Visit Cartago, a city of traditions and religion.

By Silvanna Pacheco, June 5th, 2023

The town of Cartago is located just 40 minutes away from downtown San Jose. It is the heart of Cartago’s Province, home to the Irazu and Turrialba Volcanoes. Taking a day off to explore this city will be the perfect plan to learn about Costa Rica’s history while taking in the great views of the green hills and the rural towns around it.

Arriving downtown Cartago, you will notice it is a charming city with small local stores, traditional  Costa Rican restaurants, “panaderias” or bakeries and fruit stands. In the heart of the city you will find Las Ruinas de Cartago, our recommended first stop. It is a small but enchanting place with a mystic background. Built in 1575, it was destroyed by the 1841 earthquake.  A few years later it was rebuilt but destroyed again in the 1910 earthquake.

The ruins are surrounded by mysterious legends that have stemmed from the history of failed constructions and natural disasters. This site is a National Monument and an important part of the local culture and Costa Rica’s religious past.

Continuing on that same street, just 5 blocks away from La Ruinas, you will find The Basílica de los Angeles, a Roman Catholic church dedicated to La Negrita or Virgen de Los Ángeles , also bearing a legend about a black stone Madonna statue that appeared on a rock and could not be removed. This Basilica was built around this statue.

Cartago is a very religious town and has many legends, traditions and beliefs. Every year, millions of people take part in the Costa Rica Pilgrimage. The pilgrims come to offer their prayers to “La Negrita”. This Basilica combines traditional Spanish colonial styles with Neo-Byzantine influences, creating a stunning and instantly recognizable building.

A few steps away from La Basilica you will find the Centro Cultural Victoria where local art is on display and you can enjoy a good morning coffee with local pastries while visiting an old beautiful house with the original tiles. This Centro Cultural offers daily classes for adults and kids on folkloric dance, music, drawing and languages among other interesting subjects.

For lunch time, this city offers a wide selection of restaurants from authentic Italian restaurants to crafted burger joints. Many cafeterias offer simple food like sandwiches and casados (the classic Costa Rican dish with rice, beans, salad, a choice of meat and sweet plantain). I do recommend always checking in advance for restaurants rating and their opening hours.

After lunch, continue to Lankester Botanical Gardens. Lankester is a beautiful garden displaying a great collection of orchids and a Japanese style garden with a lake. It offers a very peaceful environment where kids can run around and you can take great photos. This is one of the most active scientific institutions of the American Tropics founded by an Orchidologist and Naturalist named Charles Lankester and in 1973 it was donated to the Universidad de Costa Rica.

If you feel like exploring the Cartago area a bit more, you can continue to Orosi Valley to enjoy some of the most scenic views in Costa Rica. This small town is home to the oldest catholic church still in use, dating back to 1743. Next to it, The Tapanti National Park is located only a few kilometers from the Orosi town, in the Central Conservation Area of Costa Rica. In 1983 it was declared a World Natural Heritage Site and it is known as one of the rainiest places in Costa Rica offering lush and dense forests to the avid hiker.

Cartago gives a great cultural value to our country. The old houses, the small streets, the churches but especially the old people living here that are full of stories. Take your time to listen and observe your surroundings while visiting this colonial city. And remember, when visiting the small towns of Costa Rica you are helping a local farmer, a local artist and a small business in exchange for an original product or a tasty fresh meal.