Last Updated: Apr 19, 2012
Summary: First capital of Costa Rica; boasts the country's most notable Catholic church.
Landscape: City, Mountains
Attractions: Guayabo National Monument, Irazu Volcano National Park, Lankester Botanical Garden
Activities: Hiking, Shopping
Caters to: Culture Aficionados, Day Trippers, Families, Independent Travelers
When Spanish governor Juan Vasquez de Coronado founded the city of Cartago in 1563, he claimed that he’d never seen a more beautiful valley. The verdant mountains and fertile land were soon claimed as Costa Rica’s capital, and the Spanish constructed the most majestic colonial buildings in the country.
Location: 14 miles southeast of San Jose
Average Temperature: 68-73°F
Altitude: 4,930 feet above sea level
Despite its physical beauty and ideal location, Cartago’s story is marred with drama: In 1723, a major eruption of Irazu Volcano almost completely destroyed the city. 100 years later, in 1823, Cartago lost the civil war, and Costa Rica’s governmental seat was relocated to its current position in San Jose. Later, in 1841 and 1910, two large earthquakes laid ruin to what was left of Cartago’s proud history. Irazu’s last major eruption occurred in March 1963, on the same day that John F. Kennedy arrived in Costa Rica.
Today, the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles, named for the Patron Saint of Costa Rica, is a spectacular reminder of the city’s past. On August 2, 1635, legend has it that the Virgin Mary showed herself as a small, black doll to a young girl named Juana Pereira. After the doll disappeared and reappeared several times at the creek where Juana had found it, the Catholic Church agreed that the Virgin wanted a cathedral built on that spot. The graceful church is today considered the holiest in Costa Rica, and every August 2, the faithful make their pilgrimage to the site.
Today, Cartago is a small but bustling city, and a hub for outdoor attractions. Lush, green fields encircle the city, shade-grown coffee seems to grow everywhere, and the history is tangible. Cartago is also a gateway to the popular Lankester Botanical Garden, Irazu Volcano, Turriabla Volcano and Guayabo National Park.
- Irazu Volcano – This powerful, though currently docile, volcano is the largest and tallest in Costa Rica. Emerald-green water fills the crater.
- Guayabo National Monument – Located outside of Turrialba, this is Costa Rica’s only major archaeological site.
- Lankester Botanical Garden – Famous for their orchids, the beautiful gardens are located in a small town fittingly called Paradise (Paraiso).
Buses from San Jose run every 10 minutes between 5:00 am and 10:30 pm. A one-way ticket costs $1.10. Buses depart San Jose from Calle 5, Avenidas 18/20.
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