Carretas (oxcarts). Cafetals (coffee plantations). What could the two possibly have in common? Both are internationally recognized symbols of Costa Rica.
Costa Rican coffee we all know about right? Do you remember in 2012 when Costa Rica Finca Palmilera, a coffee made from a rare Arabica cultivar called Geisha grown in the Tarrazú canton, set the record for the most expensive coffee in US Starbucks stores—at $40 a bag—selling sold out in less than a day?
Planning our trip, Magellan and I booked a night on a coffee planation. We chose La Casona del Cafetal because it was small (six bungalows) and not far from the Lankester Botanical Gardens, which we wanted to visit. It’s the first place we had “sock-coffee!”
Traditionally, Costa Ricans, who take their coffee seriously, brew it using a chorreador, a piece of cotton suspended on a wire frame like a sock functioning like a drip filter. Our waiter at La Casona poured hot water (“never boiling,” he said emphatically) slowly (I mean slowly, he walked away and came back) into the chorreador. It may be the best coffee I’ve ever enjoyed, strong but smooth, not acidic, perfect viscosity, a hint of the richness of chocolate.
Here in Costa Rica’s Orosi Valley the fertile soil, cool climate (it was raining when we were there) and high altitude are ideal for coffee growing. The first Arabica beans, which have the least caffeine but the most desirable flavours, were brought to Costa Rica in 1779 from Jamaica. Costa Rica went through a bad patch of growing other subpar species but now it’s the only country where executive decree mandates that only Arabica species can be grown. The result—award-winning coffee at international contests, from small cafetals, most of them with less than a dozen acres. Costa Rica exports 90% of its coffee production, which accounts for 11% of the country’s export revenues.
The next day we got a glimpse of how coffee beans were driven across Costa Rica for export in the past—and even today where the roads are too rough for modern vehicles or the locals can’t afford a truck or farmers prefer this vehicle for transporting their harvested beans to a main depot for order-processing.
I’d looked at Sarchí in our Moon guide, a red star beside Fábrica de Carretas Eloy Alfaro and this description: “a piece of living history—the only workshop in the country still making Costa Rica’s famous carretas (oxcarts) featuring the 16-pie-wedge- piece wheel bound with a metal belt.” Not interested I thought and moved on.
I sent our itinerary to my cousin Heather for a review by friends of hers who have travelled to Costa Rica many times. Sarchí, they said, was one of their favourite places—we’d be remiss to miss it.
Spanish colonizers brought European-designed carretas to Costa Rica to be used for transportation and farm work. But in the rugged, muddy terrain of Costa Rica, the spoked wheels kept getting stuck and breaking. In the 1840s a new design based on the indigenous Aztec disc was incorporated into a solid wood wheel (spokeless), bound by a metal ring that could cut through mud without getting stuck and was easy to handle on curves and hills. You can imagine how beneficial this adaption was for coffee growers.
Carretas have either two or four wheels, 120-150 cm in diameter, attached to oxen with either chains or ropes. The front section of the cart has a place for a driver and passengers to sit and the back section is open for beans or other cargo. For many families, carretas were the only means of transportation.
A one-way trip from the Tarrazú valley over the mountains, rivers and swamps to the Pacific port of Puntarenas or the Caribbean port of Limon could take 10-to-20 days. An industry arose: ox-herders, highway guards, smithies, innkeepers, teamsters and road crews.
For a few hours we stepped back in time at Fábrica de Carretas Eloy Alfaro. Magellan, whose father Ed was a great woodworker, his grandfather Arthur a master woodcarver in the churches of England, was besmitten with the tools, the smell of the wood and the engineering. It was the artistry that captivated me.
I’ve read two stories as to who came up with the idea to use the wooden wheels of carretas as an artistic canvas. A woman, Arguedaz Saens, the wife of a cartmaker in San Ramón and Joaquin Chaverri, a cartmaker in Sarchí.
It’s said that in the early 1900s Joaquin decided to beautify his oxcart for family outings. He painted his oxcart bright orange because that was the only paint colour he had. Over time, individual families created their own unique design and colour scheme—no two oxcarts in Costa Rica are painted exactly the same although it’s said you can identify the region by looking at the geometric patterns, flowers, animals, landscapes and even portraits. Annual contests are still held to award the most creative designs. Wheel, moving art!
Wheel, singing art too!
In addition to individualizing its oxcart with artwork, a family had its carreta customized to make its own “music,” a unique chime created when a metal ring struck the hubnut of a wheel.
In 1988, the vibrantly painted oxcart was declared the National Labour Symbol for Costa Rica and in 2005, UNESCO proclaimed Costa Rica’s carretas an Intangible World Cultural Heritage. Today they’re mostly used for celebrations.
I bought coffee for Lynn and Ward at Fábrica de Carretas Eloy Alfaro and when we returned from Costa Rica, one of the first things I did was search for a bulk supplier of Costa Rican coffee beans. We’re now ordering a five-pound supply of Tarrazú from a company called Northern Coffee in Toronto. They roast and ship the beans the same day for free, via Canada Post, and they’re in our coffee maker five days later. The price per pound is 19% less than our habitual supplier in Vancouver and the Tarrazú coffee tastes 19% better. Especially when we associate it with the colourful artistry of carretas.
Near the town of Paraiso in the Orosi Valley is La Casona del Cafetal, a coffee plantation on Lago Cachi with six bungalows and a restaurant and grounds set up to attract wedding parties.
Morning and afternoon, Northern Coffee’s half-and-half blend of Costa Rican Tarrazú keeps Magellan and I stoked for the day.
We do recommend you put Fábrica de Carretas Eloy Alfaro on your itinerary if you’re planning a trip to Costa Rica in 2022 or 2023 or later.