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The Oxcart Path to Sarchi
It’s not many trips that offer you a bare knuckle ride two days in a row. Yesterday, we were expecting adventure. Today, we were expecting a quiet drive along the Oxcart Path to the colourful little town of Sarchi about an hour or so from El Silencio.
There is a tour to the village, but the hotel’s excursions board (see more on the accommodation review) wasn’t offering it, so we opted for a local taxi with a wait of 2 hours to allow us to explore the town. The tour would have cost $93 each and lasted 6 hours (including 2 hours driving). A local taxi cost $80, so quite a saving.
Sarchi’s claim to fame is that it is home to one of Costa Rica’s most famous crafts – the traditional painted oxcart, which is recognised by UNESCO as an example of world cultural heritage. Carefully hand decorated in their entirety with designs based on Costa Rican plants and flowers, these oxcarts have become something of a national symbol for Costa Rica.
Their initial use dates back to the late 1800s when they were the main mode of transporting coffee beans to markets along very poor roads. It took a couple of weeks to get the coffee to where it needed to be. They were replaced by motor vehicles back in the 1970s but today, they still play a major role in parades and religious celebrations and of course, the tourist trade. You can see how they make and paint the oxcarts at Fábrica de Carretas Eloy Alfaro, just west of the town centre, 100m north of the Palí supermarket.
I was curious to know – why did they bother painting the oxcarts? It must have taken a long time and cost quite a bit in paint and labour? Apparently, different regions – and sometimes even individual families – developed their own particular design and colour scheme to distinguish their valuable oxcarts from others and protect them from being taken and used by someone else.
There is not really much else to see in Sarchi, but it is always interesting to spend some time in a typical town when you are visiting a new country. Even just walking through a supermarket and comparing prices is all part of a journey. A typical Casado lunch, for example, costs you 2500 colones in Sarchi ($4.4), including a drink. At the hotel, it costs $20, with drinks on top. We bought a litre of local beer in Sarchi for $4. It costs $9 for a small bottle (330ml) in the hotel, so we saved nearly half the taxi fare! Everything was priced in colones, but dollars were readily accepted, with change given in colones.
The church is very pretty – built in the 1950s and beautifully decorated. If we had had a car, we would have visited the Else Kientzler Botanical Garden, which has over 200 species of flora, but that is the penalty for not self-driving – a loss of some freedom. On balance, being driven was definitely the right decision for us.
The climate was very different in Sarchi even though it was just an hour away. It was 27 degrees C there and very hot and sunny compared to 22 degrees C up in the mountains of Bajos del Toro. Umbrellas were being widely used for shade here rather than for protection against the rain.
The road wound slowly past coffee and sugar cane plantations. The coffee industry developed differently in Costa Rica from the rest of Central America where a narrow elite controlled large estates worked by tenant labourers. In Costa Rica, the production was entered on small scale growers with a wide network of high-end traders supporting them with progressing, marketing and financing. Another example of how Costa Rica has fared better than its neighbours.
The drive to Sarchi was along very steep, winding roads with some gravel sections.
It was fine on the way there, but the return journey was a different matter with the car’s engine failing on the steep slopes five times. This trip turned into more of a thrill seeking experience than we were expecting.
We drove the whole way with the engine alert light flashing holding the grip rails tight and hoping the taxi wouldn’t break down on us. We were very glad to get back to the Lodge.
Casado Tipico – A traditional Costa Rica lunch comprising seven ingredients – usually beef/chicken/trout fillet wrapped in cheese, fajitas with rice, beans, sweet plantains, hash of the day and creole salad.
Gallos Ventanas – Don Rafael Yglesias Castor – ex-president of Costa Rica (1894 – 1902) was known as “el gallo”. A chef had the idea to place a bean in each of the tortillas to make the folded tortilla looked like a Gallo (rooster). The idea caught on and people began to order “gallito” or “un gallo”. Eventually, the tortilla got missed out and the dish became a small portion of food – mainly rice, beans and salad – popular in the countryside.