Part historic artifact and part artistic masterpiece, carretas are one of Costa Rica’s most iconic national symbols.
Originally used in the 1880’s to transport the country’s growing supply of coffee and other goods destined for export, these traditional wooden oxcarts slowly evolved into the country’s most celebrated craft.
Vibrant colors and intricate painted designs often involving flowers, geometric shapes, landscapes and mandala patterns are all hallmarks of these traditional carts. It is believed that painting the carretas originated as a means of protecting the wood from decay and later developed into a way of identifying carts by region and farm. By the 20th century, carreta painting had transformed into a veritable art form complete with cart design competitions that exist to this day.
Though carretas may no longer serve as a primary mode of transportation, they remain an integral part of the Costa Rican culture and identify. Visitors can take a ride on one of these colorful works of art at many of the nation’s coffee plantations or marvel at the designs during a festive ox-cart parade. If nothing else, travelers are sure to encounter carretas in some shape or form as a souvenir: from carreta-inspired table tops to miniature oxcart planters for the garden.
The Artisans of Sarchí
While carretas are celebrated all throughout the country, the small village of Sarchí, located in the northern province of Alajuela, is renowned for producing the most beautiful oxcarts in all of Costa Rica. Visitors to the village can admire countless examples of this craft at the local market where artisans hand paint traditional carretas, wooden bowls, jewelry, furniture and oxcart souvenirs. Sarchí is also home to the Joaquin Chaverri Oxcart Factory, the oldest and largest carreta factory in the country.
Interdisciplinary Art & Spanish Student Project: Making Carretas
Why not transform learning about Costa Rican carretas into a hands-on, interdisciplinary Art/Spanish project?
In the Spanish class, students can read authentic texts and watch videos about carretas and discuss the historical significance of this famous art form. Learning about this cultural craft could also be incorporated into a larger unit on the country of Costa Rica.
With the cooperation of the art teacher (or as an art project within the Spanish class), students can then be tasked with the hands-on art project of painting their own carreta design.
Teachers can provide students with circular pieces of wood (found at a local craft/hardware store) or circular cut-outs of cardstock which will be painted to mimic the iconic carreta wheels. Integrated art/Spanish lessons can involve discussing traditional Costa Rican painting styles/colors, teaching Spanish vocabulary related to art (ex. giving painting instructions) and critiquing finished products.
As a closing activity, students can write a short descriptive text about their finished product as well as a brief reflection about the experience of working on an interdisciplinary project. The beautiful carreta wheels can be displayed throughout the classroom or school and will serve as colorful examples of integrated language learning.
Benefits of an Interdisciplinary Art/Spanish Project
Research has repeatedly shown that an interdisciplinary approach to language teaching has a profound, positive impact on student learning and success.
By combining a cultural, Spanish language lesson with art, teachers are able to increase student engagement and build student background knowledge by providing context necessary for learning. Art can serve as a language learning scaffold and provide teachers with a fun and easy way to differentiate instruction for different types of learners.
Admire Carretas During Your Student Trip to Costa Rica
When planning a student trip to Costa Rica, don’t forget to include a stop in the village of Sarchí to browse the famous arts and crafts market and watch local carreta artists at work.