Just 30 kilometers northwest of Alajuela, in a steep-walled valley whose slopes are richly planted with coffee trees, is the village of Sarchi. The Rio Trojas separates it into two parts: Sarchi Nome (north) is the larger of the two and was built at a lower elevation; Sarchi Sur (south), one kilometer east of its big brother, is smaller but noticeably livelier. Its name is believed to date back to the early Aztecs and their word for “under the volcano,” xalachi.

Sarchi has been famous for decades in Costa Rica for its fine handicrafts. The tradition has its roots at the beginning of the 19th century, when the first colorfully-painted ox carts (carretas), with their large wooden wheels, were developed in the village. They are still to be seen in the fields of the Costa Rican highlands – usually drawn by honey but tough zebu oxen and driven by old men whose faces are tanned to the color of leather.

Shops in Sarchi Sur, the higher-lying part of town, sell handicrafts made of exotic tropical wood (often, unfortunately, from trees felled in virgin rain forest). The items range from musical instruments, chess boards and pieces, letter openers and jewelry boxes to salad bowls, rocking chairs, serving platters, miniature ox carts, statuettes and carved figures.

Leather goods are also sold and include belts, sandals, vests, hats and wallets. On weekends, Ticos who come up from the cities mingle with the crowds, creating a mass of local and foreign visitors and filling Sarchi’s streets and shops to the point of bursting.

There is no problem when the comfortable rocking chair or colorful ox cart is too big to fit into a traveler’s luggage. Most shops offer a special service, packing and shipping bulky souvenirs to the buyer’s home address.

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