Just 10 years ago the boyero, his bueyes and his oxcart were designated as intangible human heritage. To mark the anniversary, there will be an art and design contest on this theme.
The boyeros, of course, are the men who guide the bueyes, those huge oxen who pull the cart. They still are in service in rural areas, but the keeping of bueyes and oxcarts also has become a hobby.
During the 19th century continuous lines of oxen, their drivers and carts filled with coffee stretched from the Central Valley to the Pacific ports over what today is the Interamericana Norte. The Cerro de la Muerte on the highway today got its name from boyeros dying from exposure while overnighting on the journey.
The rail line and motor transport put long-distance oxcart travel out of business.
Yet the brightly and intricately colored oxcarts and their wheels have become the signature emblem of Costa Rica.
That is a curious development because oxcarts in the 19th century were generally drab. It was an Italian in Escazú who began the tradition of brightly painted carts at the beginning of the 20th century. He was inspired by the traditions of his home country.
The contest this year is sponsored by the Centro de Investigación y Conservación del Patrimonio Cultural of the Ministerio de Cultura y Juventud.
There are three categories and they are named after famous oxcart artisans.
The artisan category is dedicated to Sigifredo Garro Cordero, who is known for building and painting the yokes that fit over the animals’ shoulders.
The art category recognizes Emilia Prieto Tugores, who was involved in the first parade of oxcarts in 1935.
The design category recognizes Daniel Alfaro Corrales of Sarchí, who designed the modern cart or carreta.
Artists who wish to participate can sign up and get detailed rules at the centro’s office on the downtown pedestrian walkway opposite Librería Lehmann. There are money prizes that range up to 1 million colons for first prize in each category.
As might by expected, the oxcart has entered folklore, too. The carreta sin bueyes is not what expats want to run into when lurching home from a night of drinking. The carreta is heard long before it is seen due to the unique sound of iron hoops on cobblestone.
The story is a disrespectful boyero had issues with a priest in Escazú and tried to drive his cart into the church. The oxen declined to do that and presumably ended up in oxen heaven.
The boyero was condemned to prowl the city seeking sinners. He usually is depicted as a man in a coffin upright in the bed of the cart, which is being advanced by a giant Devil hand.
The last Sunday of November is the traditional time for a parade of bueyes and oxcarts in San José. It is the official opening of the Christmas season. The parade will be Nov. 29 this year.