Sarchí  is famous as the home of gaily decorated wooden carretas (oxcarts), the internationally recognized symbol of Costa Rica.
At the height of the 19th-century coffee boom and before the construction of the Atlantic Railroad, oxcarts were used to transport coffee beans to Puntarenas , on the Pacific coast. In the rainy season, the oxcart trail became a quagmire. Costa Ricans thus forged their own spokeless wheel to cut through the mud without becoming bogged down. In their heyday, some 10,000 cumbersome, squeaking carretas had a dynamic impact on the local economy, spawning highway guards, smithies, inns, teamsters, and crews to maintain the roads.
Over time, the carretas became adorned with geometric starburst designs in bright colors set off by black and white. Flowers soon bloomed beside the pointed stars. Faces and even miniature landscapes soon appeared. And annual contests (still held today) were arranged to reward the most creative artists. The carretas had ceased to be purely functional. Each cart was also designed to make its own "song," a chime produced by a metal ring striking the hubnut of the wheel as the cart bumped along. Once the oxcart had become a source of individual pride, greater care was taken in their construction, and the best-quality woods were selected to make the best sounds.
The carretas, forced from the fields by the advent of tractors and trucks, are almost purely decorative now, but the craft and the art form live on in Sarchí, where artisans still apply their masterly touch at workshops. A finely made reproduction oxcart can cost up to $5,000.
Only one workshop – Taller Eloy Alfaro (tel. 506/2454-4131) – actually makes traditional carts. Fortunately, it's open to view and makes for a fascinating visit. The Alfaro family can be seen making yokes and 11 different types of oxcarts in traditional manner, with the lathes and tools all still powered by an age-old waterwheel. Go just after dawn to see the red-hot metal frames being put on the 16-pie-wedge-piece wheels. You're free to wander around at will, but take care of all the whizzing belts and pulleys!
See my Moon Costa Rica  guidebook for details on this and other venues.