In the misty coffee-growing altitudes of the Central Valley is Costa Rica’s colorful crafts center, Sarchi. You’ll know you’ve arrived to the sprawling village, scattered throughout the rolling foothills of the Cordillera Central, when you begin to see beautiful hand-carved furniture displayed in front of pretty family homes and workshops along the side of the road.
The town of Sarchi is a stop on just about every tour that rolls through the region, including the popular day-trip packages from San José that take in either Poas Volcano and Doka Coffee Estates, or one of the hot springs close to Arenal Volcano. No matter what your ultimate destination, if your tour bus goes through the area, chances are you’ll stop at one of the immense handicrafts shops near the city center.
This might not give you the best perspective on this unique and fascinating town. While the large stores are a fine place to pick up gifts and souvenirs—ranging from polished tableware and sculpture made from rich tropical hardwoods; Costa Rica’s fine wood-and-leather rocking chairs, collapsible for easy transportation; and just about every sort of kitsch you can imagine—Sarchi’s heart lies among the independent crafts shops hidden throughout the hills.
While most Ticos (Costa Ricans) now come here to shop for fabulous hand-made furnishings for their homes, Sarchi was originally famous for its exceptionally high-quality carretas, or ox-carts. These were used during the Colonial and coffee-growing eras for transportation along Costa Rica’s rough rainforest roads. You can see them on parade at municipal festivals and, if you get far enough off the beaten path, still in daily use on isolated farms and homesteads in the countryside.
Sarchi’s carretas are known for their intricate, colorful mandalas, hand-painted by men who have dedicated their lives to the craft. A fine example of their artwork is unmissable in Sarchi’s central park, where the “World’s Largest Carreta” is on vibrant display. (Also be sure to check out Sarchi’s truly gorgeous church, nearby; the interior woodwork is exceptional.)
Several shops still make full-sized, fully operational ox-carts emblazoned with the traditional mandalas. The most famous, located right on the main road through town, are Joaquin Chaverri Oxcart Factory and Eloy Alfaro Fabrica de Carretas, both in operation for well over a century. Stop by to see the craftspeople at work, or purchase an extra special souvenir to ship back home.
Most travelers, of course, forego the full-sized carretas, and stick to the souvenir models on display all over town, even at the handicrafts shop where all the tour buses are parked. Regardless, adventurous souls might want to ask their guides how long they’ll have in town, and perhaps take that time to explore a little more. Or, better yet, come back to Sarchi on your own, spending hours (or days) learning more about the rich history of Costa Rica’s carreta culture.