At an elevation of nearly 5,000 feet (1,435 meters), Cartago is a city-town that’s located at the base of the Irazú Volcano in the central valley of Costa Rica. The city of Cartago is the capital of the Cartago province. It was the first capital of Costa Rica from 1574-1823. In 1824, the nation’s capital was assigned to San José for political reasons and because San José is a better location for commerce and culture. Today Cartago combines its history with cultural traditions and ecotourism attractions.
Besides its rich colonial history leading to becoming the first capital of Costa Rica, Cartago is known for its church, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels. The Basilica is home to Costa Rica’s patron, the Virgin de Los Angeles.
Mixing traditions with cosmopolitan lifestyles, an annual pilgrimage is still celebrated by devote believers. The pilgrimage (called the Romeria in Costa Rica) takes place every year during the days before August 2nd. People come not only from all over the country, but internationally as well to give thanks for prayers answered. The interior of the Basilica is beautiful to admire; there’s also a museum in the Basilica telling its legendary story. It’s worth the time to walk through.
While you are in Cartago, you can visit the ruins of the old “Parroquia” (parish) in downtown Cartago. A nicely landscaped park in the middle of town surrounds the Parish ruins making it a very pleasant stroll.
Nearby is the city market with colorful displays of fresh fruits and vegetables from provincial farming communities. It’s a great place to get your picnic supplies and natural fruit snacks. In and around the market are local delicatessens and “sodas” (small café-type restaurants, often family-owned) where you will be sure to find typical Costa Rican dishes on the menu. By the way, water in Costa Rica is very safe to drink. At restaurants, look around; be careful not to confuse simple with unsanitary.
The traditional Costa Rican “casado” could be the most well-kept secret about typical Costa Rican foods. “Casado” is Spanish for “married.” It’s the “union” on your plate of a portion of 6 items: rice, beans, salad, picadillo*, a meat-chicken-pork-or-fish selection, and fried plantains. It’s a wonderful way to experience local cuisine. “*Picadillo,” by the way, is a vegetable of the day diced and cooked with herbs and a small amount of ground beef. Although you may find jars of pickled vegetables or spicy sauces on the table, Costa Rican dishes are not typically spicy.
On the outskirts of Cartago, are two important ecological tourist hotspots you won’t want to miss. Be prepared with comfortable shoes, water and snacks, and an umbrella just in case!
Lankester Botanical Garden is named for the British orchid specialist who established 10.7 hectares of garden reserve in 1917. Eventually, the American Orchid Society and the Stanley Smith Foundation (U.K.) purchased the grounds. In 1973 the lands were donated to the University of Costa Rica to steward both the advancement of botanical research and the conservation of the gardens for public enjoyment.
With many beautifully landscaped gardens, including a Japanese rock garden, Lankester Botanical Garden is a fabulous walk for adults and children. Nearly 3,000 plant species are found in the 26 acres of gardens. There is a huge greenhouse that displays an unbelievable variety plants, including succulents and cactus species native to Costa Rica. Even so, there is no question that the estimated 1,000 orchid species are the primary attraction.
Orchids can be seasonal, but Lankester always has a delightful collection of orchids on display and at eye level, giving you the opportunity to examine these beautiful plants up close. Probably the best time to visit is from February to April, when the most flowers will be in bloom. However, with so many different species, you’re sure to find a few in bloom no matter when you visit. Birdwatchers, be sure to take your binoculars! Many tropical birds also make their homes in Lankester Gardens.
Whether you’re taking a break from Costa Rica’s beaches and other cities, or just escaping from San José for the day, a trip to Irazú Volcano National Park is an experience you’ll remember. Just 19 km northeast of Cartago, it’s an especially educational experience for children and adults alike.
Irazú Volcano is the largest and highest volcano in Costa Rica, standing at an altitude of 11,260 feet (3,432 meters), and over 300 miles (500 km) around its base. Wear warm clothes and shoes for this adventure. It gets very cold at the crater’s edge; with nighttime temperatures dropping low enough to create dew-frost.
Irazú is an active volcano even though its last eruption was in 1963. Scientists have noted changes in the color of its lagoon and there have been recent rumblings. The dry and dusty, moon-like terrain leading up to the edge of the Irazú crater is as amazing as the view down into its crater.
The province of Cartago is known for its historical significance, for the Basilica and being the country’s religious shrine. Its also recognized for its highly productive farming communities, making it the bread basket of the nation. If you love watching birds and seeing orchids and other botanical wonders, Lankester Botanical Gardens is a must-see destination. It’s like an ecotourism trek through the native rainforests of Costa Rica, but without the climbing challenges. Likewise, a visit up into the cold, cloud forest climate of the Irazú Volcano National Park is another uniquely Costa Rican ecotourism experience you won’t want to miss.
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