Founded in 1563 by Juan Vásquez de Coronado, Cartago, meaning “Carthage”, was Costa Rica’s capital for two hundred and sixty years. The centre of power was moved to San José in 1823. Like its ancient namesake, the city has been razed a number of times, although in this case by earthquakes instead of Romans. Plan your trip to Cartago with our guide to Cartago — based on the The Rough Guide to Costa Rica, your travel guide for Costa Rica.
The best travel tips for visiting Cartago
Seismic events in 1823 and 1910 almost demolished Cartago. In fact, most of the town’s fine nineteenth-century and fin-de-siècle buildings were destroyed. And what's grown up in their place – an assortment of shops and haphazard modern buildings – is not particularly appealing.
Nowadays, Cartago functions mainly as a busy market and shopping centre, with some industry around its periphery. The star attraction is its soaring cathedral, or basílica, dedicated to La Negrita, Costa Rica’s patron saint.
El Día de la Negrita
The celebration of the Virgin of Los Ángeles (El Día de la Negrita) on August 2 is one of the most important days in the Costa Rican religious calendar. At this time, hundreds of pilgrims make the journey to Cartago to visit the tiny black statue of the Virgin. She's tucked away in a shallow subterranean antechamber beneath the crypt in the town’s basílica.
It is a tradition in this grand, vaulting church for pilgrims to shuffle down the aisle towards the altar on their knees, rosaries in hand as they whisper Hail Marys. Indeed, many will have travelled like this from as far away as San José to pay their respects.
Top attractions and things to do in Cartago
While most of the city was demolished during the seismic events in 1823 and 1910, this city still has enough attractions and things to do to keep you busy. The old ruins are worth visiting as well as some cathedrals.
#1 Visit Las Ruinas
The ruined Iglesia de la Parroquía, known as Las Ruinas, dominates the paved Parque Central. It's as popular with a cacophony of roosting great-tailed grackles as it is with the townsfolk.
Originally built in 1575, the church was repeatedly destroyed by earthquakes but stubbornly rebuilt every time, until eventually the giant earthquake of 1910 vanquished it for good.
Only the elegantly tumbling walls remain, enclosing pretty subtropical gardens.
#2 Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles
Cartago’s cathedral, properly named the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles, was built in a decorative Byzantine style after the previous basílica was destroyed in an earthquake in 1926.
This huge cement-grey structure with its elaborate wood-panelled interior is home to La Negrita, the representation of the Virgin of Los Ángeles, patron saint of Costa Rica.
On this spot, on August 2, 1635, the Virgin reportedly appeared to a poor peasant girl in the form of a doll made of stone. Each time the girl took the doll away to play with it, it re-appeared on the spot where she had found it. Seen as a sign, the church was built soon after.
In the left-hand antechamber of the cathedral you’ll see silver ex votos (devotional sculptures) of every imaginable shape and size, including horses, planes, grasshoppers representing plagues of locusts, and hearts with swords driven through them.
This is a Latin American tradition stretching from Mexico to Brazil, whereby the faithful deposit representations of whatever they need cured, or whatever they fear, to the power of the Almighty.
#3 Stroll through Jardín Botánico Lankester
Orchids are the chief attraction at the University of Costa Rica’s Jardín Botánico Lankester, a research centre southeast of Cartago.
To reach them, take the Paraíso-bound bus from Cartago. The driver will drop you on the main road, from where it’s a signposted, 500m walk.
The large, attractive gardens — the oldest in the country — are covered with a bewildering array of tropical plant and flower species, including orchids, heliconias and bromeliads.
The most rewarding time to visit is the dry season, particularly in March and April, when the garden explodes with virulent reds, purples and yellows.
Best areas to stay in Cartago
Cartago doesn't have a huge number of accommodation options, so you might want to broaden your search. The wider region boasts a host of lodges, many of which have eco credentials.
In the city itself, our writers recommend Casa Aura. A short walk from the centre of town, this modest guesthouse has four reasonable rooms with TV and private bathrooms, plus a garden and a small book-swap.
Browse more places to stay in the Cartago region.
Best restaurants and bars in Cartago
There are a few simple restaurants in Cartago, and a handful of low-cost sodas. That's the local name for small, usually open-air eateries serving typical Costa Rican food.
Your best bet is to pop into one of the pastry shops and enjoy lunch on a bench in front of the basílica. Otherwise it's mainly fast food on offer.
Our writers reccommend Monchis. This popular eatery keeps things simple, with a no-nonsense menu of burgers, burritos and tacos all at very competitive prices. It's open Wednesday — Saturday, 11am–9pm.
Find out more about eating and drinking in Costa Rica.
How to get around Cartago
In contrast to bustling San José, Cartago is compact and quiet enough to get around on foot.
If you need to get out of town, a decent local bus service and taxis are on hand to take you from A to B.
Note, no car hire operators are based in Cartago. If you want the freedom of a self-drive drive, you could book and drive from San José.
How many days do you need in Cartago?
You won't need more than a day or two in Cartago itself. It's typically a place to stop-off to visit a few historic sites before heading off to explore some of Costa Rica's best natural attractions.
Among these, Volcán de Irazú National Park sits near the top of the tree. 32km from Cartego, it's home to Costa Rica's largest active volcano.
Meanwhile, Tapantí National Park, also in the Cartago region, is a great place to hike and watch wildlife.
Discover more about Costa Rica's National Parks.
What is the best time to visit Cartago?
To experience a unique Costa Rican event, the best time to visit Cartago is for the 2nd August celebration of the Virgin of Los Ángeles. Locally known as El Día de la Negrita, it pulls huge crowds, so be sure to book a place to stay well in advance.
Pilgrimages aside, if you want to see the gardens of Costa Rica’s Jardín Botánico Lankester at their best, you’ll want to visit in the dry season. While this runs from mid-December to April, the blooms are at their brightest in March and April.
These are also good months to walk the trails of Tapantí National Park.
For more on the best time to visit different destinations in Costa Rica, read our guide when to go to Costa Rica.
How to get to Cartago
Empresa Lumaca buses run to and from C 5, at Av 10 in San José (every 10min; 45min) and their terminal in Cartago on C 6, at Av 3, and from stops along Cartago’s Av 6.
Buses for Turrialba leave from a stop on Av 4, C 5/7. Local services are frequent and reliable.
Buses for Paraíso and Orosí use the stops on C 3, Av 2/4; buses for Cachí leave from Av 3, C 4/6.
Note that local bus stops do move around town periodically, so check with a local before setting off.
The Tren Urbano commuter train runs between Cartago’s railway station, on Av 6, at C 3, and San José (Mon–Fri 13 daily during the morning and afternoon rush hours; 45min
For more transportation tips, read our guide to getting around Costa Rica.
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Top image: aerial view of Basilica Nuestra Senora de los Angeles, Cartago city, Costa Rica © Gianfranco Vivi/Shutterstock