An overview of the Costa Rican painted ox carts including how they are made and ways to directly support the artists who create them.
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Costa Rican ox cart paintings represent one of the most important national symbols of Costa Rica. The brightly colored paintings are generally found in circular or rectangular shape, and are a gorgeous combination of geometric and Baroque painting techniques. You will most often find the paintings adorning wooden objects such as wheels, serving trays, chorreadores de cafe and rocking chairs. Recently you will find the paintings on bridges, churches and painted on walls, electric poles, and even on public busses.
The ox cart paintings have been declared both an official national symbol and an intangible cultural heritage patrimony by UNESCO. This style of painting is a huge point of national pride, unique to Costa Rica, and my personal absolute favorite expression of Costa Rican culture. (You may have guessed as my logos are all created from the colors and styles of this gorgeous tradition. I also had small ox carts as the centerpiece on every table at our wedding.)
In this article I’ll go in depth about this Costa Rican tradition, including its history, the painting process, where to see the art in Costa Rica, and how to easily help keep this tradition alive from the comfort of your own home.
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History of Costa Rica Painted Ox Cart
You can’t really learn about the Costa Rican art without knowing a bit of the history of Costa Rica. Costa Rica has a rich agricultural tradition, and the international trade of coffee beans has long been a huge source of income for ticos.
Coffee is grown in the high hills of the Central Valley, and farmers had to transport goods for trade purposes to the port town of Puntarenas on the Pacific Coast. Ox-herding became the best and only means to transport coffee beans. (Ox-herding ) is also an intangible UNESCO heritage designation, and you can see it happen at one of my favorite eco farms in Costa Rica- La Carolina Lodge.
Over time, families began painting ox carts using shapes and symbols influenced by the 20th Century Baroque paintings of Spain paired with the bright color palette characteristic of much of Latin America.
As the paintings became increasingly popular, the ox carts became a social status symbol. The more intricate the painting, the more money or power the family had. It also became easy to identify the region a family was from by simply looking at the colors and techniques used to paint the ox carts. Another was to hear the “song” of the ox cart- the wooden wheels each had a metal ring that would make a different sound depending on thickness and placement.
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Ox Cart Painting Today – The Process
Today there are about 30 artists who maintain the tradition of painting the ox carts. The painting techniques are passed down from parents to children, and the majority of the painters are based in Alajuela province, home to the town of Sarchi – the cradle of Costa Rican art and culture.
Most artists are employed via the tourism industry- either producing work to be purchased as souvenirs by visitors to Costa Rica, or creating paintings that adorn popular tourist destinations throughout the country.
The process of creating the richly decorated traditional oxcart paintings is intricate. First the ox cart has to be made out of high quality wood- then the artists begin their work.
The traditional circular designs are created on posterboard using rulers and compasses and reused to provide continuity across the different surfaces. Each artist or fabric has their own design- so subtle that sometimes only they can recognize their own work. Artists traditionally do not sign their work- the colors and techniques they use mark it for them.
A base coat is painted on the surface, then the patterns are traced from the handmade stencil. This can be done with pencil or market depending on the artist’s preference. Next the layering of paint begins.
Painting oxcarts is an act of patience as each layer has to dry before the next can be applied- and oil paint in the hot and humid climate of Costa Rica takes a long time to dry! For this reason, artists are usually working on many projects at the same time.
Once the painting is done, it is covered in acrylic and left to dry before selling.
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Meet The Artists
Today you can meet the artists in Sarchi, Costa Rica- located in the Central Valley about 40 minutes north of San Jose and about 40 minutes south of the Poas Volcano.
You can visit an oxcart factory located here- both the Eloy Alfaro and the Jose Joaquin Chaverri factories have artists painting Costa Rican ox carts working daily on site. They love to have visitors watch them paint, and are happy to answer any questions. There’s not cost to visit the factories, but I dare you to leave without purchasing some of the traditional art- it’s impossible for me!
Where To See Painted Ox Carts In Costa Rica
It’s pretty fun to play “spot the paintings” throughout the country when travelling. I have seen ox cart paintings in the strangest places (like on a toilet) and in the most gorgeous places (like used as a bar at a house party).
However, some of my favorite places to see the paintings are the following:
- Sarchi, Costa Rica. Do not miss the painted bridges between Sarchi and Grecia. I love the “world’s largest ox cart” in the park in Sarchi and visiting the main church to see the paintings adorn the outside.
- Every year at the end of August there is a traditional ox cart parade in San Ramon- ticos bring ox carts from all over the country and parade them through town. It’s a lovely, lovely tradition as part of the San Ramon days festivals.
- Ox Cart Drivers are celebrated the second Sunday in March in Escazu, another huge parade of ox carts and celebration of all things Costa Rica.
- Punta Leona hotel has the most gorgeous ox cart used as the
- Hacienda Guachepelin has lovely ox carts throughout the
- Hampton Inn at the airport. I just stayed here and each room has the most gorgeous ox cart wheels throughout.
- El Jardin Souveniers– there is one located just outside of San Ramon, and another just north of the famous Crocodile Bridge on Route 34. The entire building is painted with ox cart swirls and traditional Costa Rican agricultural and nature scenes. It is truly a sight to behold- and the stores are locally owned and support Costa Rican artesians.
- San Jose Central Market – a fun place to visit, and a great place to see and purchase traditional Costa Rican ox carts.
- La Carolina Lodge– this is one of the only places I have stayed where the farmers are working the oxen just as was done over a hundred years ago. It’s amazing.
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Support The Artists Now
Costa Rican ox cart painting is a dying art. There are many people throughout the country who know how to do it, but are unable to make a living wage sharing their talents. This is for several reasons:
- The demand for these pieces is not as high as many people feel the cost is too great to purchase them. Cost of living in many places in Costa Rica is as high as the United States, but people still want to “get a deal” and pay the artists less than they are worth.
- With the rise of computer technology, many people take photos of the ox carts, create a digital file of the work and then mass print it on t shirts, socks, menus, cell phone cases, hats, headbands, purses and more.
- Traditional painting is not a viable career path for the next generation due to the aforementioned, and so the next generation is not carrying on the tradition.
You can support artists even if you aren’t visiting Costa Rica. For the first time in the United States, the fashion line El Canto is available via ecommerce.
El Canto Costa Rica is a fashion line developed by Vanessa Chacon in conjunction with Don Luis Madrigal, one of the most beloved and iconic ox cart painters in Costa Rica. Together, they created a fusion of traditional ox cart painting with modern Costa Rican fashion to create original earrings, scarves and more. The designs were hand painted and then digitized and used to create gorgeous products that are a great addition to any closet.
You can purchase earrings laser cut from lightweight wood and then hand painted by Don Luis himself using traditional colors and styles of the ox cart tradition. Every purchase directly supports Costa Rican painters and women owned businesses.
Shop the products now, and share this post with anyone who loves art and sporting artesians. And as a reader of Pura Vida Moms, you can enjoy 15% off your first El Canto purchase by using the code YOAPOYO which translates to I SUPPORT.
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