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Atenas, Costa Rica: Mules, Oxcarts and the Railroad

Costa Rica has a lot to share and you, a lot to discover from this small country, including a fairly interesting, if relatively history, though much little known outside the country. This is the case of how mules, oxcarts, and trains, which through time helped to create an important route for the future development and growth of the country, all happening in Atenas, Costa Rica.

Let´s go back in time to give you a little taste of the situation in Costa Rica in colonial times.

In the year 1640, the only way to get around countries in Central America, was through a well known road - if you can call it a road - named “Camino Real” the Royal Road. These paths and trails left San José and continued its way down to a narrow bridge that crossed the Rio Grande River in Atenas, making all the way to Guatemala.  During the 19th century, the coffee export expansion started to increase and became Costa Rica´s most important export product, which led coffee growers to put a lot more interest in the building of a new road uniting the Central Valley with the port of Puntarenas, where coffee was sent to Europe through the Cabo de Hornos in South America. The road was then built in 1843, replacing mules for oxcarts and oxen giving it the commonly name of “Camino de Carretas” (Oxcart Road). 


This road became very important for Atenas since it was the reason for its development and growth as many “sesteos” or boarding houses sprang up along the way to accommodate the boyeros (ox cart drivers) as well as stables where the oxen and horses could rest. Nights filled with music from guitars, accordions, and the typical marimbas surrounded the environment either serenading lovers or setting up the stage for an unforgettable “bailongo” (tradicional dancing party) , while the smell of fresh poured coffee and other typical foods such as tamales and tortillas captivated  the oxcart drivers or “boyeros”, who sometimes traveled along with their families, to spend the night in town.



The road grew very much in traffic but remained narrow in many sections, causing accidents and even fights, and it was necessary to start setting up a set rules and fines in order to organize the oxcart movement.  Some of them restarted travelling right after the “bailongo”, where they had drunk more “Guaro de Caña” (sugar cane moonshine) than they could handle and jumped in their oxcarts and let, literally, that their good old friends, the oxen, drive them since they knew the way home by heart. This gave birth to the Costa Rican saying “montarse en la carreta” (jump on the wagon) referring to somebody who is drunk.

The road lost its importance in 1910 after a new rail service started, losing out against progress and new technology. The camino de carretas made some of the towns along the way, including our lovely town of Atenas, become a distant memory in the heart of the people of Costa Rica.  

But Atenas did not want to disappear. It  continued its way to grow back and be recognized for its importance as a coffee growing region filled with majestic landscapes and one of the best climates in the world, and since the railroad passed through the heart of the town it allowed visitors from the capital city to continue enjoying this lovely town.

 Nowadays, the train doesn´t work anymore and the only thing remaining which stays intact is a vast group of sweet memories from those good old railroad times, which are carefully and perfectly stored at the Atenas Railway Museum located at the same old railway station. This museum has been opened to the public since September of 2001 and receives visitors on Sundays and holidays from 9am to 6pm.

The museum displays samples of photographs, tools, and objects used during those old railroad times. It is a very nice way to come close with this piece of Costa Rica´s history and for the visitor a unique opportunity to go back in time and understand how everything combined to build what is today Atenas.


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Try Atenas Real Estate. Reliable realtors Dennis Easters and Gerardo Gonzalez-Porras of Pure Life Development of Atenas offer the best Atenas homes for sale and Atenas real estate.


article by Gabriela Serrano

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