The people again look to a bygone era to represent the Tico ethos. The symbol for the Costa Rica National Symbols of Work and Labour, is the ‘Carreta’, the Spanish word for oxcart. The Carreta is a suitable icon for Costa Rica’s workforce since it played a key role in the Country’s development. This old-world vehicle, a hard-working, rugged farm unit, was “the people’s work-horse.” Today the Carreta, is found on display on farms, and during ceremonial events. Beautified with paint and other adornments it honors and represents the past.
How does such a primitive, almost forgotten mode of transportation rise to be Costa Rica’s National Symbol of Work and Labour?
Why does it hold a place of high prominence amongst Tico’s most treasured possessions?
The answer is deep-rooted in Costa Rica’s history.
Historically, the Carreta was the only means of transport for goods moving through the mountainous, rugged, unpaved terrain of Costa Rica. There were no paved roads, railway lines, or other forms of transportation available. So, the Country’s earliest economic development was dependent upon it.
After gaining independence from Spain on September 15th, 1821 and during the brief alignment with the Federal Republic of Central America, foreign exports began. The Carreta was called upon in the early 1830’s to transport coffee shipped to Chile. After the Republic was disbanded, in the 1850s, it hauled coffee for shipment to the UK. The railway did not come to be used until the 1880s, leaving transportation dependent on the Oxcart. It remained this way for over 50 years.
Carretas transported coffee beans from the mountainous Central valley to the low-lying sea ports of Puntarenas on the Pacific Coast. The coffee trade boomed and was soon joined by green bananas as another major export crop shipped overseas. From the 1800’s till the end of World War II, the Carreta was the Ticos main mode of transportation, until vehicles became more widely available in the aftermath of the War.
The Oxcart was so important that it became a status symbol for families, who colourfully decorated them to personalize them. It worked by day and was decorated as a hobby. Often the artwork made them identifiable as having come from a particular region. Over time, the decorations became more stylish and included scenes, faces, landscapes, celestial signs, flowers and other patterns. Competitions were held during the year, as is the case today, for the best looking Oxcart. The final awarding of the Best-In-Show Ribbon had special ‘Bragging Rights’ that included a prominent place at the head of the next parade.
Carretas are sturdy wagons made entirely of wood, drawn by oxen to haul the heavily laden carts instead of horses. The body and wheels are brightly painted. Sometimes there is the sound of a signature chime, accomplished by fitting a metal ring on the axle, which strikes the ‘hub-nut’ as it turns.
A unique feature of Carretas are the wheels, which are spoke-less and carved entirely of wood. The solid wheel was chosen in preference to the spoke wheel because it is harder to bog-down a solid wheel in the muddy fields. The spoke wheel was introduced by the Spanish Conquistadors but a solid wheel was preferred by the Costa Ricans.
Though the painted Oxcart is found on display, as National Symbols of Work and Labour it also still used in some situations. ransporting goods between the many small towns, their planting grounds, and coffee sorting houses, the Carreta’s are still used for transportation. However they are mostly found as a decorative symbol found throughout Costa Rica. The owner of a Carreta takes great personal pride in its appearance and craftsmanship. Many on display, await any opportunity to appear at a festival, bull fight, folk ceremony or fiesta.
Carretas can be found on route to the Blue River Costa Rica Resort and Hot Springs, as you travel through villages or on the many farms throughout the Guanacaste countryside and on the slopes of Rincon de la Vieja. When coming across the National Symbols of Work and Labour, it will be a wonderful photo opportunity.