Costa Rica’s Traditional Small Town Life

I’m a city boy through and through. When I moved recently to Escazú, a suburb of Costa Rica‘s capital San José, I figured I’d be enmeshed in urban culture.

This is, after all, the biggest city in the country, and the surrounding area is home to three-quarters of the country’s citizens. There are modern shopping malls, movie theaters with the latest releases, and gourmet markets with imported favorites like Spanish cheese and American beer.

But it turns out there are plenty of little enclaves like villages that still hold fast to tradition despite having been swallowed up by the sprawling metro area years ago.

This is very evident in Escazú, which is about seven miles southwest of downtown San Jose. Every Saturday there is a traditional feria, or farmers’ market, on the main street by the town square. Homes made of adobe still line the streets. And the older generation sitting in the park still speak of “the capital” as a far off destination, even though it’s just 20 minutes down the road.

Escazú’s past comes most alive during El Dia del Boyero, or Oxcart Drivers’ Day, which is on the second Sunday in March every year.

It’s a celebration of not just the town’s agricultural heritage, but also the entire country’s. The focus is the oxcarts, known as carretas, that hauled crops from farm to market and served as general cargo vehicles before motorized transport. “Trains” hundreds of carts long also brought coffee from the mountains of the interior Central Valley to ports on the coast in the 19th century.

Although they were true work vehicles, oxcarts were brightly-painted with intricate geometric designs inspired by flowers and stars.

The carts aren’t much in use these days on the farm. Some of my neighbors still keep oxen on their property. They graze occasionally in the empty lot next to my house. But in garages and under tarps they store and lovingly maintain their family’s oxcart, which may be many decades old.

Starting in the early morning hours, the drivers and their oxcarts start lining up on San Miguel de Escazú s main street, running next to the town plaza and church. Clad in boots, jeans, and cowboy hats, they rein in the massive impatient oxen until the procession begins. And it’s not just the older generation taking part. Children of 10 and 11 years of age are put in charge of full-sized oxen. Their faces are set in concentration as they remember the lessons their father and grandfather no doubt taught them to keep the animals under control.

A brass band on a flatbed truck provides a pumping, lively Latin soundtrack when it’s time to start walking. The group marches up hill to the town of San Antonio de Escazú. There a town-wide celebration takes place, with traditional marimba music as the soundtrack and plenty of dancing.

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