Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Exploring Cartago, Costa Rica

For those who are interested in one location that is historical and scenic as well as religious, the city of Cartago includes it all. Conveniently located approximately 15 miles southeast of the capital city of San José, it has the distinction of being Costa Rica’s first Spanish settlement that dates back to 1563. The population rapidly expanded due to the fertile, volcanic soil in the valley and the proximity to the scenic mountains. This ideal location was established as Costa Rica’s capital and the Spanish constructed some of the most spectacular colonial structures in the country as proof of their power.

Photo by Dirk Van der Made
This city has had a very dramatic past. First of all, it was nearly destroyed by a massive eruption of the Irazú Volcano in 1723 and it was repeatedly damaged by earthquakes with the latest one in 1910. According to news reports, the 6.4-magnitude earthquake lasted 16 seconds and it killed at least 800 people with estimates that reached as high as 1,000 in the surrounding region. Today, there are very few structures that remain intact but fortunately the primary ruins have been preserved in a beautifully landscaped park situated in the center of the city. The ruins are a testament to the vulnerability of this location and the well-known basilica is an incredible example of prosperity and religious devotion.

Although there are a number of reputable tour companies based in San José that can take visitors through the area, Cartago can be easily reached by bus, car and even train. The Lumaca bus company provides buses that depart from the Plaza de la Cultura in San José approximately every 10 minutes between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. Buses also depart from the corner of Calle Central and Avenida 3 in San José. Buses back to San José are conveniently located just north of the Parque Central in between Avenidas 4 and 6, and Calles 2 and 4 in Cartago. Depending on traffic, the journey can take up to 45 minutes. For those who choose to drive, the trip is fairly easy. Take Highway 2 east out of San José and follow it until Highway 10, which leads directly into Cartago. There is also a train system that frequently runs from Tren El Atlántico on the eastern side of San José directly into the Estación del Tren (train station) just north of the center of Cartago. They are not as fast as the direct buses, but they are certainly more comfortable.

What to See in Cartago

Photo by Daniel Vargas
Ruinas de la Parroquia de Santiago Apóstol: Also known as Las Ruinas, are located at the Parque Central. They stand as reminders of nature's power of destruction in the area. According to Costa Rica’s Tourism Office, the construction of the original church began in 1575. From a period that lasted until 1910, this church suffered major damage from five major earthquakes only to be rebuilt by its persistent (or stubborn) residents. But after the last one devastated the city in 1910, a decision was made to abandon the reconstruction of the church. Its stone remains now serve as the eerily beautiful centerpiece of a landscaped park that includes plenty of quiet sitting areas and walking paths.  

If you get hungry after taking the five-minute walk from the ruins to the basilica, I recommend grabbing a bite to eat at La Puerta Del Sol on Avenida 4 between Calles 14 and 16. Located downstairs from the Los Ángeles Lodge, this small restaurant has been around since the 1950s and it offers a wide variety of Tico specials in addition to delicious burgers. The menu ranges from breakfast staples such as gallo pitno con huevo to slow-cooked lengua, which is known to us as beef tongue.

Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles: Located at Calle 16 and Avenida 2, this church (seen above at the top of the post) is easily the city’s major attraction and one of the country’s most visited locations during the month of August. According to the legend, on August 2, 1635 a young girl was sitting by the river as the image of the Virgin Mary appeared in the form of a small, black doll on a rock. Despite removing the doll from the spot and locking it away, it reappeared back at the river. This "miraculous" location was chosen by the Catholic Church to be the site of a cathedral and it was completed in 1639.
Photo by Zack Stack
Although the structure fared much better than other sites against the earthquakes, it was also damaged in 1926. But it was rebuilt in a highly decorative Byzantine style that is peculiar to some visitors and breathtaking to others. Inside its ornate interior is a shrine containing the small, carved, dark-stone statue of the Virgin, which is also known as La Negrita (the Black Virgin). It is surrounded by hundreds of silver trinkets left as thanks for her mysterious healing powers that have miraculously healed many visitors with a variety of ailments. Each August, millions of devoted Catholics make the long pilgrimage to the basilica to honor La Negrita, who is also the country’s patron saint. Many even choose to crawl on their hands and knees in extreme devotion.

1 comment:

  1. Volcanoes, beaches, ruins, architecture, and great food - there isn't much else anyone could ask for in Costa Rica. It's little wonder why it is one of the best tourist spots in the world.