Every month we try to get out and about and visit something interesting in our adopted home of Costa Rica. This time it started inauspiciously but finished perfectly.
Some months ago we had asked our long time driver/guide Sterling to concoct a tour of disappearing Costa Rica for guests with, like us, an interest in history. Our goal was not merely to provide a new tour but at the same time find new ways to support some of the old traditions. Perhaps some additional revenue for some ancient craftsmen might keep them in business for another generation for future visitors to learn about ancient crafts.
Another Tradition Probably one of the greatest success stories in Costa Rica for the revival and development of an old tradition are the indigenous Borucans and their mask carving and painting in the southern zone of Costa Rica.
A Day Trip
But we needed something that would work as a day trip from the Pura Vida Hotel which began inauspiciously with the following conversation. I called up our trusty guide one morning i knew him to be free and said, "OK we're ready for the trip to the Trapiche." After a moments hesitation on the other end of the phone Sterling replies, "Um it's closed." "Ugh, too late!".
Fortunately there are 1 or 2 more "Trapiches" with public access not far from the hotel so off we went. NOTE: we'll get to the unique Trapiche later. The trip started with our English speaking guide, Sterling, picking us up after breakfast and taking us along the back route of picturesque villages and coffee plantations to Sarchi, a 35 minute journey from the Pura Vida Hotel.
The Living Museum Tour Kicks into Gear
On the way we did a brief visit to the old metal church of Grecia (inaccurately attributed to a bad delivery destined for Greece) then on to the nicely tidy church at Sarchi, the artisan capital of Costa Rica.
Sarchi, Capital of Everything Wood
Sarchi is known for it's lovely hand painted ox carts for tourists, wood works, rocking chair makers as well as being the center of most other furniture making in Costa Rica. It is also home to what I have to refer to as "the living museum" of Elloy Alfaro and Sons.
Sarchi is a model of success when it comes to Costa Rican villages. Painted bridges, clean and well organized, souvenir stores, a nice church and so on. In the old days the oxcart was the only means of travel other than horseback along the muddy and deeply rutted trail from the central valley to the only port of the country.
On their first night out of San Jose the oxcarts had need of repairs and Sarchi was a 1 day oxcart ride from San Jose . . . and thus began the evolution of Sarchi into todays picturesque and "well to do" town of wood artisans.
Sarchi is really 2 towns Sarchi Norte and Sarchi Sur but you'll not know which one you are in . . . we made our way to the church, the center of nearly all Costa Rican towns. This now has an enormous oxcart in front but we had come not to tour but to visit with perhaps the last oxcart builder in Costa Rica.
Eloy Alfaro y Hijos
You feel like you should be tying up your horse or ox at the front "door" of the Alfaros oxcart "factory" rather than stepping out of a shiny 2009 Toyota Hiace. As you peer into the unlit rooms (unlit except for sunshine pouring through many "openings") You are reminded of Victorian era factory photographs.
Everything and I mean everything is in some way connected to a rubber belt or a wheel or a mechanical gear. It is a fully equipped machine shop in every way except one. There is no electricity.
A long steel pole runs all the way down the shop connected to belts and gears and machinery for cutting, milling, shaving, grinding etc etc. This pole leads back to a giant waterwheel driven by a rather small stream which has been diverted into a sluice that runs over the top of the water wheel.
Installed in 1923, rebuilt in 1934 and 1965!
An impressive brass plate shows this wheel was installed in 1923. There is an "off switch" of course. You pull on this wooden pole which diverts the water off the wheel and the whole shop grinds literally to a halt!
A family business
The Alfaro workshop is a family business and is headed up by two brothers Uriel and Fernando both now in their 70's. They are very happy to show you around and introduce you to everything going on in this busy place. Downstairs they make the wooden oxcart wheels including the steel hubs. Their workshop though focused on the old arts of oxcart making in fact needs to stay afloat with other kinds of woodwork.