Shopping in Grecia and Sarchi
Costa Rica is often synonymous with adventure, pristine beaches and active volcanoes: in short, a paradise for the eco-tourist and wildlife enthusiast. While rainforest treks and canopy tours are commonly recounted, you seldom hear visitors raving about the souvenirs or handicrafts they picked up on their journey. For those in search of traditional woodworking and true craftsmanship in Costa Rica, a visit to the artisan town of Sarchi is a must. Located in the Central Valley among rolling hills and sugar cane plantations, Sarchi is the arts and crafts capital of the country. Less than an hour's drive from San Jose or Alajuela, Sarchi's rich artisan history attracts tourists and Ticos alike.
I had visited both Grecia and Sarchi nearly seven years ago with my ESL students on a field trip and remembered the large quantities of furniture on display, all hand-crafted by local woodworkers. Having recently moved to a new home, I was in the market for some unique furnishings. The sun was shining as I hopped into the car, eager to re-visit the agricultural and artisan towns of Grecia and Sarchi. I was hoping to find some rustic pieces, a style common in the furniture workshops of Sarchi.
I left early to make the most of the sunshine. The rainy season is officially here, which typically means brilliant mornings and sporadic afternoon downpours in the Central Valley. Hillsides turn a deeper shade of jade, landscapes are lush and the rains bring cool air; all in all, perfect weather for a day trip.
Following signs to Grecia, I exited the main highway, where backcountry roads snaked through coffee and sugar cane plantations, leading me to my first stop. I parked next to Grecia's immaculate Parque Central and quickly realized how this village earned the award for cleanest Latin American town. Not so much as a scrap of paper could be seen on the ground and street cleaners were out in full force.
The east side of Parque Central is bordered by the vibrant Cathedral de la Mercedes. Made of metal in an unusual brick-red color, the church was built in Belgium in the 1890's and shipped to Limon where it was carried by oxcart, piece by piece, to Grecia. The Gothic-style, twin-towered church was packed with Grecians participating in mass at 9:30 on a Thursday morning.
While I saw a few furniture shops scattered throughout town, I was saving my major shopping for Sarchi, just a few kilometers northwest of Grecia. Before continuing on, I stopped at a soda on the corner of Parque Central and indulged in one my favorite snacks, a picadillo-filled empanada: finely diced, perfectly spiced potatoes with bits of chicken or beef stuffed into a small pie shell and either baked or fried until golden brown. Top it off with some hot sauce and you have a pocket of spicy deliciousness.
The five kilometer stretch between Grecia and Sarchi winds through even more beautiful scenery and is dotted with the occasional tipico restaurant, souvenir store and small supermarket. As I approached the outskirts of Sarchi, shops lined both sides of the road, each displaying colorful hammocks, hand-tooled rocking chairs and the hallmark of Sarchi, the oxcart. An important part of Costa Rican history, the oxcart was used in the mid-nineteenth century to transport coffee and other goods from the Central Valley to the port cities of Puntarenas and Limon. For many rural families oxcarts, or carretas, were their only means of transportation. A well-built, elaborately decorated oxcart was something of a status symbol in those days.
Today, Sarchi is still heralded for its beautiful oxcarts, some of the best of which are handmade in one of two factories in town. I stopped at the Joaquin Chaverri Oxcart Factory, where large oxcart replicas can be purchased for $300 to $450. Wall-to-wall with oxcarts of all sizes and colors, the factory also sells leather and wood rocking chairs ( priced around $100), beautiful bowls carved from guanacaste (Costa Rica's national tree), traditional coffee makers known as coffee socks, along with the requisite coffee mugs, magnets and T-shirts. Just as I was getting that tourist trap vibe (a large tour bus pulled up), I came upon the factory's workshop, where artisans patiently painted the wheels and bodies of the oxcarts, a tradition passed on from one generation to the next. I had to stop and appreciate the hard work that went into these cultural symbols.
Sarchi is spread out over several kilometers and lacks a real downtown area. Its Parque Central is dominated by a massive red oxcart which is a great spot for photos.
The town's pretty church was undergoing renovation, its yellow and green paint chipped away, exposing patches of the older pink color that I remembered from my last visit. The candy-colored stained glass windows livened up the otherwise drab facade.
I moved on to the Plaza de la Artesania, where more handicrafts, mostly made from tropical hardwoods such as teak, mahogany and rosewood, were on display. I wandered next door where a small furniture shop sold everything from modern sofas to elegant seven-footdining room tables carved from melina (also known as white teak). A full dining room set with five chairs sold for $500 to $600. The shopkeeper was pleased to tell me that most of the furniture was crafted in wood gathered from reforested plantations.
I stopped in several other furniture shops, and browsed everything from ornately carved headboards ($400-$800) to cottage style rocking chairs ($200) and contemporary sofa sets ($600-$1000). The stores were spacedapart in such a way that you could park your car and walk to several and then drive a half a mile and repeat the process.
I saw several signs advertising "muebles rusticos" and after searching a bit found a beautiful rough-hewn table and chairs made of eucalyptus. At $300, it was a fair price and perfect for my new kitchen.
A big fan of pre-Columbian art and pottery, I also picked up a couple of stylized animal figures ($8-$15) for future gifts. While Sarchi had its share of commercial souvenir shops, there were plenty of smaller, family-run workshops off the main road, where woodworkers were onsite, crafting furniture by hand and available for questions. In terms of styles, there seemed to be something for everyone, from rustic to French colonial. Patrons can also custom order specific upholsteries and styles in many of the larger furniture factories. Most stores will ship furniture within the country at a reasonable cost, and some of the smaller pieces can be shipped internationally.
Getting There: From San Jose, take the autopista (Highway 1) towards the airport and take the San Ramon exit. From Alajuela, take the La Garita Road towards Atenas and turn right at the San Ramon exit. For both: follow this highway for four miles and stay in the right hand lane, as the Grecia exit sneaks up on you. Continue and follow signs into Grecia. If going directly to Sarchi, turn left just after the Grecia bus station, before you reach Grecia's Parque Central, and continue straight for four or five blocks until you reach an intersection. Turn left and follow signs the remaining three miles to Sarchi.