican oxcart has gained esteem because of its unique and beautiful hand-painted decoration. The origin of an oxcart could be determined by its decoration, as designs were region-specific. In fact, annual competitions were held to reward the most creative, talented artisans. Such competitions are still celebrated today.
Use of the oxcart for transport of both coffee and people became nearly obsolete after World War II due to the introduction of new technologies like trains and trucks. Nevertheless, the oxcart remains a proud symbol of Costa Rican history and is still seen at local festivals, for purchase among the many shops in the traditional manufacturing town of Sarchi, or as an ornamental object on display like the one seen on the farm of THRIVE Farmers’ Founder Kenneth Lander. This very special oxcart came from the famous oxcart factory of Chaverri in Sarchi, Costa Rica. Although it was never used for carrying coffee to the port of Puntarenas, with the help of Ken’s oxen Max and Leo, it did carry the very precious cargo of the children of San Rafael in local parades including Ken’s granddaughter Cecilia.
We are grateful for the oxcart. It reminds us of the hard work our farmers’ families have put into the mountain farms for centuries; work that has inspired farmers even today to proudly and boldly press forward despite modern-day obstacles. We are honored to be a part of this journey together with them.