By Julia Henríquez
Photos: Demian Colman
A main street, a church, and a colorful plaza straight out of a fairy tale provide our first impressions of Sarchí. We have come here in search of oxcarts –Costa Rica’s national symbol since 1986– and the history behind this tradition that has been part of the national culture for more than a hundred years.
In the plaza, trees helpfully identified by their common and scientific names surround a flowery garden where wooden chairs slowly fill with courting teenagers and mischievous children.
An oxcart far taller than I is the town showpiece; it is exhibited with all the pride artisans traditionally have in their handicrafts. A plaque informs us that the cart was built at the Eloy Alfaro Factory, so we know where to go.
The factory is run out of an aquamarine wooden house that looks precarious, but is still standing after one hundred years and several earthquakes. The building was declared a culturally-significant site by Costa Rica and UNESCO, a designation that protects it from sometimes misguided human decisions.
Eloy Alfaro’s youngest son, Uriel, emerges from among the machinery to welcome us and relate the story reflected in his sad eyes.
The atmosphere immediately takes me back to my childhood, making me feel like a visitor to the lair of the mad scientist in Beauty and the Beast. It is a fantasy, but it feels so real I can almost touch it. I am, in fact, in the home of a visionary who devoted his life to this beautiful artisanal work and raised his family here.
The inner workings of the factory are just as Mr. Eloy Alfaro arranged them many years ago: a waterwheel powered by a small natural stream that makes the house vibrate as it runs cables and pulleys that activate cutters, polishers, and drills. The house trembles perilously, but it is only the magic and power of invention.
Uriel leads us from station to station as he recalls how each one of his brothers specialized in one part of the process. He himself works with wheels and bolts. He tells us that the second floor was added many years after the first; it contains a pair of generators that provide extra energy. Everything else is powered by the waterwheel, or time machine, as it were.
Uriel was born here, as were his six siblings, and they all learned the art from their father. The wheels, the body, and the paint are part of an art that represents the very essence of the artisans’ being. These are artisans who were born and bred to make oxcarts. Uriel is the only one of his brothers who still works in the factory and his eyes fill with tears when he talks about his family and the thousands of memories lodged in these walls.
We are now standing in front of the house. Some years ago, the land changed hands and the new owner built a handicraft store and restaurant here. Across the way, artists paint outdoors, taking their inspiration from colorful birds and earning praise from curious tourists who watch them work.
Uriel tells us about how his father taught him to read; the day his nephew revealed he was getting married; his meeting with “that big-nosed Frenchman who makes movies” [Gérard Depardieu]; the time he met President and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Óscar Arias; and the dark days when he buried his father and each of his brothers, one by one.
“The oxcart, the drover, and the yoke were what pulled this country forward,” he says, remembering the words of his father when we asked how this tradition began. “Before the automobile took over, oxcarts crossed the country as a means of transportation and a way to carry crops, and they were even used as ambulances. At the time, the cart was merely a two-wheeled box drawn by oxen. The painting came later. No one really knows how it started, but there are several legends that explain how more color came to be added to the Costa Rican landscape.”
“In 1904, when my father was seven, he saw a man called Mr. Césped do the first brushstrokes,” notes Uriel. In those days, when there were “oxcarts here, there, and everywhere,” it was difficult to find paint. Once, a child painted some lines on an oxcart and the drover said: ‘That doesn’t look too bad,’ and he added a circle. ‘Dang, that’s pretty!’ And since we like to copy each other, one person added to the design, another put in more details, and so on until the entire cart sported bright paint. The evolution took one hundred years!”
As I look closely around the workshop, the colors and shapes take on a new meaning. Now they are even more dazzling and impressive. Here, the painters are the stars and their hands produce work that will travel many miles, representing this country of traditions.
The factory employs five painters and six carpenters. Juan, one of the painters, has never been outside the country but through his painting, his spirit has traveled the world: “Every cart contains a part of me; I travel in my paintings,” he says.
Everyone in the Eloy Alfaro Factory works from the heart; it is deeply ingrained in the culture of the place. The artisans and painters welcome tourists and share with them everything they know about their work. If you like, you can even take a photo of yourself “painting” for the camera.
The seventy-something Uriel continues to make the same bolts he knew as a child. He is the last Alfaro to work at the factory, and although he has an apprentice, he will not leave here until he is carried out feet first. “I am the only one left; I was the last to arrive and I will be the last to leave. No one can take that away from me.”
He is a charming person who opens the doors to his home, his history, and his heart to anyone interested enough to ask. This happy man and dedicated artisan has seen his father’s lifework become a symbol of the country. The painstakingly built factory has survived the passage of years, but it now echoes with the melancholy steps of its last heir.
We were told, “They make oxcarts there,” but we never imagined that this tiny corner of the world and its little-known history would make such an impression on us.
Oxcarts are generally made of mahogany wood.
Since there was no electricity when the factory was founded in the 1920s, Mr. Eloy Alfaro used the millrace, which still provides energy today.
The oxcart has been the national symbol of Costa Rica since 1986.
The factory was named part of the UNESCO Intangible World Heritage in 2005.
Monument to the Oxcart
The Institute of Tourism commissioned it in 2006.
The Monument took nine weeks to build; four painters worked for five and a half weeks to decorate it.
In 2014, it was necessary to repair weather-induced damage, and the Monument was moved to a new location equipped with a roof and protective railings.